Driscoll, Avatar, and Native Justice
Mark Driscoll's rant against Avatar reveals how blind we remain toward oppressed peoples.

Last week Dr. Metzger wrote on Ur about the novelty of multi-ethnic efforts in the church today. He asked whether justice was really taking root in our hearts, or is it just a trend. In this follow-up post he exposes our general blindness to injustice by referencing Mark Driscoll's comments about the film Avatar. If you recall, earlier this year Driscoll called the James Cameron film "the most satanic movie I've ever seen." A video with his full rant against the film can be viewed below.

Some friends drew my attention to the YouTube post of Pastor Mark Driscoll's sermon where he critiques the movie Avatar. I don't know Pastor Driscoll, but I have watched the movie. There were two things that struck me about his remarks: his rightful concern for orthodoxy coupled with his desire for Christians to think critically about the worldviews that films present such as pagan spirituality; and his conviction that the movie attacks cultural progress.

Whether or not the director, James Cameron, intended to promote a pantheistic perspective (everything is God), I do concur with Driscoll that a pantheistic or monistic view of reality proves problematic for consideration of sin and evil—if we are one with the divine in our creaturely state, how can we be sinners? It also proves problematic for consideration of the need for a Savior—if we are ultimately one with God, why do we need a Savior to remove the separation? From a pantheistic or monistic perspective, separation is not moral or ontological; it is basically mental. According to this model, our sinful state is one of illusion. We fail to see things as they truly are, and we must cease living the lie and get in touch with our true selves which is not beyond us, but rather within us (what Driscoll refers to as the spark of divinity). I should also add that it is ultimately impossible to differentiate good from evil in a pantheistic or monistic framework: good and evil proceed from one ultimate reality, which is beyond good and evil.

So, I commend Pastor Driscoll for his biblical and theological convictions regarding pantheism. And yet I don't find his brief statements on Avatar orthodox enough. Here I have in mind Pastor Driscoll's statement that the movie attacks cultural progress.

Driscoll rightly detects in the film a social commentary and a profound critique leveled at a certain kind of cultural progress. Avatar is the story of two cultures. One culture "progresses" by ravaging neighboring cultures and destroying the surrounding ecosystem. The other culture "progresses" by a "shared life" approach: living communally as grateful stewards of the environment, never taking more than is necessary for the survival of the tribe. I have a hard time imagining how ravaging an indigenous people's cultural habitat and stripping the land to obtain a mineral prized by the dominant culture on another planet signifies cultural progress. Nor do I find that it lines up with God's prophetic word concerning caring for the poor and helpless in Isaiah or in James (Isaiah 58:5-11; James 1:26-27).

July 27, 2010

Displaying 1–10 of 25 comments

Chris Laird

August 26, 2010  5:28pm

For those who are still interested in this dialogue, there is a compelling article written by Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian teacher, lecturer, pastor and historian. @ http://ethnicspace.wordpress.com/who-is-doing-this/ Peace, Chris

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Opio

August 24, 2010  9:04pm

I agree with the previous comments "enough with Mark Driscoll". This is about being redemptive in the way Christians seek to share God's love and truth. As a Christian who is also an African, I would like to recognize that Pastor Mark's critique and exposure of the superstitious parts in the movie Avatar serves a brief purpose, but is found wanting and falls short of a Biblical and culturally relevant missiological approach. This issue at hand is the common incident of individuals who set out to enthusiastically resolve one or more problems, but their solutions end up creating future problems or negative and unintended consequences. How so? Let me take this chance to provide a crash course on "African Traditional Society" (ATS) or "African Traditional Religion 101" (ATR), since I am familiar with this particular orientation, which is very similar to the Animistic portions of Avatar. Take not that ATS or ATR refers to the ancient classifications which are relatively different from modern or contemporary Africa. During the course of watching James Cameron's award-sweeping motion picture, I was reminded of the "beliefs in the Ancestors". In most of African Traditional Society (ATS) or African Traditional Religion (ATR), the ancestors are the dead members of a family, a clan, or a tribe. They are of a ripe age and even though dead, they are a part of the life of a community. The African community "consists of the unborn living (those about to be reincarnated), the living, and the living dead (those who are deceased but are still remembered by the living). Like in Avatar, ATS or ATR perceives the meaning of life to be intertwined with the ancestral presence and ancestral power. The tie-in with the dead is so much a part of the whole fabric of life that when someone is about to depart this life, they are requested to take greetings or requests to the previously departed. But communication does not end there. The deceased will again communicate with the living in this present life about anything. In ATS or ATR, the ancestors are the most powerful, basic, and primary component of the kinship system. In an African Traditional community, death and life co-exist communally and in interdependence and solidarity. Religion, culture, life and meaning are all mediated, moderated, and sanctioned by the community of the ancestors. They are the custodians of the community. Why is this historical and cultural synopsis of grave significance? It is because the Scriptures encourage Christians to set their heart on Christ the Lord, and always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). Any effective servant of God should know that being prepared to flesh out the gospel in word and deed (Colossian 3:17) in particular cultural contexts, be it local or international, necessitates a believer's dependence on God for wisdom and knowledge about how to deliver the gospel to people with gentleness and respect to their communities, norms, and culture at large. As a missionary, I am privileged to serve alongside my brothers and sisters in the Western world. I enjoy great relationships and fellowship with Christians in the West. In fact, it was a young couple from a country in the West who introduced me to Christ. Yet as one who also has been on the receiving end of a predominately Western missionary sending enterprise, I witnessed missionaries who brought the Gospel with a Western and forceful worldview, which was a mixture of Biblical values, cultural Christianity, and the general cultural and social core values of Western society. I wonder whether Pastor Mark has paused to prayerfully consider his blind spots and reflect upon his full display of anger in the video. Is that how Christian leaders should respond to other people groups and cultures reflected in movies? Where is gentleness and respect for those we seek to reach with the gospel?

