May 2010 Archives

A Brief Primer on Christianese

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Dictionary of Lingo Have you ever noticed that every industry has its own lingo? Sometimes if you live around it long enough, it becomes possible to fake knowledge of technical language without having any practical knowledge of the terms whatsoever. I had a job for two years in which I became adept at describing the machinery we sold, including their many various options, but nevertheless, I still had no idea what the purpose of the products were.

Most subcultures—whether fandoms, hobbyists, or trades—could have conversations in front of other speakers of their native language without giving away the content of their communication. Christianity is one of the largest subcultures in the world, and it also contains many subcultures of its own. The way we Christians relate to the unique language that pervades our society has a huge impact on the development of every other part of Christianity.

As obvious as the statement might seem, words mean things. How you define the words you use makes a huge difference in what you intend to communicate to others. I feel that we often overlook this issue when it comes to sharing our beliefs, both with those who share our religion and those that may not come from the same religious background. Also, some of the people that you dialogue with may have no preconceived notion as to the definition of words based on religious experience. Have you ever had a conversation in which you were convinced you were on the same page as someone else only to find out later that you were mistaken?

Three Glasses with Olives For example, in Spanish class once, I was supposed to translate a story from Spanish into English. Baby Sleeping I at once translated the word bebe as a form of the verb to drink and was very confused as to why this story centered on a beverage and why the woman was so worried that a wolf had taken a drink. After I consulted a dictionary and discovered that bebe also means “baby” in Spanish, my perspective on the story was considerably altered.

Take for instance the word love. Dictionary.com has no fewer than twenty-one different definitions for the noun, but English speakers usually rely on context and guesswork to determine which definition another person is referring to when they use the word. It might be better if we reverted to Greek and had seven words with distinct meanings, but in English all of those words translate to our word love.

It concerns me that Christian terminology does not carry a uniform method of defining. We often take for granted that our audience has the same understanding of a term as we do. It has come to the point that we cannot use terms we have taken for granted in Christian culture without first precisely explaining them. If the terminology that we use to describe something changes meaning, it will not take long for our original intent to be lost.

Many interpretations of what a Christian even is are radically inconsistent with each other. One person might characterize themselves as a Christian based on the fact that they attend a church or that their parents did. Another might stake a claim that believing Jesus is the son of God is what makes him a Christian. The rich young ruler of Luke 18 asked Jesus how to obtain eternal life. In this instance, Jesus ends the conversation asking the man to surrender all he had and follow after him.

Another example of something that I have seen shifted between definitions is spiritual growth. The essence of spiritual growth is exhibiting more of the Fruit of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. A different definition I have seen spread is one where a person can measure his spiritual maturity by the standard of how many church songs he knows or how strictly he can adhere to his chosen religious ritual.

One of the specifically religious terms used often in churches is blessing. I think that if your only exposure to the word was through religious television, your idea of the definition would probably be “cold, hard cash.” This definition leans heavily on assuming the Bible always means material gain when it uses the term riches or prosperity. As explained in Romans 2:4, however, it is using the word riches to describe God’s kindness.

church-door.jpg There is a bevy of words that have distinctly religious meanings, and there are always new buzzwords in religious circles. Just in the last decade, terms like seeker-sensitive, community, and relevant have become common descriptors of what you might find within church doors. Every one of these terms is looked upon differently by different people. To one person, seeker-sensitive means using new-fangled technology, like sound systems and PowerPoint; to another, seeker-sensitive means purging any dogma or doctrine that might make anyone uncomfortable.

I encourage you to clarify the definitions of the terms you are using. Consider the possibility that others who filter the significance of what they are hearing through their own experiences might come to an alternate conclusion about what they think is being said. Do not be afraid to challenge the people around you about what they mean when they use phrases that have multiple interpretations. Be a word nerd and carry a Webster’s dictionary everywhere. (Okay, I was just kidding on that last one.)

Credits: Dictionary: Mads Bødker / Creative Commons, Glasses: Kyle May / Creative Commons, Baby: Paul Sapiano / Creative Commons, Church Door: Till Krech / Creative Commons

Laura Culp is 25 and lives in Northwest Oklahoma as a full-time creator of signage and part-time student. She would like to thank Angie Culp for her editorial skills and catering.

The Proper Grieving of a Fallen World

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Author Donald Miller, better known for his prose, posted a poem on his blog. Miller is author of bestselling books Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and my favorite, To Own a Dragon. Here’s a stanza from the poem:

I don’t want to bother you, I know you’re busy
but is He as good as we want Him to be?
Did you speak to Him or look at Him
as he shoved you through the tubes?

Check out Miller’s blog to read the entire poem.

Have you read any of Donald Miller’s books? Which one is your favorite? Talk up your favorite in the comments.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

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The Invention of Lying Still When I sit down to watch a comedy, I want to laugh. I want to spend my time well. And, to be frank, the last thing I want to do is deal with an aggressive atheistic worldview. When I saw trailers for The Invention of Lying, I was expecting a dry, situational comedy with an interesting premise. What I got was altogether different.

Before I jump into the particulars of this recent release, I want to make clear that all films, like all art, have a worldview. Sometimes they are subtle and hard to determine. Other times they are quite obvious. In either case they can be dangerous. Film has a way of expressing itself that is rarely matched by other forms of expression. As viewers, we can get caught up in the drama, the music, the action, and the images. And that can make us passive. We become passive to the messages and the values that underlie all films. Worldviews are central to the way people operate, and what the filmmakers believe bleeds though like Sharpie onto the script, the storyboards, and the score. The Invention of Lying has all the things necessary to make us relax and let the comedy wash over us, all the time asking us to make little deals with ourselves about the values and basic assumptions of the world it has created.

The Invention of Lying Still The film takes place in a world that looks almost precisely like our own. The cardinal difference is that everyone is incapable of lying. The main character, Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervias), invents the first lie and proceeds to change the course of his and everyone else’s lives. The Invention of Lying touts a fairly famous cast including Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, and Jonah Hill. Special appearances by other comedians like Tina Fey, Jason Bateman and Christopher Guest create special pockets of delight in an otherwise difficult to watch movie.

There are some major storytelling flaws, some bland cinematography, and stodgy delivery by most of the actors. But these things do not an awful movie necessarily make. In fact there are many films (e.g. The Screaming Skull, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) that I enjoy that contain all of these weaknesses; some to a greater degree than The Invention of Lying.

