I never jumped or squirmed so much during a movie as I did last night (Sunday, January 31) when watching Avatar, with my wife, Becky. There are other very good offerings out there at movie theaters, but some of those can wait for video rentals, online or from the store. But Avatar, I was told, needed to be seen in 3D, preferably Imax 3D. Having worn the funky glasses, and taken them off a few times to compare effects, I can agree. But there’s something about having claws and teeth and arrows coming at you in 3D that makes me glad we hadn’t bought popcorn or soft drinks. They would have ended up in my lap or all over neighboring viewers.
As important as the media is the message of the film. Several reviewers and writers have weighed in on sites more well-known than this one about the message of Avatar, especially whether or not its a gospel of sorts for pantheism (the belief that the sum of all things is God, or divine, and that all things are essentially divine) and earth goddess worship (Check out Russ Douthat, columnist for the New York Times). I come away convinced thatAvatar indeed has a strong pantheistic streak, that I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a significant religious factor in America. But pantheism is already so mainstream today, I confess to no loss of sleep over its message in the movie. In fact, the anti-colonialistic, anti-militaristic, anti-exploitation message of the movie is something I can appreciate to the point that it outweighs any objection over the pantheism and nature worship of the film. Ironically however, the anti-militarism message was conveyed with violent, military special effects that are all the more impactful and disturbing for being 3D. The solution to militarism in the movie is essentially military. Movie viewers today may be getting accustomed to increasingly graphic violent special effects, to the point of getting inured and desensitized to the very violence that Avatar decries. Indeed, we come to expect it, and might not take anything seriously that does not at least match the graphic and overwhelming nature of the last bombing and blood-letting we saw on the screen. That disturbs me.
Though, as a Christian, I do not identify with the pantheism and planetary goddess worship of Avatar, I can look beyond that and identify with the deeper hungers that such a stark juxtaposition of New Age pantheism and modern, commercial, capitalistic exploitation dramatizes. All right, its more than a juxtaposition; it may be a caricature conflict of the extremes in both tendencies. But I see beyond the plot devices a hunger for union and communion that contemporary commercial culture and technology do not address. If anything, they exacerbate this hunger. We miss the Garden of Eden, our Paradise Lost, where we were at one with ourselves, each other, and Creation. The wound of our exile remains as a memory of the race, one which haunts our dreams, our stories and our pursuits. Names like “unobtanium” and “Pandora” bear allusions to stories of our fall from innocence and paradise. When talking about the message of the movie, we could start with that point of commonality with our New Age and neopagan neighbors.
But Western Christendom, especially since the Renaissance, has tended to formulate the Christian faith and the hope of salvation in such ways as to leave Creation entirely out of the picture. So we scratch our heads in embarassment or confusion over images from the Psalms and the Prophets about how “the sea shall shout for joy” and “the trees of the field shall clap their hands,” or how “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).” Instead of wringing our hands or furrowing our brows over how pantheism is going mainstream (so that even McDonalds’ is tied in promotionally with Avatar--go figure), we might ask ourselves what it is about a full-orbed biblical faith that we have forgotten and neglected, and that neo-paganism is picking up in our stead. Like the fact that we are part of Creation, yes, the capstone to it, priests standing at the point where spirit meets matter, but children of earth nonetheless. The strong and stubborn streak of Gnostic dualism running through Western Christendom (the sense that spirit is opposed to matter, and that matter is evil, suspect or inferior) makes western Christians typically uncomfortable with their material, physical nature, as though salvation involved escaping from Creation, rather than redeeming it. It may be churchly, but its not biblical.
Neither Mother Goddess worship, nor the military prowess of the Na’vi (the inhabitants of Pandora) have gotten us back to the Garden, or there would be no hunger nor audience for such a film as Avatar. Ironically, Avatar succeeds technically and visually for the very reasons that we are feel such hunger for, and disconnect with, Creation: the increasingly powerful and all-encompassing digital and technological world we are creating and inhabiting. Ironically, Avatar has used the tools of our artificial world to lament and remind us of our estrangement from the natural one.
Though we don’t have floating mountains or giant flying dragons to ride, we don’t have to travel to other planets to experience wonders as breath-taking as are viewed on Pandora–excuse me, at the Cineplex. Even on this cold, grey, snowy afternoon in Minnesota there are wonders within us, among us and around us that should take our breath away, if we weren’t so preoccupied with getting, wanting, earning and doing. The cold, grey snowy afternoon is one of them. Wonder and love are our tickets to the harmony and union with God, creation and each other that we lost and long for, our route back toward our Paradise Lost. If we don’t rediscover such biblical treasures, we shouldn’t wonder that our non-Christian friends and neighbors look for them in the worship of nature and ancestors, even digital 3D nature and ancestors. So go for a walk in the snow, or when it melts, stick your hands in the dirt; they’re spiritual matters.