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Dominion and The Danger Zone
We must recover the masculine virtue of assuming risk if we are to faithfully take dominion in a danger-filled world.
“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods”
-Lays of Ancient Rome (1842)
After several years of sitting under the incessant, oppressive and vain mantra of ‘stay safe’, it was both a relief and a pleasing juxtaposition to take in the cinematic sights and sounds (in all the glory of AVX) of life in the ‘danger zone’.
Such exposure to danger is the ordinary experience of fighter pilots. I’m not sure whether the writers meant it, but the repeated warning that such a vocation was going by the wayside, (humans presumably being replaced by machines they built) felt oddly prophetic. In fact, I couldn’t help but lament the stark contrast between the courageous and realistic understanding of danger in the film and the pathetic and dangerous aversion to risk that is so prevalent in our present day.
One of the sensations I experienced while thoroughly enjoying the movie Top Gun: Maverick was an almost visceral longing; equal parts sadness and inspiration. I felt sad for what we, as a culture, have lost, and inspired for what we, as Christians, might recover; namely, masculinity as the sanctified assumption of sacrificial responsibility for the good of others and the glory of God. Or in other words, men who are willing to risk.
Maverick is played by Tom Cruise, a man who, though not without flaws (as with us all), seems to actually embody much of the characteristics of the character he plays: ambitious, competent in his craft, highly skilled in a variety of disciplines, and one seeming to gravitate towards danger-filled activities. He is well-known for his ambitious and dangerous stunts, whether it be leaping across buildings, driving motorcycles and cars at high speeds while performing complicated and dangerous maneuvers, and finally, flying fighter jets.
The entire movie is predicated upon the acceptance and willing embrace of danger and risk. This necessary acceptance, of course, has characterized humanity throughout the course of our existence in a fallen world. The recent and vain view that we can control the world in such a way as to avoid danger is an irrational aberration. The iconic opening scene once again features inspiring, real-life footage of fighter jets taking off of aircraft carriers. For those who are unaware, this is perhaps one of the most dangerous activities that a human being can participate in, requiring the highest levels of human competence, focus, and execution. Fittingly, this whole scene is set to the song ‘danger zone’, a ballad which signals not only the acceptance of, but celebration of danger, applauding those who confront it head on.
I remember my dad explaining, with admiration and wonder, the various risk-factors, such as the incredibly short length of the runway, and the fact that runway is moving. And I remember that this inherent danger actually inspired, rather than deterred, my boyhood dreams of being a pilot.
I suspect that we do not currently live in a world where Dads inspire their sons with danger.
The film as a whole, I believe, serves the important, virtue-forming function of honouring those who take appropriate risks as noble, and worthy of our imitation.
The amazing technology of modern fighter jets is itself a product of the willing embrace of danger for the greater good. In a moment which exemplifies the ethos of the film and its characters, Maverick expresses his willingness to take the risk of testing new technology so that others might not have to.
Lest I appear to be commending recklessness, let me offer some clarifications. It would be wrong to equate appropriate risk with recklessness; the two are not synonymous. The acceptance and willing embrace of the dangers of life in a fallen world does not require that we give no careful consideration to the costs of our actions or inaction. A righteous embrace of risks simply means that, with a sober awareness of the potential costs, we continue to act in accordance with a higher aim of serving our people and our God, come what may.
A Christian worldview recognizes and accepts that the created world is fallen, groaning for a release from its chains of death and decay (cf. Rom 8). Danger and risk are completely unavoidable. While we labour to protect others from danger, we do not for a moment give into the vain illusion that this world will be rid of all risk until the resurrection of the dead.
Further, a Christian worldview looks for hope and salvation in the only place it can be found: the Lord Jesus Christ. Our salvation is not in possessing the God-like power to rid the cosmos of all danger (here’s looking at you, Marvel). It is in trusting the God-man, whose death in our place for our sins (which is the cause of all we fear!) was sufficient to rescue us from all harm. We will one day, at the resurrection of the dead, enjoy a world free from danger.
But that day is not today.
As our culture rejects Christ, it will continue to resort to a primitive and pagan view of the world, filled with fear and vainly clamouring for control. This attempt at control used to be exercised through various forms of sacrifice. Now it is exercised through ‘science'.
In both instances, our salvation lies, not in Christ, but in our control.
Risk is no longer permitted in this fear-filled world, and is even considered immoral. Safety, not glory, becomes the highest aim. Compliance with those who are in control, not the obedience of faith, becomes the path.
This functionally unlimited secular obedience to authority, for our good and safety, must be assessed more critically. I believe it is a symptom of unbelief, not virtue, whereby a fearful and naive people put their hope and trust in people and institutions that cannot provide the good and safety they desire.
This is, simply put, idolatry.
The human proclivity to seek from man what can only be found in God is as old as the Fall itself. The psalmist writes,
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.” (Psalm 20:7–8, ESV)
The chariot, as my OT Professor once said, was akin to a modern battle tank. It represented military might, and thus, protection. The (understandable) temptation for humans then - as now - was to trust in the might of one’s military as a buffer against what we fear, rather than trusting in the name of the Lord.
