The Success of “Avatar” Is Nothing to Celebrate

Intellectually, the Avatar stories seem worthless, beneath contempt, indeed, beneath argument. This leads people to underestimate them but also to feel themselves somehow disarmed. One looks ridiculous if one complains that the stories are anti-American. It takes a certain courage to deal with that problem, and courage is in very short supply in our times.

The biggest box office success in cinema history, strictly in dollars taken in, is Avatar, the 2009 movie that made 3D a technology audiences would finally flock to. The movie made some $785 million in America, more than another $2 billion in the rest of the world, adding up to about $2.9 billion. Since then, it’s sold an additional $430 million in DVDs (including 3D Blu-ray editions). We have to use our imaginations when it comes to how much the movie was watched online in pirated copies. One is tempted to say that everyone has seen it. If there’s globalization, Avatar is it.
In 2022 we finally got a sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, which is also an incredible success, having grossed more than $620 million in America in its first month, with another $1.5 billion in the rest of the world. I’m confident it will make more than $700 million in America. Very few movies attain this kind of success, fewer still since the COVID panics have crippled the movie theater business. Three more of these movies are slated to appear and perhaps rather quicker than the 13 years between the first two, given the astonishing success and the technological achievements involved in the production so far.
James Cameron is the man who made this franchise, which married his interest in science fiction, going back to Terminator (1984), and his interest in blockbuster success—that is, strong appeals to American passions—for example, Titanic, the movie he made before Avatar, which also became the most popular movie of its time (1997). One thing that has changed is that Cameron started out trying to appeal to men, then changed to appealing to women, but found astonishing success with a sentimentality missing from his early works, and now wants to appeal to families, to children especially. Some of the more perceptive critics pointed out how simpleminded the original was, even how it functioned as a kind of faux religion all its own. The sequel has also been panned by others as stunningly unoriginal and “full of itself.” This suggests to me they think the Avatar movies themselves to be childish.
The arrival of Avatar: The Way of Water at least makes clear what it is Cameron wants America’s children and, by extension, the world’s children to see and to believe. The first movie was an obvious retelling of Euro-American conflicts with Native Americans in the 19th century. The story summarizes, of course, but it also focuses on a simple teaching: Americans are evil and possibly monstrous. The Natives were innocent and, though proud warriors, peaceful. One may say this is nonsense and historically dubious; one may add that it is unpatriotic. But it may nevertheless be rather persuasive, especially because Cameron makes no arguments and starts no fights—he merely uses images that speak to things most kids are ready to believe.
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What is Marxism?

Wherever Marx’s ideas have been implemented, collective ownership has given a few people immense, unchecked power over every aspect of life—ironically, one of Marx’s accusations against capitalism. The failure of utopia to materialize means that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” becomes permanent, and can only be maintained through brutality and terror. 
To borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, there are two equal and opposite errors one can fall into concerning Marxism. One rightly identifies Marxism as a powerful and pernicious influence in modern Western culture, but then comes to the mistaken suspicion that anything that talks about oppression or justice is “Marxist” and needs to be exposed as such. The opposite error, which can stem from naïveté or nefarious intent, is to ignore or deny blatant signs of Marxist influence in contemporary ideologies and movements.
The two errors feed on each other: the more one side sees Marxism under every bush and uses the word as a club to beat down any opponent that is in some sense to their “left,” the more the other has an excuse to dismiss all charges of Marxism as so much spin and propaganda. In order to help the church avoid both of these errors, this article provides a factual account of Marxism’s origins and character. A subsequent article will look at the long-term influence of Marxism in communist societies and the West.
Marxism takes its name from the German thinker Karl Marx (1818–83). Western European society was changing rapidly in Marx’s day. The French Revolution of a few decades earlier had unleashed tremendous political upheaval. The Industrial Revolution was leading to the growth of cities and the emergence of a large urban working class. A growing belief in the inevitable progress of science and culture was taking hold of educated people.
Rapid change created new social problems. The new class of wage labourers in the mines and factories were vulnerable to dangerous working conditions, low pay, and insecurity—which seemed all the more unjust in comparison with the spectacular wealth and power amassed by the entrepreneurs who owned these mines and factories.
Marx was not the only thinker to criticize these conditions, and propose a society based on a different, more egalitarian economic system. What set him apart from other “socialist” thinkers was his all-encompassing vision of the hidden laws governing human history and society.
In contrast to the prevalent philosophies in Germany at the time, which saw ideas as the driving force in history, Marx concluded that material factors are everything. There is no realm of spirit and no God, he claimed—all that exists is the material world. The economic basis of life, how we feed and clothe and house ourselves, determines every aspect of a society, even its ideas. In particular, Marx argued, the class that owns the “means of production” in a society is able to dominate and exploit everyone else.
For Marx, this simple principle explained historical change. Changes to the means of production led to changes in the identity of the ruling class and therefore the leading values. The feudal nobility of medieval Europe had derived their power from their control of the land, and exploited the serfs whose labour made them rich. But as economic power shifted to commercial and industrial activities, the nobility and their values were thrust aside by the urban merchant class, the “bourgeoisie.” In this new dispensation, which Marx called “capitalism,” the exploitation of serfs by nobles gave way to the exploitation of industrial workers (the “proletariat”) by the bourgeoisie.
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Wise Pastors Understand Emotions

