Been Hearing the Avatar Hype?

If you’ve been watching TV at all in the last few weeks you may be wondering what all this Avatar hype is about. I watched this film the other night and was provoked to “heavy blog” mode. It might seem odd that I’m posting a movie review on our church blog, but Avatar was actually a very theological movie. Every movie, in fact, preaches. It’s really inevitable. Artists have worldviews, beliefs and values that work their way into the art of a film. Whether it is explicit or implied, obvious or subtle, they’re always there.

Star Wars was equal parts dualism and pantheism; an immaterial life “Force” that binds and penetrates all things but has both a light and a dark side to it. Man is morally neutral and must choose his side.
Lord of the Rings was ambiguously monotheistic and accidentally deistic. God was absent while evil reigned and it was man’s duty to rise up and defeat it.
The Matrix was…well…pretty much everything under the sun.

Then there’s Avatar, a nearly 3 hour epic about mankind’s inhumane abuse of an alien world and the indigenous life forms on it. Avatar is not a complicated film to disseminate (not saying that’s a bad thing) because it’s almost wholly pantheistic. God is all, all is God, therefore every living thing is equally sacred (unless you’re the bad guys – then, of course, you deserve to die.

To be sure, the script could have been more “preachy”, more explicit than it actually was and it’s not my intention to exasperate the apologists of Avatar or their enthusiasm for the environmental, sanctity of nature message.

As a matter of fact, I can appreciate that, at the very least, a form of religious desire exists in Avatar. I think it’s a distortion of reality, if you will, but I prefer messages of spiritual significance over against the diatribe of pure materialism. In fact, that’s probably why it’s so fun to hate the villains in Avatar. They’re nothing but blood thirsty, money grubbing, materialists. For them, there’s no significance in the make-up of the material universe that points them to anything beyond what they can measure in their wallet.

Avatar’s message is that there is a wonder and beauty in the content of the physical universe, which testifies, by virtue of its wonder and beauty that there is something “higher” and more important than we are. This is true, significantly true and shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact it’s one of the virtues of the film and a hopeful sign that a young and enthusiastic fan base in our culture is willing to embrace a higher power (this young fan base by the way has earned the film over $300,000,000 – and that’s just in the US).

In Avatar, that “higher power” is creation itself. We are already prone as people to worship the creation rather than the creator and Avatar only takes half a step toward the truth that we need something more than the creation, something spiritual, something holy and independent that is truly sovereign to satisfy us, quiet our souls and quench our deepest thirst. I know Cameron believes he is giving us spiritual answers and a spiritual reality but he’s not. He’s just giving us more “stuff”. No matter how wondrous this new creation (Planet Pandora) is, it’s still a physical thing and no matter what we do, in reality, to improve the human and environmental condition on earth we will never accomplish our own utopia, our own peace.

And yes, I realize I’m being too hard on this thing. I’ll admit it. I know I can’t expect Cameron to give me a subtle, artistic apologia for my personal Christian worldview. It’s his film after all and he’s certainly not a Christian, so why all the criticism?

Well, despite my disappointment I didn’t find myself hating this movie in the least bit. It just didn’t excite me or tug at the core of my heart and ultimately, I think it failed to do this because it falls so short of the reality that I’ve come to embrace and love with all my heart.

The human heart was designed to be staggered and awed by its Creator. People are devoted to Avatar (and Star Wars, and Star Trek, and the Matrix and so on) because we’re designed to embrace and wonder at the spectacle of God. There’s a big ol’ crater in us where God belongs and when we, obsess over, sacrifice to ($$) and evangelize a film like Avatar, that’s generally what we’re trying to do.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that a commitment to the quality of Avatar is a statement about your own spiritual destiny. I’m not trying to be pointed or specific about that, but rather say something about mankind that is foundational. I’ll admit that I’m just as committed and evangelistic about the movies I love (maybe more so than the average customer). What I am saying is that sometimes, our devotion for a spectacle film can be more about our need for God than it is about the spectacle itself and in the end Avatar pulls us further from what we need to hear than closer to it.

It is interesting however, in light of a discussion like this that the very definition of the word “avatar” is, “somebody who embodies, personifies or is the manifestation of an idea or concept.”

In Romans, the apostle Paul says that we’ve all made avatars for God with the things that he’s created, and worshiped them rather than Him. Maybe then, in the end, Cameron’s film does point us closer to reality than I first assessed, but I have a feeling Cameron didn’t intend to say that we’ve made the created order a counterfeit God.


5 thoughts on “Been Hearing the Avatar Hype?

  1. I've been hearing a lot about the pantheism of Avatar but I have to say I disagree completely. It's an understandable mistake since the movie plays with the tropes of gaian mysticism.

    But if you notice the basis for all of these things, the communion with animals, the uploading of minds into the great tree, is just biotechnological and naturalistic. Not supernatural.


  2. Ok David B. Ellis from Kentucky, greetings from South Dakota. I hope you enjoyed reading our humble little blog.
    I liked your observation as I had not considered this precise analysis. I suppose your observation is fair enough…though I would say you've overlooked a couple things
    1. Many of the characters in the film don't think this way. For them Eywa (or however you spell it) is a “god” a “higher power” and, even from the audience's standpoint is their ultimate object of worship.
    2. There is such a thing as naturalistic pantheism which I believe would fit the characterizations in the movie.

    I understand pantheism is a broad category, hence the dispute of terms. However, I felt the term pantheism was appropriate since I'm not a huge fan of neologism.

    Thanks for reading,
    God bless


  3. Many of the characters in the film don't think this way. For them Eywa (or however you spell it) is a “god” a “higher power” and, even from the audience's standpoint is their ultimate object of worship.

    Yes, their relationship to the trees has the sort of reverential attitude and fills the same social and emotional niche that supernaturalistic religion does for us.

    The difference is that the “ancestors” aren't spirits on some imagined other plane the way they tend to be among stone age societies on earth. They're verifiably real and have, so far as is depicted, a purely naturalistic basis.

    It seems to me that what we have among the Na'vi is what might be called a naturalistic religion–if one watches carefully one will notice that there's no suggestion of belief in the supernatural at any point in the story. We're just prone to interpreting it that way because Cameron's done something one of my favorite science fiction writers, Peter F. Hamilton, is noted for doing: taking ideas that are normally associated with supernaturalism and giving them a purely naturalistic basis within his stories.

    The religion of the Na'vi is, I would say, as much a naturalistic religion as is the variety of Unitarian Universalism practiced by some humanists (except cooler–contemporary humanists don't have mind-uploading biotech).

    There is such a thing as naturalistic pantheism which I believe would fit the characterizations in the movie.

    That I can buy. The problem is that the reviewers who are calling AVATAR pantheistic are consistently missing this. Or at least failing to note the distinction (which is rather important if you ask me).


  4. Although…I did just remember the Norm Spellman character talk about Eywa as the Deity of the Navi…which is why he was so concerned about the destruction of the tree of souls.
    I think it's fair to say that “souls” and “deities” are terms often associated with the supernatural whether Cameron intended to do what Peter F. Hamilton does in his work or not. (by the way that technique also reminded me of the “prophets” in Deep Space Nine – a show that had it's moments).
    It's definitely interesting ground for discussion since the characters in the film seem largely convinced of the “deity” of Eywa even to the point of worship services and ceremonies. Though I realize this is a different question than whether Cameron is trying to communicate something naturalistic or pantheistic.


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