Avatar and Christianity

A few days after Christmas I joined millions of others and went to see Avatar. It seemed like the right thing for a fantasy writer to do, and I’m not a bit sorry for the experience. If nothing else, this movie has caused a cultural stir, and I’m happy I can enter into the resulting dialogue.

After watching the movie, I was especially curious to see what the Christian community had to say about it, especially the Christian writing community. You see, among all the other things I can say about Avatar, one particular feature stood out, and I wondered what writers thought. Christian writers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I enjoyed the movie. The science fiction, while at the center of the story, was not “hard core.” This was more a fantasy than science fiction.

The world the author and the director created was impressive for its imaginative integration of sea life and land. The special effects, including the use of 3D, enhanced the story and existed for it rather than the other way around, which seems to be the case in so many movies these days.

There was excellent foreshadowing which made much of the story believable. Again, it seems that many commercial movies could care less about believability (call it the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” effect), so miraculous escapes engineered by the suddenly discovered Handy Device are the norm. Not so in Avatar.

Still, there were some glaring problems. One was the stereotypical hard-bitten military professional and the greedy, unfeeling corporate exec. Along with the smart, tough, talented love-interest alien princess.

But the weak characterization of these secondary characters paled in comparison to the central theme and problem of the movie: it unabashedly preached panentheism. From Wikipedia:

Panentheism … is a belief system which posits that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well. Panentheism is distinguished from pantheism, which holds that God is synonymous with the material universe.

Briefly put, in pantheism, “God is the whole”; in panentheism, “The whole is in God.” This means that the Universe in the first formulation is practically the Whole itself, but in the second the universe and God are not ontologically equivalent. In panentheism, God is not necessarily viewed as the creator or demiurge, but the eternal animating force behind the universe, with the universe as nothing more than the manifest part of God. The cosmos exists within God, who in turn “pervades” or is “in” the cosmos. While pantheism asserts that God and the universe are coextensive, panentheism claims that God is greater than the universe and that the universe is contained within God.

Clearly the latter position is the dominant belief of the inhabitants of the planet Pandora.

Throughout the movie, the panentheistic principle becomes clearer and clearer.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this comment in a review by Jeffrey Overstreet at Image:

While the aliens’ faith is a mishmash of world religions calculated to minimize controversy, Avatar’s spirituality is admirably incarnational. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive: one informs the other to the better understanding of both.

I suppose in the way New Age spirituality is a mishmash of ideas, so is Avatar. But it hardly creates its own mix. Rather, it preaches the panentheistic party line:

  • Nature is One
  • We are one with Nature
  • Therefore, animal life is to be valued as is human life
  • But death is part of the cycle of life
  • God (the Na’vi called her Eywa) doesn’t take sides (in good/evil struggles) but maintains the balance of the universe
  • Another review—the snippet I read—mentioned that Avatar succeeded in not offending Christians. Still another praised it as possibly a Christian movie:

    The Holy Spirit comes all over him from the Spirit tree, (God the Father) coming to the end when man comes to wipe the Navi out, Jake goes to God (Spirit tree and prays from his heart) his Navi girl friend tells him that God is there to protect, but He will not answer such a pray, but He did, God called all the Giant beasts to fight the war for the Navi.

    The commander of the attacking forces was evil (could be Satan or the anti Christ) the Scene when they were worshiping God in unity was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen that is the way it will be in Heaven.

    Then there is this from the review at Christianity Today by Todd Hertz:

    Some Christians will be bothered by the worship of the Na’vi’s unseen female deity—there are scenes of worship, rituals, and prayer to her. But vagueness about this entity makes it possible to view her not as a New Age goddess but as just one more strange piece of fantasy in this alien world. In fact, there’s suggestion that this entity is Pandora itself: one big, living alien.

    For an emergent take on the movie, read Avatar: a metaphor for emergent evangelism.

    To be honest, I’m stunned. Christian writers not up in arms at the preachy-ness of the movie? Granted, Overstreet calls it out for its political message. But not its religious ones.

    And Christians not loudly declaiming the anti-Christian religious themes? Where are the people who condemned Harry Potter? Is the worship of nature somehow OK where as wizardry (even if that was what Harry Potter promoted, which it did not) is not?

    Perhaps the most likely explanation is this: professing Christians have begun to incorporate tenets of New Age spirituality with their church traditions so that what many call “Christianity” has become the actual mishmash. As a result, the majority are comfortable with, even blessed by, references to false religion.

    Where, oh where, has discernment gone?

    For further discussion see “More On Avatar.”

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