Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Avatar Review: Part 3: "Spiritual-Religious Insightfuls or Mislead Mamipulation?"

One of the more prevalent arguments you will find in Christianized movie going, (er is there such a thing, or am I being too generalized in labeling?) is the influence of the film has on the audience, or specifically the Christians who see the film. The debates can range from, why are they going to see the movie in an atmosphere of a theatre to begin with (as discussed briefly in my “Film Limitations,” post), to how will this film affect me spiritually, if at all?

As we know, Avatar has a lot of themes within it, many of which that have caused a lot of discussions, debates, arguments, acclimations and praises among world renowned critics, politicians, activist groups, and general e-bloggers. And one of the more interesting and somewhat controversial themes that are discussed in it is the religious/spiritual ones. Ironically one of the larger debates that have come up the most I’ve noticed that has come up in these themes, are which themes are the most prevalent in this film. That’s a good question, one of which I will try to pick out…the themes I mean, not so much which are the stronger or more noticeable ones.

Now I’ll admit my opinions on this particular theme(s) aren’t as profound in comparison to my previous ones, so bear with me. As mentioned before, one of most common discussions about the religious themes in the movie are the various types of religious aspects found in the film. From what I have seen in interviews, blogs, critiques and general discussions, some feel the film is more related to more eastern spiritual beliefs such as Hinduism, particularly with how the Na’vi bear a resemblance to Hindu deities (blue skin, face markings etc). Others felt that the movie had comparisons to certain aspects of Christianity. According to some sites and interviews I researched, some of the more prevalent examples of this would include,
· Comparisons of the forest world of Pandora to the Garden of Eden, some even comparing some parts of the film to the book of Genesis (yep you heard right, Genesis).
· The Na’vi representing the more aspiration side of us that wants to be a better person (spiritually) while the humans (the RDA in particular), representing more corruptible side of ourselves.
· The transition from being a disabled human (Jake Sully) to a taller, stronger fully able-bodied being, in an equally unique and vibrant world (see first point) or;
· Relating to that last point, the ability to transcend into that superior body and become a new person, to some also is similar to being “born again”. Almost a reference to Christ’s resurrection perhaps?

These are just a few examples of some of the themes that have been addressed from this film. There are others, but I rather not risk making this blog post any longer than need be…we can post about those other ones and any I haven’t mentioned in comment discussions, which I look forward to.

There is one area of thought in Avatar’s spiritual/religious theme that I would like to address. One that apparently is the larger area of concerns many Christian writers and reviewers have for this movie, and that is the pantheism theme. Some feel that there is an underling message of linking spiritualism to nature worship. As one critic from ‘Vatican Radio put it, “the movie cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium. Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship”.

Hmm it’s interesting that was brought up, because I remembered a conversation I had with a good friend of mine from my church (this friend btw is planning to check out the blog site later the more the merrier!), after he and his wife got around seeing it. He said really liked the movie a lot, and did like some of the themes in the movie as well (the corporate/colonialism angle in particular). He did however have one complaint about the movie, and that was in regards to the Na’vi’s worship with the ‘tree of souls’ during the unsuccessful body transfer of the injured doctor Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and the more successful one with Jake. He found the whole swaying and chanting “a tad too new age-ish and pagan in general, especially compared to Christianity.”

From my friend’s POV, I can see where he’s coming from, I too found that part of the movie leaning a tad too close to pantheism. Could the whole Na’vi “tree of souls/voices” communicational worship be the under toned message of pantheism? Quite possibly. Is this particular themed message of this film intentionally blurring the line between worshiping nature itself rather than the creator? Some say absolutely yes. Some Christian critics feel that Avatar is one of those manipulative feel good films that can lead you astray without realizing it. David Outten, one of the more well known Christian critics, have made statements pertaining to this argument. He feels that "Cameron has done a masterful job in manipulating the emotions of his audience in Avatar. He created a world where it looks good and noble to live in a tree and hunt for your food daily with a bow and arrow. ... Cameron said, 'Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth.' This is a clear statement of religious belief. This is pantheism. It is not Christianity”. I wonder when he wrote this, was David referring to a particular part(s) of the film? An example of this would be when the film’s hero Jake, just prior to the big battle, was praying/communicating to (or through) the tree of voices to the Na’vi deity Eywa which supposedly did answer his prayers in the end. What do you all think? A grey area or pretty straight forward example? I’m a bit torn on this, and I hope that’s not a bad sign.

Oddly enough, not all Christians feel this way about this film. A few feel that Avatar is more geared toward panentheism (“the belief that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well”) rather than pantheism. In other words, “in pantheism, "God is the whole"; in panentheism, "The whole is in God." In all honestly I find this belief system while slightly more plausible than pantheism (and that’s saying a lot), very suspicious (more like Hinduism beliefs) and not all that acceptable, at least not to me. Like I said before, I am no expert on these, so I am hoping to get some feedback on this.

I think in the end, the spiritual and religious themes of this film can be left to ones interpretation. While some parts of the film are a bit more obvious than others, we still have to be aware of what we watch and access what we see and hear, much like a Jedi, “be mindful of your thoughts.” Hmmm, I wonder if this is what my cousin meant when she was complaining about that War of the Worlds situation about what we see and hear? (check my Film Limitation post for more details). Well In any case I’m curious on what you all think about all of this in this film? I got to admit, this section of the review has been a bit more convoluted than the previous ones. I do hope though, by bringing up some aspects of this theme for this film might invoke some good discussions, because this part of my review has been the most taxing thus far. Hope you all can add your two cents to this one!

