Monday, March 29, 2010

Some thoughts on Avatar and why it is so appealing (part 1)

My hypothesis: the Christian symbolism in Avatar contributes more to the movie's popularity than its pantheistic themes. Read my arguments for this and challenge me. I love a good argument, as long as it stays respectful.

I absolutely loved the movie Avatar, for several reasons (see below), but I recognized some issues with it, too. I started writing down my thoughts about this movie a couple months ago, but it's taken me a while to distill it all out. I didn't want to merely regurgitate or resynthesize a lot of posts that are already out there. For instance, Christianity Today already has a good article, Box Office Pantheism, that strikes a nice balance between appreciating the movie for its creativity and beauty and even some of its Christian symbolism, but also warning Christians about its pantheistic world views. Tackling pantheism is not the point of this blog. CS Lewis has already done a supremely logical analysis of the weakness of pantheism in his classic book, Mere Christianity.

What I'm contending here is that even if you took the pantheism and deep ecology worldviews out of this movie, it would still be just as popular. But if you took out the Christian symbolism, as subtle as it is, the movie would lose some (not all) of its appeal - mostly it would a lot of its depth of character and motive.

I was startled by how much I loved the movie, so much that after seeing it the first time with a friend, I went right back with my husband and oldest daughter because I loved it so much I wanted them to see it, too. Here are five factors that I think account for its broad appeal (not a complete list, I'm sure).

  1. amazing specific effects, and not just effects for the sake of effects, but a really beautiful, well-imagined and well-crafted fantasy world, with a budget that could afford to pay attention to details. James Cameron used cinematography to create something so fantastic that the only comparison at its level I can think of is Tolkien's Middle Earth, created by written fiction (and not equalled in its cinematic version - though it is tempting to think what the movie version of Lord of the Rings might have been like if they'd waited another 8 years for advances in special effects. Still, we have the Hobbit to look forward to)
  2. lots of action: bang ‘em up, shoot ‘em up, some monstrous scary creatures, and some mythological-type creatures thrown in for good measure
  3. a Romeo and Juliet story, where people from two different cultures fall in love and their love triumphs over forces that would try to divide them (James Cameron apparently discovered how well this theme works in his other blockbuster, Titanic)
  4. everybody loves an underdog, and it’s really cool to see the Nav’ii triumph against overwhelming odds. (This is also a big factor in the popularity of the Lord of the Rings, too, I believe, where two little hobbits defeat the Dark Lord against all odds).
  5. a “good vs. evil” plot that follows archetypal story structure and includes some spiritual themes that many people relate to, including pantheistic and Christian themes.

A lot of highly successful movies/books have two or maybe even three of these elements, but this movie goes all out and includes all five of them. No wonder I was hooked.

But more about point 5 - the spiritual elements. There is a lot of Christian symbolism in Avatar. Though it is a lot more subtle than the pantheistic/deep ecology themes, I believe it is actually the Christian themes that contribute more to the movie's appeal than the pantheistic ones. The biggest pantheistic appeal of the movie is that in a world where all creatures realize they are interconnected, they will be in balance with each other. But merely being in balance isn't enough to make a good movie! No, the appeal of the movie is how the creatures magically work together and come to each other's aid in a time of need. But this is not actually something pantheists really believe; it is pure fantasy.

If you look at the climax of the movie, you see that the Nav’ii cannot triumph on their own over the forces that threatens them. Jake appeals to their goddess in prayer and she answers by causing all the animals to join in the battle. Jake knows the battle cannot be won without help. This is actually more of a Christian worldview than a pantheistic one. It corresponds more to how Christians know they cannot achieve anything worthwhile by their own efforts, but only through the strength of God. (Philippians 4:13 "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me").

Another example: when the spiritual leader of the Nav’ii says you cannot teach someone who is already full, and Jake says “I’m empty.” (1 Cor 1:20 “God has chose the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise”). We can all relate better to someone who admits he needs to learn and is willing to learn, versus pompous know-it-alls. This is one reason why I have such hard time sharing my faith - e.g. blurting out my faith - with other people. I don't want to come across as a pompous know-it-all. I want to know what other people believe, and why they believe it. I am still learning. We are all still learning. Which is why I also dearly hope that after they've shared their beliefs with me, they'd give me a chance to tell my own story.