I suppose that this film was not difficult for everyone to watch. I should expect to find that many viewers truly enjoyed it. However, for the thoughtful Christian, mindful of worldviews, this film should be wholly offensive. Actually, it was one of the few films I walked away from wishing I had spent my time doing something else. Three major presuppositions, resulting from the atheistic worldview of its writers and directors, undermine the movie’s value. The film presupposes that (1) all religion is essentially a lie, (2) religion had nothing to do with the development from ancient cultures to the world we live in today, and (3) moral grounding can come from within an individual and does not require an outside source.

The Invention of Lying Still To begin with, the film assumes that all religion is a lie invented by people to make them feel better. This is particularly evident with one of the major rising actions of the film. In a scene about a third of the way through the film, Mark Bellison is sitting at his dying mother’s bedside in a hospital. She is obviously suffering. This moment packs a pretty significant emotional punch. No one wants to see the panic in someone’s eyes as they are on the brink of death and filled with hopelessness. As a loving son, Mark looks her in the eye and tells her that when she dies there is a place where she will go and all her friends will be there. He describes a common (if confused) understanding of heaven. The mother, the doctor, and the nurses are all listening very intently. This is because in a world where no one supposedly has ever lied before, there is no concept of heaven. This is new information, something kept secret for thousands of years. Mark is now the only man in the world who knows what happens when you die.

Did you catch it? The writers and directors of this film anchor one of the most critical moments of the film on an atheistic, naturalistic belief that when we die, that is the end. They are saying in the film, but also mean in real life, that the idea of heaven is comical and completely fictional. This is pitched as the rational thing to believe. As a believer in Christ, and a member of Western society in general, this is upsetting. The turn the film takes next is even more so.

News of this amazing revelation spreads. Mark gets pegged as a man with special knowledge. Everyone believes him, and they crave to know more. Throngs of people surround his apartment. His inner circle encourages him to explain where he got this information and why no one has ever mentioned it before. The world is trying to make sense of this major paradigm shift. Mark, an easy to ignore individual with no prospects, is now the center of the world’s attention. He has their ear. He has a chance to try and solve the world’s problems.

The Invention of Lying Still His motivation for moving on with the lie is a little iffy. He doesn’t want to admit that he made heaven up, and everyone is really counting on him to come through. Perhaps the character just enjoyed the attention and is prepared to stick it out. Whatever the motivation, Mark proceeds, with some hesitation, to come up with a sketchy and inaccurate version of Christianity. He writes down some rules from “The Man in the Sky” on two large pizza boxes and presents them as some kind of modern Moses.

I think it is supposed to be satire. However, satire is only really funny when it is accurate. At least Monty Python gave Christianity enough credit to accurately make fun of it. The Invention of Lying comes nowhere near to any real connection with orthodox Christianity. Actually, the dialogue shows even the casual viewer that this understanding of theistic belief is shallow and that not much deep consideration of the real issues went into the film. Instead, he proceeds to set up a straw man and makes a futile attempt to make Christianity like something that was made up on the spot to help people deal with death. This is a common attitude amongst atheists and agnostics. And here it is in Hollywood seeping into the mind of the paying attendee.

During this scene, some challenging questions are raised, and some flimsy answers are given. In addition to this, the only use of the f-dash-dash-dash word is directed at God. One man in the crowd yells, “F—- the Man in the Sky!” after Mark explains that God is the cause of all the suffering in the world.

The attack is specifically on Christian belief. Gervais does not attempt to debunk Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, New Age, witchcraft, or any other sort of belief in the supernatural. His attack is directly on Christianity. He is allowed his view, but I would like to point out that this is symptomatic of a twenty-year trend. The secular culture is no longer satisfied in ignoring Christians. It seems that currently it is the end goal to make them look like stupid, irrational idiots and bigots.

The Invention of Lying Still The film goes so far as to remove any cross from any building, thereby secularizing them. This shows another area where they were lazy historians. In one scene Mark enters a church building with the cross on the steeple carefully removed. What was not removed, however, was the architecture of the church, with its steeple standing tall pointing straight to heaven. An intentional design directly related to the Christian concept of God.

Whether you care to engage the ideas or not, it is a fact that the scene where Mark explains about the Big Man in the Sky lasted way too long. The question and answer exposition claimed a significant part of the film’s runtime and killed any storytelling momentum.

The Invention of Lying Still Another dangerous presupposition of the film is that religion had nothing to do with getting the world to where it is today. The film depicts a modern city with modern machines, modern medicine, and modern clothing and expects us to believe that a world without Christianity would be basically the same as it is today. I don’t think they took their premise seriously. Either the filmmakers are bad historians and don’t know all the ways in which Christianity has helped shape the Western world, or they are lazy philosophers and cannot comprehend that religion does anyone any good whatsoever. Based on the director’s atheistic sympathies, I feel the latter is probably the case. Either way, it seems lazy. This world would not be the way it is now without the input, for good or evil, of Christianity.

I say “evil” because there is always someone out there ready to tout the acts of Charlemagne or some other rampant blood spiller as an example of all the evil that religion has caused. While those people may have claimed the title of Christian, they did not follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, I don’t claim them in my religious heritage. Even if I did, it would show no inaccuracy in my worldview, because I believe all men are capable of great evil. Such is the problem with the world that Christ addressed through his sacrifice on the cross. This single event changed the world. No actual historian would ever deny the fact that Jesus and his followers were critical in shaping empires, starting and ending wars, motivating the sciences, and at the core of the greatest works of literature in the world. It is folly to think otherwise. Without Christianity there would be no Charles Dickens, no Copernicus, no Sistine Ceiling, no American Constitution, no Notre Dame.

It may seem innocuous to you, but the worldview being expressed is detrimental to a clear and informed understanding of history.

The Invention of Lying Still Finally, the film assumes that the grounding for morals comes from within the individual and not from an outside source. When Mark first receives the illumination that he can lie and that whatever he says, people will believe him, he tries it out. He goes out into the street, finds an attractive woman, and says, “The world will end unless you sleep with me.” She believes him, they go to a hotel, but he cannot go through with this wicked act. Why not? The film seems to claim that somewhere in this man there is a sense of virtue. It appeals to everyone’s internal knowledge that what he was about to do was in some way wrong. Why? If religion is a fictitious idea, where do morals come from? Where does man get the concepts of right and wrong? Why are there things like laws or ethics?

The Invention of Lying Still The film makes no attempt to answer these questions. It just seems to request that I accept that somewhere inside the main character there is a decent guy. Obviously this is fiction, because any red-blooded thirty-something like Mark would throw virtue to the wind if he could get away with something like this without any consequences. The worldview shown here is that people are basically good. But with its other hand, the film presents us with a host of other characters that are awful people. Mark’s love interest and his main work competitor are the chief examples of these.

