The Na’vi, the Borg, and the Church


On Sunday Avatar won the Golden Globe best picture award, an amazing accomplishment considering the thin plot and two-dimensional characters. (If you haven’t seen this short spoof on the formulation of the plot, you’re missing a good laugh 😆 ).

Interestingly, writer/director James Cameron put to bed all the questions about the message of Avatar in one of his acceptance speeches (he also received the award for best director):

Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other and us to the Earth. And if you have to go four and a half light years to another planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that’s the wonder of cinema right there.

This movie is not the first to depict this interconnectedness. Star Trek: First Contact, a 1994 movie based on the TV program Star Trek: The Next Generation, featured an enemy known as The Borg, which also exhibited a unitary oneness.

The Borg … organized as an interconnected collective, the decisions of which are made by a hive mind …. They operate solely toward the fulfilling of one purpose: to “add the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to their own” in pursuit of perfection. This is achieved through forced assimilation, a process which transforms individuals and technology into Borg, enhancing, and simultaneously controlling, individuals.

Wikipedia

The hive mind rather than individualism. Assimilation rather than freedom to choose. The pursuit of perfection at the expense of others. Add to this their oft repeated warning, “Resistance is futile” and you had one of the truly terrifying antagonists of contemporary fiction.

And yet, fifteen years later the Na’vi show up on the big screen with many of these same components and they are the heroes. Rather than enjoying the “hive mind” at all times, it seems they can “plug in” at will. They also don’t assimilate, but they resist all who are not part of the people. Clearly their pursuit is perfection though they find their path through their connection to nature, not through adopting and adapting technology as The Borg did.

In both these groups, I see echoes of the Church universal. The Borg had a queen with central control over the collective, and the Na’vi had a goddess who was their god beyond the god of everything. Christians are part of the body of Christ, with Jesus as our head.

The Borg had one mind, the Na’vi could plug in and experience a oneness with creatures, and the Christian has the mind of Christ which allows us to be united in spirit and intent on one purpose (Phil. 2:2).

Finally, The Borg sought perfection through assimilation, and the Na’vi experienced perfection in nature. The Christian has regeneration and sanctification with the expectation of glorification—a life free from sin at last.

Are these parallels happy accidents? Could the humans behind the creation of The Borg and the Na’vi be expressing a heartfelt need that can only be satisfied in reality from the relationship God intends through His Son for His people? Could Satan be exploiting this need to do what he so often does—make a poor copy of God’s greater design? Hence, panentheism, a religion that offers unity and peace.

Last week I discussed connection points between Christianity and the philosophy espoused in Avatar. Why wouldn’t there be? Humans all have the same basic needs. The Truth will meet those needs, whereas the lie will promise more than it can deliver (e.g. Satan: “You surely shall not die”).

For a discussion about Avatar from a writer’s perspective, see “What I Learn About Writing From Avatar.”

Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 10:19 am  Comments (3)  
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Connection Points between Avatar and Christianity


I said last time I see a couple connection points between the religious beliefs espoused by James Cameron in Avatar and Christianity. These are not places in the movie where someone can put a Christian spin on elements unintended for such, such as the line about a second birth.

One of the fallacies of trying to find connection points without understanding what exactly the other person is saying is that words may mean one thing to one person and something quite different to another. Consequently, some Christians hear “god” and think “the one true God.” Or they hear “second birth” and they think “born again.”

The truth is, language is less important than meaning. Just because Cameron, through the Na’vi, referred to god, we should not conclude he is talking about the one transcendent person from whom all else derives its existence. Rather, he would dispute the idea that god is a person, that He brought all else into being, and that He is transcendent. In other words, Cameron is talking about something else entirely when he refers to “god.”

In understanding this, I can now look at the views espoused through the film and see what things are consistent with a Christian worldview.

One obvious point is spiritual awareness. Jay Michaelson said in his article “The Meaning of Avatar: Everything is God (A Response to Ross Douthat and other naysayers of ‘pantheism’)”

“God” is a series of insufficient explanations of the Absolutely Unknowable, a collection of projections and dreams and who-knows-what-else whichspeak to the core of who we are as human beings. (Emphasis mine.)

That panentheists recognition that “god” speaks to the core of who we are as human beings coincides with the Christian belief as explained by Blaise Pascal, that humans have a “God-sized vacuum” in our hearts. Here’s Pascal’s actual statement:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Blaise Pascal, Pensees #425]

I see another point of connection between Christians and panentheists—nature is beautiful and precious. While our motives differ, our attitude toward nature should be similar.

