Seriously, if there’s one thing James Cameron and John Calvin might agree on, it’s the depravity of man. The pivotal scene in Avatar, where Colonel Quaritch fiddles with his coffee while Hometree burns, best exemplifies this notion. In fact, the humans who aren’t worthless sacks of flesh in Avatar can be counted on your fingers (they could be counted on Na’vi fingers and that only gets you to eight). While everyone wants to complain about Cameron’s tree-hugging tendencies in his latest blockbuster, the reality is that few people-groups remain unscathed in his body of work. (if you missed the intro to our series on Avatar, click here).
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. – Matthew 23:25
In Cameron’s Aliens, “the Company” played snake-oil Satan in the film – as villainous as acid-drooling aliens – while marines were our butt-kicking heroes. In The Abyss, blue collar workers were white knights… while the marine went off the rails and we found out what happens when Corporal Hicks has too much Coffey. And in Terminator 2, even the “earnest scientist” experimented to our world’s peril, awakened to the consequences of his actions (which cost him his life). While working with a revolving set of stereotypes – the corporation, the military, the scientists, and the average joes – Cameron has managed at some point in his long movie-making career to cast each of them in negative or at least ignorant light.
For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. – Jeremiah 6:13
Avatar is no exception. Blue collar workers strip-mine pretty planet Pandora as Jake Sully’s ship brakes for landing on the perilous planet. Middle-management suck-up Parker Selfridge plays golf on a fake green while real greenery is plundered outside his window, and he implicates the wealthy investors as being equally coldhearted, caring only about the “bottom line” (just look at the character’s name, it’s literally “SELF-centered”). He’s this century’s Carter Burke. To top it off, marines are on hand to protect the almighty dollar, and none of these people-groups care about the area’s inhabitants… even when orphans and widows are in need of care. The humans are here to gets PAID.
No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.– Luke 16:13
While it might be easy for a Christian to look at the Na’vi and jump right to the tribe’s obvious “creation-worship” as a point of criticism, it’s even more wicked to see the creation-worship of the aggressors in the film. Just because the materialistic humans in the film worship what they get out of unearthing unobtainium (instead of worshipping the land itself) doesn’t make them any less pagan. Bowing down before Scrooge-McDuck mountains of money procured through terrorism and murder instead of kneeling before Eywa is not “trading up” on the worship scale. It may be a more subtle form of creation-worship, but I’m not taking sides with the progressives because their sin is more sly. Just because we chop DOWN the tree and make it do our bidding doesn’t make us any less idolatrous.
(A tree) …becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. – Isaiah 44:15
My friend Arjuna, a pastor in India, travels frequently to the United States in connection with his wonderful organization Vision Nationals that helps orphans and widows and plants churches. When we think of India, we might think of Hindu deities (conveniently blue, by the way) with idols and altars on every street corner. When asked once why his Christian wife didn’t often travel with him stateside, his response was that she honestly had a hard time with all the rampant idolatry on every street corner here. Just something to think about; although we might not ascribe a “spirit” to our designer clothes, custom cars, cappuccino, name-brand shoes, iPhones and purebred yappy dogs, we worship these created things as much as the Na’vi give obeisance to the shrubbery. The fact that we worship our stuff just as intensely, without even bothering to ascribe to these things a spark of the divine, might even make us more pathetic.
Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live. – Proverbs 15:27
Jake Sully is bribed… tempted with something that – in and of itself – isn’t idolatrous in Avatar. New, hearty legs are promised for him if he will simply sell the Na’vi down the river. It ultimately comes down to whom Jake is going to serve, and if by putting his own desires above the welfare of the Na’vi he will make those legs an idol, worshipping himself at the expense of others. Jake’s decision – and the subsequent fate of the greedy humans – mirrors the wise cautions of King Solomon:
My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood… we shall find all precious goods, we shall fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse”— my son, do not walk in the way with them… Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors. – Proverbs 1
Indeed, by film’s end, greed “takes away the life of its possessors”… or sends the remaining handful away to unforgiving exile from Pandora.
In Avatar, then, the only semi-selfless human characters in view are the scientists, with Hollywood’s ever-naive notion that science majors are “truth-seeking altruists”… bereft of self-serving bones in their body for book deals, peddling pet theories and making their names great. This is where the chain-smoking Sigourney Weaver shows up, looking like Lyndsey Brigman (a descendant, perhaps?) and named appropriately “Grace”. She’s the central soul (with a few lab-coated acolytes) who seems genuinely concerned when it comes to the Na’vi and the planet’s welfare. One could try to point out Grace’s cigarettes as vice instead of virtue, or poke holes in her motives, but that’s stretching it; I think it’s clear Cameron wants us to see scientists as saints, and it’s the one Pandora-sized fly in the ointment when it comes to his assessment of the human condition. Otherwise, human nature is something James Cameron and I (and the Bible) can pretty much agree upon.
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.– Romans 3:10-12
Fortunately, scientists in the film are the supporting characters, and the protagonist Jake’s compromised position amidst corrupt people holds the primary premise in place, setting up the narrative need for his transformation into something new. I can find places of agreement with Cameron’s view of the human condition, but what of his fantastical fantasy solution? We’ll find out in our next installment.