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mark

August 19, 2010  7:33am

Interesting what some actual indiginous people thought about Avatar's message... http://www.contactmusic.com/news.nsf/story/tribesfolk-criticism-prompts-cameron-to-rewrite-avatar-sequel_1159152 P.S. - Enough Driscoll.

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Paul Louis Metzger

August 11, 2010  1:10am

Hello, Melody. As I stated previously, I have been traveling. My response to your question is rather lengthy (too lengthy for the comment box, I believe), and so it is posted at the following: http://consumingjesus.org/ All best wishes, Now back to my travels, PLM

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kenny chmiel

August 08, 2010  5:02pm

Avatar is teeming with metaphors very similar to metaphors in the stories in the biblical texts. Sure details are different but in the long run if you dig down to the root metaphors of the film and many stories in scripture it is amazing to see the similarities. When driscoll was talking about all the satanic and false aspects of the film I couldn't but notice the similarities but with an added false or satanic stamp added by Driscoll. I think what is going on is a matter of historical sequence. What I mean is since Christian metaphors came first (in driscoll's mind), they are Driscoll's sounding board and Obviously coupled with a rich mans mind and money the particulars will look a bit different, yet Driscoll seems not to be astute enough to see his Jesus seems to want the same as the "point" of the film, which is connection and restored healthy relationships between creatures. As a pastor you would think he would use the films metaphors as a teaching aid, not as a wall. It seems like his point in the sermon was to talk about the devil and the reality of his working in the world, well it's a bit childish to use a film like avatar when you can talk about Sudan, Iraq, war in general, Arizona, almost every inner city government housing building, The rural poor everywhere in the world, or even the the big no no in America, the CAPITALIST political economy. If you want to see the devil it would be good to start with the real world of evil, not a computer generated one.

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kenny chmiel

August 08, 2010  5:01pm

Avatar is teeming with metaphors very similar to metaphors in the stories in the biblical texts. Sure details are different but in the long run if you dig down to the root metaphors of the film and many stories in scripture it is amazing to see the similarities. When driscoll was talking about all the satanic and false aspects of the film I couldn't but notice the similarities but with an added false or satanic stamp added by Driscoll. I think what is going on is a matter of historical sequence. What I mean is since Christian metaphors came first (in driscoll's mind), they are Driscoll's sounding board and Obviously coupled with a rich mans mind and money the particulars will look a bit different, yet Driscoll seems not to be astute enough to see his Jesus seems to want the same as the "point" of the film, which is connection and restored healthy relationships between creatures. As a pastor you would think he would use the films metaphors as a teaching aid, not as a wall. It seems like his point in the sermon was to talk about the devil and the reality of his working in the world, well it's a bit childish to use a film like avatar when you can talk about Sudan, Iraq, war in general, Arizona, almost every inner city government housing building, The rural poor everywhere in the world, or even the the big no no in America, the CAPITALIST political economy. If you want to see the devil it would be good to start with the real world of evil, not a computer generated one.

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Paul Louis Metzger

August 05, 2010  10:45pm

Hello, Melody. Thank you for your question. I am sorry for the delayed response, but I have been traveling. I hope to respond more fully in the next few days. Best wishes, PLM

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Melody

August 02, 2010  10:00am

"...total blindness to what the Western powers have done and continue to do in our day to indigenous peoples and their habitats globally all in the name of progress." Paul, could you give three specific examples of this?

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Earl Wajenberg

July 30, 2010  6:54am

People have been talking about pantheism and panentheism a lot in this thread, but in fact those doctrines don't occur in the movie. Pantheism is the belief that God and the universe are the same thing. Panentheism is the belief that the universe is part of God. The goddess Eywa is certainly the deity of Pandora, but she isn't identified with the planet, much less the universe, by the Na'vi. Since she is the only deity ever mentioned, it appears the Na'vi are monotheists. There's precious little developed theology in the Avatar wiki put up by Cameron. The humans, when they believe in Eywa at all, believe she is a consciousness based on the neural connections possible between all the different forms of Pandoran life. A remarkable being, but certainly not a cosmic-scale one. The movie is a collection of homages to other works. There are any number of tales about Westerners "going native" and siding with said natives. The avatar idea comes from "Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson. The pterodactyline cavalry is from Ann McCaffery's "Dragonrider" series. Uploading minds is a standard trope of the cyberpunk sub-genre of science fiction. The idea of a sapient ecology comes from James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis. The movie is a technical triumph of CGI, with a very simple and unexceptionable moral and one cool line that I can remember. Christianity does not appear in the movie at all. The movie opposes a purely secular, avaricious materialism against a spirituality with made-up details. The details aren't particularly Christian, but they aren't specially anti-Christian either. At least spirituality is the good guys' side.

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K. Robert

July 29, 2010  10:19pm

I think it's a shame that this topic has degenerated into endorsements or denouncements of Pastor Driscoll. I don't mean this in any way but the lightest comparison, but it's a bit like Paul, who's constantly spoken out against because people don't like the way he preaches. Doesn't Pastor Driscoll preach the gospel? Then that's all that matters. I have to say that I agree with the blog post at least in part; I do think that while Driscoll's critique of the Avatar is justified, he does overlook the value of its meaning (not in its outspoken monism, but it's critique of Western progressivism).

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