SBTS chapel live blog: Panel discussion — “Eden, Avatar and the Kingdom of Christ: What are we supposed to do with popular culture?”

Communications Staff — February 11, 2010

Moderator:

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary.

Panelists:

  • Russell D. Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary.
  • James Parker, associate dean of worldview and culture and professor of worldview and culture at Southern Seminary.
  • Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Seminary.
  • Theodore J. Cabal,professor of Christian philosophy and applied apologetics at Southern Seminary.

Mohler

The James Cameron movie Avatar has recently passed the $1.8 billion mark in sales. In this movie, we not only have a box office sensation, we have the question of how Christians are to engage with popular culture.

Evangelical Christians have not known what to do with Hollywood from the beginning. This has been true for the Christian church and popular culture going all the way back to early Christians and Roman entertainment and the gladiatorial games.

The title of this panel is not accidental. What we have in Avatar is a new secular Eden or at least an Eden that is very different from the book of Genesis. What are we to do with this?

Coppenger

There is a hunger for Eden. We have that hunger so we fashion a variety of movies. There is this hunger, but the world supplies it in so many idealogical ungodly ways.

Parker

One way C.S. Lewis became a Christian was a longing he had, a sense of unfulfilment he experienced that could not be fulfilled in this life. Buddhism, animism, pantheism cannot fulfill this sense of longing. The glorious news of the Gospel is that this Eden shall be restored and it shall be made available to human beings.

Moore

There is always going to be that kind of person who is going to want to escape from life. When you look at these things they bounce back and forth between utopia — this vision of Eden — and dystopia — some sort of apocalypse. So you have Avatar, but you also have The Road or Planet of the Apes or The Day After Tomorrow.

It seems that in popular culture that you have people’s longings and people’s fear of judgment and death and those are being expressed in movies the best way people know how. Then you have people looking at those movies and it resonates.

Cabal

Worldviews contain an Eden, an eschoton and a problem in between that must be solved. So, it is not surprise when you have a movie like Avatar that presents that. The problem is not that there is a longing for Eden, that there is a longing for something that is beautiful and fulfilling. The problem is with the solution that the movie presents. The problem with the movie is that primitive cultures are not like what we see in the movie.

Mohler

What about humanity in this film? This is sort of a reproduction of Bambi. This film (Avatar) is so undisguished in terms of its antipathy toward human beings. What do we make of that?

Coppenger

Avatar screamed at every point: I am doing a hack job here, I have overlooked things. It is an adoration of the primitive, as Cabal said. It is also a hatred of humanity. Avatar presents a terrible lie about humanity: the movie depicts a hatred of man, a hatred of capitalism and a hatred of the military. It is this whole package of things that is so anti-Christian and sub-Christian.

Mohler

Hollywood has celebrated Cameron as an engineer and an entrepreneur: that is capitalism.

Cabal

There is a lot of standard science fiction in this movie. It acts like it presents a spiritualism of some sort, but it actually presents a physicalism, a materialism, that trumps spirituality. Capitalism has always pushed along the edges of technology. There is the James Cameron game, Avatar, coming out. So, there is a lot of capitalism going on here in relation to Avatar.

Mohler

Dr. Moore you have described the movie as Rambo in reverse.

Moore

What worries me about the movie is that it is anti-authority. What concerns me is not so much the message, but so many people are not so much getting or seeing the message. The propaganda that comes through that is so obvious does not worry me. The propaganda that worries is what you might not get that then infiltrates your life and affects you and you don’t even know it.

Mohler

Avatar has its own metanarrative, the Creation metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, consummation – it is all there. When you look at the screenplay, it is clear that the religious message is pointed in a way that you might not catch. There is an insistence that this is not some kind of superficial religion, there is an insistence that this is real religion. This pantheism with the tree and its interconnected roots.

James Cameron knows what he is doing here: there are hints of the Gospel in this reshaping of a gospel. The movie is tapping into some sort of religious longing that people have, particularly in the area of environmentalism.

Cabal

To me, the thing that leaped out was this overt religious message. It is a glorification of pantheism the whole way through. Cameron knows what he is doing. He was the executive producer for the Lost Tomb of Jesus on the Discovery channel trying to argue that they found this bogus tomb of Jesus that had His body in it.

Avatar appeals to the average postmodern religionist. They don’t really know what they want: this movie is aimed at those kind of people.

Mohler

This is a “supermovie:” it is fun to watch. It has a story and it comes with all this technology. This appears more real than reality, one writer said. What do we do with that?

Moore

Think about what people say when they see beautiful things in nature. They say, “This is like a movie.” They are so accustomed to seeing movies that they see everything through that grid.

