Fantasy and Emergent Thought


For those of you looking for a CSFF Blog Tour post about Andrew Peterson‘s book North! Or Be Eaten, second in the Wingfeather Saga, you are actually in the right place. However, you’ll find much more information about the book from my fellow participants listed below or from my earlier review and thoughts about the book posted in conjunction with the Children’s Book Blog Tour.

What I want to do today (and the rest of this week) is to tie in the current discussion here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction about emergent thought with our CSFF selection.

You might be wondering what one has to do with the other. Quite a bit, actually—an entire worldview.

This series of posts began last Friday with an article discussing a provocative piece entitled “Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?” In the ensuing discussion there and spilling over to Monday, some of those associated with emerging thought made it clear that they do not believe in one or more of the following: original sin, Satan as an actual enemy, hell, God as a righteous judge meting out deserved punishment.

In fact, a number of these visitors ascribe to a panentheistic worldview, or non-duality. In other words, they don’t believe in the basic fantasy motif: good versus evil.

It’s a little hard to imagine speculative fiction without duality. Avatar tried to pull it off, but good fiction is built upon conflict, so evil capitalists and military-ists were cast in the role of antagonist. As author and blogger Mike Duran has pointed out, the panentheistic people in the movie were at one with nature, even revering the animals they had to kill by way of preserving human life, yet they were not at one with the evil humans. No thanking them for giving up their lives. No reverential ceremony acknowledging their contribution to the cycle of life.

North! Or Be Eaten gives an entirely other point of view. There is an enemy bent on destruction—not of the body alone but of the soul. The threat is real, imminent, far-reaching, deadly.

My first question is, which of these two views most accurately squares with Scripture?

From first to last, the Bible is about conflict. Jesus’s parable in Matthew about the landowner who went on a journey gives a thumbnail sketch of the entire Bible.

After a time, the landowner sent reps to collect the proceeds from those he left to work the land. Instead of paying up, they beat and killed these reps. At last the landowner sent his son, but he too was killed and thrown out of the vineyard.

The parable ends with the landowner coming back. Jesus asked this question: “What will he do with those vine-growers?” Jesus didn’t toss out that question for thought. He spelled out the answer: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper season.”

So does North! Or Be Eaten present the same struggle, good against evil? Let me answer that by quoting these lines of poetry Oskar recites about the protagonists father:

    All children of the Shining Isle, rejoice!
    A hero strides the field, the hill, the sand
    With raven hair and shining blade in hand.
    The wicked quake when lifts the Warden’s voice

    So fleet his mount and fierce his mighty band!
    So fair his word and fine his happy roar
    That breezes o’er the Isle from peak to shore!
    So tender burns his love for king and land!

Good fantasy like North! Or Be Eaten is full of conflict, mirroring the good/evil struggle in the world—the very struggle the Bible addresses, ending in Revelation with a picture of the answer to Jesus’s question: what will He do when He comes back?

– – –

I promised you links to the other participants. Hope you take some time to peruse their reviews and other thoughts about North! Or Be Eaten.

A check mark provides a link to a specific post.

Advertisements

Attacks on God from Within


Yesterday I mentioned subtle attacks on God (and just a reminder, by “attack” I am referring to that which contradicts or distorts the truth about God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible). From what I see, the subtle version is most prevalent from within the body of professing Christians.

Sadly, it would seem that some identifying with the emerging church, are falling into this category. I almost don’t know where to begin.

Self-described wannabe mystic and prophet Mike Morrell wrote an article, “Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?” last November that illustrates the attack from the inside.

Note: this article is a result of reviewing some sessions from the 2004 Emerging Theological Conversation. The presenting scholar was Walter Brueggemann, and Brian McLaren, Tim Keel, Troy Bronsink were among those hosting dialogues. In other words, these ideas are not exclusive to Mr. Morrell.

While Mr. Brueggemann first advanced the idea that God is getting over his addiction to violence, Mr. Morrell uses Geoff Holsclaw’s summary to explain the position:

“By this he [Brueggemann] means that God used to think violence was a good idea, but then gave up on it. However, like all addicts, He has relapses. Of which the cross is either the final deliverance, or another relapse.”

In today’s society, of course, “violence” has come to mean any use of force. Consequently, God’s judgment—whether on nations or on His Son as He bore the sins of the world—is viewed as violence.

