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Mark Driscoll Gets Lost in Translation

Mark Driscoll recently ranted about the movie Avatar, calling it the most “Satanic” movie he’s ever seen, and doesn’t understand how any Christian could watch it and not absolutely condemn it. Well…I’m a Christian and I liked the movie (I know it’s fashionable to hate on Avatar these days, but I was thoroughly entertained. No, it wasn’t fine cinema, but is that really what you expected from James Cameron?). It also contains some fascinating commentary on our culture and the deep spiritual longings of humanity, all of which are relevant to Christianity and not all of which are opposed to Christianity.

This reminded me of an old post I wrote last year (on an old blog) while I was at The Sundance Film Festival. So, first Mark’s 3-minute rant (if you care to watch it), then my old post below:


Sundance/Windrider Day 3: Lost in Translation (January 22, 2009)

I’m three days into my time here at The Sundance Film Festival and it’s been amazing. I’ve seen 10 movies so far – 4 shorts and 6 features, plus Q&A sessions with directors and cast members after every film – and I’ve noticed a few surprising things about the culture of film on display here.

There are some amazing artists who are asking important questions about life, and telling incredibly compelling stories of suffering, loss, hardship, redemption, love, joy, and spirituality. Again and again, the common ground that exists between the filmmaker’s values and the values of the biblical narrative have taken me by surprise. There is very little ambiguity in the depictions I’ve seen of yearning for love and security, or the necessity of risking one’s life in order to find it, or the desperate need for justice in situations of appalling human suffering and depravity.

Through cinema, the world is shouting for the things of God. Sadly, as far as the church is concerned, they’re using the wrong language.

Most of these directors and producers are completely secular. I don’t necessarily mean they’re ireligious – many aren’t – but their worldview, and the vernacular utilized to convey their art is utterly unfamiliar to the Christian subculture. I think this makes for a distance between these two groups that is more perceived than actual.

Tonight after the screening of Sin Nombre (an intensely powerful and disturbing film about illegal immigration) an audience member from our group asked the director whether he’d intended to depict contrasting images of “conditional vs. unconditional love” in his portrayal of two specific relationships, one involving mercy, the other betrayal.

It was a good question. The story delved deeply into the complexities of acceptance, rejection, trust, loyalty, and faithfulness between the characters.

Still, the director balked. In a very polite way he basically said he didn’t know what to do with the phrase “unconditional love,” and preferred to think of those character dynamics in terms of “families in flux,” forming on the one hand, and dissolving on the other.

In other words, his answer was “yes.” He absolutely intended (among other things) to depict broken covenant loyalties on the one hand, and faithful covenant loyalties on the other.

The problem, I think, is language itself. “Unconditional love” is conservative evangelical church vernacular for the kind of love that is most valuable or virtuous (and only comes from God). It’s a staple teaching point in most evangelical youth groups. But in my experience secular people rarely ever use that phrase, even if they might be talking about the same spirit.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen or heard this sort of thing in the last few days, either in the films themselves or the Q&A sessions. God is profoundly at work through many of these filmsbut he’s usually disguised in a culture and a language that is entirely foreign (and often frightening) to prevailing Christianity.

If we want to be conversant with the culture we find ourselves in we’re going to have to go out of our way to learn the language by listening deeply, patiently, and charitably. Once we do, we may indeed find that these powerful cultural prophets only want the things of God, but not God himself. However, we may discover that, at least for some, they were never rejecting God, only what we said and what they heard.

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  1. Mike says:

    [Ed comments: It was this comment from Mike on my old post that prompted me to repost it today. I think Mike is spot on in his assessment.]

    Great post, and thank you for expressing the idea so clearly. I too have noticed many underlying spiritual themes in indie, foreign and even Hollywood films that have challenged and inspired me. However, as a whole, we Christians tend not to engage with art if it isn’t couched in familiar, “Christianese” terms, or if isn’t rubber-stamped by our religious peers (i.e. Pastor Mark’s recent denunciation of Avatar).

