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When Love Comes Knocking

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Knock at the Cabin, is an adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World. On the surface it is a slow-burn apocalyptic thriller, even featuring a variation of the Four Horsemen, but it is ultimately a film about the power of love.

Critics seemingly missed this entirely. For example, the word love appears nowhere in reviews for The New Yorker, Variety, and The Guardian. Nick Allen of RogerEbert.com mentions love twice, but only to describe the love story of the two protagonists. On the other hand, Richard Brody of The New Yorker rather hilariously sees the film as quiet counsel to liberal progressives to capitulate to right-wing conspiracists, lest they destroy the world: “The drama that Shyamalan pursues is how reasonable and well-intentioned people can and should respond to possessed destroyers who hold them hostage.”

The film is set at an isolated cabin in the woods, where a gay couple — Eric and Andrew — are vacationing with their adopted Chinese daughter, Wen. Suddenly they are happened upon by four strangers, previously unknown to each other, who have been brought together for a purpose: to convince Eric and Andrew to save the world.

The family of three must make a choice. If they voluntarily sacrifice one member of their family, the world will be saved. If they do not, the world will perish altogether, though the family will survive, left to wander a devastated and desolate planet.

C.S. Lewis describes four loves, but essentially there are two forms of love. There is a love that is self-seeking, which desires to preserve not only the self but those who are sufficiently like the self: family, race, class, nation. Recent conversations touching on Christian nationalism come to mind here. We love our own and want to preserve our own.

In the film this is represented at first by both Eric and Andrew, who are immediately opposed to the offer presented to them. This is perhaps a natural instinct (at least under the dominion of sin), but the film reveals such love for what it is in the end: entirely desolate and without hope.

That the main protagonists are gay serves as a rhetorical device to emphasize this point. Shyamalan tips viewers off to this early in the film, when one of the four strangers voices his surprise at discovering a gay couple in the cabin. That it is a same-sex couple drives home the weight of the predicament in a way that a heterosexual couple would not.

If the protagonists were an opposite-sex couple, and their choice was to preserve their own lives, a glimmer of hope for the world would remain, for there would be the possibility of repopulating. Hope lives. But a same-sex couple heightens the tension by rendering any such hope vain. Sure, the family may choose to live, but for how long?

In this way, Shyamalan’s film underscores the final futility of a love that is merely self-seeking. There can be no justification for such love, which leads only to a hopeless end. It can only fall to the ground and die. “Those who save their life will lose it,” Jesus says. “If you love your mother and father more than me, you cannot be my disciple.”

Opposed to a self-preserving love, there is a self-offering love. Spoiler alert: As the film draws to a close, Eric determines to be the sacrifice that will save the world. Otherwise, he wonders, “What sort of world would that be for Wen?” Eric realizes that his love for Wen requires not his self-preservation but his self-offering. For her sake, yes, but for the life of the world.

This is less a natural instinct, yet the film too reveals such love for what it is in the end: true love, pure love, love purged of all that is not, the love that alone is credible, the love that remains. There can be no hope at all apart from such love. “Those who save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus says.

In The Elements of the Spiritual Life, F.P. Harton distinguishes between a natural love and the supernatural gift of a charity that “regulates, redirects, and elevates” love. Love comes naturally to us, but charity is a gift and consequence of divine grace at work in the soul. “The motive of Love is the possession of a created good, while that of Charity is self-oblation to God,” Harton writes. “The object of Charity is the love of God for Himself and of creatures as the reflection of His infinite Being.”

On this note, Harton directs our attention to St. Bernard, who in De diligendo Deo distinguishes four degrees of love. Our love begins from the flesh because we are carnal. But, under the guidance of grace, our love can advance until at the last it is consummated and perfected by the Spirit. So man begins by loving himself for his own sake. At a certain point, however, he realizes that he is not alone and begins by faith to seek God. He loves God, but for his own sake, not for God. But by grace progress is made in the spiritual life and man enters into a deeper knowledge and experience of God. He begins to taste and see that the Lord is good in himself, not simply insofar as he benefits man. The fourth and final degree of love, according to Bernard, which he doubts anyone can attain in this life, is that “a man love himself only for the love of God.”

Knock at the Cabin is an interesting film in that it confronts us with this startling reality: only love — elevated and perfected by divine grace — can save the world. This love is rightly and perfectly ordered toward God and then everything else, even the self, in relation and proportion to him. Anything less not only falls short but is ultimately the source of chaos in the world.

“The trouble with human nature,” Ashley Null writes, “is that we are born with a heart that loves ourselves over and above everything else in this world, including God. In short, we are born slaves to the lust for self-gratification. That’s why, if left to ourselves, we will always love those things that make us feel good about ourselves, even as we depart more and more from God and his ways. Therefore, God must intervene in our lives in order to bring salvation.”

In the film, Eric begins to ascend from a merely natural love of the self/world for its own sake to a love that is being transformed by grace, such that he is willing, in the end, to sacrifice himself for the life of the world. But how does he get there? God(?) intervenes.

In one pivotal and mysterious scene, typical of Shyamalan, Eric sees a glimpse of a figure in light. This scene comes at the 30-minute mark, or about one-third of the way into the film. For the next 30 minutes, the suspense continues to build until when Eric has his epiphany: “I think I saw something, Andrew. … I think I saw a person, or a figure.” “Where’d you see a figure?” asks one of the intruders. “In the light behind you. In the reflection in the mirror.”

Shyamalan gives us no more than this, but reflecting theologically, we can say that it is only an encounter, no matter how momentary, with the divine light made manifest in Christ Jesus that can draw us out of our self-interested love toward a love that is a gift, a love that desires only God, a love that can save the world and indeed has. Following the triptych of the film, we can say that the goal of every human life is to be drawn out of itself into the life of the Holy and Blessed Trinity.

Addendum: On Pastoring at the End of the World

I’ve been thinking about this recently in terms of my vocation as a pastor and shepherd of the flock. To be a rector of a parish still has a certain prestige to it, at least where I am in the American South. It’s a position of privilege and honor. People look to you for guidance and insight. It’s easy, therefore, to develop a heightened sense of one’s importance. We want the prestige, we want the respect, we want to ascend the ranks. We aspire to greatness in the eyes of the world. At least I do, if I’m honest.

Of course pastors must lead and make important decisions. Some, perhaps, might even have podcasts and write for a broader audience. But the church needs servants, and that’s what a rector is. The goal of the pastor is always to serve. There is nothing in the life of the church (from plunging toilets to washing dishes) that is beneath you. In fact, you must embrace the most menial of tasks humbly and with joy — even, especially, when it is unnoticed. To be last and least. To preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten. To descend to the bottom of the pile of humanity that is your parish: that’s the calling because that’s where Christ is to be found, inviting us to join him there in perfect love.

The same too can be said of any church. What do we want to be known for? Great preaching! An enviable choral program! A booming ministry to children and young families! A social media presence that puts others to shame! Why? Usually for our sake, if we are being honest. We want God insofar as he is useful (and beneficial) to us. But to love God for himself, and to love ourself only for his sake, is the vocation of the church in any place. A descent to the bottom of the parish, where Christ is. A church that is being perfected for the sake of the world. A church that is learning to die early for the sake of neighbor. A church that gives itself away. This characterizes the divine love that is both gift and vocation, the love that will save the world.

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