Repost: Avatar – Some Bahai Thoughts

I read this post on a friend’s blog and thought it was so good you all might enjoy it!  So here is my first repost.  From now on if I see posts from other blogs that talk about films and spiritual themes I will try to bring them to your attention.  Without further ado:

Avatar: Some Baha’i Thoughts


At long last, the film “Avatar” has arrived. From the critical acclaim this movie is generating it would seem that the cinematic equivalent of the Second Coming has taken place. I personally have long had an immunity to hype, so am looking forward to what will at best be a good movie and at worst a chance to sit in the dark and eat Sour Patch Kids and popcorn. Part of what makes me excited about “Avatar” is the possibility it might offer a glimpse of what a really good “John Carter of Mars” movie could look like (that’s the movie I’m waiting for!).

In addition to the discussion of its special effects wonders, “Avatar” has prompted some interesting cultural commentary. Two of the more interesting I’ve read are by Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Reihan Salam of Forbes.com. Douthat comments on the theological dimensions of the film:

“Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message. A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.

As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,” he suggested, democratic man “seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”

Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.” (Read the whole thing here)

Salam critiques “Avatar” for it’s take on capitalism and modernization:

“After thousands of years of ignorance and stagnation, a kind of miracle happened that radically transformed humanity’s relationship to the wider world. This explosion of wealth has been periodically interrupted by war and famine, yet it has never been fully undone. And though it has involved serious downsides, the prospect of returning to a primeval state strikes most of us as insane. Modern life can be exhausting and even demeaning. It is, however, preferable to spending most of one’s waking moments foraging and hunting in a desperate struggle for survival.

Or is it? That is the question James Cameron asks in his brilliant science-fiction epic Avatar. The villains of Avatar are, well, you and me. Rapacious humans from an environmentally devastated Earth have arrived on an alien moon called Pandora in search of a precious resource called “unobtainium.” The only hiccup is that the richest source of unobtainium lies beneath the habitat of the Na’vi, a race of long-limbed humanoids who live in blissful harmony with their environment. So naturally the humans, being ruthless and acquisitive by nature, decide that corporate profits matter more than the lives of the Na’vi, and they launch a brutal military assault that, as you can no doubt guess, ends in tragedy. Throughout the film, the Na’vi are portrayed as superior to the humans. The irony of Avatar is that Cameron has made a dazzling, gorgeous indictment of the kind of society that produces James Camerons.(Read the whole thing here)

Reading these columns got me thinking about a few things. First, my impression of the Baha’i Faith is that it does not support the notion that material progress, whether scientific, technological or economic is antithetical to spirituality. Materialism is not the inevitable outcome of modernization and a return to some kind of pre-industrial, back-to-nature, edenic utopia (if this were even possible) is not the answer to humanity’s current problems. It is in finding the balance between the spiritual and material, the practical and the metaphysical that we can save our souls and our planet.

“Two calls to success and prosperity are being raised from the heights of the happiness of mankind, awakening the slumbering, granting sight to the blind, causing the heedless to become mindful, bestowing hearing upon the deaf, unloosing the tongue of the mute and resuscitating the dead.

The one is the call of civilization, of the progress of the material world. This pertaineth to the world of phenomena, promoteth the principles of material achievement, and is the trainer for the physical accomplishments of mankind. It compriseth the laws, regulations, arts and sciences through which the world of humanity hath developed; laws and regulations which are the outcome of lofty ideals and the result of sound minds, and which have stepped forth into the arena of existence through the efforts of the wise and cultured in past and subsequent ages. The propagator and executive power of this call is just government.

The other is the soul-stirring call of God, Whose spiritual teachings are safeguards of the everlasting glory, the eternal happiness and illumination of the world of humanity, and cause attributes of mercy to be revealed in the human world and the life beyond.

This second call is founded upon the instructions and exhortations of the Lord and the admonitions and altruistic emotions belonging to the realm of morality which, like unto a brilliant light, brighten and illumine the lamp of the realities of mankind. Its penetrative power is the Word of God.

However, until material achievements, physical accomplishments and human virtues are reinforced by spiritual perfections, luminous qualities and characteristics of mercy, no fruit or result shall issue therefrom, nor will the happiness of the world of humanity, which is the ultimate aim, be attained. For although, on the one hand, material achievements and the development of the physical world produce prosperity, which exquisitely manifests its intended aims, on the other hand dangers, severe calamities and violent afflictions are imminent.

