I would like to read this book.
A friend of mine shared this video on his blog and I immediately thought it was something you, dear readers, might enjoy. It’s in two parts.
Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, and Mariah Carey.
Synopsis (from Netflix):
Viciously abused by her mother (a riveting, Oscar-winning Mo’Nique) and pregnant by her father, Harlem teen Precious Jones (Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe) has an unexpected chance at a different life when she enrolls in an alternative school. Teacher Blu Rain (Paula Patton) encourages her, but Precious must battle unimaginable barriers everywhere in her life.
First I would like to apologize for not writing sooner. I had watched this film the first weekend in April and had meant to write a post for you all then. I committed a blogger faux pas.
As for the film, this is one time I am glad it is not a true story as I would not wish anyone the amount of suffering Precious Jones had. I just adore the message though, that through love and education she was able to see value in her life and work to overcome her obstacles, as insurmountable as they may seem.
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 therefrom. – Bahá’u’lláh
Her teachers, both at her first school and at the new alternative school, saw something precious within Ms. Jones. They could see that what appeared to be ugly rocks were actually uncut, unpolished gems and they worked hard with Precious to polish them until she was able to read and able to break free from her abusive home environment.
This is something we can all learn from. We all have gems in the mine of ourselves, as does every other human being even illiterate pregnant teenagers. The issue is that these gems have not been cut and polished yet so to the untrained eye they can seem like worthless rocks. Blu Rain could see the end in the beginning, she could see those gems, and worked hard with Precious so that she could see them too and would want to polish them through perseverance. We all have talents but sometimes we can’t see them. A great teacher can, and can get you to see them too, and more importantly infect you with the enthusiasm to want to work to cultivate them.
What gems have you seen hidden in others? What have you helped others achieve? What have you achieved through someone’s encouragement?
I recently asked you, dear Reader, for your thoughts on ideas for topics I could try and address. Many wonderful suggestions came in, but one, in particular, was one that I could immediately write: Movies.
The idea was presented in the context of writing a review of a movie in light of the Baha’i teachings, but I’m not sure I want to do it quite like that. Instead I will talk a bit about my own approach to movies, in light of the Baha’i teachings.
My guidance comes mainly from two quotes, one by Baha’u’llah and another from Shoghi Effendi. The first, found in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf ,refers to arts and sciences, saying that they should be “productive of good results, and bring forth their fruit…conducive to the well-being and tranquility of men“. This quote alone radically changed the way that I approached my own work as an artist.
The second quote is found in The Advent of Divine Justice. In that text, Shoghi Effendi speaks of the three spiritual weapons we have at our disposal in our fight “to regenerate the inward life of their own community, and… to assail the long-standing evils that have entrenched themselves in the life of their nation.” The three weapons, as I’m sure you know, are “a high sense of moral rectitude in their social and administrative activities, absolute chastity in their individual lives, and complete freedom from prejudice in their dealings with peoples of a different race, class, creed, or color.”
The second of these three is further defined by the Guardian in the following quote: “Such a chaste and holy life, with its implications of modesty, purity, temperance, decency, and clean-mindedness, involves no less than the exercise of moderation in all that pertains to dress, language, amusements, and all artistic and literary avocations.”
It was this second quote that got me to re-examine those arts to which I subjected myself, as he particularly mentions “all artistic and literary avocations“. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that he is telling us to avoid movies, or anything like that, but just to be more selective, recognizing the influence that they can have upon us. I love a good fantasy novel, or a fine science fiction movie. In fact, I even enjoy a fun shoot-em-up action adventure movie, too. (Shocking, I know, but true.)
The key word in that second quote is, to me, “moderation“.
The question now is, “How does this effect my movie-going?” Easy. It makes me examine each movie after I see it, explore the motives and morals within it, and see how it effects me as a person. Now, I believe that I get far more out of every movie I watch, and every book I read, than I did before.
This also gets passed on to those I work with.
For years now, whenever I take a group of youth to a movie, I willingly take them to see whatever movie they want, on condition that we can talk about it afterwards. A two-hour movie? I want at least thirty minutes of conversation. And during that time we explore the story and motives of the characters, framing the whole thing in the context of virtuous development, and the Baha’i teachings.
