Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Daring to Study---and Preach--- Avatar (2009)

There’s plenty not to like about James Cameron’s sensational new film. On the eve of the film’s release in Italy, the Vatican called it “simplistic” and full of “pseudo-doctines…that turn ecology into the religion of the millenium.” See one report of that here.

A New York Times reviewer said the same thing a few weeks earlier, calling the film a “long apologia for pantheism…”

A couple of young men with whom I’d chatted last week said the film was great for the technical effects but not so good as a story, since that has been told and retold many times already. “This film,” one said, “will be remembered for the technology.”

An Onion film review called it “supremely goofy.”

Yet people continue to go see it, and the film is raking in hundreds of millions of dollars from viewers not only in the U.S. but around the world. A recent article spoke of the film’s popularity in places like Russia and Brazil.

I loved it. There were several points where I responded with deep feelings: in the exquisitely beautiful scenes of the graceful, floating tree seeds, for example, and in the horror of metal gunships spewing destructive power upon a pristine Eden-like land. There is little escaping the emotional and physical power of 3-D visual effects joined with full surround sound. At one point I ducked as an object seemed to be flying right at me! At times I wondered how bugs got into the theater on a cold winter’s day, when in reality (virtual reality, that is), they were actually in the movie.

Avatar is a work of art. Unlike many films (I think of the popular The Hangover[2009]), there is a whole curriculum waiting to be drawn out of this film. With so many people seeing it and so many commenting on it, the film is a ready-made study piece. It can be an exciting way to enliven 1) youth and adult education 2) a sermon series and 3) efforts to practice talking together about the media we experience.

As the film's musical theme “I See You” declares, when we look at another living being or at life itself, when we truly look to see, we enter into a sacred relationship. There is much that this film invites. As Tillich reminded the church, intentional theological reflection begins with a relationship with life that then stimulates questions.

At its best, when the church engages the questions honored and provoked by art, it serves as a bridge between culture and biblical theology. We encourage a depth of inquiry by raising questions; we encourage dialogue by encouraging the drawing of comparisons and contrasts between a work of art and the biblical witness; we notice a prophetic socio-political critique and perceive an incarnational embrace of story as parable; we model a way of living,thinking, and being that honors the world, the arts, culture, and history while being faithful to the meta-narrative of biblical tradition.

Part II of my reflections will focus on the mythical/ biblical references I find in the film. While most critics have uncovered the obvious mythical references, most of these same critics are illiterate when it comes to biblical material. They miss the irony of a line from the corporate executive ordering the destruction of the Home Tree and its sacred seeds when he blurts, “it’s just a sacred fern for Christ’s sake!”

James Cameron is more aware than we think when it comes to biblical theology. Those who only see a “theology of pantheism” have completely missed Cameron’s deep—and amusing—theology of grace, with full reference to the ancient/modern Augustinian-Pelagian debate.

Next Up: Biblical narratives in Avatar, plus questions to pursue

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