    I agree that we need to be cultural translators by listening and engaging with others. But that requires hard work and critical thinking on our part, and we have to overcome obtacles such as fear, laziness, and willful ignorance. Listening and engaging requires developing relationships, which may be hard for some of us who hardly step out of the subculture.

    How do you convince other Christians that listening and engaging with the culture is worthwhile? Are we just too intent on broadcasting our own message? I know that we can point to examples of Jesus and Paul engaging with their culture. But I think that the church also needs a deeper, foundational understanding of art, literature, and logic, and how they are used in the Bible.

    Do you think that conversing about art and other disciplines within the church first may then help us to better engage with the culture? I think it’s ironic that Pastor Mark, in discussing Avatar, didn’t follow the same principles as the Apostle Paul did when he engaged his fellow Athenians about idol worship. What was an opportunity to engage with the larger culture about the themes of a popular movie ended being a diatribe against worldly, pagan ideas.

    And I guess that may be the central issue: Until we start seeing our spiritual leaders properly engaging with the larger culture, then we may not have the wherewithal to do so on our own. We may need a top-down cultural change in our subculture first. Of course, there are times when we need to speak the truth in love, and the truth will hurt at times, but isn’t engagement about bridging the cultural-language gap like you so eloquently expressed above?

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking post.


  2. Jason Coker says:

    Hi Mike - Thanks for the comments. You asked:

    “Do you think that conversing about art and other disciplines within the church first may then help us to better engage with the culture?”

    Yes, that is exactly what I think needs to happen. In fact, I think you nailed it when, just above that, you said “I think that the church also needs a deeper, foundational understanding of art, literature, and logic, and how they are used in the Bible.” Most evangelical Christian’s have a concept of art that is more akin to propaganda. Until we understand what art is and let artists be artists, then we won’t be able to engage with them as the cultural prophets they are.

    Thanks again!

  3. Not to side track, but in the video Mark Driscoll says he’s never been accused of being a fundamentalist. Trying Googling “Mark Driscoll is a fundamentalist” and you will get nearly 10,000 results. Even if half of them are out of context- well, you get my point. Made me chuckle.

  4. Josh Hopping says:

    Thanks for the good laugh. =) I loved Mark Driscoll’s rant in that while technical right (yes, there are some elements of pantheism in the film), he missed the bigger picture of what was being displayed (uncontrolled greed, might-equals-right, valuing cultures and people who are different then you are, etc).

    Your title “Lost in Translation” hit the nail on the head. Driscoll and a lot of other believers find it hard to look beyond the surface of a film, book or whatever and see the heart issue that is been portrayed.

    This reminds me of a comment on Jason Smith’s blog (Jason is the pastor of the Curtis, NE Vineyard Christian Fellowship) concerning is April 2009 post entitled “Vanguard Church: Brian McLaren: Six Stages of the Emerging Church Conversation.” The commenter claimed that one could not “learn simultaneously from McLaren and Piper because the theology of these men are 180 degrees from each other.”

    Yet, I would say that we – as believers – can and SHOULD learn from everyone (i.e. those we agree and disagree with). Yes, the Bible is true – but it doesn’t contain ALL truth.

    Personally, I believe we can learn more about our God through studying different religions. No – I’m not saying that ‘everyone is going to heaven’ – the Bible is clear that only those who cast their hope and faith in Jesus Christ can be saved.

    What I’m saying is that if we look, we can see the fingerprints of God in and among the religions of the world. All the devil did is take the truth of God and warp it into something false – but the truth is still there. And sometimes, that truth is something we in the West need to hear.

    Going back to Avatar, one of the messages of the movie was the interconnection of all living matter on this planet. This is something the church in the West needs to hear! God made EVERYTHING – the plants, animals, humans dirt, everything. We are all His creations living on the same planet – if we destroy one part of it, things will go south for all of it. We, as beings made in the image of God, have a responsible to take care of the earth and all that is it in. We rely on the plants, animals, bacterial, etc for life just as much as we rely on God to sustain the universe with His hand and word.