Conclusions? Well, I have to admit that I used to love horror movies, but now have absolutely no desire to see them any more. I have not found anything worth the time invested in seeing them. Although I don’t criticize anyone for watching them, they are just not for me. My time can be better spent elsewhere.
I have also come to love some of the action movies even more. Why? Because it gives a lot more room for discussion of motives, and allows a great deal of exploration in how we would react to similar circumstances. Now I don’t expect to ever find myself hiding in a building that is being taken over by terrorists intent on robbing a bank, or having to jump on a moving train to try and save someone from being blown to bits by a bomb, but I have found myself reacting instantly to seeing people getting beaten to death by gang members on the street. This little exercise of asking myself what I would do in such a situation allowed me the ability to draw the attackers away long enough for the victim to survive (without getting killed myself).
Some of the most enjoyable movies I have seen are ones that I was “dragged” to by a group of teens who thought I would never want to see them. They figured that those movies just weren’t my type, whatever my type may be. But I enjoyed them, and we had a very fruitful discussion afterwards.
The teens also told me later that these discussions have changed the way they watch movies, television, and on and on. They are far more selective, and always ecplore it afterwards, no longer content to view them as mere entertainment.
Going back to the first quote, in which Baha’u’llah tells us the purpose of the arts, I began asking myself if a particular work was conducive to my well-being and tranquility. I didn’t expect to only enjoy works that put me in a drug stupor, but looked at that in a broader context. Did they lead me to tranquility? Did they improve my well-being? If not, why was I subjecting myself to it?
By looking at the overall purpose of the arts, I found myself in a better position to decide whether or not I wanted to take the time to view a particular work. Now that said nothing of the merit of the work itself, just whether or not I wanted to take the time to find out.
The second quote, about absolute chastity being related to artistic endeavours, made me further examine what I watched, read or listened to.
These two quotes also helped me better refine how I wanted to spend my time on my own artwork, but that’s probably better suited for another article.
Instead, I’d like to just take a moment to look at an example, Lord of the Rings. While I could go into the artistic merits of the film, or how they used so many different artisans to create the world, I, instead, want to look at one part of the story. Or actually, one part not of the story: the bad guy.
This is a story that does not focus on the bad guy. It focuses almost completely on the good guys, and their epic struggle. You never really see the bad guy; he’s always just this big eye in the distance.
Too often in artistic works, the artist focuses almost exclusively on the bad guys, or at least spends a considerable time on them. They get into the minds of these people, and really, do you want to get in there?
But Tolkien focuses on the good guys. He gets into their headspace, and brings us with him. You feel their fears, their concerns, and their courage. And that is a space I want to get into. Don’t you?
So next time you read a book, or watch a movie, look at these two quotes again and see how they apply. It’s a wonderful experiment that I will explore more and more in the future.
Synecdoche, New York, 2008
Staring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Synopsis (from NetFlix):
After his painter wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him and takes their daughter to Berlin, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stages an autobiographical play in a massive New York City warehouse amid a life-size replica of Manhattan. Meanwhile, Caden must contend with the many women in his life — including a box-office worker, an actress and a shrink — in this beguiling directorial debut from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.
This movie has been in the recommended queue for over a year and I am finally getting to it. I apologize for the delay, it’s been a crazy year, and I know it’s the type of film that requires due process. It’s the type of film that makes you think, and makes you feel. But not comfortable feelings. Incredibly frustratingly uncomfortable, painful feelings. I like films like this, that force you to wrestle with this side of life but I do not enjoy films like this. Let me elucidate that paradox a little.
Film is a medium, and as such it is not always used for entertainment and pleasure, even if that is the predominant trend. Film can be used as a tool for communication, for meditation, or exploration. I love it when movies use all the power film has to offer as an art form by working the visuals, and pushing the boundaries to actually show you something rather than tell you. This movie does that. However what it shows is frankly unpleasant. It does it really well, but it’s painful. It helps you to experience the pain and suffering of the main character by getting so lost in him, and his meta existence so as to trick you into feeling that (if you are highly empathetic like myself). If you like films like Lost in Translation or Magnolia then you will like this movie, but it’s even more extreme. Ok, with that lengthy introduction let me actually get to the content of the film.
