The Never-ending Messianic Complex Story

Posted: January 12, 2010 in Uncategorized

The last two movies that my wife and I had the chance to watch were Avatar and Blind Side. Not sure how that happened, but both movies had very rich missiological and race themes to them. Or maybe I just see everything in that way. When I pastored a church in Cambridge, I was notorious for giving away endings to movies, so I will try my best not to give away the ending of either movie in this entry. (Although part of the problem with both movies is that most of the audience already knows the ending or could see it coming from a mile away). But caveat emptor, I may have a few spoilers on this blog post.

First, Avatar. If I were grading this movie on special effects alone, it would easily be an A+, and I don’t give A+’s. This movie may be the best special effects movie of all time. “. . . OF ALL TIME!” The animated world created by Cameron was rich in visual detail and filled with “realistic” images and scenes. And I saw this in conventional 2-D, not in IMAX or even in 3-D.  However, you can’t judge a book only by its cover and you can’t judge a movie only by its special effects. The story was okay, but somewhat formulaic. Boy looks for a new life. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy saves the girl’s entire species. The lessons in the movie were a bit ham-handed. I’m completely on board with climate care and that message came through loud and clear. So did the no war for oil subtext. But did those points have to be made while exoticizing native cultures? And with yet another example of a white man coming to the rescue of the poor savages? The images of the Na’vi (Na’vi = Natives) riding on horseback with bows and arrows and loud war cries could not have been more obvious. Of course, that charge was led by the John Wayne-ish white male.

Next, Blind Side. Again, a movie with some nice elements.  A feel good story that seems to have struck a nerve among many.  A rarity in the movie industry in that it actually portrays Christians in a positive light as wanting to help others.  The whole Southern, Republican, white Christian thing was handled with a gentle self-deprecating humor rather than the scythe and scalpel that most Hollywood movies tend to use. So it was really nice that the rich private school accepted the poor black kid because it was their Christian responsibility. And it was very noble of the rich white family to take in the poor black kid because of their good Christian nature. The family takes in the homeless black kid to rescue one kid. One child at a time brought into Noah’s Ark out of the judgment waters. Avatar upends the entire system and Blind Side saves the individual.

In both movies, you have a white hero/heroine rescuing the minorities. In Avatar, it was made clear that the natives were not going to win this thing without the Messianic leadership and superior flying abilities of the white male hero. In Blind Side, it was pretty evident that the black folks were the ones holding back the football player. Similar to my take on the Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino — the movies themselves weren’t bad at all. In fact, there were some strongly redemptive elements to all three of the movies, but when do we start seeing all the different groups working together rather than the white person rescuing the minority person?

So what do these two movies teach us about missiology or how we communicate the gospel cross-culturally? Avatar seems to advocate for the incarnational model of ministry, while Blind Side seems to advocate for the rescue mission model of ministry. (I know, I’m using classic de-constructionist methods to make the movies say I what I want it to say). Whichever model is used, both models require the heroic white American.

Last year I was speaking at a mission conference comprised mainly of white suburbanite participants. I was listening to the speaker before me, when he dropped this little gem: “It’s not about a handout, but a hand up.” Actually, it’s not about either. A handout means you think you’re better than me and you’re handing me something (something I probably don’t deserve). A hand up means you think you’re better than me and you’re trying to lift me up from a bad place to your wonderful place. Actually, if it’s a choice between the two, I’d rather have the handout. If you’re going to be condescending, I might as well get a direct benefit out of it instead of being told that I need to become like you.

Forget the hand out or the hand up. Just reach a hand across. Let’s be equals and partners. I don’t need you to rescue me just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me. My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter. I want to be a co-laborer in Christ with you, not your reclamation project.

By the way, the next movie we’re hoping to see is The Book of Eli. Now that should be interesting.

  1. gar says:

    “Forget the hand out or the hand up. Just reach a hand across. Let’s be equals and partners. I don’t need you to rescue me just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me. My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter. I want to be a co-laborer in Christ with you, not your reclamation project.”

    Great words, Prof. Rah!

  2. brianbantum says:

    Thanks for the reflections. I quite agree the movie relied on some rather tired depictions of the white protagonist’s quick assimilation of a native culture, but I think Cameron has also complicated this cliche a bit. You can read some of my reflections at

  3. […] Check out Prof Rah’s take on "Avatar." […]

  4. T. C. says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  5. .elise.anne. says:

    you continue to be my hero.

    I was at the Sojo blog before here, and was very impressed that you even responded to comments there of people who didn’t understand your point. Usually the authors don’t respond at Sojo.

    Thanks for stating so clearly the issues with these two movies, and helping me to find the words to describe them as well. your balance of those comments and comments of the good in the movies was great, i thought.

    congrats on writing another book! woot!

  6. […] no. I told myself I was not going to write a review. See, there are tons of reviews out there describing all the problems of Avatar. There are also lots of websites that mock the […]

  7. […] but ANYWAY . . . Eugene Cho has expressed this much more eloquently than I have, so check out his thoughts on the two films. […]

  8. showbread says:

    From “The West Wing”
    In #32 Noël, Leo tells Josh the following story (Josh refers to it when talking to Leo in “Bartlet for America”):
    “This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.
    “A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
    “Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on
    “Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

  9. Kelly Boyd says:

    I think you are wrong about both movies. You are looking at them through your own cultural/ministry experiences, even while admitting it, and attempting to draw conclusions from it. Avatar is about a human who discovers a “superior” culture to his own, and becomes part of it. Blind Side is a true story, not fiction told from one point of view. The whole tone of your article is very superior and judgmental.

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