    In this way, we – as Believers in the Supreme Creator – can learn from Avatar and those who are calling for stewardship and moderation – even if we disagree with their finial conclusion about Jesus or God.

  5. brambonius says:

    This kind of videos is worse than avatar for my spiritual health I am affraid… Mr Driscoll just creates a disconnect which does in no way bring me closer to God.

    God bless him…

  6. Jason Coker says:

    Jamie - I know. I had to resist commenting on the “Nobody has ever called me a fundamentalist” remark. Mark’s obviously not hanging out with a diverse enough crowd if he hasn’t heard this to his face.

    Bram - I know how you feel.

    Josh - Your comments seem to belong simultaneously in this post and the Knowing Christ, Chapter 7 post ; )

    I really agree that we have much to learn from everyone. I’m mystified by Mark’s characterization of the antagonists in Avatar as embodying “progress” and of the native groups as embodying “primitiveness.” Apparently technologically empowered greed equals progress, and holistic ecology equals primitiveness. You really have to judge any work of art on it’s own terms. He completely fails to do that here.

  7. I have to say that I also found it ironic that Mark’s comments didn’t seem to line up with the Acts passage that his church is named after. I really try to understand Driscoll, but the more I listen to him, the more I worry that a lot of the “new calvinist” movement is really just moving towards being the new fundamentalist movement, and that pains me.

    I think there’s definitely a lot to be gleaned in understanding our culture and the crossovers with the story we tell by thinking about movies. And in that regard you’ve hit the nail on the head with the idea that we are speaking a different language and need to learn how to be conversant with that language.

  8. Josh Hopping says:

    Jason - consider my comments posted in both spots. =)

  9. denise says:

    “Film makers are this generations teaching pastors” Ralph Winter, producer, receiving this years 2010 Spirit of Windrider Award in Park City, UT

    I can’t wait for you to see the Sundance movie “Sympathy for Delicious” which won the best movie of Sundance by film viewers this year. If Mark Driscoll sees it he will have to change his mind on “most satanic movie” he has seen I’m sure:) I thought it was one of the most profoundly spiritual movies I have ever seen! It’s brilliant!

  10. Josh Hopping says:

    I thought it was interesting that Mark Driscoll thought that the film was saying that the primitive culture of the Na’vi was better then the technological culture of the humans (around the one minute mark of the video clip).

    What I saw was a view that claimed that BOTH cultures were good. The problem wasn’t with technology or the development of culture, it was with uncontrolled greed and thinking at those who are different from you are ‘less-then’. It was a critique of the “might-equals-right” mindset that justifies one’s action based upon the fact that you can do it.

    The primitive culture of the Na’vi wasn’t shown as being better – it was shown as being just as valuable as the technology driven culture of the humans. Both are good and need to be respected.

  11. Jason Coker says:

    Nice quote from Ralph Winter!

  12. Mike says:

    No problem Jason. I just recently stumbled upon your blog and am enjoying it immensely. Keep up the good work!

    In all fairness to Pastor Mark, I have listened to a lot of great sermons from him, and I believe his heart is in the right place and that God is using him for the greater good. I recognize the fact that he is speaking to his congregation in the clip above, and not engaging with the public directly, but it’s still disheartening to see him pontificating ilike that, especially since he is such a public figure and a big influencer in Christian circles.

    I agree with Josh that there are definitely elements of pantheism in the film that should be recognized, and I was keenly aware of those undertones as I watched the movie. But in seeing the bigger picture (as Josh also pointed out) why not talk about what is bad and good about the movie? To properly engage, one should at least try to find some common ground. But I guess that doesn’t matter when the case is already considered closed.

    At least we can discuss it here:)


  13. Jason Coker says:

    Agreed Mike. As far as I can tell from previous exposure Mark seems to be a gifted teacher. Although I disagree with some of his theology, I’m def not dismissing his ministry.

    Also true that Avatar represents a kind of paganism and there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out to one’s congregation, but our congregations will learn from us how to engage with the wider world. I can’t help but feel like he missed an opportunity to demonstrate a non-defensive form of charitable dialogue.