It is no surprise that, in the shadow of the Assyrian threat, God’s people sought safety from the greatest human power they knew:
““Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!” (Isaiah 30:1–2)
This was not commended as wise and prudent plan, but foolish, sinful, and vain:
“Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.” (Isaiah 30:3)
The fundamental problem was and is misplaced trust. Yes, the Egyptians were strong. But they were not God. They were flesh and blood, and themselves susceptible to the dangers they sought to destroy:
“The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the Lord stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, and they will all perish together.” (Isaiah 31:3)
Another symptom of unbelief in the face of danger is to willfully deny it’s presence:
“For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions,” (Isaiah 30:9-10).
If seeking refuge from all risk in human strength is vain, denying danger is an equally foolish strategy for ‘staying safe’. Yet, this is what we do. And we will surround ourselves with those who calm our fearful hearts with the illusion of safety.
The biblical point is that, because of human sin, the entire world is a danger zone. Our sinful proclivity is to alleviate that risk through the vain attempts at control, or a willful denial of danger.
Unbelieving authority will arrogantly assume the place of God, claiming to possess the power to keep us safe. These empty promises are embraced by fearful people, who offer their servitude to these false saviours.
Godly men must be able to discern this age-old power play, and refuse to offer sinful compliance with such idolatrous claims. Egypt will always seek to lure us with her chariots (or lockdowns, or masks), but our hope is in the name of the Lord.
Another observation I had while watching the film was that all craft-competence and mastery requires risk.
Not many men will enroll in Top Gun. But we have all been given the task of dominion (cf. Gen 1:28), which requires us to develop our skills and exercise our strength to the glory of God.
Every pursuit of excellence with the aim of dominion involves the risk of failure. This is true whether your are honing your skills as a fighter pilot, or trying out a new recipe. It is no coincidence that, in an age of risk-aversion, we are seeing a rapid decline in skilled tradesman. We cannot treat safety as our highest aim, stigmatizing risk and failure, and still produce skilled men. We reap what we sow.
Top Gun is a program in which participation presents an obvious risk, and the potential consequences of failure are ultimate. This is a necessary sacrifice in the pursuit of excellence as a fighter pilot. And make no mistake, craft competence is still necessary in a world filled with unimaginable technology.
Technology is a tool in our God-given task of dominion, but it must still be wielded in the hands of virtuous and competent men. It is not a replacement for our duty, but an aid in it.
As Maverick would remind us, ‘It’s the pilot, not the plane’.
My twin brother, for example, is a heavy equipment technician. He is a master of his craft. I can remember the phrase ‘lefty loosey, righty tighty’, which isn’t nothing, but the differences between us in our mechanical abilities are stark. I have often told people that this difference isn’t mainly owing to the divergent academic paths we took in high-school, or our contrasting interests; rather, I believe the most crucial contributing factor to his competence and mastery of particular skills (and my incompetence) is owing to our contrasting acceptance of risk and failure.
He took apart a truck in high school, literally down to the chassis, in order to rebuild it from ‘the ground up’. Everyone, including his shop teacher, thought he was nuts. And he was. But he was willing to accept the very real risk of failure in order to pursue the knowledge and skills he was after (and a pretty cool rig for a high school student). The result of his willingness to assume the risk of failure was mastery.
As humans, we have been given the task of taking dominion over all the earth. This involves, amongst other things, using all the gifts we have been given in the service of others, to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). It requires that we work at everything ‘as unto the Lord’ (cf. Col 3:23), which means, in the least, doing all that we do with the greatest skill and diligence we can offer. In other words, dominion involves mastery.
And mastery involves risk.
Dominion, then, is dangerous.
Our culture’s present risk-aversion is nothing less than unbelief, and an obstacle to fulfilling the God-given task at hand. I fear we have emasculated our future-men by conditioning them to avoid and resent risk; to instead seek safety and comply.
I left the theatre longing for a dangerous mission, and with the desire to give myself to the risk-filled mastery of whatever meagre gifts God has given me. I’m too old (and fat, and blind, and deaf) to join the navy. But while there is breath in my (recovering) lungs, I bear the duty and glory of an image bearer of God, and the responsibility to live under His rule, and rule over creation in His name. The only way I can faithfully engage in this mission is if I accept that risk and danger are the road I must travel, not obstacles to avoid.
Here’s praying for more fathers who will inspire their sons with danger, preparing them for their risk-filled duty to their people and their God.
In a world that has presently adopted safety as its highest aim, and has judged those who would embrace danger and risk to be immoral, Top Gun offers a more compelling, realistic, and humanizing vision. This is owing to its congruence with Scripture and reality (we do not accept the moral qualifications of Hollywood as our guide). The greatest good comes, often, with the greatest risk. Virtue is developed and displayed, not as we vainly attempt to control every risk, but as we willingly embrace the cost of pursuing what is Good, and True, and Beautiful in a world gone rogue.
I don’t know about you, but I feel the need…the need for speed.
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