The Bomb and the Babel-of-the-self

Oppenheimer, Asteroid City, and the seventh Mission: Impossible are reminders that instead of making God defend himself amid our intractable problems, it’s time to ask him to come to our aid in solving them.

(Images: Wikipedia)

In many respects, the task of modern theology has been to pretend to interrogate God in order to ignore Him.

In the upper-middle-brow register, we half-heartedly ask, “Why is there evil in the world?” In the more popular idiom, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Our once God-saturated reality is filled with man’s prideful distrust in his maker and his misplaced, unreflective confidence in himself. Our greatest minds are glamoured with their own potential, as if caught in a vampire’s gaze, moving us closer to annihilation for their own vain pursuits.

And near the towering height of this Babel-of-the-self stands J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” captured in a once-in-a-generation performance by Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan’s harrowing biopic Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer is the film of the summer for 2023 and it will deserve – but will it get? – all the awards when Hollywood’s self-congratulatory season rolls around again next year. The film speaks more profoundly than any recent mainstream offering about the intractable problem of scientism, and man’s ruin in pursuit of Edenic knowledge.

But two other recent films, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City and Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part I, serve as different kinds of responses to the opening of Pandora’s box that Nolan depicts in his deep, disturbing, and technically flawless Oppenheimer.

As I sat in rapt attention watching these three films recently, I wondered to myself whether our mainstream creatives finally understand that human civilization has come very close to the end of its road. Is anyone ready to let God interrogate us instead of we him?

Oppenheimer is, first of all, a brilliant character study. It chronicles the path to destruction of a man who, by accident of the era and nation in which he was born, lived to create the means of destruction of man himself. The Nazi Heisenberg, whom Oppenheimer knew, didn’t work fast enough. Niels Bohr, played by Kenneth Branagh, wouldn’t work for the Nazis in Copenhagen and escaped too late to apply his innovations in physics to weapons, even if he had wanted to. Einstein’s moment had passed, and his regrets were already too many. Instead, the man appointed to turn over the rock, as Bohr tells Oppenheimer in the film, was the reckless genius who had tried to poison his tutor at Cambridge – the man whose half-hearted Left-Wing activism and hot-blooded womanizing destroyed lives before he ever saw the “success” of the blasphemously-named Trinity test of the atomic bomb.

Shot for shot, Nolan’s depiction of Oppenheimer, and especially the bureaucratic trial of Oppenheimer after World War II, is gripping and startling. The man whose work, in a sense, put God in the dock like never before, must finally defend himself in a kangaroo court convened by frenemy Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey, Jr. in his magnificent return to serious acting after a generation-long absence in the MCU.

In a film about scientific innovation, it is telling that Nolan shot and finished the movie on film – not on video – and, per usual, he opted for practical effects over CGI throughout. To give a hint but not spoil the effect, viewers may be startled by what Nolan chooses not to put on screen at all. Ludwig Göransson’s violin-heavy score captures the wild inner life of Oppenheimer, whose self-perception is quintessentially modernist and tragic – a Romantic without the ground of being beneath his feet.

As the end credits of Oppenheimer rolled, I was emotionally drained. My wife and I discussed on the way home how we were the last generation to grow up with the official anxiety of nuclear annihilation, even though the threat is perhaps more real today than it was during the Cold War. Life has strangely gone on and on for decades now with Prometheus bound, seemingly without anyone noticing.

Nonetheless, all but a few technologically-skeptical politicians keep us distracted by the lie of neutrality: If we can just – this time! – use scientific innovation the right way! But as the real Oppenheimer’s own complicated repentance shows, somewhere within us, we all know that the we live in a house of cards. And we can only hope it will stand long enough to see us individually to the end of our threescore years and ten.

To this point, we consider the colorful but bleak vision of the early scientistic age in Asteroid City.

Wes Anderson is right at home working with the bright palette of the western United States of the 1950’s, where Asteroid City is set. But the film begins in black-and-white, and in a play within a play, reminding us of the artifice of everything after The Bomb. We’ve all seen behind the curtain now; but Anderson is clever enough – we may even say manly enough – to acknowledge his own inevitable phoniness with a carefully curated and, alas, easily caricatured aesthetic, which I adore.

As ever, in Asteroid City, Anderson is quirky, but deep.