The Invention of Lying Still The film’s sense of virtue is patchy. While he won’t use his lying to sleep with a woman, he has no problem abusing his former place of employment. He is supposed to be a struggling film writer given the task of writing documentaries about the thirteenth century. The comment was made several times that nothing interesting happened then except plagues. This is another moment where they poke fun of Christianity proper. Anyway, he goes to his boss, lies about a film pitching it as historical fact, and proceeds to become richer and more famous than any film writer ever. As if in order to create good art, you have to lie. Does he regret this? Not in the least. And yet he won’t lie to the woman he is obviously in love with in order to claim her affection. Where are the lines? Who is deciding what is virtuous and what is not? He is. The worldview is that morals are relative to each individual and that people should make up their own understanding of right and wrong.

The big problem here is guilt. If there is no God, why would Mark Bellison flinch about any immoral act? Where does he get his moral grounding? He doesn’t do some things, because he feels they are wrong. How does he know it is wrong? A person in their right mind would live it up, get away with anything, and the world would be his oyster.

The Invention of Lying Still This is common to a major objection that all atheists have to face at some point. In philosophy circles it is called the Moral Argument for God. Basically it runs like this: All moral laws need a moral lawgiver. Since people have an inherent knowledge of right and wrong (i.e. don’t kill, rape is bad, etc.), there must be a personal, intelligent God. The argument is much more precise than this, but for the purposes of this article, I feel that will suffice. The Invention of Lying makes no attempt to answer this major objection to atheism and shows yet again how the filmmakers’ premise was not well thought through.

All in all, I disliked the film very much. I don’t mind an opposing worldview. As a matter of fact, since I feel like what I believe is True (note the capital letter), I welcome arguments against my beliefs. However, life is too short for preachy, shoddy filmmaking that attempts satire with no accuracy. Go watch kung fu, go watch a sci-fi movie, go see something with Vincent Price. But demand that the films you watch be carefully thought through. If you are a Christian, never let a film like this slip through the cracks. Know why you should be offended. See what the problems in the presented worldview are. Talk about it with your Christian friends and your church leaders. It will bolster your thinking and in so doing bring you closer to the God of the universe and increase your faith in him and his goodness.

There really is a heaven; you don’t have to make it up to make yourself feel better.

Credits: All Images Copyright (c) Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Douglas Hurt is a Christian, husband, father, artist, musician, writer, reader, thinker. He enjoys Rembrandt, Apologetics and Flatfoot 56. He lives in Oklahoma.

Dialogue Visualized

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We started a series Monday about the Significant Films of the 2000s. Above is a scene from The Lord of the Rings (definitely one of the significant films of the 2000s) performed by typography. There are dozens more of these. I’d like to see this done with Bible verses.

What are your favorite movie lines? Quote them in the comments.

Learning About Ourselves from 10 Feet Tall Blue Aliens

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series, Significant Films of the 2000s, of articles about the cultural significance of films that were released between 2000 and 2009.

Avatar Still While not one of the best films of 2009, Avatar was the most significant film of 2009. The first film from writer-director James Cameron since Titanic, which was the highest-grossing film of all time, premiered twelve years ago, Avatar has already surpassed Titanic to become the new highest-grossing film. Roger Ebert called Avatar “an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.”

Catholic film critic Steven D. Greydanus represents the critical consensus when he writes, “Deep down, Avatar is bone-headed, but it’s also beautiful.” I disagree with the consensus. Although undeniably an example of technical mastery, the artwork feels cold and impersonal. The human imagination is messy and chaotic, but Pandora is bland and sterile. There is hardly any color except for the occasional splash of blue. Avatar has been hailed as a breakthrough in computer graphics, but The Fall, which contained absolutely no computer-generated graphics, is much more visually engaging.

Cameron’s attempts to explore religion and race are similarly sterile. And for as beautiful as the Na’vi are, they are strangely asexual. Instead of probing provocative issues, he offers a bland mix of New Age and folk religious practices seemingly calculated to offend the least amount of people. Conservative commentator John Podhoretz (one of the movie’s more outspoken critics) wrote in the Weekly Standard (in a review titled “Avatarocious”), “[Avatar is] more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”

Why are the special effects, religion, race, and sensuality of Avatar important? To answer that question, we must enter into the world of Avatar. As Jake Sully explored Pandora through his avatar, when you go to movies, for two hours (or in this case, two hours and forty-two minutes) you live vicariously through the characters on the screen. Are you Jake Sully?

Am I Jake Sully?

Avatar Still There have already been pages of magazines and newspapers filled—not to mention countless blog posts—about Avatar. And it’s not just the film critics who are chiming in; political commentators—both conservative and liberal—theologians, and journalists have all been offering their thoughts on the movie. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips aptly described it as “the season’s ideological Rorschach blot.”

Escapism

One sentiment is that it doesn’t matter what the movie is about—just enjoy the pretty pictures. New Yorker film critic David Denby wrote, “[T]here [is not] much point in lingering over the irony that this anti-technology message is delivered by an example of advanced technology that cost nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce; or that this anti-imperialist spectacle will invade every available theatre in the world. Relish, instead, the pterodactyls, or the flying velociraptors, or whatever they are—large beaky beasts, green with yellow reptile patches—and the bright-red flying monster with jaws that could snap an oak.”

Is Avatar escapism? Yes. Is it just escapism? For some reason “escapism” has become an insult, but all fiction—high literature as well as blockbusters—is escapism. But escapism can be used to explore serious issues. New York Times columnist David Brooks observed, “It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind—even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.”

Some commentators think Avatar is pantheistic; some think it is racist. Further on I will ask “Are the Na’vi pantheists?” and “Is Avatar racist?” My answers to those questions say more about me than they do about the movie. I could dismiss it as escapism and not allow it to affect my life, or I can engage with the themes.

Non-narrative

Avatar Still An alternative view is that Avatar is not really a narrative at all. Film blogger Tim Bray conceded there are stereotypical characters, wooden dialogue, and a derivative plot, but “that’s not what Avatar ‘is’—that’s all just sort of the dressing that they used to make it a narrative feature, on account of studios don’t spend $350 million on experimental landscape pictures.” He continued, “Applying the rules of plot and narrative structure to something that is so viscerally visual seems horribly wrong-headed.”

162 minutes is long for an “experimental landscape picture.” There is a tendency in Hollywood to treat all big-budget pictures as epics. But Avatar is not an epic; there is barely enough narrative material for a television episode. It felt liked an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Stargate SG-1 stretched out to almost three hours. In fact Stargate dealt with a number of similar themes in a much more nuanced fashion.

Pandora has a carefully thought out mythology. Cameron even hired a linguist to create the Na’vi language. Mythology is no substitute for story though.

Propaganda

Avatar Still Many critics argue that the flimsy narrative structure of Avatar is just an excuse for Cameron to use pretty pictures to make a political point. Sam Adams of the A.V. Club argued, “Rather than a clunky work of agitprop the movie can—and, I think, ought to—be seen as a polemic, which makes criticism of its obviousness beside the point.”

When I preach, I occasionally use object lessons. But you can also teach with stories. Jesus did. He used parables to get his message across. There is no story in Avatar. It is a sermon—one with plenty of pretty sermon illustrations. Cameron would have been more effective getting his message across though if he had developed a strong story that illustrated his point.

Metaphor

Avatar Still In her review of the movie on sci-fi blog io9, Charlie Jane Anders pointed out, “The whole exercise is a metaphor for the experience of watching any movie, with Cameron’s camera lens represented by the beds that transfer people’s minds into alien bodies.” Avatar is more effective at being a metaphor for watching movies than it is at narrative or sermonizing. She continued, “It’s hard to imagine a movie where medium and story are so closely married. Even as Jake Sully climbs into a coffin and abandons his human body for a spry alien one, Cameron is hoping to pull you into his alien world to a much greater degree than the usual movie immersion.” Tim Bray observed that Sully is a “poor character” but an “extremely good audience surrogate.”

Sully experiences a role reversal within the movie. At the beginning he is an alien to the Na’vi, but by the end he is an alien to the humans. On his blog Christianity Today film critic Peter Chattaway contrasted Avatar with Cameron’s earlier films: In Aliens Ripley fought the Alien Queen with the help of a “load-lifting mechanism.” In Avatar the humans employ “walking battle machines,” but we are rooting for the aliens. In True Lies an Arab hangs from a missile. In Avatar an American is again piloting the plane and a representative of the “other” is hanging from a missile. But the “other” in this case is Jake Sully, the audience surrogate. In Terminator 2 the cyborg becomes increasingly humanized. In Avatar the protagonist starts out as human and increasingly becomes “other.” He is unhumanized or alienized.

One possibility is that Cameron wants us to associate with the “other”—to know what it feels like to be an outcast and alienated. On the other hand, Cameron could be saying that our (over)reliance on technology is causing us to lose touch with our humanity. The Na’vi are not representative of the “other” but of what it means to be truly human—what Sully had strayed away from and the Na’vi helped him reconnect to.

Are the Special Effects Game Changing?

No.

While definitely an incremental improvement of motion capture since Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, it is not a monumental leap forward. The real accomplishment is not the (computer) graphics but the (human) performance. Zoe Saldana (Neytiri) may supplant Andy Serkis (Gollum) for best motion capture performance.

Avatar Still Some have accused Avatar of “style over substance.” I have no problem with stylistic films. The Fall had more style than substance. But Avatar’s style falls flat. The visuals are more of a technical achievement than an artistic one. The trailer for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland that preceded the film looked more visually engaging than anything in Avatar itself (too bad the story of that film fell flat too). And when it comes to battle scenes, this movie has nothing on Lord of the Rings. According to ScreenIt.com, “While the effects are quite good, they’re not groundbreaking as was the case with ‘The Abyss’ and then ‘T2,’ and only raise the overall bar a notch at most.”

Are the Na’vi Pantheists?

If there is any single theistic worldview Avatar is representative of, it is Hollywoodism, the folk religion of Hollywood. Catholic film critic Steven D. Greydanus wrote, “James Cameron’s Avatar is a virtual apotheosis of Hollywood mythopoeia. It is the whole worldview and memory of contemporary Hollywood, given shape in a narrative and pictorial form that is stunning in its finality and grandeur.” Spirituality in Avatar is a synthesis of a number of Native American, African, and Aboriginal worldviews. Greydanus declared, “Cameron’s mythopoeic gift…is precisely a knack for synthesis.”

Pantheism, Panentheism, and the Gaia Hypothesis

Avatar Still One part of the stew is undeniably pantheism. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (and also film critic for the conservative bi-weekly news magazine National Review) called Avatar the “Gospel According to James.” He describes the movie as an apologetic for pantheism, which “has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.” Greydanus disagreed with Douthat’s column and wrote that he would not call Avatar an apologetic. “Avatar expresses and embodies Hollywood’s hippy-dippy, West-bashing, New Age, tree-hugging milieu on a mythic level; it is not a defense of that worldview.”

Wheaton College Associate Professor of Theology Jeffrey W. Barbeau, in a guest post on the Christianity Today Movies & TV blog, thinks Avatar’s “near-pantheism” is better described as panentheism since their deity is a personal being named Eywa. In pantheism god is nature; in panentheism, nature is a part of god, but god also extends beyond nature. In other words, for pantheists all of nature is god and all of god is nature while for panentheists all of nature is god but not all of god is nature. Panentheism leaves room for a deity who is a personal being whereas pantheism does not. Neither pantheism nor panentheism is compatible with traditional Christian theism, but some modern Christian theologies such as process theology and open theism are panentheistic or have panentheistic elements.

Some commentators think Avatar is more representative of the Gaia hypothesis than pantheism or panentheism. According to the Gaia hypothesis, the biosphere of Earth is itself a kind of living entity. While at first glance this might just sound like another spin on Mother Nature, the Gaia hypothesis differentiates itself from pantheism by claiming to be a scientific theory rather than a spiritual practice. The ecosystems of Earth are interdependent and interact. Damage to one ecosystem affects the whole Earth like damage to one organ would affect the whole body.

Modernism

Avatar Still There are many interesting elements to pantheism and panentheism that would have been worthy to explore, but Cameron dismisses all of them in acquiescence to modernism. One of the reasons all the talk of spirituality in Avatar feels sterile to me is because Cameron had no interest in exploring spirituality but rather in rationalizing spirituality.

ScreenIt.com observed, “While it’s interesting to see Cameron…tout spirituality over technology in a film that’s been obviously created in full force with the latter, there’s little if anything that emotionally connects.” The problem is he does not tout spirituality over technology. He makes it clear that there is a scientific explanation for the Na’vi’s spirituality. In accordance with modernism’s love affair with rationalism, he rationalizes the Na’vi’s spirituality.

Avatar could have been a great space fantasy had it not been shackled by modernism. Although the Pandoran animals join in the fight at the end as the Narnian animals do at the end of Prince Caspian, this movie is almost the opposite of Prince Caspian, which was C.S. Lewis’ great treatise against Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism. Had Avatar been a fantasy with dragons and magic like Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia set on Pandora instead of Middle-earth or Narnia, it would have been much more engaging than this sterile tale sanitized by science and technology.

