Avatar, cross-cultural communication, and incarnation

March 7, 2010

I saw Avatar today (in 3D). I actually wasn’t that interested, since I had seen a number of negative reactions about how the story was so predictable. But Kay really wanted to see it. We’ve been extremely busy with our kids’ events, so we are long overdue for a date: time for just the two of us. Well.

When our oldest heard that we were going, he expressed a desire to go. Then our youngest said she was interested. Kay shrugged and said we could say no and keep it to the two of us, and left it up to me. The same busy activities that cause us to miss just-us time are the same things that deprive us of just-family time. So we threw our middle child into the mix and went off on a family date instead.

The whole thing is practically a workshop in cross-cultural communication.

Here’s my one-word review of Avatar:

W-o-w.

Now in more detail:

I told Kay that Mark Driscoll called Avatar, “the most demonic, satanic film I’ve ever seen.” Kay of course replied, “Who is this guy and why should I care what he says?” But now having seen the movie, here’s my reply to Mark:

Uh, did we see the same movie?

The whole thing is practically a workshop in cross-cultural communication. I mean, it’s incarnational. Literally.

Sure, everything is telegraphed: Almost from the get-go, you know how it’s going to end. But every cross-cultural story is a new story, because every cultural mixup has to be navigated on its own terms. And that makes each such story important, because it contains lessons we need to keep re-learning:

You are not received until you are helpless.
You cannot see until you are received.
You cannot speak until you can see.

Christians: If you are not willing to give this a try, do us all a favor and shut up.

Hey, I have no problems if you didn’t like the movie because of its predictable and familiar storyline. But part of the reason it’s familiar is that it is a re-telling of our ancient mythic stories. As C.S. Lewis says, these stories have power because they point to the larger Story into which we are all invited.

As we came home from the movie, Kay said mockingly, “Yeah, that was completely anti-Christian! Honestly, some people are way too uptight.”

And I still owe her a date.

What do you think? Is there a connection between Avatar and the Story of God? What missional / relational / incarnational lessons do you see?

Update: Here are a couple of thoughtful critiques of the movie:

  • Michael Toy looks at the one-dimensional bad guy as a lost opportunity to identify with him.
  • Jamie Arpin-Ricci was dissatisfied, but equally unhappy with the response of conservative Christians.

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

10 responses to Avatar, cross-cultural communication, and incarnation

  1. Thanks, Jon. Now I’m at least a bit interested in seeing it — the preaching eco-message sounds completely boring, but as an exercise in crossing cultures, might be worth giving it a try.
    And good luck getting some time for a real date with your wife!

  2. Sadly, Jon, we haven’t had a chance to see this movie. Most movies we go to are with our daughter, so I’m really up on the latest children’s movies, but anything else, we usually have to wait until the DVD’s are released. We haven’t had a date in probably 2 years.
    When it comes out on DVD, we’ll definitely see this one.

  3. Personally, I thought the art was amazing but the story was so preachy and involved cliche upon cliche… kind of reminded me of a Disney kid’s movie… Pocahontas or something like that. The space scenes were great… I was impressed with the accurate depiction of zero-g. I get really annoyed with how most films depict space and zero-g. It left me feeling kind of conflicted. I wanted to like it but it just did not feel right to me. I just kept thinking that with all they put into it they could have developed a better story. I just finished watching the old “how the west was won” movie before I watched Avatar and I saw a lot of it in Avatar… more cowboys and indians stuff… but that is just my take.

  4. Hi John,
    There are two themes that are apparent in the movie that I agree with.
    1. Our (USA) cultural blindness to greed. We think if it is legal, it isn’t greed. We just take, we don’t receive.
    2. If we don’t understand the culture, it is void of spiritual value. Or worse, its the devil.
    I understand their concerns, however, I am very tired of moral majority Christian leaders telling the world how to behave when we Christians take and possess when we are called to be servants. We judge when we are called to minister compassion and reconciliation. And we protect “our rights” when we are asked to be living sacrifices for Christ. At times, I’m ashamed of what I see in the american Christian culture. I am not ashamed of the Gospel, but its self righteous expression in this culture. I know I’m infected with these ailments, but I also know the Good Physician. There is still hope.

  5. The peaceful, earth-worshipping Na’vi are invaded by the militaristic, greedy humans. But one man in particular decides to turn against his fellow humans and adopt the natives’ way of life. Moral of the story: the “green” Na’vi are morally superior to the “capitalist” humans, and these competing ideologies cannot coexist; one must drive out the other.
    No wonder it was up for Best Picture.
    My problem is that the humans (with the exception of the scientists and our hero) are completely devoid of any redeeming qualities. If the movie is meant as a political allegory, the humans are Americans. If it has religious connotations, then the humans are stand-ins for Christians. Taken together, James Cameron makes a grossly unfair generalization and advocates nothing less than the subjugation of what makes us distinct–we must convert to their way of thinking.
    Taken from this standpoint, I cannot see how this is an effective lesson on reaching others for Jesus. We can indeed be respectful and listen to others’ stories, but we must also be bold in telling our story of redemption and transformation as well. However we decide to present our faith, we do a great disservice if we fail to be firm about the one thing that matters: Jesus is King of Kings, and we who call ourselves Christians must serve Him however He commands us.
    *steps off of soapbox*

  6. Maria, I hope you enjoy it รขโ‚ฌโ€ since you’ve placed this burden on me! ๐Ÿ˜‰
    And thank you, Kay & I enjoyed a lengthy lunch out this past Sunday.

  7. DAS, forget the movie, hire a sitter, and go on a date!!

  8. Jim, I think I had the benefit of not having seen either “How the West Was Won” or “Pocahontas”! ๐Ÿ˜›

  9. David, that’s very insightful. As usual. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Matthew, you’re right about the characters being largely one-dimensional. That’s not uncommon in comics and mythic stories. In this case, I would call the myth “the creation of a hero.”
    But the old hymn “And Can It Be” has the line, “Emptied himself of all but love.” That description of Christ echoes the hymn-like lines of Philippians 2:5-11. As missionaries, our job is to do the same. A theme that runs throughout the movie is that Jake Sully is “empty.” When the Na’vi lady calls him “Ignorant like a child,” I immediately thought of Bruchko even as the movie played: The reason Bruchko was accepted by the tribe he went to reach was because he was so bad at basic survival, yet earnest and ready to learn.
    Sure, this tale can be applied to any group that is in a dominant position. It’s not exclusive to a white colonial mindset, or to a Christian colonial mindset รขโ‚ฌโ€ but we need to own up to both. I recommend the book So Beautiful which has a lot to say about colonialism and its opposite, incarnational living.