The film begins like a typical independent film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s made a lot of them and if you’ve seen even one you have a feel for it. As it opens, it’s gritty and has that look to it. I think Kaufman wants to trick the audience into complacency because as it goes on characters start breaking unwritten rules. They do not react how you expect them to, they do not react in the way society dictates is normal.
What is clear from the beginning is that Caden Cotard is lonely, unhappy, and ill, and throughout the film this state increases. Nobody can help him, even when he asks for it. His family abandons him. His doctors shuffle him around not solving the problem. His therapist just tries to sell him books.
What oppression is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it? – Bahá’u’lláh
Cotard has no clue, and so he pours himself into his art. Art can be a wonderful thing. It can uplift the soul. It can increase knowledge. But what Cotard does is essentially use his art for his ego. He wins this prestigious MacArthur genius grant right when his life is falling apart and thinks it can redeem him. Instead his play becomes him playing God and recreating his life over and over again, getting deeper and deeper into himself and his neuroses and it doesn’t work. He finds no solace. He finds no audience. He finds no answers.
Cast away, O people, the things ye have composed with the pen of your idle fancies and vain imaginings … Idle fancies have debarred men from the Horizon of Certitude, and vain imaginings withheld them from the Choice Sealed Wine. – Bahá’u’lláh
Instead decades go by, he ages as he suffers and as his relationships disintegrate more and more due to his inability to view the world outside of himself and outside of his pain. He becomes completely self centered. There is a glimmer of hope near the end when he and Hazel finally work out there issues, and she states what may seem like a throw away line, but I think reaches at the heart of the matter about how it was the first time she’d seen him think about someone other than himself.
And finally the true ending when he is too tired of all his directing and decides to play another role, to step into another person’s life. It is here that he can see that another has pain, another disappointment, and he can finally find comfort in feeling for another, rather than himself.
Millicent Weems: What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this.
– From the film
And I think this is why I had such a problem with the film, why it did not sit well with me, and that’s because this is a half truth. It reaches the culmination of understanding that we are all connected, that we are all unified and we need to get over the ego of self, but it only focuses on the negative, on the disintegration. This is everyone’s experience, but not everyone’s complete experience and because of this it is bleak.
Where is joy? Where is beauty? Where is love? Where is God? The word was only first mentioned an hour into the film in passing, and then indirectly and derogatorily by Hazel “We send the kids to Christian school. It’s Derek’s idea, I don’t believe in that stuff”, and then in the end at a funeral when a priest preaches pretty much the exact opposite message that a cleric would. This is a world without God, without religion (in the true sense of the word), and it shows. It shows in all the social dysfunction and ill portrayed in the film. People are amoral. They abandon each other. They use one another. They cause each other suffering. If this is everyone’s experience than what are we all doing wrong for it to be this horrid?
Some people argue that this is the world as it is, and on some level they are right. People have abandoned the teachings of the great faiths, have stopped fearing God, stopped loving God, and stopped following God and in doing so have created even more pain and suffering. They have corrupted many forms of religion and turned them into self-serving political machines, or an isolationist club, in the image of themselves instead of God’s so that even labeling oneself religious does not necessarily free you from this Kaufmanesque view of the world.
Instead if we distill the message from the major faiths it is this: Love. Put others before yourself. Humble yourself. Be compassionate. Show this love through deeds. Love everyone, even the people you don’t like, nay, especially the people you don’t like because it’s not about you, and it’s not about your opinion. They probably need the love even more so.
We can hardly blame Cotard because he was not shown love so he could not really learn how to love. He is constantly looking for someone to follow, but has no adequate model. However, this is why we have the examples of Buddha, of Jesus, of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l Baha. They show us what true selfless love can be so we can follow there model, so that the world won’t devolve into Synecdoche, New York.
a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in Cleveland won by six runs (meaning “Cleveland’s baseball team”).