On the one hand, the panentheist sees god in everything. Hence a hedgehog should be appreciated and cared for as much as a horse and nearly as much as a human. The Christian often reacts negatively to that ideology, but I think we have more in common than first meets the eye.

God put Adam in charge of His garden, gave him dominion over the animals, and after the Fall gave them as resources for mankind’s needs. As near as I can tell from Scripture, God did not rescind this first charge. Man is still to be in charge of nature. But being in charge hardly means “indiscriminately using.”

Scripture is full of counsel and commands about being good stewards. It seems clear we as believers can advocate for proper care of nature because God has made us stewards over His creation.

Should we worship nature or put the well-being of the titmouse over the well-being of humans? No. But we might need to rethink what the “well-being of humans” means.

Details aside, our treatment of our world ought to be more a connection point than a division when it comes to Christians talking with panentheists.

For further discussion, see “The Na’vi, The Borg, And The Church.”

Avatar and Religious Discussion


No doubt Avatar has stirred up some “interesting” discussions, including some dealing with the religious aspects of the movie.

Phyllis Wheeler over at The Christian Fantasy Review gave a good review which in turn brought a comment from author Eric Wilson. In part he said:

All this to say, instead of focusing on differences, I believe we can take this opportunity to redeem faulty ideas from the film and turn them into beautiful examples of God’s love. That seems like the way Jesus did things, and I think we’d get a lot further in promoting the Gospel by taking that approach.

Or at least that’s the way He calls me to approach it.

I’m glad Eric qualified his statement with the last line. God does call His body to function in different capacities from one another, so any time we make a blanket “all Christians should” statement, unless we are quoting from Scripture, we’re probably about to step off the high dive.

However, I have to take issue with Eric’s characterization of idolatry as “faulty ideas.” I also take issue with the idea that Jesus preached a “can’t we all get along” message.

Speaking to the latter first — I just read Matthew 10 as part of my church’s 89 Chapters in 89 Days program, which includes Jesus’s instruction to His disciples for their upcoming missionary trip. He told them, in part, to take back their blessing of peace from any house that proved unworthy and to shake the dust off their feet when they left a house or city that didn’t welcome them or “heed their words” (Matt. 10:13-14).

That’s just one passage that shows Jesus did not teach a gospel of peace among men. His true gospel of peace deals with man’s reconciliation to God.

As to the “faulty ideas” in Avatar, I do not see anywhere in Scripture that idolatry is treated as “faulty” (“working badly or unreliably because of imperfections” [Oxford American Dictionary]).

And lest anyone thinks that perhaps the Na’vi were actually worshiping the true God but were ignorant about Jesus, take time to read Jay Michaelson’s post on the religious position espoused by Avatar. (I mentioned this article a week ago in “More Avatar.”)

Michaelson has no problem identifying the core beliefs writer/director James Cameron was espousing. The key philosophical/theological belief undergirding it all is “nonduality.” The idea is that dichotomies such as self/other, good/evil, male/female, mind/body are illusions. From Wikipedia:

A nondual philosophical or religious perspective or theory maintains that there is no fundamental distinction between mind and matter, or that the entire phenomenological world is an illusion.

Hence, Michaelson says

“God” becomes seen as one of many ways of understanding Being. Sometimes God is Christ on the cross, sometimes the Womb of the Earth. Sometimes God is Justice, other times Mercy. This is how sophisticated religionists have understood theology for at least a thousand years: “God” is a series of insufficient explanations of the Absolutely Unknowable, a collection of projections and dreams and who-knows-what-else which, neo-atheists notwithstanding, speak to the core of who we are as human beings.

To me, this is more comforting than old school theology, not less. It allows for multiple paths to the holy, radical ecumenicism and pluralism, and a bit less constriction around our favorite theological myths. God as Friend, Father, “motion and spirit that impels all things” – all of these become dances, tools of the inner life which are available when needed, and enriched, not lessened, by being increased in number.

Speaking as a dualist, I believe this line of thinking is opposed to Scripture, not merely “faulty.” It calls into question everything God has revealed about Himself and about His creation, about our nature and relationship with Him, about our sin-sickness and need of a Savior.

In saying this, I am not slamming the door on James Cameron or Jay Michaelson. In fact, I think it would be fascinating to dialogue with them. I’d like to see a debate between one of them and a Christian apologist such as Ravi Zacharias.

What I’d expect would be much disagreement, not unkindly so. But the two positions cannot both be true.

