March 2010

We saw Avatar the other day in 3D. What an experience! We were blown away.

Soon after seeing the movie, I read a very bad, cynical, almost angry review of it by John Petrakis, published in The Christian Century, the magazine that sponsors the network of which this blog is a part. The critic labeled the film “pabulum” that doesn’t make the audience think (March 23, 2010: 43).

I couldn’t disagree more. What is it with some critics who contend that a movie has to do more than entertain? I’m a pastor, and after dealing with weighty matters of death and grief, surgery, what to say to people hungry for biblical truth, and how to help a church move creatively into the future, I’m ready not to think. So I don’t need always to find meaning in a film, TV show or song. I simply want to enjoy myself.

And enjoy myself I did watching Avatar. I would have been satisfied if a good feeling was all I got from it. But the film does offer more, despite Mr. Petrakis’s blindness to its merits. Here’s what I found in it.

First, affirmation of the importance of a sense of place. For the Earth people, especially the military, one place is as good as another. So why wouldn’t the indigenous people, the Na’vi, simply move? The tree they called home was, to the Earth invaders, no different from all the other trees on the moon Pandora.

But for the indigenous people, their literal and figurative roots mattered. Their place, their home, was unique. That is a lesson that could be learned or at least needs to be remembered and appreciated by an adult child who asks an elderly parent to give up his or her home to go to a nursing facility or by a church bureaucrat that want to close a little church that has been in the same place for a century or so.

Second, an invitation to see. The Na’vi greeting in the film is “I see you.” Sigourney Weaver’s character explains that this means “I see inside you.” What a challenge to any and all of us who live on the surface of things, who never take the time to look around, to appreciate our world or to get to know with any depth another person! To see truly is to know intimately and well.

Third, a depiction of true networking. So many long to be connected to others these days. Hence the immense popularity of social networking sites, where every little action is posted on a “wall,” announced to the whole world. The film questions whether the sharing of such trivia is real connection. Instead, the Na’vi are joined with each other, with the earth, with their ancestors in rich and enduring ways. One striking scene in the film is the ceremony in which Jake Sully (or “Jakesully”) in his avatar body, becomes one of the People. Seen from above, the Na’vi form a giant web around him. They are physically as well as spiritually networked.

Fourth, a promise of new life. The original Hindu meaning of “avatar” was the incarnation of a god or a released soul. This is what Jake experiences in the film. He is born again into a new body, voluntarily dying in his old, human one. His soul, sorely tempted to go along with the oppressors, is now truly part of the People, released. It seems to me that James Cameron has depicted what baptism signifies.

It was interesting to see on the same day on DVD the George Clooney film Up in the Air. It’s about a man who is isolated and rootless. When asked where he’s from by an airline captain, he says “I’m from here,” meaning the airplane, the sky, en route. He has an apartment, but it’s not home.

Clooney’s character fires people for a living. So his whole life is an exercise in deracination. As he lets people go from their companies, he cuts them off from one source of meaning, from roots that sustain them. When he’s not flying around outplacing employees, he gives motivational talks about emptying a backpack, symbolic of life, of everything and everyone. Ironically, when finally decides he wants to put down roots, circumstances prevent him.

Avatar and Up in the Air show us two competing visions of human life. The former is organic, connected, fulfilling, life-giving, victorious. The latter is depressing, lonely, cut off, rejecting companionship until it’s too late. Ironically, the people in Avatar were literally “up in the air” in their tree, but they were also the most down to earth.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham


No post this week. Thanks for reading.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

According to this month’s Church and State, a journal published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Virginia House of Delegates has approved a measure some members believe will protect people from the Antichrist.

Yeah, I know. I can imagine the look on your face. But I swear I’m not making this up. A bill passed on February 10 by a huge margin (88-9) to prohibit employers and insurance companies from requiring people to be implanted with microchips. Apparently the main concern was privacy, but one representative, the bill’s sponsor, said that the chips could be the “mark of the beast” mentioned in the biblical book of Revelation (Church and State, March 2010: 3). His claim is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of that ancient work.

According to Revelation 13:16-18, the beast will cause everyone to have a mark, either of the beast’s name or number (the infamous 666) on their foreheads or their right hands. Only those with the mark are permitted to buy and sell.

Honestly, I simply can’t understand how fundamentalists can say they respect the Bible so much then distort its message so badly. No one in the ancient world had even heard of a microchip or any other kind of modern technology, much less conceived of its use by some enemy of God. What the writer had in mind was the demand of the beast, whoever he/she/it might be, for ultimate worship, for control of thought (forehead) and action (right hand). The mark is in the same place(s) that Jewish phylacteries were worn. (A phylactery is a small leather box containing a copy of the Ten Commandments.) It’s a huge and fatal interpretive leap to decide that an implant is what John of Patmos had in mind. And what arrogance to think that the ancient writer really was addressing 21st-century Christians, instead of the beleaguered, persecuted believers to whom he was offering a pastoral message of encouragement and hope!

Besides, what is so wrong with having a microchip implanted? If my dog ever ran away, the microchip the vet put in her neck will help us find her again. Could not the same or similar technology enable a family to locate their Alzheimer’s-stricken parent when he or she wanders off? Or how about finding missing hikers in the woods or the mountains? Lost children?

I wish legislators would give attention, energy, money, and imagination to the chronic problems that beset us instead of the sort of silliness represented in the action of the Virginia house. Then we might just have a better world where the real beasts of hunger, fear, ignorance and hatred are banished from the earth.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham


More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8).

Since the Winter Olympics ended last Sunday, I’ve been thinking about trophies. The medals those athletes won came at the price of great sacrifice, both from themselves and their parents. The effort to acquire them meant total commitment, pain, and putting aside everything else. Some competing faced deep disappointment, as they crashed on the bobsled track or the ski slope or were disqualified. For others, the competition brought no medals, but the thrill of accomplishment simply at being in Vancouver, achieving a personal best as parents and friends looked on.

Only an elite few will ever be Olympic athletes. But any number of people and businesses win trophies. Perhaps the award will be for excellence in service or commitment to ethics in the workplace. Maybe a student will come out on top in a scholastic or athletic competition at school. Could be a dog owner is proud when his or her animal is awarded “best of breed” at a show. A scholar gets kudos from colleagues for a presentation or an article in a peer-reviewed journal. And of course, there are the degrees on the wall.

Such trophies are to be commended. They represent the outcome of hard work and dedication. Unfortunately, there are people who regard others as trophies. The man or woman who considers wife or husband to be the reward for climbing the ladder in business or gaining acclaim in sports. The businessperson who, having reached a level of leadership, now lords it over others as if they were his or her slaves.

But people are not trophies. The latter never change, except for some tarnish on the cup or fading of the ribbon. People, on the other hand, are dynamic, never quite the same from moment to moment; they grow, and their growth needs to be respected. Trophies don’t have opinions; in fact, they don’t talk at all. People have voices that need to be heard, their ideas respected. And trophies are reminders of the past and its glory. The people around us, by contrast, travel with us into the future, helping us to grow, prodding us to change, to adapt.

Whatever the trophies we have, there will be a Day when they count for nothing. That’s a good lesson to remember this Lent. We are invited to sing the old gospel song: “So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down. I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”

© 2010 Tom Cheatham