-from the Apple dictionary.
In this case of this film Caden Cotard represented the whole. Let’s change that. Let’s make it one of these great teachers, who shows us how to love, and how to suffer with grace instead of despair.
I figured in the spirit of Valentine’s Day I would pick a romantic comedy and look at how it deals with this confusing notion of love. I picked this film because of it’s tag: “This is not a love story. It’s a story about love.” Enjoy!
500 Days of Summer, 2009
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.
Synopsis (from Netflix):
When his girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), unceremoniously dumps him, greeting-card copywriter and hopeless romantic Tom (Golden Globe nominee Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins sifting through the year-plus worth of days they spent together, looking for clues to what went awry. As he recalls the good and bad times he spent with the commitment-phobic girl, his heart reawakens to what it cherishes most. Marc Webb directs this uncommon love story.
This film is about these two people, and deconstructs their relationship. But more importantly it is about this fuzzy notion of love as these two people blindly explore what it is and what it means. One enters the picture believing in destiny and soul mates and the other enters cynically not believing in love at all, only wanting to have fun. Near the end their positions on the subject have switched. However neither extreme is correct. Neither of these ideas is right. There is no such thing as a soul mate in the destiny, only-one-for-me sort of way, but love most definitely exists.
Know thou of a certainty that Love is the secret of God’s holy Dispensation, the manifestation of the All-Merciful, the fountain of spiritual outpourings. Love is heaven’s kindly light, the Holy Spirit’s eternal breath that vivifieth the human soul. Love is the cause of God’s revelation unto man, the vital bond inherent, in accordance with the divine creation, in the realities of things. Love is the one means that ensureth true felicity both in this world and the next. Love is the light that guideth in darkness, the living link that uniteth God with man, that assureth the progress of every illumined soul. Love is the most great law that ruleth this mighty and heavenly cycle, the unique power that bindeth together the diverse elements of this material world, the supreme magnetic force that directeth the movements of the spheres in the celestial realms. Love revealeth with unfailing and limitless power the mysteries latent in the universe. Love is the spirit of life unto the adorned body of mankind, the establisher of true civilization in this mortal world, and the shedder of imperishable glory upon every high-aiming race and nation. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
At one point Tom is so fed up with love after having his heart broken that he quits his job at a greeting card company blaming the industry, as well as romantic movies, for his unreal expectations. It is a comic scene but there is deep truth to it. Just as Summer pointed out that over half of marriages end in divorce (which is why she doesn’t believe in love), our culture has gotten incredibly confused as to what love is, and because of this miss it.
Love is a verb. It is an action, specifically the act of putting someone else’s needs before your own. It is something we all should be doing everyday because we should love everyone. But for some reason we’ve got it into our heads that romantic love is something else, some magic feeling or state, and that once that feeling is gone it is okay to be selfish again. We fear commitment because we fear the magic leaving, instead of recognizing that we have an opportunity to show love most greatly in a committed relationship.
The Lord, peerless is He hath made woman and man to abide with each other in the closest companionship, and to be even as a single soul. They are two helpmates, two intimate friends, who should be concerned about the welfare of each of each other.
If they live thus, they will pass through this world with perfect contentment, bliss, and peace of heart, and become the object of divine grace and favor in the Kingdom of heaven. But if they do other than this, they will live out their lives in great bitterness, longing at ever moment for death, and will be shamefaced in the Heavenly Realm.
Strive, then, to abide, heart and soul, with each other as Two doves in the nest, for this is to be blessed in both worlds. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
This is what a true soul mate is, but it can be anyone, not just one person.
I think that many of the reasons relationships falter is that humanity is spiritually seeking God but often does not recognize it. They want eternal, perfect, unconditional love, a love that God can only give, instead of the imperfect, yet beautiful, attempts we humans do. We turn our significant others into idols whom we worship, and that is not healthy. When these people turn out to be mere mortals instead of the gods and goddesses we’ve made them out to be the foundation of the relationship is shaken.