Christianity Today film critic Todd Hertz cautioned, “Some Christians will be bothered by the worship of the Na’vi’s unseen female deity—there are scenes of worship, rituals, and prayer to her. But vagueness about this entity makes it possible to view her not as a New Age goddess but as just one more strange piece of fantasy in this alien world. In fact, there’s suggestion that this entity is Pandora itself: one big, living alien.” It’s more than a suggestion. Cameron does not have the subtlety necessary to suggest anything—the ore the humans are after is called unobtainium after all. He makes quite explicit that the Na’vi’s conception of their deity comes from the trees and plant life being able to communicate via electric impulses across a planetwide network of sorts. Even Hertz points out that “One human character [Dr. Augustine] says, ‘We’re not talking about pagan voodoo but something that is real biologically: a global network of neurons.’”

Greydanus saw Cameron as a myth maker. He is more akin to twentieth-century existential German theologian Rudloph Bultmann and his task of demythologizing the New Testament. Cameron has set out to demythologize spirituality as a whole. Christians should be more bothered by that than that the Na’vi worship a panentheistic female deity.

Is Avatar Racist?

Many people will respond to this question, “Why can’t you just enjoy the movie? It’s just good old fashioned fun.” It’s important to be aware of the issues. I’m a white male. There is a temptation in American culture to assume my experience is normative. In fact, the character everybody’s supposed to be able to identify with, Jake Sully, is a white male. How I respond to this question says more about me than Cameron.

The Victors Write History

Like Inglourious Basterds, Avatar is an experiment in historical revisionism. Cameron has rewritten history with the Native Americans sending the colonizing Europeans back to Europe. But also like Inglourious Basterds, it is the victors who (re)write history. Occidental College Assistant Professor of Sociology Lisa Wade explains that although Avatar is the history of colonization rewritten, it is rewritten by “white people living with a heavy dose of liberal guilt.” She continues, “[U]ltimately, [it] marginalizes indigenous peoples and affirms white supremacy.” She explains, “If it were a fantasy for, say, the American Indian population in the U.S., the story might go a little differently. In that fantasy there would be no Sully character.”

When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?

Avatar Still Many critics have pointed out that Avatar is not original. It is basically Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, or The Last Samurai…in space. Like in those films, “a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member,” summarizes Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9 in a post titled “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?”

Newitz bemoaned that this is “a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white.” PopMatters columnist Rob Horning chimed in that “[Avatar] reaffirmed my sense of belonging to a group of wise and morally pure Westerners who would have done colonizing right—that is, it played to the ingrained sense of superiority that being white and middle class in America provides.”

All the Blue Aliens Look the Same

Avatar Still New Zealand theologian Eric Repphun, who called Avatar “one of the worst Orientalist fantasies in recent memory,” wrote:

[T]he Na’vi are evidently supposed to represent a smattering of oppressed indigenous peoples on Earth, from New Zealand Maori to the Navajo of the American southwest, but in blending all of these cultures into one, the film is guilty of doing exactly what it thinks it is condemning. That each of the cultures that Cameron borrows from [to] create the Na’vi are vibrant and complete in their own right simply does not matter. What matters is that they aren’t European and thus are an open resource to plunder when trying to define Europe over and against what it is not.

The Na’vi never really stood a chance of being all that interesting. Avatar is not about the Na’vi. The Na’vi are simply stand-ins for Native Americans and other oppressed peoples. Had Cameron taken the time to craft a unique society, we might have actually cared about the Na’vi. Cameron’s sharing with us the fantasy world he’s been dreaming about for decades. Why did the catalyst for a story in this fantasy world have to be humans? Plenty of interesting stories could have been set on Pandora without humans having ever reached the planet yet.

Repphun pointed out that though computer-generated, most of the Na’vi are portrayed by non-white actors. Although central to Cameron’s telling of it, this story could also have been told without the avatars. The humans could have interacted directly with the Na’vi. While using the avatar, Sully looks just like the Na’vi. Had the humans not been using avatars, the movie could have seriously dealt with the issue of learning to accept and love somebody who looks different than you. The mythology would have probably had to have been rewritten to reduce the size difference between humans and Na’vi, but it is a fictional mythology to begin with.

Joyriding on the Mars Exploration Rover

Avatar Still Have we learned nothing from our past experiences with colonialism? I would argue that we have or else we wouldn’t be having this discussion. If this was my fantasy about how first contact with an alien species in the future might go, it would be very different from Avatar. I think humanity has learned enough that we could live in harmony with the Na’vi. This seemingly ignorant refusal to even acknowledge that humanity’s more honorable instincts might prevail makes Avatar ineffective at critiquing colonialism. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies was a much better critique of colonialism. Blogger Jake Seliger wrote:

Avatar is really a Western about the perils of modernity, but it gets contemporary politics utterly wrong—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that contemporary politics are utterly absent. There is no intergalactic criminal court or committee for the protection of indigenous peoples, which seems like a probable development for a race nursed on Star Trek and post-colonialism and that is advanced enough to travel the stars. In the contemporary United States, a bewildering array of regulations govern activities that might have an environmental impact on communities. Such regulations are growing, rather than shrinking.

Avatar is also rife with contradictions. Todd Hertz summarized, “[A]ny Cameron fan expects certain modus operandi: using violence to preach anti-violence (Terminator 2 and to a degree, The Abyss) and spending millions of dollars to warn of corporate greed (Aliens).” Black film critic Armond White of the New York Press declared, “Cameron fashionably denounces the same economic and military system that make his technological extravaganza possible. It’s like condemning NASA—yet joyriding on the Mars Exploration Rover.” (Coincidentally, Cameron is designing a 3D camera for the next Mars rover and may make a documentary about Mars from the footage.) In the end, Avatar doesn’t seem so much racist as ignorant of its own contradictions.

Do Jake and Neytiri Have Sex?

Only on the DVD.

According to io9, there was a sex scene filmed for Avatar that ended up getting cut. Cameron assured, “We had it in and we cut it out. So that will be something for the special edition DVD, if you want to see how they have sex.” One might wonder if it was cut to preserve Avatar’s PG-13 rating, but it sounds like the scene was pretty tame. Zoe Saldana, who played Neytiri via motion capture, shared, “Because Jim [Cameron] was shooting for a PG-13 rating, we couldn’t move in certain directions. So it was really funny for Sam [Worthington] and me. We had a lot of giggles there.” She further speculated, “If you sync to your banshee and you’re syncing to a tree, why not sync into a person? I almost feel like you’ll have the most amazing orgasm, I guess.” io9 extrapolated from her remarks and wondered, “[S]he’s not revealing a ton, but is she implying that there’s something under those little brown loincloths?”

