The last two movies that my wife and I had the chance to watch were Avatar and The 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 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, The Blind Side. Again, a movie with some nice elements. A feel-good story that seems to have struck a nerve among many. It's 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 The 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 The 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, I think 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?
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 The 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 what I want them 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.
Soong-Chan Rah is the author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity and is Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism. Read more from him at www.profrah.com.