This film does a great job of showing just that. It also shows how much pressure is put upon the person who is being idolized to live up to the impossible standards. I am glad this movie was a story about love instead of just a love story because these are conversations we need to be having. The way we think about love, the way we talk about love, and the way we show love is broken. We see it daily through acts of violence, through dissolution of families. But through art, through deep contemplation, we can be inspired to change how we view love, to make it the verb it is.
The first sign of faith is love. The message of the holy, divine Manifestations is love; the phenomena of creation are based upon love; the radiance of the world is due to love; the well-being and happiness of the world depend upon it. Therefore, I admonish you that you must strive throughout the human world to diffuse the light of love.
The people of this world are thinking of warfare; you must be peacemakers. The nations are self-centered; you must be thoughtful of others rather than yourselves. They are neglectful; you must be mindful. They are asleep; you should be awake and alert. May each one of you be as a shining star in the horizon of eternal glory. This is my wish for you and my highest hope. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
Food, Inc. 2008
Synopsis (from Netflix):
Drawing on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, director Robert Kenner’s documentary explores the food industry’s detrimental effects on our health and environment. Kenner spotlights the men and women who are working to reform an industry rife with monopolies, questionable interpretations of laws and subsidies, political ties and rising rates of E. coli outbreaks.
First I would like to thank the reader who voted in the poll and suggested this film. Secondly I would like to advocate that *everyone* watch this. If you haven’t seen it, it’s on Netflix Instant. Watch it now. Ok, on with the post.
Robert Kenner begins this documentary saying that the food industry has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000 and that his hope in creating this documentary is to “pull the veil back” and show people how they are really eating and where there food had come from.
Remove the veil from their eyes, and enlighten their hearts with the light of guidance. —‘Abdu’l-Bahá
This is a veil that I myself have been pulling back slowly but surely over this past decade, and it is quite shocking and disheartening. Our food industry has become so industrialized and so far removed from those consuming the food that it’s interests no longer match those of the consumers.
In this documentary there were several interviews with farmers and one shared some statements that I thought were pretty profound that I would like to share with you. First:
“Industrial food is not honest food. It is not produced honestly. It is not priced honestly. There is nothing honest about industrial food”
As we know truthfulness is the foundation of all virtue, and without it there cannot be justice. The industrial food system is so highly subsidized that the food can be sold below cost. This puts pressure on both independent farmers, as well as farmers outside of the US who cannot compete because they don’t have these subsidies and can’t sell below cost. Also, the cost to the environment is not factored in to these industrialized methods which are not as ecologically sound. E Coli was not a problem before this system. These hidden costs are dishonest. The food industry also uses undocumented workers who they can pay cheaply, and treat poorly. It is the workers who are punished if caught even if the industry purposely goes to Mexico to recruit them. Chickens have been manipulated to grow three times as fast but in doing so their bones can’t support their weight so they can barely stand. This is also unjust. How can we treat people and animals so cruelly? As the farmer so aptly put it:
“A culture that just views a pig as a set of protoplasmic structures to be manipulated will probably view other people in its community, and the community of nations with the same controlling type mentality”
Or if you prefer Holy Writings:
Burden not an animal with more than it can bear. We, truly, have prohibited such treatment through a most binding interdiction in the Book. Be ye the embodiments of justice and fairness amidst all creation. ~Bahá’u’lláh
Eating food is something we do everyday, three times a day. How can we do so with integrity? With justice? Over 100 years ago Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle and that changed our food industry for a time. People demanded better regulation. But that system broke down as the food industry became more powerful. Also, the cheaply subsidized food is not the healthiest food, but instead commodity crops, and has led to the epidemic of obesity. At the end of the documentary the filmmakers list several suggestions as to how we can work together as a society and as individuals within this society to combat this problem. Here are three:
You can vote to change this system. Three times a day.
Buy from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect.
If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us, and the planet, healthy.
It is up to us. We can be the change we want to see in the world. Those who can afford to, to vote with our wallets and support ethically grown food. Doing so is better for us, for our health, for the world, and for peace.
My friends have also posted a wonderful blog on the topic of ethical eating. Check it out here.
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:
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, 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!
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.”
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!
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Starring Max Records and Catherine Keener.
