I spoke last Sunday, and my assignment was Ephesians 3. Ephesians 3! Have you seen it lately? On first glance I was near panic – how to take this abstract section and make it accessible to our diverse community, partly urban poor and partly middle class? How would I connect with Terry, six months clean and living at the Gospel Mission as well as Marge, 55, semi-retired and comfortable?

I have been thinking a lot about story and plots lately, and I was strongly taken with Tom Long’s perspective on “narrative preaching.” Tom answers an interview question on his book, “Preaching from Memory to Hope. “The major idea is that the structure of the sermon is less “old homiletic” or “inductive” or “point-by-point” or “propositional” with a “defense,” but instead the sermon is shaped with a plot (character, conflict, resolution — a person who wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it).”

It’s “the hero’s journey.” The universal story pulls us in, because it reflects something of the BIG story as well as something ubiquitous in human life. Could it be that Ephesians 3 looks abstract at first glance, but is all about the big story?

Around the same time I had begun reading “An Introduction to Missional Church” (Roxburgh and Boren). They write:
“Mission is not something the church does as an activity; it is what the church IS through the mystery of its formation and memory of its calling. The church is God’s missionary people.” (45) Ok. We know that. Nothing revolutionary there. But earlier they write this:

“It’s as though missional life is discovered out of a wild, wide river. .. It has been shaped by the confluence of three powerful currents we call mystery, memory and mission. Entering the missional waters is not about strategies or models; it is about working with the currents that shape our imagination of what God is doing in the world.” (31-32)

And I saw it — it was all there in Ephesians 3: mystery, memory and mission (or purpose) — the ingredients in all compelling stories. What Paul is doing in Ephesians 3:1-13 is drawing the big picture of what God is up to. As I thought about this, I recalled two movies that are a window for helping me see my faith and the Christian journey more fully.

Lady in the Water and Avatar

Lady in the Water is a movie that brings these three elements together: In the movie the world is split in two: one world concerned with consumption and competition, the other with life, peace, and spirit.

Shades of Avatar.

In AVATAR there is a dying world of humans who have destroyed the planet by their greed and with the power of advanced technology. And then there is Pandora: paradise, the original garden, where there is peace and harmony.

It’s an incredible parallel to the way we have shrunk the Gospel. James Brownson remarks that the gospel is all about participation, when we made it about consumption. We view salvation as something we receive, but when Paul talks about the gospel it is about who God is and what he is doing, and our participation in his purposes for the world.

In Lady in the Water the two paths diverged and the two worlds separated. No one in the world of humans remembers the old world. There is no memory of the world of peace and harmony. The Narrator tells us, “Man has forgotten how to LISTEN.”

And in Avatar we are told that humankind has forgotten how to SEE.

In Lady in the Water we meet Mr. Heep, a doctor whose family was killed by a random act of violence, and who left his life and practice behind in an attempt to hide from the world and from his own grief. And then enter Story, a “Narf” from the Blue World, the forgotten world of water, where the other half of humankind still lives in peace.

Story comes to meet a certain person who has a special destiny. When he meets her she prophesies his future and the meaning of his work.

He “remembers” who he is and what he is called to do.

Story reveals meaning, unveils the mystery by restoring memory. She releases imagination, and so enables a new future. And in the process a community discovers a mission.

Mission isn’t so complex after all. A group of individuals who had no apparent connection suddenly begin to act as a new family – like the “one new humanity” of Eph. 2:14, 15. They begin a journey of healing the world together.

There are strong parallels to this storyline in Avatar.

In Avatar Jake Sully has lost his leg – but also his sense of purpose. The death of his brother and the loss of his leg have left him broken, and asking the big questions.

Then he comes to Pandora: a world where new science is meeting old harmonies and trying to make sense of it all.

There is the soldier’s way – find a bigger stick. And there is the scientists way – find a better microscope. And then there is Pandora’s way: immersion. To know truly we must engage in a vulnerable way: love, listen and learn to see everything.

And Jake enters the world differently than either the scientists or the soldiers when he arrives, broken and vulnerable. He leaves the safety of one world and is incarnated into Pandora. He becomes vulnerable when he falls in love; he becomes open to really seeing the world.

And the BIG story is preserved all around him. Pandora has memory – it is preserved in God – in EYWA — but also in the People. And so participating in this big story they know who they are and they live in harmony.

But there is still mystery. They don’t control EYWA. They can only bow before this larger truth and larger presence. They are a part of it but only one part.

Compare Eph 2 and 3 where Paul is looking at the BIG picture.

This whole mystery of God’s grace is unveiled. But that doesn’t mean we are in control. It is WAY bigger than us.

The love of God is beyond our understanding. But we can know and enter the mystery by the power of the Spirit. And this story has been going on a long time.

The memory is preserved in the story and in the people of God.

Ok, so we have MEMORY and we have MYSTERY. Then we come down to verse 10.

God has a purpose.

God’s intention was that through the church his wisdom will be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. And part of this mystery is that the same grace is now available to the pagans as was available to the religious folk.

We might not like that much. We prefer to have very clear boundaries. We want to know who the bad guys and good guys are and exactly what is required of us.

But that’s a testimony for scientists. We have to embrace a mystery.

But hang on, because I can hear a bunch of people in shock – “Through the church the wisdom of God is made known.” Have you seen the church lately?

It’s hard to tell: are we the good guys or the bad guys? Are we the ones eager to listen and learn, or the ones quick to condemn? Are we genuinely open, or carrying a big stick?

There is a reason that in the ancient CALL we respond, ‘AMEN, LORD HAVE MERCY.’ When we know ourselves honestly the fences and walls we build become meaningless. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Somewhere along the way we lost our memory and lost touch with the mystery. We began to think it was all up to us.

We shrunk the story down, down, down.. until it fit our own small needs. We made it small enough to control; but then it was too small a story to generate meaning or identity anymore. Who cares what happens in a distant afterlife? We give lip service to justice or ecology and go on consuming. In fact we are more motivated to consume than ever because our deep needs are not met in this shrunken version of the gospel.

SO here we are in 2010.

Nobody is impressed that we are wealthy and have nice buildings anymore.
In fact, you have to wonder if all our real estate is helping or hurting the world?

Our children are especially sensitive to this question (Have you seen “The Story of Stuff?”)

We’ve spent a lot of time and energy chasing the same things that the world values –
wealth and power and knowledge.

But knowledge of God isn’t like scientific knowledge.

We don’t master it – God masters us. The mystery is revealed by the Spirit.

And we can only submit to it; we can’t control it.

Like in AVATAR –
we can plug into the One Tree but who knows what the answer will be?
Except that Pandora itself — the Garden — is part of the answer.

Because as much as we like to think we are in control, there are niggles and rumors of beauty. Just when we think we are safe something disturbs the cozy systems we build.

And we get glimpses of the bigger story, the coming Kingdom, and we are left with a longing for something we cannot name. Salvation is not something we receive so much as something God has done in Christ and we participate in it (1 Peter 2:9).

See, I think James K.A. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom) is right. Eros orders agape. We not only shrunk the story, we tried to make it safe. Witness the average Christmas pageant, angels and happy voices, cleansed of any darkness or the foot fall of soldiers hunting young children. But when we remove the conflict we remove the tension, and when we remove the tension the story no longer moves us. We appeal to the intellect, we are fairly good at that, but not the whole person. The gift and power of movies like Avatar is that they appeal to the whole person.

The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom (1 Cor.1, Eph. 3:10)

He designed us to respond as whole creatures. He placed in us a longing for a better world.

He has a purpose for the fullness of time, not to take care of me and my little problems, but to create a new world! He wants to take us back to the garden! Jesus is just the beginning.

God’s shalom is coming, and it is just around the corner.

In Romans 8 Paul tells us that,

We know that the whole creation
has been groaning in labour pains until now;

and not only the creation,
but we ourselves,
who have the first fruits of the Spirit,
groan inwardly while we wait for adoption,
the redemption of our bodies.

For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that is seen is not hope.

For who hopes for what is seen?

But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

When Steve Bell performed in Kelowna he sang some of his old tunes: “Why Do We Hunger for Beauty?” It struck me just how hungry for God “churched” people are: we are fed so much, but our hearts seem so dry. We dwell in the world of ideas, where the real is shadowed but not present. Appeals to the mind abound: but appeals to the soul, and our ability to live in that place, seem tenuous at best. We rightly recognize and are attracted to the beauty we see around us, but it too often becomes an end in itself rather than a path to something enduring.

And while leaders bemoan the lack of discipleship evident among us, how many of us are deeply converted — converted and passionate in mind, body and soul? The great teachers of the last century had it right — Martyn Lloyd Jones, AW Tozer, Oswald Chambers, Oswald Sanders and others — without a vision of the surpassing beauty and glory of Christ, without that inner gaze constantly renewed by the Spirit, we are seduced by the things of this world — money, sex and power. Until we become lovers we are unconverted. Eros must order agape. This is Smith’s argument, and I think he is right.

Smith argues that ultimately, our action and behavior is “driven” by our desire and longing for what really matters, what we love. And that desire is “pre-rational” and is formed or “aimed” by, affective-imaginative means more than intellectual data. Nothing new here really, Dallas Willard has been telling us this for years.

So what if we approached formation differently? What if, as Smith puts it, “Victoria is in on Augustine’s secret.” Smith asks,

“What if we didn’t see passion and desire as such as the problem, but rather sought to redirect it? What if we honored what the marketing industry has got right — that we are creatures primarily of love and desire– and then responded in kind with counter-measures that focus on our passions, not primarily on our thoughts or beliefs? What if the church began with an affirmation of our passional nature and then sought to redirect it?

“The result would be what Charles Williams called a “romantic theology.” (76-77)

In Avatar and similar movies we see a holistic approach that gives us a taste of an alternate world, one we know deep within us is COMING — just beyond our reach. The hunger is palpable. Witness the abundant revenues from this movie and its appeal across generations.

Rather than condemn this vision of a better kingdom, we should name it. There are few who can name the Reality these shadows are pointing toward. Avatar shows us, through a glass darkly, the coming harmony of a new and better world. The second Adam came to lead us back to the garden.

I don’t think we have much choice. We have to recover mystery, memory and mission if our movement is to survive. We have to recover a sacramental imagination in order to name the longings for beauty. The arts can be our ally in this cause, and movies like Avatar show us the way forward.

Compare this perspective to Mark Driscoll: “Avatar: the most demonic, satanic movie I’ve ever seen.”

2 Comments on Avatar: Mystery, Memory and Mission

  1. Steve Flower says:

    As a person who’s been a part of a 12-step group longer than I’ve been an active Christian and a storyteller, I find the understanding of story in faith and spirituality to be a “well, you guys are finally catching on” moment.

    I’ve said for years that Kevin Ford’s “Jesus for A New Generation” talked about “missional” behavior before it was cool, and that it should be required reading for every seminarian or mission worker. Kevin’s idea of evangelism beginning at the intersection of “my story” and “the Greatest Story Ever Told” is one that people are just beginning to “get.”

    In my 12-step participation, each one of us are called to “share our experience, strength and hope with each other” (a phrase from our meeting preamble). The intention is not “Thou shalt do thus,” a prescription for life, but “this is what we did, and do, and it works” – a building of community and sharing of story. What we call “telling our story” or “giving a ‘lead’ ” is nothing more than what the faith community calls “giving a testimony.” (For what it’s worth…)

    And I’m glad to see a sane imaging of “Avatar,” for once. The reason that people have paid for somewhere close to fifty MILLION “Avatar” admissions in the US alone is that it struck deep and powerful chords in people across lines of gender, class and generation: the battle of good and evil, the battle of the weak faithful versus the strong oppressor, and the battle of the righteous few versus the evil many. It seems to me that, in those contexts, it’s also the story of faith – ridiculed, rejected, not held by those in power, and ultimately triumphing.

    I also find it fascinating that in the LOTR trilogy (which much of The Church has declared “holy”) the Ents, the tree-people, are seen as powerfully good but also older by far than man, a kind of Adam or “Eldest” in the story – and that’s OK, even though it sounds more Druidic than most. I also find it interesting that the Bible’s imagery of God’s power being shown in the parting of the sea, or the swallowing of Jonah by the great fish, or of Moses going to a barren mountaintop is acceptable, but finding a Higher Power through a tree is evil.

    Your imagery shows how our every-day lives can find intersection with (and anchors in) the Gospel. Mark Driscoll’s comment just shows how disconnected, blind and irrelevant he (and so much of The Church) has become.

  2. len says:

    thanks steve, well, we may be slow but we get it eventually 😉 As for Driscoll.. oh brother..