This position negates God’s role as judge, denies the goodness and immutability of His nature, and ignores His plan for the world.

In essence, while claiming to search for the mystery of spirituality (departing from certitude, dying to “answers/desires/scripts”), this position misses the transcendence of God.

On one hand, this view of God reduces him to human proportions, at least emotionally. He grows up, matures, battles to “recover” from how he’s treated man because, apparently, he knows better now. In addition, because we are in a personal relationship with him, that means he must learn from me just as I learn from him.

On the other hand, this view of God strips him of his personhood. Here’s the argument:

But when we’re faced with the disturbing truths that Brueggemann elucidates – God’s irascibility for instance – what do we do?

There are two ways to do handle this. One is the way of definitive, forceful – almost violent – denial that there is (or has ever been) anything troubling in God’s character or actions. It’s the route of trusting God via suppression.

But there is another route – more painful, more adult, more complex – but I think it can still end in deeply-rooted, childlike trust. It’s a path that I’ve learned from many guides over the years … And this is the path: As Grubb proposes a radically panentheistic reading of Holy Writ, there is only One Person in the Universe. (Y’know, like “I Am the Lord your God, there is no Other?”) Creation unfolds inside of God. And within this unfolding, it moves from gross [overt] to subtle to causal. (emphasis mine)

Notice, there is no argument against taking God at His word, just an accusation that to do so requires denial and suppression.

But here’s the conclusion:

I think that I can be an orthodox Trinitarian Christian with a high Christology, and still hold that the Universe is one important aspect of the unfolding of God – and that we are the co-unfolding of God within God.

The panentheism believes nature is God within God or that God is beyond God.

As Jay Michaelson explained it, God is the ocean and all else is the water.

Remember, Mr. Morrell is speaking as someone within the emerging church. He considers himself a Christian—one who looks at Scripture through the eye of a panentheist.

I call this an attack on God.

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 7:00 am  Comments (301)  
Tags: , , ,

Connection Points between Avatar and Christianity


I said last time I see a couple connection points between the religious beliefs espoused by James Cameron in Avatar and Christianity. These are not places in the movie where someone can put a Christian spin on elements unintended for such, such as the line about a second birth.

One of the fallacies of trying to find connection points without understanding what exactly the other person is saying is that words may mean one thing to one person and something quite different to another. Consequently, some Christians hear “god” and think “the one true God.” Or they hear “second birth” and they think “born again.”

The truth is, language is less important than meaning. Just because Cameron, through the Na’vi, referred to god, we should not conclude he is talking about the one transcendent person from whom all else derives its existence. Rather, he would dispute the idea that god is a person, that He brought all else into being, and that He is transcendent. In other words, Cameron is talking about something else entirely when he refers to “god.”

In understanding this, I can now look at the views espoused through the film and see what things are consistent with a Christian worldview.

One obvious point is spiritual awareness. Jay Michaelson said in his article “The Meaning of Avatar: Everything is God (A Response to Ross Douthat and other naysayers of ‘pantheism’)”

“God” is a series of insufficient explanations of the Absolutely Unknowable, a collection of projections and dreams and who-knows-what-else whichspeak to the core of who we are as human beings. (Emphasis mine.)

That panentheists recognition that “god” speaks to the core of who we are as human beings coincides with the Christian belief as explained by Blaise Pascal, that humans have a “God-sized vacuum” in our hearts. Here’s Pascal’s actual statement:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Blaise Pascal, Pensees #425]

I see another point of connection between Christians and panentheists—nature is beautiful and precious. While our motives differ, our attitude toward nature should be similar.

On the one hand, the panentheist sees god in everything. Hence a hedgehog should be appreciated and cared for as much as a horse and nearly as much as a human. The Christian often reacts negatively to that ideology, but I think we have more in common than first meets the eye.

God put Adam in charge of His garden, gave him dominion over the animals, and after the Fall gave them as resources for mankind’s needs. As near as I can tell from Scripture, God did not rescind this first charge. Man is still to be in charge of nature. But being in charge hardly means “indiscriminately using.”

Scripture is full of counsel and commands about being good stewards. It seems clear we as believers can advocate for proper care of nature because God has made us stewards over His creation.

Should we worship nature or put the well-being of the titmouse over the well-being of humans? No. But we might need to rethink what the “well-being of humans” means.

Details aside, our treatment of our world ought to be more a connection point than a division when it comes to Christians talking with panentheists.