In the film’s relationship between Stanley Zak, played by Tom Hanks, and his son-in-law Auggie Steenbeck, played by Jason Schwartzman, the audience faces the two great religious options of the nuclear age. On the one hand, Zak is an Episcopalian who is mildly interested in his motherless grandchildren identifying with his socially-advantageous, non-dogmatic faith. This option is the cope of denominationalism, which kept white, post-war America in harmony as evil lurked in its new missile silos. In this world, there is no room for sin and no sense in eschatology. Steenbeck, on the other hand, represents the dark flip-side of the same coin – atheism that claims the name rather than rebranding it, and which is particularly harrowing (and frankly understandable) from an ethnic Jewish man after the Shoah.

Amid the religious confusion among Asteroid City’s medicated, grieving adults, Anderson adds a group of brilliant children: the first Baby Boomers. They have more than what they need, but are angsty for approval. What will they do with themselves but innovate and compete (a favorite theme of Anderson’s throughout his oeuvre)? In Asteroid City, the children gather for the Junior Stargazers Convention, where one of them shows off a particle-destroyer, another a jet pack, and another an outer-space advertising projector – all military-industrial friendly, with an Army general present to award prizes.

But where is it all going? As the popularization of science fiction in the 1950s demonstrated, a world with the ability to destroy itself and without the consolation of Christ’s second coming looked outside the Earth for answers. As Asteroid City teases, maybe an alien invasion would fix our messes, or at least distract us from them. And so much the better if it’s an alien like Kal-El from Krypton who could, in theory, snatch up all the nuclear missiles and throw them into the sun (see Superman IV).

Asteroid City is far from Anderson’s best film. I’ve resigned myself to knowing that nothing he puts on screen is likely to hit me in the heart like his work from the 2000s. But Asteroid City is well worth watching – a humane, melancholic drama that takes the audience to the edge of the wasteland, which we need to see. The Bomb has arrived, yes. But still to come is the pill, abortion, sex-change operations, Agent Orange, the Internet, smart phones, social media; and now, Artificial Intelligence.

Enter the hero we need.

If we can’t have Superman to save us from ourselves, we’ll take Ethan Hunt, played for the seventh time by Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I, directed by Christopher McQuarrie. The Mission: Impossible films have developed into the best action franchise of all-time, thanks to McQuarrie’s four (soon to be five) installments. But even in Brian De Palma’s excellent 1996 original, the stage was set for a different kind of American savior with no delusions that the world was progressing towards the end of history.

Hunt and his team stand outside the purview of official national interests. They are unsentimental, to say the least, about the motives of modern technocracy; most of all, they are aware that scientific innovation enables unprecedented nefariousness. Therefore, they reluctantly keep one step ahead by using the bad guys’ tech better than the bad guys do. And they try to have fun while they’re at it.

The McQuarrie-Cruise collaboration rivals Nolan’s work in its total excellence in practical special effects, with Cruise famously undertaking dangerous stunts such as wild motorcycle chases, rock climbing, and hanging outside real airplanes in flight. In the latest installment, the now 61-year-old star drives a motorcycle off a mountain and parachutes to the ground. And speaking of Cruise’s age, he, following the example of an aging Cary Grant, does not do love scenes with young female leads, nor is there any nudity or sexual innuendo. Nonetheless, in Dead Reckoning Part I, there is a natural chemistry between Cruise’s character and two excellent female co-stars, Rebecca Ferguson and Hayley Atwell.

In fact, McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible films have found a moral middle way between the old-school, womanizing 007-type and the new self-deprecating gelding spy who gets himself blown up for the sins of the patriarchy. Ethan Hunt is neither a Lothario nor a snowflake. He is a man, aware of his strength and unwilling to lay it down, but also unwilling to use power for his own glory or gain. And most importantly, Hunt is a human, who understands that no state or institution can control the power of the anti-human phenomenon of Artificial Intelligence. It must be destroyed for the sake of mankind.

But is Ethan Hunt’s quest a fool’s errand, like imagining we could dispose of all the nukes? We shall have to wait until Part II to find out. And while this newest and best Mission: Impossible movie might not make us optimistic about the future, it should give us pause before popping the Oppenheimer-prescribed black pill. At the very least, Hunt’s selflessness stands athwart Oppenheimer’s ego and the blithe aimlessness of Asteroid City.

Our own mission, should we choose to accept it, is well nigh impossible; but it’s worth a shot. Maybe instead of making God defend himself amid our intractable problems, it’s time to ask him to come to our aid in solving them.

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About Andrew Petiprin 17 Articles
Andrew Petiprin is a former Episcopal priest, and is the author of the book Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself. He came into full communion with the Catholic Church with his wife and children on January 1, 2019. Andrew is a lifelong Christian, was a Marshall Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford from 2001-2003, and was a Fellow at the Word on Fire Institute for several years. Andrew and his family live in Plano, Texas.


  1. Of Oppenheimer and the manufacture/use of atomic bombs, we read: ” Einstein’s moment had passed, and his regrets were already too many.”

    Einstein himself unpacks this breezy overview:

    “I do not consider myself the father of the release of atomic energy. My part in it was quite indirect. I did not, in fact, foresee that it would be released in my time. I believed only that it was theoretically possible. It became practical through the accidental discovery of chain reaction, and this was not something I could have predicted. It was discovered by Hahn in Berlin, and he himself misinterpreted what he discovered. It was Lize Meitner who provided the correct interpretation, and escaped from Germany to place the information in the hands of Niels Bohr” (in Atomic War and Peace [1945], within the collection “Out of my Later Years,” Philosophical Library, 1950).

    The first controlled nuclear reaction was achieved on Dec. 2, 1942 by Enrico Fermi in an experimental atomic pile at the University of Chicago (later to be scaled-up directly a million-fold under the Manhattan Project). Earlier, in August 1939, Einstein had written to President Roosevelt that the Nazis might have an atomic bomb program (he had noticed a Nazi embargo on uranium mined in the annexed Sudetenland). Near war’s end, in July 1945, Einstein signed the letter from scientists drafted by the Hungarian refugee, Leo Szilard, intended for President Truman but never fully delivered, warning that the actual use of atomic bombs on Japan would be less of an end of the War in the Pacific than the beginning of a massive and precarious cold-war nuclear arms race…

    Fast-moving and critical times, and lots of moving parts. And a case study for us today (and the Dicastery on the Doctrine of the Faith…) on the need and difficulty of framing and applying moral judgment as the governing part of any such (polyhedral?) calculus.

    • Had the bomb never been developed and used during the war, it would have been produced in short order after the war, probably by the Soviets. Scientists understood that fission could also have peaceful purposes so its developed uses could not be suppressed. A bomb would have been quickly inevitable and probably used by communists in the proxy wars if America didn’t have it. I say this as one disbelieving in its justification in WWII.

      • A thought experiment….
        One school of thought, in documentaries, is that Stalin remained a weak supporter of his nuclear program until after he “saw” with his eyes what the bomb actually did in Japan. Then the race was on. Is it possible that nuclear bombs (with the 1952 hydrogen bomb some 4,000 times as destructive as the Hiroshima bomb: 50 megatons compared to 15 kilotons) might have remained an unused and more hypothetical and less accelerated weapon? Hypothetical rather than an existential experience.

        Then there’s the report that the head of the Manhattan Project (Major General Leslie Groves) believed that the Soviets could not produce the bomb for twenty years, and therefore that he weighed differently the consequences of the drops in 1945 and his presumption of long-term superiority and the ability to control post-war politics. Critics conclude that he was the one who either slow-walked the Szilard letter, or possibly that President Truman was in transit and unreachable.

        For his part, Einstein wrote a few short essays in the 1945-48 period (before Russia detonated its bomb in 1949) proposing his opinion (…) that the United States and Britain might still work with Russia, and therefore that the bomb should be under the exclusive control of a supranational world government (!). Not many agreed with that, and he also still worried about the downside.

        Roosevelt is said to have left a memo in his desk (found after he died) posing the question as still unanswered in his mind whether the bomb should be dropped later on Japan, or not–rather than serving as a deterrent for Germany. Part of the Alperovitz history: “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” (1995).

        As you and many readers well know, as well as I, the story gets complex and cannot be replayed. But, what if?

        • Very interesting. Many threads to thought experiments about the bomb. One often ignored is the simple momentum of vanity, individual or collective, a matter for which Christians, always aware of original sin, should always maintain awareness. Scientists, who are often told of their “genius”, often believe it and set no bounds on their judgments in all matters (like not so bright celebrities). I read several bios of the scientists involved and believe a few were quite capable of feeding information to the Russians under the pretext that a post war world required a sort of military balance.
          Physicists generally have a low regard for social science and at that time and, to their credit, laughed at the idea of building a world predicated on the socialist notion of reengineering human nature. Nonetheless, they believed their superior intellects dictated the need for a balance of power before politicians recognized the theory.