    Thanks again.

  14. Jason Clark says:

    I love Avatar, and I think Driscoll misses that the film reveal the brokeness of humanity, and how we have consumed our planet, and that we are intent on doing the same to the next eden we come across.

    The heroes in the movie, have to practice ascesis, put community before self, enter into worship, learn a new language and way of relating to others and the world and ultimately move into new bodies…

    And with the people who wish they could live in Avatar, is revealed that most humans would not for one moment enter into that process, preferring the assertion of self creation and individuation.

    I left the movie moved to tears, thanking Jesus that I lived in a world, where through the ascesis of my faith, I could see this world in brighter colours than 3D at the movies, and through my resurrection body and life…

  15. Jason Coker says:

    Nicely done Jason. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the gospel tend to invade every aspect of our world after we’ve been consumed by it? Reminds me of that scene in Amistaad where, after the main character has his conversion experience, he suddenly sees crosses everywhere in the everyday things around him.

  16. Jason Clark says:

    I have yet to see that movie, it’s time I remedied that situation :-)

  17. I wonder whether his congregation’s spiritual antennae really are so badly tuned that they need to be told that Avatar represents a kind of paganism. Is there some danger lurking ‘out there’, that they’re inadvertantly going to become pagans if they watch it? OK, maybe the theology of the average churchgoer is pretty poor (contrary to the assumptions of their pastors, I’m sure …), but isn’t it a bit precious to feel the need to warn them off it? “Reds under the beds” comes to mind.

    I would instinctively take the view that Hollywood’s representations of supposedly ‘Christian’ themes and content is at least as concerning. A subtle shifting of the nature and character of God, his heart and purposes, and his relation to us is more insidiously damaging than a straightforwardly unChristian theme that can be used for insight, analogy and metaphor as Jason (and Jason Clark http://www.deepchurch.org.uk) have done in this case.

    Or put differently, most mainstream cinematic work ought not to be categorised as wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (i.e. not wholly ‘of God’ or ‘of the enemy’) though, obviously, a small element can be said to be plain wrong. I’d rather draw attention to the insidious (less obvious) consumerism, greed, selfishness and other wrongs, the implicit endorsement of which goes unnoticed in most movies, than I would ‘paganism’ or ‘demons’.

    I think we find elements both of humanity’s residual imago dei and the scars of our fallen world. The message of the Saviour speaks through these stories to the human situation. Credit to the guys for bringing this out so helpfully. We need to apply hermeneutics to the stories, not histrionics.

  18. Becky Bonham says:

    I found his condemnation of Avatar’s portrayl of a “false incarnation/Jesus” astonishing. My husband and I found this movie to be what our former (Regent College) professor Maxine Hancock refers to as being “Christ-haunted.” Though the intent might have been exactly the opposite, they have managed to portray many Christian themes in spite of themselves. I love it when God does that!

    On a side note, I had a similar experience in reading self-proclaimed athiest Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Even though he wrote the books as a pointed attack on Christianity (I think he mentioned Lewis’ Narnia chronicles specifically), he ended up creating a heroine who models Christ in several significant ways. Even First Things referred to it as “a nearly Christian fairy tale” – I love to think of how Pullman must’ve squirmed when he read that! I trust that God is working in him, whether he likes it or not :-)

    Truth cannot be quenched, and it is everywhere to be found, if only we have eyes to see, and the Spirit to teach us.

    Thanks again for your writing, Jason.

  19. Jason Coker says:

    Hi Becky, thanks for commenting.

    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I think Avatar was a fantastic depiction of what I would call an ecologically holistic theology. I find it very sad that some Christians aren’t able to embrace such a pervasive understanding of our relationships to God and creation.

    I haven’t read Pullman but I’ve had similar experiences. All truth belongs to God, eh?

    Thanks for your comments Becky!


    1. Is Mark Driscoll right, is Avatar the ‘most Satanic Movie’ ever? at Deep Church
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