Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Recommendation - Avatar

I know it's probably odd for a mostly-theological blog to recommend an entirely-secular movie, but odd has never stopped me yet and I don't think I'll start now. . .I just saw the film "Avatar" with my brother and our sons yesterday, and I have a new addition to my top-ten all-time favorite movies.  It's really that good.  Not because it's a compelling sci-fi and intercultural story, though it is that.  Not because it has the most seamless integration of CGI and live action I've ever seen, though it has that.  Not because of breathtaking cinematography or stunning action sequences, though it has both in spades.

No, what makes Avatar leap to the top reaches of my list is the moving way that James Cameron has told the story of the depths to which a military/industrial society will go to obtain the materials that contribute to their (our) consumer economy, and the complete disregard for the lives and cultures that may get in our way.  The material in question in the movie is "unobtanium," and the location where it's mined is a habitable moon around a blue gas-giant planet some six years' space travel away from us, but it's also the story of diamonds in Southern Africa, coltan in Congo, gold in Papua New Guinea, and all the other blood-minerals that power our economy.

Watch this movie.  Be prepared for an uncomfortable look in the mirror, even as you drink in a stunning exemplar of storytelling--probably Cameron's best ever.  And if you don't see 9/11 in the imagery, you're not paying attention. . .

It's rated PG-13 for violence and "sensuality."  No question the battles are violent.  The sensuality is very low-key in my opinion, unless you consider the nearly-nude (though depicted discretely) forms of the native race to be offensive.  The imagery is not sexual, it is natural.  The need for parental guidance on this film is not because of the overt material--it's to make sure your teenagers think about the deeper subtexts.  And they are thoughts we of the West should contemplate.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration -- I won't be signing it

A couple of friends have recently pointed me to The Manhattan Declaration with encouragement that I and other like-minded believers should sign on.  I won't be signing it, and I encourage my believing friends to think long and carefully about it too.  The declaration purports to lay out three principals as particularly important for Christians to support, and to publicly advocate:
  • the sanctity of human life
  • the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  • the rights of conscience and religious liberty. 
I actually support all three of these principles, but not in the way the writers of the Manhattan Declaration mean the words.  In point of fact, a careful reading of the principals as elucidated in the Declaration makes it abundantly clear that they only mean these things in the American Christian Republican manner, despite their nonpartisan protestation.  I say this in particular with regard to points one and three:

The sanctity of life  The text of the declaration is unmistakable in its denunciation of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and therapeutic cloning.  I agree that abortion and euthanasia are inconsistent with a Jesus-centered life ethic, even though I disagree with most of the particular actions and laws that so-called "Pro-Life" advocates actually push (stem cells and cloning are far less clear-cut IMO).   In typical Republican fashion, however, the declaration says nothing about warfare or capital punishment.  While I freely grant that there are consistent, Jesus-honoring people who believe that there are times where the Christian may condone both of these, a position that truly considers the sanctity of all human life would have to require that any application of either warfare or capital punishment pass certain tests far more stringent than simply "the government (or at least the good, conservative, Christian, Republican government) says so."

In the case of warfare, a rigid application of just war criteria would have to precede every use of military force, and would require a deliberate and public examination of the causus belli and the actual prosecution of the war.  If human life is truly sacred, then the notion of "collateral damage" in warfare should be as horrifying as the notion of infanticide.  So, too, should the notion that we go and fight (i.e. kill people) for our "freedom."  Nothing but the preservation of life--not lifestyle, but life itself--can possibly justify the taking of other life if human lives are really sacred.

In the case of capital punishment, a Christian perspective should at the very least be in the vanguard of efforts such as the Innocence Project and similar efforts dedicated to making sure no one is wrongfully executed.  Quite to the contrary, Christians are often leaders in the enforcement of capital punishment.  If human life is truly sacred, then we should go to every conceivable length to make certain that those who go to the gallows are indeed guilty.  The notion that courts might actually reject the petition for a DNA test of a capital case is unconscionable.

The Right of Conscience and Liberty  This section advocates for the rights of Christians to promulgate and practice their views without government interference.  For the most part I agree with this, though when those same Christians attempt to enshrine their views in publicly-sanctioned (or owned) assets it gets a bit murky.  I do agree, for example, that Christian hospitals shouldn't be forced to perform abortions, and Christian adoption agencies should be able to screen their placements for families who meet faith criteria (though they should be prepared to give up government subsidies--including tax exemption--when they do).  However, there is not a word in this document on the liberty of other religions within America.  I know people in my own church who consider Islam to be an "enemy religion" and have said to my face that the Christian West and Muslim nations are inevitably at war.  I remember lots of Christians who felt that if Barack Obama were a Muslim (which anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows was false) it should disqualify him from the presidency.  The church in America has not been sufficiently vocal on the side of religious tolerance in our own country, and conservative Christians who support documents like the Manhattan Declaration are among the most egregious offenders.

Unlike points one and three, the section on Marriage at least shows some nuance in its acknowledgment that Christians have all too often violated the sanctity of marriage by their divorces and infidelity.  In large measure I agree with that section of the Declaration, though if I were to write a declaration of places we believers ought to take a stand, I doubt that the defense of traditional marriage would make my top ten list; it certainly wouldn't make it to the top three.

But until Christians who stand for the sanctity of life mean ALL human life (Jim Wallis of Sojourners calls this a "Consistent Life Ethic" and though I'm not an overall fan of Wallis, he gets that right), I can't endorse their statements on the sanctity of life.  And until the right of conscience is defended even for those whose conscience differs from mine--or yours--I can't endorse those statements either.