The perceptions that stand behind our emotions have been twisted by sin. Our values are aimed at lesser things, and the members of our body habituate sinful patterns and tendencies that we struggle to even recognize. And yet, emotions are a pathway to what’s truly happening in us. The wise pastor will recognize this and seek to understand the emotions of those he shepherds.

I’ve lived and pastored near Detroit, Michigan for almost six years now. It’s a city that has rightly earned the moniker “The Motor City.” The automobile industry dominates our economy, and this goes well beyond the Big 3 automakers: Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Thousands of smaller companies supply the Big 3 with everything they need to build a new car or truck. From parts to marketing and everything in between, nearly everyone’s job is connected to the auto industry.  
With this comes a genuine love for cars and a deep understanding of how they work. I’ve walked through the lobby of our church early on a Sunday morning and heard 3–4 guys engaged in a deeply passionate conversation about brake pads. We had friends from out of state come visit a few years ago, and their van started making some unusual sounds on the way to church. One of our guys went outside with them after the service, listened to the sound for a couple of seconds, and said, “You should be fine to drive home.” They were.  
I envy this thorough knowledge of cars. I don’t have it and most likely never will. I can put air in my tires and, I think, if everything was on the line and I had no other option, I could probably change a flat tire. I couldn’t name all the parts that make up an engine and certainly couldn’t explain how they work together to move my car forward. Now, imagine for a moment if I applied to work for a local mechanic here in Detroit. I clearly wouldn’t be very effective, and if I imagined myself to be a competent mechanic, despite my lack of basic understanding of cars, I could cause significant problems for people.  
Now, human beings are not automobiles. We aren’t mechanical creations; we are embodied souls. It’s also true that serving in pastoral ministry isn’t quite the same as working as an auto mechanic. We don’t simply assess a person’s problem and apply the right fix to make sure everything is running again. However, I believe that as pastors seeking to faithfully shepherd God’s flock, we need to have a thorough grasp of the human beings we shepherd. This means understanding one of the basic features of our humanity: emotions.  
What are Emotions?
This is a question pastors need to ponder both as they shepherd  others and as they keep watch over their own souls (1 Timothy 4:16). I would guess that, in recent years, most pastors have seen an increase in the number of people grappling with their emotions and how to handle them. We can’t counsel and shepherd those struggling if we don’t have a basic grasp of this important feature of our humanity. 
The discussion over the nature of human emotions goes back to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and has typically swung between two poles. On the one side, emotions are defined as simple bodily impulses. We have little to no control over them and they are illogical. A modern example of this would be those who see emotions as nothing more than chemical reactions that produce physical results. On the other side, emotions are viewed as cognitive, coming from our perceptions and judgments concerning ourselves and the world around us.  
Christians have generally understood the Bible to teach the cognitive view of emotions, and yet, Scripture presents human beings as complex creatures where mind, emotions, and body all work together to shape and influence one another.
Author Jeremy Pierre puts it like this,  “No one should treat people as merely rational beings in need of instruction, nor as merely emotional beings in need of healing, nor as merely decision-makers who need the right motivation. The truth is broader than each of these.”1 
The Bible describes humans as embodied souls (Gen. 2:7). We think, reason, feel, and act with our bodies and simply cannot do otherwise in this life. Matthew Lapine explains,  “Because we are embodied beings, physicality always qualifies our agency. God formed us from the ground and enlivened us with his breath. We are not mere souls, but embodied beings. Our entire agency is qualified by physicality.”2
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Living, Unique, Valuable, Unborn Human Beings

Human beings aren’t valuable because of a function they perform, how conscious they are, whether they feel pain, or any other extrinsic quality. These things come in degrees. Humanity doesn’t come in degrees.