The Na’vi were strangely asexual. Technology blog Ars Technica complained, “The PG-13 rating allows for a decent amount of violence and salty language, but a major misstep is keeping the Na’vi ambiguously nude. There is always a bit of hair or a strand of beads placed strategically. An actual flash of nipple—or whatever organs the Na’vi have—would have been less distracting.” With all the running and jumping they do, the Na’vi’s skimpy loincloths couldn’t have kept everything covered up 100% of the time. It wouldn’t have had to be anything titillating—just a recognition that the Na’vi do have gender.

Instead of the clichéd, liberal themes Cameron does explore, he could have explored uncomfortable questions about sex with aliens and the very definition of humanity. I would have settled for a more fleshed out relationship between Neytiri and Sully. A playful, more antagonistic relationship between them would have been refreshing. Greydanus remarked, “[The Na’vi] are spiritual, peaceful, feminist, practice sustainable living and have negligible carbon footprints. Intriguingly, they take sex seriously and mate for life; free love and hooking up is the one element of the flower-child heritage that doesn’t seem to have been adopted by the Na’vi.”

I have a hard time imagining why Neytiri fell in love with Sully—not because he’s an unlikable person but because we are never shown them getting to know each other. I would have loved to see a scene where Neytiri reacts to the fact that Jake’s real body is paralyzed. The movie really should have been about these two instead of battles and becoming “king of the Na’vi.”

Avatar Still Now I can understand why Sully fell in love with Neytiri. She’s hot! Maybe it’s the big eyes. I like big eyes—Audrey Tautou, Zooey Deschanel, Angelina Jolie. According to Joe Letteri, FX supervisor for WETA Digital on Avatar, “[The Na’vi] eyes are almost 3 times as big proportionate as human eyes.” Roger Ebert commented, “Cameron and his artists succeed at the difficult challenge of making Neytiri a blue-skinned giantess with golden eyes and a long, supple tail, and yet—I’ll be damned. Sexy.” Eric Repphun stated, “Zoe Saldana as a nine-foot tall Smurf? Still hot as all hell.”

Credits: All Images Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

Matthew D. Miller is editor of Popsickle. He lives in Oklahoma City and enjoys reading, writing, and programming. He also writes a series of space opera short stories called Map Makers.

Auto Polo

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On Monday Christina Garza discussed the use of martial arts in ministry. Maybe martial arts isn’t your thing. Maybe you’d prefer auto polo:

Auto Polo

Shorpy posts high-resolution photos from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They offer a fascinating look at history.

Do you have any really old photos? Maybe a picture of your great-great-grandparents? Get nostalgic in the comments.

Martial Arts and the Church

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Chuck Norris Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Ninja Turtles and Bruce Lee are some of the most common names and cartoon characters people connect to martial arts. The fascination of martial arts has appealed to millions of people all over the world, but with the fascination comes many misconceptions about this sport, especially on the topic of Christians and martial arts. Over the past couple of years, churches have opened their doors to allow so-called martial arts ministries to evolve leading many people to cast critical eyes. But through a right understanding of this sport, many misconceptions could be erased and the sport embraced.

A recent study in the New York Times and followed by numerous blog discussions (some found on Church Marketing Sucks) disagree with many churches opening their doors to “so-called” outreaches and having mixed martial arts schools.

Someone once told me, “Anywhere you go, there will always be someone to criticize something.” Understanding this art is important to deciding if it’s right for a Christian and inside a church.

The oldest known records concerning combat techniques are hieroglyphic scrolls from Egyptian tombs dating as far back as 2500 BC which describe military training fights similar to modern boxing. Theagenes, the most noted boxer of the fifth century BC, is said to have conquered 2,102 men by knockouts and have killed 1,800, and as time went on, these matches turned into Olympian games. Other ancient writings indicate that as early as 1000 BC, India’s warrior caste (Kshatriya) practiced a fighting system, in which the primary weapon was a closed fist (Vajramushti), that was translated into parts of Asia. As years went by, it reached the lands of Japan and Korea during what happened to be around the time the Ryuku Islands (Okinawa) were conquered and united into one kingdom. To insure his rule, the king confiscated and banned possessions of weapons, and 200 years later a second ban on weapons was issued.

Nunchaku Under these circumstances the Okinawans had no other choice but to learn how to defend themselves with what they already had and quickly learned protection with tools such as the sai, bo, kama, nunchaku and tonfa.

Many styles of martial arts are still practiced today all over the world: Aikido (founded by Morihei Ueshiba in the twentieth century and greatly influenced the development of daito ryu aiki jujitsu and Kendo, Japanese swordsmanship), Bando (comes from the Southeast Asia country of Myanmar), Capoeira (dates back to the 1500s when African slaves structured a defense program out of necessity), Hapkido (Korean art known more for a method of self-defense than art for sport), Jujitsu (one of the arts of the Japanese Samurai warrior), Kung Fu (Chinese art), and Karate (originated in Okinawa). These are just a taste of the many styles practiced across the globe.

The two biggest arguments floating around about Christians and martial arts are the associations with eastern religion and the so-called martial arts church ministries. Concerning eastern religion, when you actually take the time to study their beliefs, you see the center is themselves. Though some martial arts styles encourage the meditation and focus on self, not all are connected with this. From a Christian’s standpoint, the Bible should be the main example how to live, and if you are questioning if you should be meditating everyday, the answer is yes! The key to this is found all over the Book of Psalms where David repeatedly stresses the importance of meditating on God—who he is and what he has done for you. So the answer to this argument is simple: If you are interested in martial arts that promote a spiritual side of emptying oneself to focus on self and worships anything but the Creator, be extremely careful—and I would advise leave. There are many styles to choose from. The first argument’s answer leads right into the second question in which many people are either for or against a church-based martial arts school.

I have read many arguments and people who answer blindly to this subject. To this I say, unless you yourself are in martial arts and understand this art, you really have no right voicing your “so-called ‘holy’ criticism” against martial arts and Christians.

