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.
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 films, but 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.