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.

Advertisements

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!

Where the Wild Things Are — Tumult in our Hearts

Film:Where the Wild Things Are movie poster

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.

My Thoughts:

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

 

Capitalism: A Love Story — The perils of greed and injustice

Film:Capitalism: A Love Story Movie Poster

Capitalism: A Love Story

Starring Michael Moore

Synopsis (From IMDB):

On the 20-year anniversary of his groundbreaking masterpiece Roger & Me, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story comes home to the issue he’s been examining throughout his career: the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans (and by default, the rest of the world). But this time the culprit is much bigger than General Motors, and the crime scene far wider than Flint, Michigan. From Middle America, to the halls of power in Washington, to the global financial epicenter in Manhattan, Michael Moore will once again take film goers into uncharted territory. With both humor and outrage, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story explores a taboo question: What is the price that America pays for its love of capitalism? Years ago, that love seemed so innocent. Today, however, the American dream is looking more like a nightmare as families pay the price with their jobs, their homes and their savings. Moore takes us into the homes of ordinary people whose lives have been turned upside down; and he goes looking for explanations in Washington, DC and elsewhere. What he finds are the all-too-familiar symptoms of a love affair gone astray: lies, abuse, betrayal…and 14,000 jobs being lost every day. Capitalism: A Love Story is both a culmination of Moore’s previous works and a look into what a more hopeful future could look like. It is Michael Moore’s ultimate quest to answer the question he’s posed throughout his illustrious filmmaking career: Who are we and why do we behave the way that we do?

My Thoughts:

I was a little skeptical going into this film because Michael Moore can be a bit of a bully in his films, but I really liked the message of this one.  Michael Moore looks at how capitalism enables greed and the accumulation of wealth into the hands of the few.  Really what this film is about is injustice.  There is a poignant part of the film in which there are protesters who were illegally laid off without notice or backpay and they were holding up signs that said “All religions promote justice”.    But I get ahead of myself.

Moore’s true critique comes in the deregulation of capitalism.  We have had this experiment for a while, but during the first half of the century regulations were put in place to cap greed and to put use wealth to help all of society.  The myth is that those who work hard will make more money, but Moore looked at airline pilots who were on food stamps and others who were clearly working hard but not getting by, versus those in the financial industry who capitalize off the labor of others without adding any value to that labor.

Moore is not criticizing rich people in general.  What he is criticizing is those who get rich at the expense of others, those who are willing to take 10 million dollar bonuses when there are others in their company who are either being laid off or working below the poverty line. And he is criticizing the poor for falling for the American Dream and allowing deregulation in hopes that one day they too will be rich.  And he is criticizing the government for putting the needs and interests of the richest 1% ahead of the rest of the citizens’ needs.

The problem is that with wealth should come responsibility.  There should be gratitude with having material means and stability, and there are some wealthy who practice the virtue of generosity and work to help the poor.

O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in the midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease. ~Baha’u’llah

or if you prefer sterner language:

O CHILDREN OF DUST!  Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth.  To give and be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues. ~Baha’u’llah

The problem is that poverty leads to instability.  Poverty leads to desperation and raised crime rates.  If we want peace we have to work on ending poverty, on creating jobs and protecting our poor over profits.

“The inordinate disparity between rich and poor, a source of acute suffering, keeps the world in a state of instability, virtually on the brink of war. Few societies have dealt effectively with this situation. The solution calls for the combined application of spiritual, moral and practical approaches. A fresh look at the problem is required, entailing consultation with experts from a wide spectrum of disciplines, devoid of economic and ideological polemics, and involving the people directly affected in the decisions that must urgently be made. It is an issue that is bound up not only with the necessity for eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty but also with those spiritual verities the understanding of which can produce a new universal attitude. Fostering such an attitude is itself a major part of the solution.”
(The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 3)

In the end this is how we will be judged and how Michael Moore already is judging the American society.  There was a time when we enacted a New Deal, when we championed a Great Society but that is no longer.  Instead the middle class is eroding and poverty rates are increasing as we deal with this economic crisis created by the greed of the financial industry and what is essentially legalized gambling (microtrading).

A democratic society is to be judged not by its success in catering to the needs of its privileged members or even its average ones. Instead, look at how it treats the poor, the disadvantaged, the ill – and the unpopular. ~ Lord Wolf, UK’s Chief Justice

Damah — Spiritual Film Festival in Seattle!

For all you west coasters there is a film festival happening in Seattle called Damah which looks awesome.  For everyone else, you can watch the short films online and vote.   They also have compilation DVDs of their  submissions from previous years.  Pretty neat.  The info is below:

Damah Header

October 2-3, 2009 in Seattle

EMP | SFM
@ Seattle Center
325 5th Ave N
Seattle, WA 98109

Mission

Damah encourages an emerging generation of filmmakers from diverse perspectives to voice the spiritual aspect of the human experience through film and provides a forum for these artists to develop, discuss and display their vision.

Damah is a non-profit organization that relies on the submissions, contributions and the goodwill of many diverse communities.

History

In January, 2001, a group of individuals met to brainstorm about how they could support artists who desired to explore spirituality. They had a desire to create an event where people from a wide spectrum of spiritual backgrounds could come together to form a community where ideas, thoughts and perspectives on the spiritual aspect of life could be explored through the art of the short film.

Out of this initial meeting, The Damah Film Festival, was born. With little time to prepare, this eclectic group of visionaries partnered with other like-minded film enthusiasts, and in October 2001, the first festival was held in Seattle, WA. It was an amazing success and we’ve never looked back.

We’re now in our 8th year and looking forward to what lies ahead.

Check out our Compilation DVDs.
Damah is the only short film festival with the unique focus of exploring the spiritual dimension of life through diverse perspectives.
We have awarded over $50,000 in prize money and received over 1000 film submissions from 20 countries over the past four festivals.
Our past festivals have featured Screenings, Panel Discussions and Workshops, Interactive Screenings and Q&As – all designed to stimulate discussion and provide a platform for spiritual expression.