I shocked a faculty member at the University of California while conversing with him in the middle of campus. He was defending abortion using the reasons popularly offered to justify it. He said, “It’s a decision between a woman, her doctor, and her God.” He brought up the idea that if abortion were made illegal, women would be forced into dangerous, back-alley abortions. He emphatically said, “Woman should have the right to choose.” Then I shocked him.
I agreed. I said, “Of course we shouldn’t interfere with a woman, her doctor, and her God. We shouldn’t force any woman into a dangerous, back-alley abortion.” I said, “A woman should have the right to choose…if….” “If what?” he asked. I knew this was where the conversation really started.
Often, we lose sight of the main issue in the abortion debate. The fundamental question we must ask is, “What is the unborn?” Abortion involves the killing and discarding of something that’s alive. We all know it’s alive because it’s growing. That’s the “problem” abortion seeks to address. And whether it’s right or not to intentionally take the life of this living being depends entirely upon the answer to one question: “What kind of being is it?”
Most defenses of abortion assume the unborn is not a human being. Think about it. Privacy and choice are not valid reasons to kill born human beings. This means that if the unborn is a human being just like you and me, you can’t kill her for the same reasons you can’t kill a born human being. If the unborn is not a human being, there’s no issue to debate. If the unborn is not a human being, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human being, no justification for abortion is adequate. That’s why we have to first answer the question “What is the unborn?” To answer this, we’ll turn to embryology.
We know from embryology—the study of the earliest stages of life—that human life comes into existence when two gametes (sperm and egg) fuse to form a living zygote. The science of embryology tells us the unborn is a living, unique, human being.
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Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation

This week the blog is sponsored by The Gospel Coalition. Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation is the story of the people, the books, the lectures, and ultimately the God who formed and shaped the life of Timothy Keller. With access to Keller’s personal notes and sermons—as well as interviews with family members and longtime friends—Collin Hansen offers a deeper understanding of one of the 21st century’s most influential church leaders. Visit to purchase the book and access bonus content, including lectures, sermons, timelines, photos, and interviews.

If you woke Tim Keller in the middle of the night and asked him to quote any author because his life depended on it, he’d pick C. S. Lewis. 
“It would be wrong not to admit how much of what I think about faith comes from him,” Keller wrote in The Reason for God. 
His other primary influence, Jonathan Edwards, didn’t have the same gift for pithy insight. But no one outside Scripture contributed as much to Keller’s overarching theological framework as Edwards.
Keller coined the term “ecclesial revivalism” for how he tries to bring the spiritual dynamics of renewal inside the church. It’s a term that also applies to Edwards. Both sought to combine cutting-edge apologetics with pastoral ministry while preaching for changed hearts. 
Keller openly admits how much he borrows from others, whether Lewis or Edwards or anyone else. Grounded in the gospel, Keller branches out for insight wherever he can find it. He’ll grab from John Stott’s preaching over here and Abraham Kuyper’s worldview over there. He’ll reach for new urbanism from Jane Jacobs and existentialist philosophy from Søren Kierkegaard. Leading up to 1989, when he planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, Keller assembled building blocks from Jack Miller and R. C. Sproul, Elisabeth Elliot and Barbara Boyd, Richard Lovelace and Harvie Conn, not to mention little-known pastors such as Kennedy Smartt.  They helped convince him Redeemer could have it all: small groups with vocational training with evangelistic preaching with mercy ministry. The church could be intellectual but also pious, Reformed but not sectarian. 
In a 2014 conversation with Don Carson and John Piper for The Gospel Coalition, Keller explained why it’s important to draw on multiple influences:
I would say if you don’t appreciate any of the Puritan writers, you’re missing out. There are some tremendous Puritan writers. But I also know people who only seem to care about the Puritans. They went into the Puritan forest, and they’ve never come out. It’s the only thing they read. And when they speak, and when they preach, they start, “Methinks.” I think the fact that you (Piper) and I have really learned so much both from C. S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards, two people who almost certainly would not have gotten along, they’re so different, I think that has corrected me at a number of places where I get too much into one guy the other guy comes in and reminds me, “No, he’s not the only way.” It’s almost like if you cut a person, a good minister for example, like a tree, there should be a lot of rings.
Having one role model would be derivative. Having 100 means you’ve drunk deeply by scouring the world for the best wells. Keller himself has now become a role model to many church leaders. But future generations will honor Keller better by reading his library than by only reading the books he wrote. How ironic if the pastor who gathered from such varied tributaries became a solitary river flowing down the years. 