Korean Folk Wrestling Known as Ssireum I have been on both sides of this argument for many years. As a second degree black belt involved with martial arts for over twelve years instructing and now about to start my own school, I can see both sides of this spectrum. As a believer in Jesus Christ and a lady living in the Bible Belt, I have had to deal with many issues throughout my martial arts years. Many Christians view martial arts as a violent sport. To this I say it all depends on how the instructor handles his school. My first two years at a Bible college I had professors seriously look down on and give me a hard time, because I was a Christian lady and martial arts was too aggressive a sport. I seriously spent months trying to understand if a Christian should or shouldn’t do it. It was then I realized it’s not the legalistic view of “a Christian shouldn’t be involved with martial arts.” Rather it should be, “Does this bring glory to God? Will this make my life better?” We don’t live in a perfect world, and the statistics for rape, murder, robbery, etc. are on the rise. Whether you’re a single, married mom, pastor, or kid, knowing how to protect yourself is a wise investment. As far as the argument that God is the God of love so you should not have a martial arts ministry in your church, a deeper look into the Bible shows “God is love” (1 John 4:8) but throughout the work of God, he shows himself as a mighty warrior, conqueror, Lion of Judah, always going out before his people and striking fear in the face of his enemies. Just and righteous does not mean a robe/sandal wearing God; the God of love, although he is the essence of love, is also a more passionate, holy God than we will ever know. The Bible also depicts the Christian’s life as one in a spiritual fight. Nowhere in the Bible does it state Christians are perfect living in a perfect world. Christians live defending the good and fighting evil.

So the question still persists, “Should a church have a martial arts school?” The church is God orchestrated and is a place of worshiping God. Nothing should take the place of that! At the same time, I am involved with a martial arts that is Christ-centered, and missions is a main focus. That’s the best type of school to allow in a church. A martial arts school that is a ministry to reach people and share about God is a great idea that God will bless. I will testify that if it was not for a Christ-centered martial arts school located in a church during high school where I heard and was encouraged to not give up but live for God all through my teens, my life would be totally different today. Sometimes God chooses to use the foolish things of this world for his glory. At the same time, if a martial arts school is in a church but has no godly influence and does not bring glory to God, this is a school that should quickly disappear from the church. Martial arts brings many benefits such as discipline, patience, endurance, self protection, and extra benefits if it’s Christ-centered in that your spiritual life is challenged and you have a way to impact the lives of people who may never step foot in a church through martial arts whether across the street for a local class or across the world on a mission trip.

Credits: Chuck Norris: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain, Nunchaku: Wikimedia Commons / GNU Free Documentation License, Wrestling: parhessiastes / Creative Commons

Shia LaBeouf Shaves with a Manly Straight Razor

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Shia LaBeouf Shaving I have a confession to make: I watched Even Stevens when I was in high school. I know most people would consider that too old for the Disney Channel, but I enjoyed the series. LeBeouf has came along way since his humble Disney Channel beginnings. He’s starring in almost every movie coming out this year.

Shia LaBeouf may be rich and famous, but he is searching for answers to life’s questions just like you and me. Money and fame can’t answer those questions. Only God can. Parade recently did a photo shoot and interview (“I’m Proud of Growing Up Poor” and “The Mixed-Up Life of Shia LaBeouf”) with LeBeouf. Here are some of the comments he made:

Shia LaBeouf Diving

  • “If you look at our Billboard Top 100, a lot of those songs on there are from Christian country artists. A lot of rappers, too, are very Christian. The fact that [religion] is even still talked about is kind of wild to me. I think my generation understands it, but they are too selfish to let it matter.”
  • “Sometimes I feel I’m living a meaningless life, and I get frightened.”
  • “I don’t handle fame well. Most actors on most days don’t think they’re worthy. I have no idea where this insecurity comes from, but it’s a God-sized hole. If I knew, I’d fill it, and I’d be on my way.”
  • “I don’t give a damn about the money anymore.”
  • “Why did the love of my life and I break up? Man, I have no idea. What was that all about? I have no answers to anything. None. Why am I an alcoholic? I haven’t a damn clue! What is life about? I don’t know. What I do know is, I screw up, and I know that I’m working on myself to be a better person.”

Unfortunately, we are unable of becoming “a better person” on our own. We “all have sinned and fall[en] short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Our problem really is “God-sized.” Only Jesus can save us from our sins. I join Christianity Today in praying that LeBeouf may find him.

Did you watch Even Stevens? What’s your favorite Shia LaBeouf movie? Do you ever find yourself asking some of the questions LaBeouf asked above? If you could say one thing to LaBeouf, what would it be? Confess in the comments.

God's Plans Triumph

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Praying Silhouette When I was just a teenager, I felt God’s call on my life. At that time I didn’t know exactly what that meant or where it would take me. All I knew was that I was called by God to be in ministry for him. As I got older, I still knew in my head that ministry is where God wanted me, but I stopped believing it in my heart. Praise God that he is bigger and more powerful than me! Through my decisions, both good and bad, God consistently brought me to the correct ministry for me at the correct time.

All throughout junior high school and high school, I was in church, studying the Bible, and learning about God. I was a good kid. I even helped with a few youth church camps during the summer. I was right on track to become a minister some day. After I graduated high school, I started college at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. I spent the first two years of my college career studying business and looking for ministry opportunities around Shawnee. Unfortunately, church after church after church, there was nobody interested in bringing me on to their ministry team. Eventually, during my third year at OBU, I decided to give up on ministry. I must have misunderstood what God was calling me to in my life.

I still attended a local church. I still loved God. I still studied my Bible. But I had given up on ever being in ministry. And that crushed my spirit. Looking back now, I understand why I felt so terrible about giving up on ministry. Back in junior high, God had called me to ministry, and I had accepted that calling and committed myself to the ministry. Now I was just giving up on it. When God calls us to do something, he puts a fire in us, a passion for it. We cannot just put that fire out, even if we give up. It still burns regardless of us. That’s how it was with me, but I did my best to ignore it.

Now, had my life stayed the same at that point, I truly believe that I would have never gone into the ministry and would have been miserable my whole life. Thank God that he can do things in our lives to put us back on course.

Stack of Cash After the first semester of my junior year at OBU, it became financially impossible for me to stay at OBU any longer. So I left the school intending to never come back to OBU or Shawnee. As you will see later, God had very, very different plans for me. I left OBU and went to live with my older brother. I got a job at a fast food restaurant and didn’t know what my plan for life was.

During this time, I felt like I was wandering in the desert spiritually. I questioned everything I believed about God and his plans for my life. I was angry at God. I blamed him for taking me away from the university I loved and the friends I loved. I was angry that he had put this fire in my heart for ministry but didn’t give me a ministry during my first two years of college. I had served God faithfully my whole life. Surely he owed me something. For three months I prayed in anger towards God. What I didn’t understand was that he was still working in me.

After those three months were over, I moved out of my brother’s house and back to Shawnee to work at a local bank. During this time, I began to trust God more and more. What I had not been able to see was that God had taken me away from OBU, where I was comfortable, to really put my faith to the test. A test by fire. A test to make me better and to increase my faith in God and his plans. While I was working at the bank, my prayers changed. I gave my life back over to God. I let him take control and was completely ready to go wherever he took me. However, I still did not believe that ministry was where God was taking me. At least not ministry in a church building.