Consequently, when thou lookest at the orderly pattern of kingdoms, cities and villages, with the attractiveness of their adornments, the freshness of their natural resources, the refinement of their appliances, the ease of their means of travel, the extent of knowledge available about the world of nature, the great inventions, the colossal enterprises, the noble discoveries and scientific researches, thou wouldst conclude that civilization conduceth to the happiness and the progress of the human world. Yet shouldst thou turn thine eye to the discovery of destructive and infernal machines, to the development of forces of demolition and the invention of fiery implements, which uproot the tree of life, it would become evident and manifest unto thee that civilization is conjoined with barbarism. Progress and barbarism go hand in hand, unless material civilization be confirmed by Divine Guidance, by the revelations of the All-Merciful and by godly virtues, and be reinforced by spiritual conduct, by the ideals of the Kingdom and by the outpourings of the Realm of Might.”
(Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 282)

A second thought is that abandoning the God of monotheism and embracing nature as an object of worship is also not the answer to the excesses of materialism, or environmental devastation. It is not belief in God that is the problem, but failure to recognize the divine reflected in Nature and act accordingly.

“Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein. It will acquaint thee with that which is within it and upon it and will give thee such clear explanations as to make thee independent of every eloquent expounder.

Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator. Say: This is an existence which knoweth no decay, and Nature itself is lost in bewilderment before its revelations, its compelling evidences and its effulgent glory which have encompassed the universe.”
(Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 141)

I am well aware, O my Lord, that I have been so carried away by the clear tokens of Thy loving-kindness, and so completely inebriated with the wine of Thine utterance, that whatever I behold I readily discover that it maketh Thee known unto me, and it remindeth me of Thy signs, and of Thy tokens, and of Thy testimonies. By Thy glory! Every time I lift up mine eyes unto Thy heaven, I call to mind Thy highness and Thy loftiness, and Thine incomparable glory and greatness; and every time I turn my gaze to Thine earth, I am made to recognize the evidences of Thy power and the tokens of Thy bounty. And when I behold the sea, I find that it speaketh to me of Thy majesty, and of the potency of Thy might, and of Thy sovereignty and Thy grandeur. And at whatever time I contemplate the mountains, I am led to discover the ensigns of Thy victory and the standards of Thine omnipotence. (Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, p. 271)

I’m hoping to offer a review of “Avatar” and additional comments once I’ve seen it but would love to hear from readers who already have. What did you think of the movie? What do you think its underlying theological and social messages were? Did you agree or disagree with them?

You can also read a review of the film from a friend of mine here.

Home Alone — Christmas and Family

Film:

Home Alone, 1990

Starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Catherine O’Hara, John Heard, and John Candy.

Synopsis (From Netflix):

Families suck. That’s the opinion of 8-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), whose family unwittingly leaves him behind when they go on vacation. In no time, Kevin makes the most of the situation, watching forbidden flicks and pigging out on junk food. But when a pair of bungling burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) set their sights on Kevin’s house, the plucky kid stands ready to defend his territory — by planting booby traps galore!

My Thoughts:

When my sister suggested we watch a Christmas movie last night we mulled over which to choose.  Did we want some holiday romance with Love Actually, or a Christmas class like Miracle on 34th Street?  Should we watch our annual favorite A Christmas Story?  Instead we dug out an old VHS of Home alone, a movie neither of us had seen in a good 15 years.  I had remembered it being hilarious as a child, with all the booby trapping, but what I had forgot was the poignant messages hidden within this glitzy comedy.  This film not only entertained but spoke to the importance of family, of forgiveness, and of not listening to rumors but seeking out the truth for oneself.

Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!  ~ Charles Dickens

I think we have all been where Kevin has at one point in our lives.  We let the annoying habits of our loved ones blind us to how much we actually love and appreciate them.  We also can be blinded by prejudice, like Kevin was with his neighbor due to rumors about him being a serial killer.  Instead the neighbor turned out to be a kind old man who was looking to reconnect with his family but didn’t know how.

I think this is something we can all work on, patience and forgiveness.  These two virtues are things that if Kevin and his family had had for one another at the beginning of the film then perhaps he wouldn’t have been home alone.  But patience and forgiveness are tough.  They involve letting go of the ego, and becoming humble, as well as putting others’ needs before our own.

It is also lucky that Kevin was home alone, since burglars had decided to target his house.  One of the great things about this comedy was how responsible Kevin had become when home alone.  After initially partying and going hog-wild, he got bored of that, and instead he went grocery shopping, cleaned the house, put up decorations, did laundry, and practiced hygiene all without adult supervision.  Pretty impressive for an eight-year-old.

“Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit there from.”
— Baháʼuʼlláh

I think this speaks to the power of being given responsibility.  Kevin was the baby of the family and everyone treated him that way to the point where he wasn’t confident that he could pack his own suitcase as nobody was willing to take the time to teach him.  But when given responsibility he was able to rise to the occasion.  So often we are our own gatekeepers from success and achievement.  If we can’t believe we can do something we won’t try.  And if people are telling us we can’t we can make the mistake of listening.  But when Kevin was alone he had to learn to be self reliant and in doing so realized he didn’t have to be a baby anymore.

O MY SERVANT! Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more. ~Baháʼuʼlláh

Another wonderful moment in this film is when Kevin is running away from the bad guys, and seeks asylum at the church.  This is where he meets up with his neighbor and talks to him for the first time without being scared, and overcomes his prejudice.  Kevin and the old man were able to help each other recognize love and overcome fear. I find it comforting to have a positive portrayal of a church in a Christmas film.  So often Christmas comedies seem to leave out the religious aspect of this holiday.  But Christmas is a time that reminds us to look past our differences, religious or otherwise, and come together.  This scene showed that beautifully.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. ~ 1 John 4:7-12

And then there is the happy reunion of the family, which really is just delightful.

We have caused thee to return to thy home as a token of Our mercy unto thy mother, inasmuch as We have found her overwhelmed with sorrow. We have enjoined you in the Book “to worship no one but God and to show kindness to your parents”. Thus hath the one true God spoken and the decree hath been fulfilled by the Almighty, the All-Wise. Therefore We have caused thee to return unto her and unto thy sister, that your mother’s eyes may thereby be cheered, and she may be of the thankful. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

So with that I wish those who celebrate (religiously or secularly) a Merry Christmas!  For those who do not observe, Happy Friday!  and to everyone a wonderful new year!

The Blind Side — Love & Charity

Film:

The Blind Side, 2009

Starring Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, and Quinton Aaron.

Synopsis:

The story of Michael Oher, an homeless and traumatized boy who became an All American football player and first round NFL draft pick with the help of a caring woman and her family.

My Thoughts:

What makes this movie so amazing is that it is based on a true story.  It is a story of what happens when people actually choose to live out their religious beliefs, when they take action. So often we see news of religious conflict, but it is really comforting to see when religion can be a source of inspiration for people to commit amazing acts of kindness and love beyond expectations.

This story began when a Christian private school was counseled to live up to the name Christian and help the struggling, homeless Michael Oher to attend.

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead  ~ James 2:14-17

Leigh Ann Touhy and her family took it to the next level when they took Michael Oher in, fed him, clothed him, and helped him to succeed. And in doing so they learned to better appreciate the luxury they had taken for granted, as well as time with each other as a family, which prior to meeting Michael they had not.

O SON OF MY HANDMAID! Guidance hath ever been given by words, and now it is given by deeds. Every one must show forth deeds that are pure and holy, for words are the property of all alike, whereas such deeds as these belong only to Our loved ones. Strive then with heart and soul to distinguish yourselves by your deeds. In this wise We counsel you in this holy and resplendent tablet. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

What Michael went through many more people in society go through then we would care to admit.  But unlike Michael often these people do not receive a helping hand.  Instead those in healthy, wealthy communities isolate themselves.  How can we as a society work to eradicate poverty, to provide opportunities for all?  How can we overcome our fears?  Especially when they are legitimate, like living in a place of violence.

Michael had developed a coping mechanism for dealing with living in an unsavory situation, full of drugs, addiction, violence, and crime.  He closed his eyes.  He closed his eyes and waited for the problem to dissipate so that when he opened them again the world would be bearable.

O MAN OF TWO VISIONS! Close one eye and open the other. Close one to the world and all that is therein, and open the other to the hallowed beauty of the Beloved. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

I think this is something we can all learn from.  All the bad things in life can be overwhelming, especially if we focus on them.  If instead we close our eyes to them, and instead open our eyes to the beauty in the world we can move from that darkness to light.  I am not saying we just ignore the bad, but instead try to transcend it and not let it bring us down.  Michael was able to do that.  He could have been to proud to accept the help of the Touhys but he wasn’t.  He opened his eyes to their love and chose it over the path he could have taken.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. ~ 1 Corinthians 13


Please help me, I’m stumped!

Hi readers!

I’ve been a bit swamped lately since I am about to graduate grad school and have been job hunting so I’ve neglected you.  However in a few weeks I will have graduated, and with this job market it may take a while for me to become gainfully employed.   I hope a fringe benefit to unemployment will be having the time to blog more, particularly film reviews.   So help me out by taking this poll, and/or suggesting films you would like to see reviewed.  Friends have already suggested “The Blind Side” and “Schenectady, NY”  Add your two cents!