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Avatar, a Theological Review

January 2, 2010

My wife and I saw Avatar last night.  A much hyped movie from one of Hollywood’s most successful producers and directors, James Cameron.   It was entertaining and as advertised quite a visual display.  Unfortunately, too many movies are praised for their appearance and not their substance.  On the former, visual graphics have gotten to a point that whatever monumental advances they made one hardly notices.  The law of diminishing returns is beginning to infiltrate technology.  On the later, Avatar had a recycled plot of which my wife thought was a combination of Pocahontas, Ferngully,  and Dances with Wolves.  I, being a closet geek, thought it was like half the plots in the infamous Final Fantasy Series.

There are several things that must be noted for the discerning.  It was a combination of New Age, Animism, and Hinduism.  This is the worldview of Hollywood.  Everything is connected to the divine we just have to “realize” it and tap into its spiritual powers.  We are all “one” with nature.  God, nature, human beings are all distinct things in separate categories.  God is not connected to his creation.  His creation reflects who he is in the same way that a person’s work reflects their skill and personality.  God is present everywhere but he is not spatial “in” everywhere nor is relationally present everywhere.  God is not present with sin and is not relationally “connected” to the sinner apart from repentance and faith in Christ.  Believers are united in Christ and united by the Holy Spirit but we still obtain individuality.  We are one body of many different parts.

One thing I have recently been pondering is the relationship between environmentalism and technology.  Movies like Avatar seem to be saying that harmony is achieved by oneness with nature and not technology.  Industrialism and technology caused Earth to “die”.  There is sort of a naivety and hypocrisy in Hollywood about this.  How much did Cameron have to rely on technology to create this movie?  How big was its carbon footprint?  How big is his?  Surely magnitudes greater than mine.  As much talk as there is about reducing our reliance on modern conveniences, how far are people willing to go?  Are they willing to return to the dark ages with the short life spans, infertility, disease, etc.?  I doubt it.  Perhaps a more environmental approach would be to do the movie on Broadway instead of the Big Screen.  The truth, modern excess and abuse are the result of greed and coveting, that is, sin.  Technology is a manipulation of the environment.  Things are shaped into a manner that is useful for us.  This can be done for the greater good or the greater evil.  There is nothing inherently wrong with using resources organic or otherwise.   It is wrong if they are used sinfully.  More could be said about that issue but we will save it for later.

There are two ways of interacting in a culture that is modeled in this movie.  One is the corporation and the other is the “Avatar”.  Since I am inspired by Augustine’s “City of God”, where he rejected the blame placed on Christianity for the fall of Rome and argued vigorously for the blame to be on the false ideals of Rome itself.  So many movies in America explore the theme of destroying indigenous cultures with ones more powerful ones, reminiscent of our sins against Africans and Native Americans.  One thing Hollywood does not recognize is the effect their movies have worldwide.  My wife commented that when you hear of a foreign movie its usually always good.  It had to be to make it here, but the rest of the world gets to watch whatever garbage we produce.  Hollywood is a global force that is influencing people worldwide.  It contributes to the rejection of the indigenous culture one grew up with for the culture promoted within Hollywood.  The rise of fundamentalism globally is like the rebellion of the Navi in the movie, fighting back against things considered in affront to traditional values.

A whole post could be written about the Avatar and distinguishing it from Jesus’ Incarnation in Christianity.  The two are different though there are some parallels.  Parallels are with respect to missionary efforts to learn the language and culture and communicate from one culture to another.  Those are good things.  However, Jesus was born as a human and Son of God.  He was fully human and fully divine.  He was not a human posing as a God or a God posing as a human.  He did not ascend to full humanity or deity at a later point.  This is unlike the Hindu notion of an Avatar and the one represented in the movie.

We must move beyond surface level reviews of things in our culture.  We must move beyond the external and move to the internal.  This is the role of Theology, to see things as God sees them.  This is the role a missionaries, to understand and learn the culture and its differences, similarities, and tensions with Christianity.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Cassie permalink
    January 2, 2010 1:20 pm

    I certainly did feel like a missionary seeing this movie. I had absolutely no desire or intention to see it apart from being in the know about what sorts of ideals are shaping our society. As much as I don’t like it, I see animism, pantheism and goddess worship not just in this film, but reflected in real life (hey, we live near Santa Cruz!)
    If anything, it has awaken me again to how much people need truth, not feel-good lies. Our own efforts to be “at one” with the universe are not going to be the thing that saves us from destruction. Only the saving work of Christ crucified can do that, whether we want to accept that truth or not.

  2. David permalink
    January 2, 2010 4:47 pm

    Avatar’s Christian theme
    By Mark Silk

    More Spiritual Than You’d Think
    You Can’t See Nothing If You Close Your Eyes
    by Mike Furches
    A Must-See Cinematic Spectacle
    Our Spiritual Desire On Display
    Yo | 12/21/09

    The True Avatar
    by Lane Palmer
    Tuesday, December 29, 2009
    Wake Up – It’s Grace

  3. Chris permalink
    January 4, 2010 10:59 am

    Thanks for the links to some broader and thorough reviews. Perhaps my review seems a bit negative.

    There are numerous other parallels I could have referred to but the Hollywood Jesus site gets at many of them and does well. Regardless, the emphasis in my review was not to point out parallels but to make proper distinctions between concepts in the movie and orthodoxy. Additionally, I don’t think Hollywood embodies much of what it promotes. This is the character of false teachers, they don’t live it out.

    I agree with Pastor Mark Driscoll, movies today are sermons. We must engage them for the sake of the lost and for the edification of the body. We must not overly accommodate to the culture nor be too fundamentalist and lose a missionary voice. Ultimately, we must view things through the lens of the gospel and orthodox Christianity throughout history has testified to the uniqueness of Christ in contrast to all other notions of a savior.

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