Another three months passed after I moved back to Shawnee, and a new job opportunity opened up. At OBU, the very school I had left six months earlier, a position opened up in the school business office. I applied and got the job. If getting a better job wasn’t enough, now that I had a job at OBU I was able to go back to school and finish my degree. Obviously God had a plan for my life that I could not see. I had all but given up on ever going back to college and BAM! God guides me back onto the path to completing my degree.

Daylight Strategy Now that I was back at OBU I started to reconnect with many of my friends. Come to find out, Doug Hurt, one of my best friends from OBU, was living in the same apartment complex as me. Once we figured this out, we hung out all the time. Eventually we started playing music together just for fun. Doug on guitar and vocals, me on drums. We realized very soon that we absolutely loved playing music together and wanted to start playing in front of people. There was only one problem: A “band” made up of just a guitarist and drummer was going to be really hard to pull off. So Doug contacted a good friend of his, Ben Allred, to come jam with us. With the addition of another guitar player, we started playing some shows. We played around OBU and Shawnee quite a bit and even ventured to places like Oklahoma City and Coalgate, Oklahoma. We were a Christian band and played mostly at churches and Christian venues. Eventually we added two more members to our band, Kiah and Isaiah Lockhart, and started playing in bars and clubs. This is when God really started to work through the band and absolutely touched my heart.

God had brought me to a different kind of ministry, a ministry where we played Christian music in secular venues to reach people that would otherwise be unreached by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have so many stories of people coming up to us, Christian and non-Christian alike, telling us how our passion for God had inspired them to seek him again. My favorite experience was after we played a show and this pierced, hardcore rocker came up and talked to me. He told me that he was agnostic and had rejected Christianity but that he was going to look back into it because of how much passion we showed for our music and our Christian beliefs. I was so happy I had to hold back tears of joy (especially since I was talking to a hardcore rocker). I knew that God was working through what we were doing and I was finally fulfilling the call God had put on my life for ministry. For about a three years, we continued to play shows and minister to people. Playing Christian music in secular venues was not the ultimate call God had on my life. Eventually the band broke up, and I was suddenly without a ministry again.

This was the second time in my life that I felt like God was taking me through a desert. I had graduated with a degree in marketing, moved from Shawnee to Oklahoma City, and had switched jobs three or four times after graduation. I made some terrible decisions about when to leave jobs and what jobs to take next. I was angry at God once again, and I did not understand why he had taken me away from a ministry that was touching and affecting people’s lives.

In Oklahoma City I was able to get two jobs. I worked full-time at a customer service call center for a mortgage company and part-time at Starbucks Coffee. The only ministry I was remotely involved in was the Sunday night contemporary worship service for a Baptist church in Shawnee. That’s right, I was living and working in Oklahoma City and playing drums for a worship service in Shawnee. It amazes me how even during this desert period of my life, God was preparing me for ministry in Shawnee. But more about that later.

Well, eventually I got sick and tired of talking to angry people about their mortgage payments going up, so I started looking for a different job. Then one Sunday night the worship leader at the contemporary service I played drums at tells me that there is a member of the church in need of a new salesman at his business. I jumped at the opportunity to get a different job, and two weeks later I started work at Extreme Inflatables in Shawnee. After about a year of commuting from Oklahoma City to Shawnee everyday, I moved back to Shawnee. Shawnee, the city which I had left and never wanted to come back to. God had brought me back to Shawnee, but I still was unsure why. I still played drums for the contemporary service, but again, that was all the “ministry” I was doing.

Starbucks Then in November of 2008, Will, a good friend of mine from Starbucks, called me up. He was going through a really bad breakup and needed somebody to hang out with him. So I hung out with him for about twelve days straight. The great thing was that our friendship just came together like we were life-long friends. Sometime in December Will invited me to come to his church on a Thursday night and help him lead worship for the youth group. I went with him and immediately fell in love with the youth group at his church. I was so impressed with the youth group that I decided to visit the church for Sunday morning worship. When I walked into the church on Sunday, it just felt like coming home. I know now that God just poured his peace over me when I walked in that door as if to say, “This is where you need to be.”

I fell in love with the church and started serving as much as I could, whenever I could, wherever I could. Then about a year later the pastors asked that anybody interested in leading a Community Group come talk to them. I felt like this would be another great opportunity for me to serve. The only problem was I lived in Shawnee, so I approached the pastoral team and asked if I could host a Community Group in Shawnee at my house. The pastors nearly jumped out of their skin. Come to find out about a month earlier they felt like God had called the church to plant a new church in Shawnee. I was in shock! I had left Shawnee twice, fully intending never to return. Now I was back in Shawnee, and the church I was attending in Oklahoma City felt called to plant a church in Shawnee. All I could do was pray over and over, “God, you are so good!”

So I started hosting a Community Group at my house once a week. We grew from three people to about twenty in only four months. I kept serving but was unsure what my role for the Shawnee church plant was going to be. The pastors and I knew that God wanted me to be part of the ministry team in Shawnee, but we did not know in what capacity. Then the pastors approached me about being on the pastoral team for the Shawnee church plant. I was in shock again! After much prayer and meditation, I agreed to come on as one of the pastors for the Shawnee church plant.

So after some bad decisions and some hard decisions, God has brought me to my current ministry. We are struggling to get a building for our church plant, but we are still ministering to the community of Shawnee. It amazes me that God was guiding my steps the whole way. Had I not left OBU when I did, I would not have worked at Starbucks at the same time as Will. Had I not worked at Starbucks with Will, I would have never connected with my current church. Had I not connected with my church, I would have never been called to be a campus pastor for our Shawnee church plant. Even when I could not see the path, God was keeping me on it.

So even when you feel like you are going through a spiritual desert, remember that God is for you. He has plans for you and wants you to succeed at those plans. All you need to do is try to get your sin nature out of the way of God’s plans. But even if you are unable to do that, God is big enough and powerful enough to bring you back to his plans for your life. It is then your decision. Will you follow God’s call on your life or will you turn away once again? The good news is that God will give you multiple chances to accept following his plan for your life even if you reject him. Think about what would have happened if Jesus had just rejected Peter after Peter denied knowing him. Peter would have missed out on being a part of the day of Pentecost where thousands of people became Christians. God can use us just like he used Peter. All we need to do is trust him and listen for his direction and call on our lives.

Credits: Praying: Leland Francisco / Creative Commons, Cash: Andrew Magill / Creative Commons, Starbucks: d’n’c / Creative Commons

Dempsey Kraft is one of the campus pastors for Frontline Church Shawnee in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He loves to play and listen to music. To “pay the bills” he works as a Fun Consultant for Extreme Inflatables.
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