We really are not moving into the kind of world where people are paganizing, but they are paganizing in a way that has to have a counterfeit Christianity in order to address their longings.

Mohler

This movie is really, really good at showing human sinfulness and depravity. But it doesn’t know how to depict redemption.

Coppenger

I used to get really frustrated about that reality in movies, that people can’t depict rebellion. Then I realized: they really don’t get it. It is sort of like a cat trying to do algebra.

We have turned Hollywood over to pagans. We can blow up a movie like we are doing today, but we can’t really produce such a movie.

Mohler

I am going to respond by saying we can’t do that: you can’t meet the medium on its own terms. I am not saying that Christians can’t be involved in the film industry: they certainly can. And there are movies that have told a story that is conducive to the Christian metanarrative of the Gospel. As much as we are called to be transformational in every area of life, to make it in Hollywood you have to have the backing of people financially who have a very different goal.

Cabal

One reason the movie is so appealing is not just that is touches the deep longings that we have, but because of the technology that mimics the real world. The movie is so powerful because it is this world presented in film through technology.

Moore

You have Romans 2 there. You have sin and you have judgment in this movie. You have the conscience: it is misdirected, it is misguided, but it is there. That is exactly what Paul was talking about. And you have that in many apocalyptic movies.

Mohler

You can look at the history of Christianity and it is not new for Christians to be interacting with culture and critiquing entertainment in culture. How is it that all of the sudden evangelicals are now consumers of popular culture?

Coppenger

There are rocks on both sides. You can become too culturally immersed or you can go too far the other way. I am not as pessimistic of us (Christians) making great movies. I think there is a kind of insecurity among evangelicals. I think we feel as though we are sort of backward and embarrassing so we like to get our credibility in the culture and sometimes it is kind of pitiful how hard we work to show that we are cool. But putting that aside I think people are awakening to the splendor and power of film and I think that is a good thing.

Mohler

What interests me is that evangelicals are now consumers of popular culture as if there were no moral question about it.

Cabal

We are seeing in this generation what a generation that followed a strict generation does, tending to want to go out and learn what it is like to be free. I went through all the phases of Christ and culture: I was pagan, then I was a baby Christian I thought you had to reject everything in culture. I sold everything, I gave it all away, and I wouldn’t watch television. And I think that is a legitimate Christian option. But what I was doing was I was mimicking another sub-culture with its own little rules.

Then I went through a phase where I would watch them with my kids and we would worldview-analyze every movie and my kids didn’t like that very much because I was ruining every movie for them. And then there is this sort of thing that says you can’t avoid culture, you breath it, and we are going to engage and do evangelism.

I don’t think there is one standard way that we have to deal with culture, but I think that the sort of uncritical engagement of popular culture that you are talking about is very dangerous.

Moore

I agree with the generational shift. I think most people in this room have seen a movie that your grandparents would consider to be pornographic in a way that is not alarming to you because you don’t even have the tools to see what is even there. I am worried about the things that we don’t even notice in films.

Coppenger

I think the most dangerous film I ever saw was a PG rated film called “Same Time Next Year.” It is a guy who is in a lodge in the mountains and he meets a lady who comes up for a retreat. It led to an adulterous affair and she would come back each year. There was no skin, no cussing, but it showed that adultery is workable and charming if you do it right.

Mohler

Let’s talk about the particular power of film. There is something about film that is unique. It is a way, as some cinematographers say, entering into a different world. What is the power and what is the danger of that?

Parker

The danger is that your critical faculties are set aside. You might find yourself rooting for the adulterer. Things could be great on the cinematograpical level and this could cause you to put your critical faculties on hold.

Moore

One of my favorite novels is Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.” The protagonist in that novel is living this really boring, kind of meaningless life, because these movies have a meaning with a storyline.

I think that is kind of the good side, the glory, of film. People have these lives without meaning and they go to all of these films that do have meaning, that do have a storyline, they do have a resolution. We have to ask what are people wanting to escape to? They want to escape for the freedom to sin, but ultimately it is because they are created in the image of God and are trying to escape the Fall and we have thus have an opportunity to say something to them.

Cabal

Pastors need to patiently and lovingly teach their people how to engage with culture. Our job as Christian leaders is to help people think through what it is they are experiencing as entertainment that they don’t realize has become the prophet and the preacher to them because they don’t critique it.

Mohler

Popular culture is not a new challenge. We must be asking what we are watching, reading, and listening to and what is it doing to us? It also helps to define our mission field. If this is the story that millions of people are paying to see, those millions of people are looking for a story and that gives us an opportunity to speak of the story of stories, the narrative of narratives, and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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