There is also the part when Jake is accepted as one of the people, the Nav’ii tradition says that everyone is born twice – once a physical birth, and second a spiritual birth. (John 3:1 “You must be born again.”)

Maybe the filmmakers threw in a little bit of Christian symbolism to appease the Christians in the audience, but it is more likely these themes of needing help from beyond ourselves and the need for a spiritual birth or awakening are something that filmmakers have identified as themes that a majority of people can relate to. They have a broad appeal, because they also form the basis for the archetypal elements of the “hero’s journey”. (Of course it may be argued that the archetypal elements of great stories predate Christianity and even Judaism and these religions actually borrow from it. More about that in Part 2, coming soon).

Here are some past challenges I've made... I always love hearing responses and I'm always open to discussion.

Worldviews part 1: the truth is we need help

Worldviews part 2: What about suffering?

Why tolerance isn't enough

Friday, March 12, 2010

1000 gifts: up to 24

I've started a list of all the gifts God has given me that I'm thankful for, to live out the command "give thanks in all things" (1 Thess. 5:18) in my daily walk.

Just when I thought I was over my little bout of seasonal depression, it hit me hard again yesterday. Feelings of hopelessness. I'm not accomplishing anything in life, why do I even bother? Feeling like I haven't accomplished anything signficant professionally (at work), creatively (writing), as a mother (a call from Blaze's teacher that was discouraging), my marriage has its ups and downs and don't even get me started on our financial state... I can't lose weight, I have no self-control, I'm not even sure if I believe in God, because if he existed, wouldn't he help me more, as I've been faithfully praying for his strength?

I have a couple friends that have shared their ups and downs in life, and I noticed that when they are struggling with their faith, they are usually doubting the goodness of God. They feel like he's a killjoy that is deliberately withholding good things from their lives or even maybe punishing them. I have never felt that way about God, but then I realized that when I'm struggling with my faith, I do something maybe even worse: I start to doubt that He even exists. It's all just wishful thinking. There never was a creator, it's all just a bunch of random mutations and natural selection.

Deep in my funk last night, I randomly picked up a book that's been sitting on the pile of six or so books on my bedstand. It happened to be "Rise Above" by Gwen Shamblin. I opened it to a dog ear mark where I had stopped reading it many months ago. A few pages into it, I found myself reading a section about depression. Weird. She was talking about how most depression is a result of being overly self-focused. Before you go to the doctor to get some pills for it, she suggests you try something first: go through a whole day focusing on other people. What I had been focused on was "oh woe is me." I had forgotten to focus on things to be thankful for and instead I had started comparing myself to others: thinking things like "most people who are 40 years old have accomplished much more than me, make more money than me, etc." This is a deadly trap and I had fallen for it again!

My kids like me to read to them and sing to them when I put them to bed. Sometimes I'll read but skip the singing and put on a short tape of lullabies instead. Sometimes I'll skip reading and just sing one or two of their favorites, "Jesus Loves Me" or "White Coral Bells" or "Over the Rainbow" or "I Know You" from Sleeping Beauty. Tonight I read to them, so I was going to skip singing, but suddenly I really wanted to sing. I sang for them and then I went to my room laid on my bed with my song book and sang five or six more favorites - "Sweet Adoration", "All the Heavens", "Psalm 42", "Lamb of God", "Wonderful, Merciful Savior," "Lord, You're Beautiful."

At the end of my singing my heart was at peace again. Faith restored. Of course God exists. I promised myself that this morning I would add to my list of gifts, and also focus on others, instead of myself, by getting into prayer. Fasting-a-meal this morning.

Here are the latest additions to my list of gifts:

11. Delicious sandwiches at Schlotsky's with my mom
My mom is back from Hilton Head, and when I picked her up from the shuttle stop in Ft. Collins she treated me to dinner at Schlotsky's, one of my Ft Collins favs

12. Morning birdsong heralding spring
It's lighter in the morning now and during one of my morning walks, our neighborhood was full of birdsong! Like little heralds of spring – or rather, little promises of spring (still a lot of snow)

13. A call from from Kerry.
An old friend, my roommate during the years 1998/1999. Oh the memories!

14. Making cards for my parents' birthdays.
Famous movie quotes for Dad; opera lyrics for Mom.

15. Still love to re-read my story even though I've read it a thousand times and it still needs a lot of work.

16. A warm, crackling fire to snuggle up near to
B. has been good about keeping our stove stocked these days

17. Giving horsey rides
Blaze gave the twins horsey rides on her hands and knees, and then jiggled them on her leg. They giggle like crazy. How can I not smile?

18. Good nuggets of truth from Oswald Chambers
These are from his lesser known "Still Higher for His Highest" devotional

19. Homemade waffles and blueberry syrup
At Mom & Dad’s on Sunday morning. Dad makes the waffles; Mom makes the syrup.

20. Piggy tails
Blaze fixed the twins' hair in piggy tails and also got them dressed for church for me, what a great help.

21. “Does grass grow UP because it is worshipping God?”
We were sharing cute things that kids say at our mother's Bible study, and Stacy shared this one from her son.

22. My kids shuffling around in my big fuzzy slippers

23. Looking over our old photos
Found some old favorites of B. and me – can’t believe this great guy says he’s still in love with me

24. Used book sales
B. is watching the kids for me tomorrow so I can go with a friend, Shannon, to a big used book sale - I get to spend all morning browsing BOOKS. Oh, I can't wait (even though I'm sure to be tempted to buy more than my $15 budget)

Monday, March 1, 2010

1000 gifts: my first ten

holy experience

My old battle with seasonal depression has resurfaced. It has been mercifully mild for the past three winters since the twins were born, but I'm noticing it a little more this year. How I can tell I have the blues:
  • even when it's sunny outside, I still can't make myself go out
  • all I want to do is watch movies, read entertaining books, and eat fatty food
  • my house starts to look like a tornado went through the interior
  • I feel tears coming, over the most minor things
  • I completely give up on my goals

Well, let me revise that. I'm taking a break from my goals - except for the first three - which means basically being in the Word and in prayer. Even little two word "help me" prayers help. I found a couple others things that have helped, too. One is this post by Don Miller on Following God and Farming. Farming is rarely glorious or fun, but if we just keep faithfully working at that little field the Lord's given us, He will cause the harvest to be great.

Another thing I found that really encouraged me is A Thousand Gifts. This lady started keeping a list of gifts, writing them down one-by-one until she reached one thousand. A list not of gifts she wanted, but gifts she'd already been given... by God. Here's a great excerpt:
Too often I miss Him, oblivious, blind. I don't see all the good things that He is giving me, gracing me with, brushing my life with. True, He is everywhere, always. But maybe, before The Gift List, I thought of Him as further off, not so close. When I started to see all the things that I love bestowed upon me, I started to see Him as near, present, everywhere, showering me with good things. Seeing the things I love all around me gives me eyes to see that I am loved, that He loves me.

It is happening to me as John Milton wrote: "Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world."

So here is the beginning of my 1000 gifts list:

1. fresh strawberries on sale - the first I've had all winter

2. my Dad has been talking more - even played poker with B. Sunday night

3. Olympic ice skating

4. enjoyed writing about a quote and related scripture for my blog; 5 comments on my blog post

5. Reading other contributor's posts about the quote taught me some more things

6. the way Annie says "do it again!" after I tickle her

7. diamonds glittering on the snow during my morning walk

8. holding newborn babies

9. discovering "wonderful things" (Psalm 119:18) in the scripture: my WT last week was Colossian 1:27 "God has chosen to make known to us the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory."

10. Sarah singing "the Power of the Cross" at church, and a wonderful message on end times and how God will have the victory

I am already feeling light penetrating the fog of depression. And I just discovered the verse that immediately precedes one of my all time favorite verses, Phil 4:6-7. I discovered that as I consciously keep my eyes open for His gifts and thank him, as it says in Phil 4:6, then I receive the peace of Phil 4:7, and the truth of Phil 4:5b becomes evident!
Phillippians 4:5-7 The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.