The Call of the Martian
Religion & Liberty Online

The Call of the Martian

664975_084I saw The Martian this week and was struck by the number of resonant themes on a variety of is issues, including creation, creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, exploration, work, suffering, risk, and civilization.

I won’t be exploring all of these in the brief reflections below, but will simply be highlighting some salient features. The film communicates something seriously important about the threefold relations of human beings: to God, to one another, and to the creation.

There will be some potential spoilers in the discussion below the jump after this line.

When Watney is marooned on Mars, I was struck by the way in which he begins to cultivate the Martian soil. He uses human waste as a generative source for life. The human excrement that is normally something valued for its absence becomes a necessary condition for Watney’s continued existence.

When Watney uses the human feces to condition the soil to grow new potatoes, it reminded me of a line from an Acton film, The Call of the Entrepreneur. In discussing cow manure rather than human excrement, Rev. Sirico notes that a change in perspective can transform waste into a source of wealth: “Sometimes they’re the most common resources that we walk over, that we ignore, that we even are perhaps repulsed by that become the source of wealth, the source of jobs, the source of prosperity.”

As Jay Richards puts it, “You can think of farmers as the first entrepreneurs.” The first farmer on Mars, Mark Watney, is in this way the first Martian entrepreneur.

Watney likewise demonstrates the fortitude to respond positively and dynamically to dire challenges. As Brad Morgan, the dairy farmer turned fertilizer magnate featured in The Call of the Entrepreneur, remarks, “You put your butt in the corner, you’d be surprised at what you can achieve.”

Another notable aspect about entrepreneurship and creativity is that it always depends on something that is already possessed, even if it is taken for granted or unrecognized. Watney didn’t think of vacuum-sealed excrement as a resource until he was backed into a corner. And throughout the film Watney relies on resources that were either brought with his Mars mission or that were provided at some other point from Earth. During much of the film he is awaiting new resources to arrive from Earth. These resources range in kind from the material and technical resources of a Mars rover and Pathfinder probe to his own education and personal development. As Watney puts it himself, luckily, or better yet, providentially, he is a botanist and has the knowledge and skills to grow things, even on an otherwise barren planet.

The dependence of human beings upon one another and upon those who have come before is the core reality of civilization, and it is for this reason that even when we are seemingly alone, such as in the case a man marooned on Mars or someone living alone in the Alaskan wilderness, we are still organically connected to the vast web of humanity.

Watney’s reliance upon resources provided by other people is a wonderful illustration of an even deeper truth: human beings as a species are entirely reliant upon the prior gifts of our divine creator. Every act of creativity, innovation, cultivation, or development that human beings undertake is done within the overarching framework of God’s initial and ongoing gracious action. Human creativity is thus fundamentally derivative and dependent. God creates out of nothing, and we only create in a subsidiary sense, making explicit what God had made implicit. Tolkien called this sub-creation, and others have called it co-creation (when properly understood) or tertiary creation.

There are many other themes and related points worth exploring in this fine film. But one of the fundamental lessons The Martian teaches us is the deep links between human beings and the divinely-embedded wonders of the created order, among human beings, and between the divine creator and those made in his image.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.