Who Is the Man of Lawlessness? 2 Thessalonians 2:3–5, Part 3

The Resilient Mother: How We Bend Without Breaking

Along the wooded trail behind my home, a birch tree arches in a graceful curve as it stretches across the pathway. It’s a veteran of a good many northern New England ice storms and knows what it is to bow low under a weight of snow and frozen rain. Even though its tip-top branches have bent to mere feet above the frozen ground, it has not broken under its load. Today, with the remnants of broken maples and oaks all around, it stands, and my imagination construes a doorway as I walk the path beneath its welcome.

James labels this brand of gritty perseverance as steadfastness in the life of a believer. He’s writing to Christians who have felt the icy blast of persecution, resulting in “trials of various kinds,” and he urges them to cooperate with God’s bending and shaping methods embedded in those trials (James 1:2–3).

God works the sanctifying miracle of becoming “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” according to his own wise design, and for me, mothering four rowdy sons (who have grown into godly men) has been the force God has used to produce the bent-birch resilience I long for. Two vital components of my Christ-following life have been involved as God works in me to “let steadfastness have its full effect” (James 1:4).

Theology Empowers Resilient Moms

When mothers are brittle and fragile, we snap, and the sharp edges of our breaking wound our families and leave us full of regret. Perseverance in strong habits of holiness keeps us connected with God’s word and rooted in what is true about God’s character. He’s in control. He’s good. He’s never taken by surprise.

Good theology enables moms to interpret our circumstances according to what we know and believe about God instead of drawing false conclusions about God based on our circumstances. The understanding that God is as near to us as our next breath, and that his motives toward us are absolutely pure, comes from immersion in God’s self-revelation.

Of course, we can claim the huge and generous promises of Scripture only if we know them. God has said he will “keep [us] in perfect peace” when we fix our minds on him (Isaiah 26:3). He has said his “grace is sufficient” and his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God’s promises of faithfulness to his much-loved children are the foundation for our own steadfast faith. He promises to use Scripture to encourage and sustain us, but we cannot claim what we do not know (Psalm 19:7–9).

Furthermore, a right understanding of God’s nature and character yields a right understanding of my own value and identity. If I am not defined by an impressive job title or a flashy résumé (or by the lack of it), I can bend to perform the lowliest tasks without complaining. Like Christ, I can take up the basin and the towel and serve others without being (or feeling) diminished.

I’m inspired by the example of pioneer missionary Amy Carmichael. She left a role she loved — traveling throughout India with a team of itinerant evangelists — when God called her to establish an orphanage for children who were being trafficked. In her new role as “mother” to hundreds of children at a time, she washed diapers by hand, mixed baby formulas, and over the course of her career must have clipped thousands of tiny fingernails and toenails.

The way we think about the work of motherhood shapes the hope we bring to each day’s workload, and it is crucial to our ability to overcome discouragement. When I was hanging little socks and, eventually, very big socks on the clothesline, I put my mind to the business of praying for the boys who would wear those socks to rags.

“God is the first and best Homemaker. Therefore, homemaking is holy work.”

When I wondered if I would survive the monotony of homeschooling and housework, I tried (imperfectly) to remember that I was creating a home and a life for the people I love. God is the first and best Homemaker. Therefore, homemaking is holy work.

Good theology also schools resilient moms in the truth that there’s a time to bend and there’s a time to persevere, unbending, in the face of temptation or the lure of false teaching. We are “elect exiles,” immersed in a hostile society that invites us to bend the knee to its false gods (1 Peter 1:1). The Spirit of God travels with us, imparting wisdom for life and assuring us that resilient mothering may wear a different look every day.

On one particularly hard mothering morning, the baby was cranky, the toddler was fractious, and my two homeschooled students seemed determined to squander their opportunity to receive a solid Christian education. Then the phone rang. My friend Susan was calling with a quick question about something at church. I answered her question, and we said goodbye.

Seconds after I hung up, the phone rang again. Susan had been prompted by the Holy Spirit to check on me, and I’m not proud of the conversation that followed.

Susan [warmly concerned and following Christ’s command to love her neighbor]: “Are you okay? I thought I heard something in your voice just now. I’m wondering if there’s anything I can do to help.”

Michele [embarrassed and lying to preserve the appearance of competence]: “Thank you so much for your concern. [Using my best, pulled-together church-lady voice] I’m actually fine — but I sure appreciate your checking on me.”

Choosing to soldier on alone, I forfeited the gift of community.

My friend was a seasoned mother of four who could have spoken wisdom to my tired soul. Her own children were all older than my oldest son, and she would have welcomed the opportunity to hold my baby or read to my toddler.

Friendship is a school, a place of formation and cultivation, but being in school requires time and work. Resilient mothers will allow friends into their brokenness because, sometimes, in order to have the gift of comfort from fellow believers, we have to take the emotional risk of letting them know how we’re really doing.

This includes seeking and valuing input from our husband as well. As “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7), we are called to parent together. So seek your husband’s counsel. Let him care for you as Christ cares for his church.

“Resilience is not her claim on Christ, but, rather, the evidence of his claim on her.”

As moms, we tend to have our fingers on the pulse of our families. It can feel very risky to let go of your white-knuckle control of the schedule, activities, and tone of your home, but what a lonely and overwhelming assignment to try to be and do all things when we have been given the gift of a husband and fellow parent.

Weathered Motherhood

Today, as an older woman, I am called to nurture resilience in the young women God has placed within my circle of influence (Titus 2:3–5). Alongside them, I continue to scale the learning curve of resilience and to take God’s grace for the glad surrender of obedience.

The resilient mother knows that godly mothering is a byproduct of the slow burn of faithfulness. She is well aware that resilience is not her claim on Christ, but, rather, the evidence of his claim on her.

The bent birch here on my wooded path is not as tall or as straight as a tree that has never weathered a Maine winter, but its arching perseverance schools me in the hope that follows a weathered storm. In its deeply rooted resilience, I see the wisdom of bending.

A La Carte (February 7)

Blessings to you today, my friends.

(Yesterday on the blog: Tell Your Anxieties To Ask Permission)
Shepherds Feed the Sheep
Jared Wilson: “Many of these churches – philosophically – operate more like parachurches. And the result is this: it is the sheep, the very lambs of God, who basically become the outsiders. And so you will have leading practitioners of these churches saying things to believers like, ‘Church isn’t for you.’ For example…”
Unshockable Parenting
“What will you do when your 17-year-old tells you that his girlfriend, the one you counseled him not to date because she is not a Christian, is pregnant? How will you react when you find out from another parent that for the past six months, your daughter has been going by a different name and using the boys’ restroom at her middle school? What will be going through your head when your teen proudly displays her new tattoo or eyebrow piercing at church?”
Do Humans Have Free Will? The Answer (Of Course) Is: It Depends!
Justin Taylor answers a good question. And, like so many questions, it really depends on what you’re actually asking.
The Devil is Blinding You to Glory
“Have you ever felt cold towards the gospel? Have you heard that Christ died for your sins and was raised from the dead and just felt blah. If that is you, because I know it has been me at times, then I want to alert you to something. This is more than just unfortunate; this is war. And this coldness to Christ is a direct attack from the enemy.”
Is Every Occasion an Occasion for Mom Guilt?
Sometimes it seems like every occasion can be an occasion for a mom to feel guilt, doesn’t it?
The Most Important Paragraph in Human History
Andy Naselli does a good job expositions what he calls the most important paragraph in human history.
Flashback: It Takes Two
Gossip is not only a sin of the mouth, but also a sin of the ears. It takes two: the one who speaks and the one who listens…It’s as sinful to hear it without protest as to speak it without apology.

The further you go in obedience, the more you see of God’s plan. God doesn’t often tell us the end from the beginning. He prefers to lead us on step-by-step in dependence upon Him. —Iain Duguid

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