Apocrypha Now! The Wisdom of Solomon in the Age of Ultron
Ancient texts are not irrelevant to today’s debates for the plain fact that they are ancient. Rather, ancient texts prove that today’s debates recapitulate eternal questions of the human condition. Last week I had the pleasure of reading The Wisdom of Solomon and viewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, both for the first time. These artifacts are separated in birth by two thousand years but united in one purpose: to describe the nature of God, and man’s relationship to God.
The Wisdom of Solomon is a text that does not appear in Protestant Bibles, though it is part of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic canons. Written sometime between the late first century B.C. and the early first century A.D.1—perhaps as early as 27 B.C. or as late as 41 A.D.—the text was at least known to early church fathers and even used as Scripture by others, such as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria.2 It is wisdom literature, attributed to King Solomon (as a literary device, not a forgery3), and reads like other examples of the genre in the Old Testament. If I were to graft excerpts of the text to Psalms or Proverbs, or even 1 Kings, I bet many laymen would be none the wiser.
As a Protestant reading the Apocrypha, I felt like a trespasser in a deserted antique store. Still, I found The Wisdom of Solomon both instructive and eerily modern. The teaching and exhortation mirror canonical texts, particularly the passages of Proverbs that personify wisdom. The language is also vivid, and the text reads quickly. It was the apologetic element, though, that caught my attention. The Wisdom of Solomon is thought to have been written by a Hellenistic Jew in Alexandria, a major metropolis in antiquity, and a center for Greek thought. The author perhaps intended to persuade Jewish youth lured by the Hellenistic culture and philosophy that surrounded them.4 In particular, he takes aim at Epicureanism and argues against its materialist prescriptions:
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
For we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been…
“Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth…
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.” (Wis 2:1-11 NRSV)
Some critics say Scripture should be rejected because it is old. If age is anathema, then we must equally reject materialism. It, too, is ancient; one can almost hear its joints creaking when naturalists like Richard Dawkins expound their philosophy. The ancient Epicurean and the modern naturalist share the same foundation: our existence is mere chance, there is no afterlife, and we might as well live the most pleasing life possible. “There is nothing new under the sun” may be a truism, but that is because it is true.
Speaking of modern thought: Joss Whedon’s latest hit is an action extravaganza, pregnant with CGI shenanigans and Twitter-ready one-liners. It’s also a humanist parable, according to this guy. I agree with him. It’s easy to shut down your brain—or even fall asleep—during any of Age of Ultron’s numerous and lengthy hyperactive punch-fests, but doing so might cause the viewer to miss the film’s philosophical undercurrent. Tony Stark creates Ultron to solve a particular problem. Ultron, in accordance with Movie Law, becomes a bigger problem: a charming super robot with megalomania and a god complex, a villain who rains down both punches and Scripture allusions. Whedon casts Ultron as the materialist’s conception of God. He is an invention of man run rampant, a creation that takes a life of its own and overpowers its masters.
One might think a long dead Alexandrite Jew would have little to say about a crazed artificial intelligence with aspirations for global destruction. One would be wrong. After his polemic against the Epicureans, the author of The Wisdom of Solomon turns his disdainful gaze to man-made gods:
But the idol made with hands is accursed,
and so is the one who made it—
he for having made it, and the perishable
thing because it was named a god…[Idols] became an abomination,
snares for human souls
and a trap for the feet of the foolish. (Wis 14:8-11 NRSV)
In this respect, The Wisdom of Solomon agrees with Age of Ultron. The author writes that idols, whether made out of grief or reverence or a love of artisanry, ”became a hidden trap for humankind, because people, in bondage to misfortune or to royal authority, bestowed on objects of stone or wood the name that ought not to be shared” (Wis 14:21 NRSV). Like Ultron, idols are meant to fulfill a felt need, but became demanding deities in themselves. The history of God’s people is rife with the worship of idols, always to the doom of the worshipers. Both our ancient Alexandrite and our contemporary director, then, are concerned for mankind’s propensity to suffer for their worship of created things.
Of course, they disagree in one important respect. The God of the Hebrews, the divine being Whedon attempts to embody in Ultron, is not fashioned by man’s works. He is eternal, invisible, and beyond our understanding. He is not a creature but the Creator, the source and wellspring for time, space, and all reality contained therein. I haven’t listened to Whedon speak on philosophy, so I don’t know if he has any sort of real metaphysical or ontological framework on which he builds his case against God. If he does, I am afraid he must wait in line; Epicurus was here first, and he is still talking.
Image: Dream of Solomon by Luca Giordano, circa 1693. Avengers: Age of Ultron copyrighted by Marvel.