For further discussion, see “The Na’vi, The Borg, And The Church.”

Avatar and Christianity


A few days after Christmas I joined millions of others and went to see Avatar. It seemed like the right thing for a fantasy writer to do, and I’m not a bit sorry for the experience. If nothing else, this movie has caused a cultural stir, and I’m happy I can enter into the resulting dialogue.

After watching the movie, I was especially curious to see what the Christian community had to say about it, especially the Christian writing community. You see, among all the other things I can say about Avatar, one particular feature stood out, and I wondered what writers thought. Christian writers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I enjoyed the movie. The science fiction, while at the center of the story, was not “hard core.” This was more a fantasy than science fiction.

The world the author and the director created was impressive for its imaginative integration of sea life and land. The special effects, including the use of 3D, enhanced the story and existed for it rather than the other way around, which seems to be the case in so many movies these days.

There was excellent foreshadowing which made much of the story believable. Again, it seems that many commercial movies could care less about believability (call it the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” effect), so miraculous escapes engineered by the suddenly discovered Handy Device are the norm. Not so in Avatar.

Still, there were some glaring problems. One was the stereotypical hard-bitten military professional and the greedy, unfeeling corporate exec. Along with the smart, tough, talented love-interest alien princess.

But the weak characterization of these secondary characters paled in comparison to the central theme and problem of the movie: it unabashedly preached panentheism. From Wikipedia:

Panentheism … is a belief system which posits that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well. Panentheism is distinguished from pantheism, which holds that God is synonymous with the material universe.

Briefly put, in pantheism, “God is the whole”; in panentheism, “The whole is in God.” This means that the Universe in the first formulation is practically the Whole itself, but in the second the universe and God are not ontologically equivalent. In panentheism, God is not necessarily viewed as the creator or demiurge, but the eternal animating force behind the universe, with the universe as nothing more than the manifest part of God. The cosmos exists within God, who in turn “pervades” or is “in” the cosmos. While pantheism asserts that God and the universe are coextensive, panentheism claims that God is greater than the universe and that the universe is contained within God.

Clearly the latter position is the dominant belief of the inhabitants of the planet Pandora.

Throughout the movie, the panentheistic principle becomes clearer and clearer.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this comment in a review by Jeffrey Overstreet at Image:

While the aliens’ faith is a mishmash of world religions calculated to minimize controversy, Avatar’s spirituality is admirably incarnational. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive: one informs the other to the better understanding of both.

I suppose in the way New Age spirituality is a mishmash of ideas, so is Avatar. But it hardly creates its own mix. Rather, it preaches the panentheistic party line:

  • Nature is One
  • We are one with Nature
  • Therefore, animal life is to be valued as is human life
  • But death is part of the cycle of life
  • God (the Na’vi called her Eywa) doesn’t take sides (in good/evil struggles) but maintains the balance of the universe
  • Another review—the snippet I read—mentioned that Avatar succeeded in not offending Christians. Still another praised it as possibly a Christian movie:

    The Holy Spirit comes all over him from the Spirit tree, (God the Father) coming to the end when man comes to wipe the Navi out, Jake goes to God (Spirit tree and prays from his heart) his Navi girl friend tells him that God is there to protect, but He will not answer such a pray, but He did, God called all the Giant beasts to fight the war for the Navi.

    The commander of the attacking forces was evil (could be Satan or the anti Christ) the Scene when they were worshiping God in unity was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen that is the way it will be in Heaven.

    Then there is this from the review at Christianity Today by Todd Hertz:

    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.

    For an emergent take on the movie, read Avatar: a metaphor for emergent evangelism.

    To be honest, I’m stunned. Christian writers not up in arms at the preachy-ness of the movie? Granted, Overstreet calls it out for its political message. But not its religious ones.

    And Christians not loudly declaiming the anti-Christian religious themes? Where are the people who condemned Harry Potter? Is the worship of nature somehow OK where as wizardry (even if that was what Harry Potter promoted, which it did not) is not?

    Perhaps the most likely explanation is this: professing Christians have begun to incorporate tenets of New Age spirituality with their church traditions so that what many call “Christianity” has become the actual mishmash. As a result, the majority are comfortable with, even blessed by, references to false religion.

    Where, oh where, has discernment gone?

    For further discussion see “More On Avatar.”

    %d bloggers like this: