Saturday, January 23, 2010

Google and Bing Improving Image Searches

Using browsers to search for images has just gotten easier. While many are familiar with Google's Image search feature (input text search terms and then click on "Images" to access image choices), Google now offers something called "Google Image Swirl" that proves stacks of images in response to your search term. While this is in the experimental stage and only offers a limited selection of search possibilities, it's great as a tool for basic imagery and art from well-known artists.

Microsoft's Bing offers another version of this with the new Bing Visual Search which allows you to search images without typing search terms, but simply clicking on a number of categories, such as "famous people", "reference", "sport", etc. Selecting from a category of images then leads to a large number of additional images with a similar theme. Visual Search also adds useful text data as you "mouse over" various images.

Both image browsers will continue to improve with time, and offer visual thinkers more possibilities while hunting for illustrative material for presentations.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Promoting Disaster Relief in Haiti

If your church has a screen, projector, and computer available in your sanctuary, you are ready to immediately promote ways your congregation can assist with the relief efforts underway in earthquake-devastated Haiti.

There are several places in any worship service where visuals can be used to inform, educate, and encourage involvement in mission projects and immediate disaster relief. These could be before the worship service in the form of picture and text announcements; as part of a dedicated “mission moment” time in the service; as an introduction to the offering, and/or during the time when the plates are passed; and in a sermon.

If you have access to the Internet in your sanctuary, you’ll be able to show YouTube video clips from many sources; articles and appeals on denominational websites; photographs of specific schools and medical facilities your church has or is sponsoring, etc. Since people may already be overloaded with visual images from television and their own Internet use, you will want to select visuals that tell the unique story of your church and/or denomination's presence in that country.

My experience has been that adding such visuals to worship services is a highly effective way for helping people better understand the mission causes the church is promoting through special offerings, and will result in much higher participation and generosity of giving.

Showing pictures and video clips of the needs help draw people into the story of the project and make it easy for them to give to support what’s needed. In one mid-sized church I served, we raised thousands of dollars over several weeks for victims of Hurricane Katrina because we were able to show pictures of local people on site in Louisiana purchasing and delivering diapers, towels and blankets from the initial donations provided by our church.

That kind of outpouring for disaster relief had previously been unheard of in that church, and it was clear that the combination of having family of church members on the scene emailing pictures of what they were doing, along with the visual presentation of this in worship, produced generous support. The couple in place emailed us pictures as they purchased and delivered supplies, helping dramatize the urgency of the situation as well as showing the specific ways our congregation’s donations were being used. More gifts followed these pictorial reports.

Having the projector, screen, and computer in the sanctuary made it easy to “think visually” and show the various causes we were supporting, thus making it easy to raise much-needed funds.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Biblical Narratives in Avatar (2009)

When one of the main characters of a film is named “Dr. Grace Augustine”, one’s theological ears need to perk up! Augustine of Hippo was called “the Doctor of Grace.” He and a fellow named Pelagius argued over the doctrine of original sin and the meaning of grace. I suggest that James Cameron was not promoting pantheism in this film, but settling in his own way the ancient arguments about grace and awarding Pelagius (judged a heretic by the church) the winner’s prize.

One discussion thread for Avatar is indeed this: the concept of sin and grace as found in the Garden of Eden in the biblical narrative, compared and contrasted with that found in the garden planet of Pandora. While investigating the ancient debate between Augustine and Pelagius, this study thread would also include evaluating questions raised by various critics concerned about more modern concerns about pantheism, neo-paganism, etc. in the film.

Questions to include might be: What is pantheism? How is pantheism different from eco-spirituality? What is panentheism? What is Mother Goddess religion? What is paganism? Are these to be feared? Why or why not? Where might we find examples of this in the film’s story and dialogue? How does this debate get played out in various church and non-church circles. What are the issues at stake e.g. political, social, cultural, economic, moral, and religious?

Another thread related to this is stimulated by the fact that this story takes place on a mythical planet named Pandora. What is the Greek myth of Pandora about? Is Pandora an equivalent of the biblical Eve? Are the curses that emerge from Pandora’s jar (or, as it is mistranslated, box) similar to those God gives Adam and Eve?

Moving on: the people of Pandora are called “Na’vi.” The biblical Hebrew word for prophet is “nav’i” or “mouth of God.” What does the filmmaker intend to tell us with this reference? How do these people in the movie live and function like biblical prophets, then and now?

The female Na’vi character, Neytiri, gives Jacob a pomegranate-like fruit from a tree. His eyes seem to open up at that point to really behold the beauty of where he is. How does this fruit scene compare and contrast with the fruit scene in the story in the Garden of Eden? How do the two sacred trees in Pandora compare to the two in Eden?

The Jacob and Esau Story

Besides parallels in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, there are some comparisons in the film to the Jacob/Esau story. While the comparisons might be weak and stretched too much, they yet invite some imaginative consideration.

In Avatar, Jacob has a twin brother named Tom. Jacob is translated from the Hebrew to mean “supplanter.” In the film, it was Tom, Jacob’s brother, who was to be the avatar. With his untimely and tragic death, Jacob takes his place.

After seeing Avatar, it is interesting to read the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-17. There is a communication between one realm and another, heaven and earth, with many winged creatures (angels) flying around. A blessing is given, that through Jacob all the families of the earth shall be blessed. There is divine assurance of ongoing presence and guidance, and then Jacob awakens, realizing he has been traveling between heaven and earth, the “house of God” and the “gate of heaven.”

Later, in Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with the mysterious angel, gains a limp, and has a name change. His new name is “Israel” or one who struggles or strives with God. As some suggest Avatar advocates reverting to some kind of nature-worshiping “tribal existence,” clearly the parallel with the coming tribal confederacy and covenant community of ancient Israel in Jacob’s story might fit…at least in an imaginative and inspired preaching context! After all, the covenant of “shalom” extends peace to every aspect of creation including the land, the water, the sky, the animals, and people!

John 1

A third connection to a biblical narrative might be found in the Gospel of John and the prologue of the first chapter, with its theological concepts of light and word. Light and Word translate into life, as at the beginning in Genesis 1, and both light and word become flesh, a human being, one who embodies word, light and love. Might it make some sense to briefly and lightly touch on the imaginative correlation of the Hindu “avatar” in reference to this Christian “epiphany” to draw out comparisons and contrasts?

Other snippets of interesting material:

a. There are coffin-like structures shown throughout the film, with juxtaposed scenes from a real coffin holding Jake’s brother to the avatar-pods. There is no getting around the themes these evoke: death, life, rebirth, renewal, and transformation.

b. Noting the worship practices depicted in the film: singing at the sacred tree; honoring ancestors; prayer; laying on of hands; the presence of ritual at sacred place.

c. Treating relationships with nature and living things with respect, honoring a sacred relationship. While some may see this as pantheism, it seems more of an honoring of the sanctity of all things. Note the blessing/saying “grace” before taking the life of an animal, and/or the connection with horses and birds as the Na’vi linked strands of hair with the strands and fibers of another’s life.

d. The clash of different systems of belief: one in “military fact” and power, and another in the sacredness of deity and/or nature. There is a clash of cultures: military, natural, and scientific.

e. The relationship of the term “Avatar” in Hindu mythology/ theology with “Epiphany” in Greco-Roman mythology/political theology and in Christian theology.

f. How does the final scene parallel the final scene of Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and what are we to make of it?

g. Just as one world is shown to be of advanced technology, another world is shown as one of advanced spirituality?

h. The Halleluia Mountains figure beautifully in the film and are the closing images as the credits roll. “Halleluia” is “praise God” in Hebrew.

i. The connection with the themes found in Dali’s “Burning Giraffe” as mentioned in a previous blog.

j. The valuable mineral the corporation seeks, with the aid of its mercenaries, is called “Unobtanium.” The unobtainable has a high price.

k. Lines in the film that invite some discussion (I have not found a script yet; these lines are what I thought I heard while watching the film, and I wrote them down in the darkened theater while wearing 3-D glasses!):

“I was a warrior who dreamed he would bring peace.”

