Watching Contagion, Reading Psalm 91
It all starts with a blank screen and the sound of a cough—perhaps the most jarring thing about watching Contagion in the midst of COVID-19.
When I first saw the movie a few years ago, that black screen was a blank slate of possibility. Contagion imagines what hysteria and pandemic might look like if it were to happen in the modern era. Now, with the new coronavirus among us, that black screen and ominous cough no longer represent imaginative possibilities. They are a reminder of what we’re actually experiencing.
To watch Contagion in the time of COVID-19 is an exercise in fright. Although the 2011 film's pandemic is thankfully not a precise parallel, it’s close enough to mirror much of what we’re feeling: the abrupt upending of normal life, cases of death, and widespread fear and anxiety.
For Christians, there is some comfort in the fact that the Bible is not silent about the reality of fear. “Do not be afraid” is one of the most frequent commands given in Scripture. The biblical point is not so much that we trade in our fear for unwavering fearlessness, but that in times of fear we remember the sovereign God who is our refuge—not as an immediate escape route, but as comfort in the midst of uncertainty.
This should be welcome news as our daily lives have begun to resemble what we see in Contagion. In light of COVID-19, some of the movie’s most frightening scenes are those that show how basic habits are now fraught with the terror of infection. Several early scenes trace the spread of the pandemic as director Steven Soderbergh’s camera lingers on ordinary items touched by the unknowing carriers of the disease—transforming routine objects into delivery systems of sickness and death. As Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) enjoys drinks in a Hong Kong bar and hands her credit card to the bartender, Soderbergh pushes in for a close-up of the card changing hands. When her son (Clark Morrow) goes home sick from school, Soderbergh ends the scene lingering on the door he just touched.
The effect on the viewer is a palpable fear, one that feels, in this moment, as widespread and suffocating as these items and routines are ordinary. Door handles, hands, cups, credit cards, subway poles, and human touch carry with them the likelihood of infection. The items and routines of daily life now hold the frightening possibility of exponential sickness and death. In this way, Contagion captures the fear we all feel in our current moment.
What are we to do with this type of fear, one that creeps into every crevice of normal life, snatching away our illusions of control and our long-held habits of work, hobby, and community, the very things which shape our lives and our sense of self?
To watch Contagion in the time of COVID-19 is an exercise in fright.
The Bible encourages us to bring our fears to God and take refuge in him. Consider Psalm 91, which finds the psalmist addressing the people of God and the fears that they hold, including fear of “deadly pestilence.” In the face of this, the psalmist declares his own faith in the Lord as his refuge, then he calls God’s people to follow his example and take solace in God’s sovereign care.
The lesson for us today is that we don’t overcome our fear by pretending to be fearless. Rather, we entrust our self and world to God. Karl Barth places Psalm 91 within the scope of redemption history, declaring that the psalmist’s faith “rests upon the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ—born a man for us, dying for us, risen for us, reigning for us in the glory of God—is also his refuge, his fortress, his God: the secret place in which he dwells; the shadow under which he abides.”
Admittedly, Psalm 91’s declaration that “no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent” might sound hollow to those of us in the midst of COVID-19. These verses are not a magic promise of immunity from sickness or suffering, however. Rather, according to Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner, they are a declaration of sovereign providence, “not a charm against adversity.” The hope of Psalm 91 for us today is not that no danger or bad diagnosis will come our way, but that especially in times of danger and trouble the sovereign Lord still exercizes providential care for his people and his world.
How so? In Contagion, care for the fearful and the sick can be witnessed in the sacrificial service of determined medical professionals, including Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who both risk themselves for the safety of others. Understood biblically, this service is both praiseworthy human action and concurrently God’s providential care through and for his image bearers. The Book of Common Prayer encourages us to pray in a way that reminds us lives like these are the Lord’s enacted sovereign movement: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ went about doing good, and healing all manner of sickness and disease among the people: Continue in our hospitals his gracious work among us.” Watching Contagion while reading Psalm 91 won’t eradicate our fear, but it will remind us that God’s providence is among us, through the countless nurses, scientists, doctors, and healthcare professionals working tirelessly for the well-being of many.
To assure our feeble, fearful hearts, Psalm 91 ends with a climactic shift in voice as the Lord himself speaks to the fears of his people: “He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
These promises of sovereign, saving care are far too grand to be confined to escaping adversity. They echo a greater guardianship that God offers the world, one fully realized in Jesus Christ, who experienced the suffering trial of crucifixion so that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers”—we might add nor fear, nor sickness, nor pandemic—“nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Far from calling us to suppress our fears in the name of blind faith, Christianity instructs us to name our anxieties, which watching Contagion will certainly help you do. We are then called to cast them on our sovereign Lord, who cares for us in the midst of our very real fears and asks us to be Christ-like agents of love and mercy during times of crisis, in whatever ways we can.