          Conventionally dismissed as a quack because he did cross the line in his lonely battle, Joseph McCarthy was nevertheless correct in most every accusation he made. The Rosenbergs were guilty even though the information they supplied was relatively trivial. Real scientists did feed substantial information. How fast would the distrust and hysterical race for nuclear superiority have occurred without Russia receiving treasonous help early on including the exponentially more powerful H bomb?

          And Mr. Petiprin:
          As I said, vanity, original sin, is always with us. The biggest problem of all with AI is that it doesn’t exist. It is just a much higher level of algorithm processing but no closer to cognizance than any computing process previously. Electrical circuits cannot make value judgments and never will. There is a momentum of human vanity that has always been trying to create Frankenstein, in part to, as you say, dehumanize the uniqueness of our creation, in part to deny the special sacred status of all human life including the weak and unborn. The more we can be thought of in functional utilitarian terms, the more we can dismiss those lives that don’t function well.
          The way to deal with AI is to point out that this materialism is at its core. But our Church is rapidly losing its moral witness in these dire times. Can you imagine trying to point out that climate change is being exaggerated in order to make the crimes of population control seem benevolent as JPII once tried to do, now long forgotten?

        • There were a serious number of Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project. They gave the Soviet bomb project a head start. The atomic spies give validity to the 1950’s Red Scare.

      • Right, Edward. That fact, for me, is actually a temptation to despair. The technology can’t be stopped, and despite its potential for good, the evil will always lurk. We see this now for AI, where people are arguing that we need to develop it – not resist it – because it has many benefits and besides, the Chinese will crush us with theirs if we don’t have our own to set against it. I see it all leading to terrible dehumanization – the abolition of man! But Christians cannot despair. We live in hope. And as a pledge of that ultimate hope, I think we should indeed resist the technological drift and live as humanely as possible.

  2. I read about Oppenheimer in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” & he sounded like a pretty disturbed individual. Not only did he try to poison his tutor, but he also attempted to strangle a romantic rival. Part of Malcolm Gladwell’s point was how the more privileged can escape the consequences of their actions.

  3. All helpful, Peter. I think my one “breezy” sentence about Einstein does, however, more or less sum up his character’s disposition in the film.

  4. Some people realize the bomb has saved millions of lives. And that fission reactors give the modern world a virtually limitless supply of energy.
    Energy is the fundamental source of economic well being. Perhaps cheap energy is God’s second greatest gift to mankind.
    What kind of world would we be living in if the USA had concentrated on exporting fail safe modular nukes to third world countries as foreign aid instead of exporting war after war after war.
    The Oppenheimer movie glorifies his role- did he actually have an technical or scientific co tributions? – the appellation ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’ ? Mere sensationalism.

    • The movie rightfully depicts the unparalleled visionary role of Oppenheimer in bringing together the disparate pieces (scientists/technologists) required to confirm the theory of nuclear weaponry. Most in the industry agree it was a monumental achievement. (His scientific credentials and contributions are without dispute.)

    • “…an [sic] technical or scientific co tributions [sic]?

      The head honcho for the entire Manhattan Project (Los Alamos, Hanford, Oak Ridge), for example, seemed to think so. Take a look at his “Now it Can be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project” (1962) by General Leslie Groves. But what could he possibly know…he was there! And, about choosing Oppenheimer’s scientific and organizational brilliance over his known security risk, Groves writes (in part):

      “I have never felt that it was a mistake to have selected and cleared Oppenheimer for his wartime post. He accomplished his assigned mission and he did it well. We will never know whether anyone else could have done it better or even as well. I do not think so, and this opinion is almost universal among those who were familiar with the wartime operations at Los Alamos” (p. 63).

      This assessment prescinds, of course, from the separate decision (or momentum?) to actually use the bombs when, where and why we did.

      As for “sensationalism,” based on documents declassified after fifty years, a strong case is uncovered that the claim of “millions of lives” saved is such…Three sources are Stoff/Fanton/Williams, “The Manhattan Project: A Documentary Introduction to the Atomic Age”, 1991; Alperovitz, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb: and the Architecture of an American Myth,” 1995; and, yes the “opinion” of the “Strategic Bombing Survey Report: The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, June 30, 1946 (team formed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson).

      • I have the the book “Now It Can Be Told” by General Groves and despite any misgivings he may have had about Oppenheimer the fact is that he realized there wasn’t anyone else who could have controlled the roomful of scientific and very independent thinking cats working on the Bomb.

  5. While I am simply amazed at all the favorable “catholic” media coverage of any film with nude sex scenes, including Oppenheimer. But that amazement is so out of date, old fashioned, old fuddy duddy, and who cares if it agrees with what the Church teaches, as that is obviously out of date as well.

  6. “In many respects, the task of modern theology has been to pretend to interrogate God in order to ignore Him.”

    To love God is to obey God. Those who love God through obedience, or repent to love God through obedience, go to heaven through the blood of Jesus. It is Jesus who will judge into heaven who has loved Him and who has not loved Him, and thus Eternal Life or Eternal Damnation.

    Man has been debating whether or not he really truly does have to, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, with all your mind and with all your soul, to go to heaven, or not go to heaven, since man was in the Garden of Eden.

    Genesis 3:1 Expulsion from Eden.
    Now the snake was the most cunning* of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?” The woman answered the snake: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’” But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die!

    1 John 5:3
    For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome

    John 5:27
    “The Father has given over to him power to pass judgment because he is Son of Man; no need for you to be surprised at this, for an hour is coming in which all those in their tombs shall hear his voice and come forth. Those who have done right shall rise to live; the evildoers shall rise to be damned.”

  7. Betting the films were nothing more nor less than scapegoating America for all things bad, though I admit I most certainly will never step foot in a theater again after having been forced to sit through 30 min of sensory bludgeoning by advertisement and previews when we went to see “The Sound of Freedom.”

  8. About the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the moral question as to why the need to burn to death 200,000 to end the war should be expanded to include why these two cities specifically were chosen (the usual reason given being the weather permitting target window). As Catholics, it’s imperative that we ask why did our then mainly Protestant, Jewish, or some anti-Catholic bigots, among state, military, and scientific leaders decided to bomb these two cities with the biggest concentration of Catholics in Japan. Of those 200,000 burned to death in the two bombings, almost half were Catholics.

    • They were both military targets. The Japanese super battleships the Yamato and the Musashi were built at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Yamato at Hiroshima and the Musashi at Nagasaki. From what I’ve read and heard there was no neat distinction between military war production factories and civilian populations. It was in part a dispersed cottage industry. If you read the histories both cities were active in the support of the Japanese war effort. You might also want to take a look at the conventional land invasion of Berlin. Its casualty count was up there with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was savage and brutal. The city was left a wreck.

  9. Nuclear power is what lights the sun and the stars and accounts for the longevity of their energy output. In order to completely avoid the bomb we would have to unlearn this reality of the natural world. God gave us dominion over the earth. How can dominion be fully engaged in without learning the way that the created world works? A creator God is the Creator of the science by which the natural world operates.
    If you carefully read the second creation story God established and planted the Garden of Eden. He was the one who made the trees bear their fruit. He gave Adam one command, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. All of the garden were the things that are God’s. God’s garden, God’s rules. In eating of the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve took the things that are God’s without His permission. They acted like Eden was their own private property to do with as they pleased. They proved that they could not be trusted keep God’s commandments. This process is at work in scientism, claiming for itself the things that are God’s. A rejection of accountability to God. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility. This is as true for science as it is for any other field of human endeavor.

  10. A great, if long, video about WWII and Japan is on the Military History Visualized YouTube Channel. “D.M. Giangreco on the Invasion of Japan, Lend Lease & much more” It has timestamps for those who want to jump around between topics. He has published the book “Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947” He has a new book out “Truman and the Bomb: The Untold Story.”
    In the video he points out that too many people take a Eurocentric view of the war. He said that after the war that the UN estimated that about 400,000 Asians were dying per month for every year that the war went on. He said that the Pacific deaths were astounding in magnitude. He also said that it was difficult to apportion casualty counts in Okinawa because a little over half of the military were conscripted Okinawans. That entire video is a real eyeopener.

  11. For a most thought-provoking/challenging viewpoint regarding the movie “Oppenheimer,” see:

    “A Movie Isn’t Worth Sinning Over” by Eric Sammons at

    Sammons points out very serious flaws in the “Oppenheimer” movie production/some of the content, and as the title of his article sets forth, he lays some very serious cards on the table in presenting a case why Catholics should avoid watching this movie.

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