Oh and my next part for this film, will be about social themes in the movie, including race and culture. Due to some of the comments discussed in the militaristic post, I feel this too should be touched on before this review is done, so stay tuned!


  1. Hey, Midnight Wanderer,

    I'm surprised by the response of David Outten as you present it, simply because I'm not sure Cameron has any obligation to craft a story that sticks to Christian motifs. "It is not Christianity", yes, but who said it had to be?

    As you've laid out, from a religious/spiritual point of view, there seems to be "something for everyone."

    Your suggestion that Jake's transformation from paraplegic to a taller, stronger, "new being" did indeed help me see the illustration of what the resurrection experience might be, insofar as not just a restoration to life and limb, but a new level of abilities.

    It also prompted me to imagine that Jake's motivations for staying with the Na'vi may not have been altogether altruistic. Might it simply have been a function of "if I go back, I'm in a wheelchair; if I stay, I can soar"? Meh. Regardless, the issue here is that, amid all the other religious and spiritual ideas, we are treated to a graphic illustration of the idea of "this mortal must put on immortality, this corruptible must put on incorruption."

    So, sure, he may have woven threads of pantheism or Hinduism or other isms into the fabric of the story. "We" (Christians) may not appreciate it. But then, for those parts that do speak to our Christian world view, non-Christians probably wouldn't like those parts very much.

    Ultimately, Cameron is a movie-maker and a money-maker, not a priest or pastor. He's going to toss in a bunch of themes and motifs, provide something for everyone, and enjoy a broader appeal.

  2. Heh, Seems that way. In the end Camreon wanted a very succesful film, that did apeal with everyone in one form or another... well apparently thats exactly what he did. Guess thats all she wrote.

  3. When a writer crafts a story, their own world view is going to permeate it. If the writer is not Christian, one should not be surprised that it doesn't resemble the world of the Christian world view. If he resonates a lot with the spiritual themes in this movie, I think one can conclude that James Cameron is not Christian, or is at least not a strong one. Is that ipso facto reason not to go see it? No, I think that's absurd, and we Christians should distance ourselves from such snobishness.

    I agree with Midnight, that Panentheism is very compatible with the spirituality presented in the movie; more so than Pantheism. Technically speaking, the planet Pandora itself has a biological-basis for its sentience, and its creatures are figuratively its children. In this sense, it more closely resembles polytheism where the deity-like entity is not a necessary being of the Universe, but is itself a product of the Universe. So within the context of the movie, the planetary-spirit is an entirely natural being, and thus it is Naturalism that we're being presented. Still, it's portrayed in such a way as to make Panentheism credible.

    And I think that's what people take away from it. There were people who saw the movie as a spiritual experience, some of who meditated or did new-age circles before going to view it. It's plainly fair, as Christians have The Passion of the Christ, or even the Narnian Chronicles that portray directly or indirectly Christian beliefs about God. Unless we want to lose the freedom to have movies like these made, we shouldn't infringe on other peoples' rights to do the same.

    Acknowledging however that movies like Avatar are an encouragement to world views that I disagree with, it does make me wonder how I should respond? I don't see any harm in watching it, but I guess nothing encourages me to promote it to others, except perhaps for its technical accomplishments. Outside of that and discussions like these, I'm not sure what else.

  4. Hey Lancer,

    You've touched on a really important point - freedom.

    Complaining that Avatar doesn't hold exclusively to Christian ideas and in so doing attempting to obligate Cameron beyond his own views makes no sense to me - he's going to make whatever movie he wants to make, and it's his free right to do so.

    Should we infringe upon any movie maker's rights, we may be less capable of defending the rights of those who do tell a simple Christian story.

    I love your lanaguage, and agree that "we Chrisians should distance ourselves from such snobisness."

    That narrow view in Christian movie reviewing is one of the main driving factors for our setting up this site in the first place - we must be able to discuss movies in a more open and penetrating way than what tends to be generally "out there".

  5. I think there are some good Christian reviewers out there if you look. But when movies contrary to the Christian world-view are presented, the best response is not to complain, or boycott them (though I support the individual's choice to not see a movie in protest, should they feel that conviction), or require that they make more Christian-friendly movies.

    The best response is to present an alternative. As C.S. Lewis said: We don't need more people writing 'Christian books'... what we need is more Christians writing good books.

  6. There may be, but I tend to find most are worried primarily with quantitatives - counting F-words and describing violent scenes - and not a whole lot of discussion of the qualitative merit, if any.

  7. Lancer, I'm SO glad you pointed out that "snobishness" that alas does seem to be the usual reaction to certian movies some Christians might have. Just like that huge disagreement I mentioned in my first blog post with my cousin. Not only does it seem very close-minded, but there is the potential on missing out on a really good lession in some of these questionable films. It a shame some never take the time to see it.

    You're also right about it being a double edge sword too. If we start infringing on what others want in a film. Live and let live, its as simple as that..that is uless when the next faith inspired film gets no play due to others

    DA, (and Lancer) you make good point about on how some (though not all) Christian reveiwers can be more concerned about about profanity in the film rather than the film itself...techicly speaking you can find that and much more in general soceity than in one or two particular films. Living in a "Christian-glass-bubble" is NOT going to prevent you from being exposed to questionable content. Now I'm not saying we should go out of our way to look for these things to prove a point. Just that there are still some Christians out there that tend to spend more time "playing church" than serving God, and their fellow man...

    hmmm think I'm getting a little off topic on bad:)


What do you think?!