Disney’s “Oceans” as Postsecular Spirituality (film and theology)

28 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

It’s always a surprise when a nature documentary finds commercial success, such as has been the case in recent years. Documentaries such as March of the Penguins and Disney’s Earth have enjoyed phenomenal success, and when Disney’s Oceans opened in theaters last Friday (Earth Day), it became #1 in the box office, slowing recently only due to competition from other films.

Picking up where Disney’s Earth left off, Oceans is a French-American nature documentary from Jacques Perrin, featuring the narration of Pierce Brosnan.

But from what critics have reported thus far, Brosnan’s narration is relatively sparse, allowing for periods where the theater is instead filled with the ambient audio from from the various ocean scenes.

What’s the appeal? While there are surely many answers to that question, I suggest that there many perceive a spiritual dimension to nature, even if they do not describe it in those terms.   We live in a “postsecular” age, one in which there is little to no distinction between spirituality and everyday life.

James Cameron’s Avatar previously flirted with the union of nature and spirituality. Many religions unite creation and Creator. I personally have known people moved to tears from the opportunity to swim with the dolphins. Thus, when we hear of the success of a film like Oceans, I believe we can learn something from today’s fluid culture of spirituality.

I suggest three broad trends:

  1. The human soul is sensitized by beauty. Technological advances have allowed filmmakers to bring nature to life in powerful ways on screen. Viewers can sit in awe as they watch the movements of the ocean’s many creatures, and marvel at the ineffable mystery of nature’s secret rhythms. The dark, hushed environment of the theater is almost a temple-like experience, the audience is enveloped in the beauty of nature.
  2. Attraction is found in “otherness.” Nature confronts us with worlds wholly alien to our own . What we find in nature’s depths are creatures and environments so completely removed from the gray of computer monitors and office equipment. Viewers are invited out of the mundane and into a rich, colorful environment. This “otherness” has a powerful attraction, satisfying our ageless curiosity, inviting us into a world where our sense of prescribed security is replaced with fascination and mystery.
  3. Institutions are viewed through a lens of suspicion. The film, as you may suspect, also serves as a cautionary tale: “We have littered the ocean with hundreds of millions of tons of trash” the narrator warns. “Human influence is surely the oceans’ greatest threat.” Regardless of your position on environmentalism, the film resonates with audiences who have become disillusioned with the American institutions. This “post-institutionalism” extends to business corporations, the government, as well as the church. The message is clear: institutions fail, it’s up to the individual to make a difference.

And here’s what I found fascinating: as I jotted down these thoughts, I immediately realized that these same categories apply quite equally to God:

  1. God is both the Author and embodiment of beauty. There are a number of Hebrew words that describe God’s beauty, usually rendered in English as “majesty” and “splendor” (cf. 1 Chronicles 29:9-10; Psalm 27:4; Isaiah 49:3). In the 16th Century, Giorgio Vasari wrote: “the origin of the arts… was nature itself and the first image or model was the beautiful fabric of that world and that the Master who taught us was that divine light infused in us by special grace, which has made us…like God himself.” (quoted from Lives of the Artists).
  2. God is wholly “other.” The word “Holy” comes from the Hebrew word qadosh, which means to be “set apart.” God’s “otherness” was used by the Hebrew people to distinguish God from the gods of neighboring religions. In Isaiah 6, God is described in the superlative – qadosh, qadosh, qadosh, thrice repeated to emphasize God’s complete and incomprehensible uniqueness.
  3. God shows no favor toward hypocritical institutions. “I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). These words were spoken by God to a people who had allowed religious ceremony to replace genuine devotion. The institutional church has had her share of failures, ones that deserve both learning and repentance. But the answer to this is not abandonment but a renewed devotion to her intended mission.

David, an ancient songwriter, declares that “the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” (Psalm 33:5). He writes elsewhere that nature “declares the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). The word “glory” is from the Hebrew qabod, bearing the connotation of “weight” or “heaviness.” Therefore to “glorify” God is to reveal Him to be “weighty,” that is, “significant.”

Films like Oceans do just that, often through no words at all. The reformation period gave us the concepts of a “book of nature” as well as a “book of scripture,” each having its own unique strength and purpose. When appropriate to his audience, the apostle Paul used them both (cf. Acts 13:15, 17:24 ), meaning that he appealed to nature as a means to bridge the gap between his audience and God’s truth.

In our increasingly postmodern, post-Christian, post-Biblical, post-institutional, postsecular, post-everything culture, it may be appropriate to learn to do the same.

28 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

“We rightly equate silence with isolation. Both are enemies of God’s grand design.”

Human beings, as we’ve just noted, bear God’s image.  We “take after” God, so to speak—much as we might say that a child “takes after” his earthly father.  It means that we share with God some aspect of his character, his nature, even his gifts.  In the immediate context of Genesis, this means two things.  Because man bears the image of a Creator, we share in his capacity for creativity.  And because we bear the image of God’s divine community (Father, Son, and Spirit), we share in his capacity for relationship.

Or perhaps “capacity” is too clinical a term for such elemental gifts.  For these qualities are indeed divine gifts, just as human language likewise has its origin in God himself.  In his recent work on the clarity of Scripture, Mark Thompson notes that “God is himself the source of human language.  He is the first speaker and invests language with a deep significance for generation and nourishing personal relationships.”

If language is a divine gift, writing becomes a liturgical practice.  It is through language that the human needs for creativity and relationship are brought together. Surely writing is not the only means of human communication, but there is a uniqueness to the craft that cannot be so easily snuffed out by a so-called “post-literate” world.  When we write, we write to engage the world—or at least our small corner of it.  We write in order to hone our God-given skills of creativity and make a meaningful contribution to humanity’s collective imagination.  We write because it’s in our blood, in our hands, in our soul.

“If language is a divine gift, writing becomes a liturgical practice.”

Christianity says that God’s Word shaped God’s original creation, but God’s Word likewise takes prominence in God’s new creation.  “In the beginning was the Word,” John tells us—cribbing lines from the opening pages of Genesis.  The Word of God, once confined to the page now takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus.  Christianity calls this the incarnation, meaning that in Jesus God literally became a human being to walk among us, to share life with us, and to give his life that we might live.

Writing is part of the way we engage and share the gospel narrative.  Writing is therefore an incarnational practice, a means by which the story of God is translated into the various languages of human culture.

Living the gospel narrative means not only “take and read” but also “write and give.”  Every voice is different.  Every voice matters.

“Living the gospel narrative means not only ‘take and read’ but also ‘write and give.'”

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