“The Great Mother does not take sides-she protects the balance of life.”

“The wealth of the world is all around us.”

“Grace is hit.”

“I’m a scientist; I don’t believe in fairy tales.”

Did Jake call out “holy snake!” as one of the snake-headed creatures flew out of the Mother Tree?

l. The theme song, “I See You” sings of the film’s joyful embrace of conscientious, intentional, life-honoring relationships and the “colors of love.” Where is love in the film? Is the full complexity of the term “love”there, in the biblical sense? Do we find in the film an implied shallow “pantheism” or is it more of what we find in John’s Gospel and the phrase, “For God so loved the world…” Doesn’t John affirm that the world is embued with love? Isn’t love embedded in each creature, all of life, the animate and inanimate?

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

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cameron's "Avatar" (2009) and Dali's "The Burning Giraffe"(1937)

A few hours after watching "Avatar" (review to follow in a day or so) I went to a favorite Costa Rican Cafe for supper. I was seated at a small table near the door that faced a wall. As I waited to order, I noticed directly in front of me a Salvador Dali print with two long figures in the foreground and off in the background a smaller figure. It was of an animal on fire.

This strange and striking image took me back to "Avatar," in which is a short scene of a running horse on fire. It was a picture of pure horror resulting from the cruelties inflicted upon the living beings in the film's Pandora. Was James Cameron making a reference to Salvador Dali?

In the foreground of the Dali print are two long, blue women. The women of Pandora in "Avatar" are long and blue. Dali called his women in the print before me "tail bone woman" and the Pandora creatures did have tails! Coincidence? The collective unconscious at work in the artistic imagination?

Dali used the image of the burning giraffe in his 1930 film, "L'Age d' Or" (The Golden Age) and again in his 1937 "The Invention of Monsters." He apparently saw this as a premonition of World War II, and his burning giraffe is an image of “the masculine cosmic apocalyptic monster.” See my source and a look at the print here. The "monsters" of war in "Avatar" are steel helicopters, the large mother ship-plane, and the massive robotic "soldiers" piloted by individuals inside these walking structures.

Cameron's Colonel Quaritch embodies this "masculine cosmic apocalyptic monster" in the film. This makes him, too, an "avatar" of sorts.

I've been unable as of yet to locate any confirmation by Cameron of this reference to Dali's work. It may be I am stretching this a bit much, but the parallels are very striking.

The juxtaposition of the Dali image with the scene of the burning horse in the film would be an excellent starting point for a discussion or sermon about some of the issues raised in film. An additional image suggestion would be Picasso's "Guernica" from the same time period, and the terrified horse in the center of the painting.

Preaching "Invictus"

The film "Invictus" centers around Nelson Mandela's work to unify and build a post-apartheid nation. The story retells his efforts to encourage the national rugby team to win the 1995 World Cup as a means of bringing the country together.

The film's title is drawn from an 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley that Mandela used for inspiration during his long imprisonment by the South African government. Mandela gives the poem to the captain of the rugby team after a discussion about inspiration:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Invictus, 1875, William Ernest Henley

While this is a poem of one person's overcoming personal challenges, and a hymn to individualism, it is clear that Mandela is using it to feed his dream for a united South Africa. The individual is always in relationship to a community, a nation, and commonly-held goals.

The sport of rugby features prominently in the film. Any team sport is a combination of individuality and teamwork. As such, the sport becomes a metaphor for the challenges facing South Africa during this time. Rugby in this film becomes a metaphor of the struggle for social change, which is often rough and bloodied.

The images of the scrum, and then the individual popping out with the ball to either run or kick, shows the "dance" of the team/group and the individual. Each needs the other. For a good look at rugby in relation to this film, check out this article.

Texts for Preaching "Invictus"

Several texts are prompted by the title, story, and dialog in the film. I'd suggest the following:

Matthew 5:43-48, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..."
Luke 6:37, "Forgive, and you will be forgiven."
Romans 8:37-39, "We are more than conquerors through him who loved us..."
Romans 12:17, "Repay no one evil for evil..."
2 Corinthians 5:20, "So we are ambassadors for Christ..."

Religious References

Aside from a short scene featuring a Congregational Church in the background, and the team's prayer at the end of the match (all of 15 words, including "Thanks for the win. Amen.", there are few "obvious" religious references. Yet the film is full of clippable dialog about fear, forgiveness, individual effort to bring people together, legacies of apartheid and efforts to overcome them, and the need for people to become the change they wish to see. The theological references in the film are vast and the preaching opportunities many!

Short Notes:

1) The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was set up around the same time as this film is set. To understand more of this as background for a sermon, you could go here. This was part of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995.

2) Director Clint Eastwood seems to be focusing on the theme of redemptive non-violence in this film and his Gran Torino (2008). This is an important theme to highlight as so many films take on stories with the "myth of redemptive violence" (see Walter Wink's work on this).

3)Other references to popular culture, for use with a multi-media sermon presentation, can be found here.

[A word about my use of Wikipedia: while some may frown upon it as an academic source, I find it can give a jump-start to your work and get you moving into your topic. Like anything on the Internet, it’s important to read a number of articles to arrive at a fuller understanding. Wikipedia is a great place to start.]

4) As said earlier, the film lends itself to a message about South African apartheid and Nelson Mandela's efforts to bring reconciliation and unity to a divided nation.

5) Another preaching theme could be that of leadership, organization, and inspiration. Examples in the film come from Mandela's understanding of this and his strategies for implementing it, as well as the rugby captain's (Francois Pienaar played by Matt Damon) learning this and communicating it to the rest of the team. Relating this to your own leadership and organization challenges within a congregation might be an application.

6) An important line from the film is something like, "Forgiveness removes fear--it is a powerful weapon..." and this alone can be a starting point for your message. The story shows the intentional work of breaking "the cycle of fear" rather than reinforcing it in the context of the national situation at that time.

This film lends itself as a foundation for a preaching series on themes such as reconciliation, forgiveness, fear, social change, building unity out of diversity, and partnering for greater social, political and/or organizational progress.

There is also much in this film that could be illustrative material for a more general sermon about reconciliation, forgiveness, individual and group effort, the need for inspiration in individual and team challenges.

Once the script/DVD is out, we'll be able to suggest those clippable moments.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Sherlock Holmes" For Lent

The late Doug Adams of Pacific School of Religion advised those wanting to preach and teach with film to use what their people are watching. This was "incarnational theology" by preaching these parables that were already a part of a congregation's awareness.

Last week I saw "Sherlock Holmes" and was aware that it was the #2 most seen film in the US (I'll see "Avatar" this week and comment on it soon!). I did not go to see it with any intention of looking for how to preach it, however. Years ago I read the Sherlock Holmes stories after they were given as a Christmas gift. I'd watched Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the old movies. I'd even gone to the Sherlock Holmes Pub in San Francisco back in the 1970's, and paid homage to 221B Baker Street in London in the 1990's.

The big surprise with this latest cinematic rendering of adventures of Holmes and Watson was that "Sherlock Holmes" (2009) was full of theological references. As much as I've found these in films over the last decades, I don't know why I'd be surprised...but my expectation was that I was going just to see a fun film on a cold afternoon.

I came away from it realizing that it fits perfectly with the Lenten text of the third temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4:8-9. More on that in a bit.

Holmes tells us "the little details are far more important" and it is in the little details where the theology finds its home. Interestingly Holmes uses the term "theology" in a quick reference as the plot unwinds, "I've reconciled thousands of years of theological disparity..." and that would take more parsing than I could put together as the action unfolded quickly. Perhaps a second viewing...or your own analysis....will help draw out the full meaning of what he was saying.

For this particular reflection I'll use Lord Blackwood's line to Holmes from his jail cell early in the film: "You and I are bound together on a journey that will twist the very fabric of nature..." Let's look at some of these twists:

1) The first twist is our first glimpse of Lord Blackwood (played by Mark Strong): he resembles Basil Rathbone! The bad guy in this film resembles Sherlock Holmes in the old movies. Evil masquerades as good, which is indeed a twist.

2) Lord Blackwood intends to twist nature with his quest for power, " create a new future--a future ruled by us." It's the age-old lust for power. Theologically this is a twisting, or a distorting, of the original goodness of God's creation in Genesis 1. The distortion (sin) is a human yearning for power (see the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11) and the age-old creation of domination systems like Pharaoh's Egypt (see Exodus) and Caesar's Rome (see the New Testament socio-political background of Palestine in the first century). That many miss this distortion of power of domination systems as part of the "originating sin" only speaks to our wide acceptance of them as "the way it is."

3)In the movie, Lord Blackwood reads from Revelation 1:18 and twists the words referring to Christ to apply to himself and his quest: "...I died, and behold I am alive for evermore; and I have the keys of Death and Hades." Part of his scheme is to cheat death and become all-powerful.

4)Another scriptural twist in the film is the reference to Revelation 4:7 and "the four living creatures" which become symbols, and for Holmes, clues for the development of Lord Blackwood's evil plan: the lion, the ox, the face of a man, and a flying eagle. New Testament theologians understand that these symbols become associated with each of the four Gospel writers: Matthew=angel; Mark=lion; Luke=ox; John=eagle. Blackwood is twisting the "good news of the Gospels" by associating each symbol with his murderous plots.

5) Blackwood gathers his "disciples" in a church-like structure and has a mock-communion ceremony, giving them a common chalice and telling them to "drink your allegiance here..." It was Doug Adams who has pointed out how the Latin "sacramentum" was the oath of allegiance to the emperor, and to take communion was denying the emperor his worship and instead a commitment to the cause of Christ. Blackwood twists the "sacrament" towards his own version of "a future ruled by us."

6) Another "twist" to the film is that as Blackwood begins to fall in a final fight with Holmes, he cries out, "For God's sake Holmes, cut me loose!" Ultimately the bad guy who has been all about twisting the fabric of nature, scripture, and human power, acknowledges "God" when the chips are down.

7) Little detail: did you catch how Holmes' dog is named "Gladstone"? Without making too much of the names, this "Gladstone" (solid, good news) is in stark contrast to "Blackwood" (not so solid bringer of bad news).

8) Other religious backdrop: Holmes mentions something about "these times of religious fervor" and at several moments in the film there are people demonstrating with signs reading something about "Satan." I'd need to isolate those scenes more to draw their significance, as they were very quick scenes. Yet the theological reference is there, playing off the other scenes.

9) Towards the end, isn't Blackstone wearing a coat reminiscent of the one worn by Max Schreck in "Nosferatu," an early vampire film from the silent era?

Preaching "Sherlock Holmes" in Lent might involve using the Matthew text of the temptation of Christ (the devil offers to give Jesus "all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them...if you will fall down and worship me...") and the flawed human drive for power, dominion, and world domination.

As each of the temptations addresses specific earthly issues (bread from stones=economic power; jumping off the "pinnacle of the temple" and living=religious power; kingdoms=political power) this film offers an entry into the realm of the distorted, twisted human drive "to create a new future-a future ruled by us" where humans are at the center, their systems of domination provide the rule of force and protection of greed, and the word of God is pushed aside.