Voiced by James Gandolfini, Catharine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose.
Synopsis (From official website):
Innovative director Spike Jonze collaborates with celebrated author Maurice Sendak to bring one of the most beloved books of all time to the big screen.
The film tells the story of Max, a rambunctious and sensitive boy who feels misunderstood at home and escapes to where the Wild Things are. Max lands on an island where he meets mysterious and strange creatures whose emotions are as wild and unpredictable as their actions.
This film is potent. It is dark and raw, beautiful and sad. This films goes beyond the purview of the children’s book and really delves into how divorce can effect a child. Max is lonely and misunderstood and frustrated. This film does not use much dialogue to express these emotions because Max himself does not have the words to express his struggles. He is so young and yet going through so much pain. He tries to connect with his mother and sister, but they too are struggling and so he feels disconnected, abandoned by his father, and powerless. This is what leads to his acting out, and leads him to his imaginary world, a world just as disfunctional as the real one. In this world each “Wild Thing” represents an aspect of himself, and members of his family. One is angry, another feels overlooked. This place of imagination helps him process what he is going through. I so wanted to reach out to this fragile, hurting child. I wanted to:
Be Thou their companion in their loneliness, their helper in a strange land, the remover of their sorrows, their comforter in calamity. Be Thou a refreshing draught for their thirst, a healing medicine for their ills and a balm for the burning ardor of their hearts. —‘Abdu’l-Bahá
I think this film is important for us as a society to watch. It may not be light and fun and entertaining, in fact, while it was visually stunning and beautiful, it was painful to watch. But pain is good, pain helps us grow.
Men who suffer not, attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit.—‘Abdu’l-Bahá
Often when we see children acting out we may be quick to judge their actions, their behavior, but the world is a difficult place. Our actions as adults effect children. Divorce is a difficult thing for all involved. It leaves young children feeling insecure, confused, hurt, and lonely. It rips families apart and can leave people aching. There are times when it is necessary (in cases of abuse), but is it always?
Divorce has really changed the landscape of our society, the nature of our families, and is indicative of the pain and mistrust we have inside of ourselves. Films like this give us opportunity to reflect upon our actions, their motives, and their consequences. It also gives us time to reflect on the importance of love and compassion, and helping each other work through pain.
I have never been married, so I cannot speak to how easy or difficult it is. What I can speak to is that there is a lot of confusion regarding marriage, and the nature of commitment. People joke of starter marriages, and of “trading up” and I can’t help but hurt thinking about people like commodities. I also can’t help but lament that the only discussions that seem to be happening regarding marriage in the news revolve around the rights for gays to marry. We need to have more discussions regarding the nature of marriage itself, the nature of commitment, how a healthy marriage can help the children born of that marriage to flourish, and how the dissolution of marriages are costly emotionally, materially, and spiritually. One thing that helps me when meditating on the meaning of marriage is to look to guidance, such as:
The friends of God must so live and conduct themselves, and evince such excellence of and conduct, as to make others astonished. The love between husband and wife should not be purely physical, nay, rather it must be spiritual and heavenly. These two souls should be considered as one soul. How difficult it would be to divide a single soul! Nay, great would be the difficulty! —‘Abdu’l-Bahá
So often we go to movies to escape, but this art can also be a mirror, a mirror that helps us to reflect on ourselves and our society. It can uplift and empower us through emotion and help us cultivate understanding and empathy.
All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God. —‘Abdu’l-Bahá
One thing I am going to walk away from this film with is a greater desire to love and serve humanity. Our society is going through a lot of pain now and love is its only countermeasure. When the people I know, whether friends, family, members of the community, or strangers I meet on a train, are suffering, I want to be a balm. I think part of what was so painful for me watching this film was that I could not reach out and comfort Max. I couldn’t give him a hug. I could listen to him, or let him heave and cry on my shoulder. However, there are many real people that need comfort too and I want to be there. I want to be present, unlike the people in Max’s life. This may not be possible, but I can strive. This film has inspired me to strive.
Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone. Let your heart burn with loving-kindness for all who may cross your path. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá