A little film came out in 1977 called Star Wars and raised quite a controversy amongst Christian fundamentalists. I remember a couple kids I carpooled to Christian school with informed me that they were forbidden to watch Star Wars movies because “Yoda was a demon” (for the record, so was E.T. the Exorcist Terrestrial). Many articles and books were written on “the force” of Star Wars, and current crops that can be found grazing Amazon.com range from Dick Staub’s “Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters” to “The Dharma of Star Wars” by Matthew Bortolin. Obviously, the spiritual hair on this issue seems to be parted on both sides. I even got to throw down my thoughts on the massive mythos at a Mars Hill speaking gig on Revenge of the Sith.
In 1999, Christians and Buddhists wrote a few words (if, by a few, I mean about ten billion) about a little film called The Matrix. Depending on your vantage point, the film was peppered with Christian allegory or Buddhist enlightenment. The reality is, science fiction and fantasy films will often cherry-pick ideas from philosophies, religions and worldviews to add depth and color to its narrative. It’s no surprise, then, that more than a little controversy has arrived regarding atheist/naturalist James “King of the World” Cameron’s film Avatar (or, as some of my friends like to call it, Ferngully 2: Pandora Boogaloo). You may have heard something about this film… unless, say, you’ve been living on another planet and gone native.
There is very little about Avatar that anyone can say is original. Take a sprinkle of Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series, add a dash of indigenous creature-riding messianic foreigner via Dune, splash a scantily clad gal on a flying bird by way of Heavy Metal, with a healthy remix of other James Cameron film from Aliens to the Abyss, and you’ve got a reheated scif-fi geeks’ stew with the special effects sauce they’ve been dreaming of since George Lucas made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Make no mistake, I’m not saying it has to be “original” to be fantastic and a mind-blowingly good ride. More to the point, in light of all the informing sources and homages to science fantasy in its conception, is it any wonder that its narrative pillages from a variety of spiritual reference points as well?
If the film DOES pluck from a religious potpourri, what do we do with it then? There are always two approaches a person with a strong worldview can take. One is engaging a story first with hawk’s eyes for the flaws, the imperfections, the distortions of an imperfect narrative falling short of imaging our shared metanarrative. The other path is looking for the bridges, the common ground, the shared longings and related narrative beats that express something I believe we all know, deep down, to be true.
Distortions, warped reflections, and half-truths should certainly be dealt with, but this isn’t the preaching device the apostle Paul used when quoting Athenian poetry in Acts 17 as part of his sermon. For a man who without question believed Jesus Christ was the only way to reconciliation with God the Father Creator, he felt confident enough in his foundation to establish common ground that “we are God’s offspring” (even though the quote he referenced at the time was part of a poem associated with Zeus). In other words, you can lead your discourse with a “wrong god” attack or you can lead with “right idea…” bridge and work to “true God” in the treatise. I see good reason and a compelling example for the latter.
It’s always important to filter and discern a compelling narrative, but what am I looking for first? Am I primarily an “evil-hunter” strutting through life with wrinkled nose and curled lip pointing out the ills, or sifting for joy-bringing, God-declaring gems amidst the fool’s gold? Am I Buffy the sin-pyre slayer, or Indiana Jones grasping for the grail amidst dirty cups? While I’m not suggesting misleading philosophies shouldn’t be illuminated, it can be very telling what a person declares first, and how that illuminates their focus as well.
Is the first thing that stands out in The Matrix the spoon-bending conversation, or the one where Morpheus tells Neo he has been deceived, and may remain self-deceived? Does the Buddhist child stand out first, or the baptism as Keanu Reeves’ character literally comes out of an embryonic shell to find himself immersed and raised to new life? Similarly, is the first chord struck in your mind with Avatar the pagan trappings, or the man being born again? Does a life-sustaining tree in the center of an idyllic garden remind me of pantheistic philosophy, or Eden? Do I wrinkle my nose at seeming creation worship to such a reactionary extent that I neglect my call to steward and cultivate the creation our designer declared “good”? All of these things should be discerned carefully in handling the highest grossing film of all time. As it has been with Star Wars, as it has been with The Matrix, so it will be with Avatar. Vehement voices will abound. There is nothing new under the sun… what goes around comes around… to every thing turn, turn etc.
Still… does it surprise me that people are suffering from “Avatar blues” because they get a glimpse of a harmonious garden and then are ushered out of the theater with a sense of emptiness… that their lives are “meaningless” and lacking color… and that we live in a dying world? Not at all. In fact, this final facet helps prove my point; however far James Cameron’s alien opus may differ from our true shared metanarrative, the experience reflects something of not only our real estate, but our real state. In a multi-part review, we’ll look at how the film deals with:
(not to mention, on a lighter note, the mech vs. alien fight redeemed by Cameron that George Lucas failed so miserably with in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Thank God the Na’vi have finally washed the taste of Gungans out of my mouth). If the question is Jake Sully or Jar-Jar Binks, the answer is obvious. For more on Avatar, click here.
I am curious to see your review. I found Avatar to be technically fantastic but otherwise it came across as environmental torture pr0n.
However I can see the link between “Avatar blues” and a longing for a perfect world again. Its programmed. As I explained to my children yesterday after watching Spectacular Spiderman that people long for the “super bodies” because they know that what we have now isn’t right. Isn’t the way it should be.
Like you, I felt compelled on returning from my first viewing of Avatar to write down some thoughts about parallels with our experience of God. I think amidst all the seeming tree-hugging nonsense there is actually a lot of resonant content and subtext. If you feel inclined, check out my brief blog:-
Great stuff James. This should be interesting. I’ve never seen a movie that filled me with such a longing for heaven (sort of the antithesis of the Avatar blues. This movie helped me imagine things I’d never imagined before. I thought to myself, “If this vision,created from the mind of a man can be this breath taking… what worlds of wonder and joy await us in the new creation?” On a second viewing however I have to admit being struck by the heavy handed pagan/witchcraft spiritually on show in the film. I came away with a better understanding of why guys like Mark found the movie “Demonic”.
I believe recognizing both sides of this coin to be extremely important; I think a journey through any culture fraught with offerings of fictional salvation and/or second-rate symbols of hope can weigh heavy on a heart one day, and then the next day those self-same things can spark my heart to speak and reason from those truism slivers toward a living and lasting truth. Lamentation, aggravation, inspiration and proclamation are all pieces of a discerning, visceral response, and I think a well-rounded community will evidence them all.
Have you tried comparing Avatar to Disney’s Pocahontas?
I realize that I’m coming into your discussion rather late, but I find this article incredibly helpful. As someone who has lived through the Harry Potter hoopla in the Christian church, I think that the way Christians decry something as “pagan” or “filth” is unhelpful and serves to make us look like we’re worshiping a Gospel that’s no longer relevant in this day and age.
Plus, it ignores the fact that the reason these particular themes and motifs are so popular (even in the pagan world) is that they are drawing on something that God has hard-wired us to react to. For instance, the “life-giving tree” in Avatar may be intended as a reference to the tree in Eden, or the pantheistic worldview, but even the pantheistic worldview is itself an unconscious reference to God’s creation (albeit a warped one).
In short, while there may be some culture that isn’t worth redeeming, I don’t know that it’s in the majority – or even statistically significant.