Take just one issue: good and evil. James 1:13 says

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt any one.

God clearly separates Himself from evil. He didn’t cause it, create it, or participate in it.

Duality exists. Time and eternity; mortality and immortality—these are issues central to the Bible.

So my question is this, What are the connection points between Christianity and this panentheistic worldview? I can think of a couple, and maybe Eric Wilson is right to say that we should find those common points.

However, I don’t see us doing so if we don’t actually understand what others believe and what movies like Avatar are truly saying.

For further discussion, see “Connection Points Between Avatar And Christianity.”

More Thoughts on Avatar and Christianity


I met with a group of fantasy friends this past Saturday, and of course Avatar came up. One, Mike Duran of Decompose, brought me an LA Times article discussing the criticism of the movie by the political right.

Then on Sunday our guest preacher used Avatar in an illustration. He said he hesitated to do so and that his wife advised against it. Someone sitting behind me whispered, “Why? What’s wrong with it?”

(While I wanted to whip around and say, You don’t know what’s wrong with a movie espousing a worldview so diametrically opposed to Christianity as Avatar? I refrained myself. 😆 )

All that to say, this movie is becoming a cultural phenomenon, yet there seems to be some growing opposition to it. As far as I’m concerned, however, the controversy is missing the core objectionable material—the religious framework of the movie.

Here’s how people seem to be reacting:

  • The majority of moviegoers love it
  • Some like the movie but think the story is a tired reworking of a common tale (follow this link for a humorous look at Avatar‘s plot line)
  • Some like the movie for the visuals but think the storytelling was preachy.
  • Some dislike Avatar because they object to the political and social ideology.
  • A tiny segment warn that the movie promotes a panentheistic/anti-biblical worldview.
  • I have to say, I’m disturbed by all those reactions by Christians except the last one. Yes, ALL but the last one.

    To indiscriminately love the movie is a problem. To object to it because it isn’t a better story or because its got the wrong politics or the wrong view of society is also a problem if the moviegoer doesn’t see the religious framework.

    The truth is, our religious convictions will affect our politics and our view of society and of art—unless they aren’t really convictions. James Cameron’s apparently are. The political and social statements he made in Avatar are consistent with the panentheism the movie preaches.

    What, then, does the criticism of the movie say about those who find fault with it? Are we most troubled by the predictable story and warmed-over dialogue? Are we most troubled by the military bashing? By the “tree hugging”? By the anti-technology message? Do we find no fault and are ready to give it the movie-of-the-decade award (or perhaps movie of the century)?

    It all seems so odd to me.

    If Jesus walked among us today, would we listen to His conversation with the Pharisees and criticize them for their politics? Or for their social ideology? For their inability to tell stories as well as Jesus? Wouldn’t the real issue be the one Jesus nailed them on—they were of their father the devil.

    Do Christians not see the false religion in movies like Avatar and Dancing with Wolves and The Lion King and Pocahontas? Or is false religion unimportant? Or less important than politics?

    It’s this last question I pray isn’t true. The Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah in part because He did not fulfill their expectation for a political savior. Have we Christians resurrected that expectation? Is this why we ignore the affront to the nature of God that dominates this movie?

    For further discussion, see “Avatar And Religious Discussion.”

    Why Christians Aren’t Up in Arms about Avatar


    I suggested in my first post on James Cameron’s stunning 3D movie Avatar that some professing Christians might be missing the panentheistic religious overtones because they have begun to incorporate tenets of New Age spirituality with their church traditions so that what many call “Christianity” has become a mishmash of religious beliefs.

    I’m going to hold to that belief, though I’ve qualified the statement here and in a comment to say “some” professing Christians. Not all gloss over the false religion in the movie for that reason, though some do, and perhaps more than we’d like to admit.

    I’ve run into professing Christians who believe their dead relatives become angels who watch over them, for instance. How is this not akin to ancestor worship?

    But that leads to a second reason I think Christians aren’t loudly declaring the false spiritual ideology of Avatar: we are tied to literalism. Please understand, I am rabid when it comes to believing the Bible literally. But the Bible is so much more than a list of rules and regulations. Yet a lot of people seem to want to make Scripture that and nothing more.

    Consequently, if the Bible said, Thou shalt not adopt New Age beliefs, those folks would be all over Avatar.

    Instead Scripture says, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Deut. 5:7) and we are left to connect the dots: worshipping Nature and/or a theistic version of Nature is no different from worshipping any other false god. Therefore, Avatar is advocating a false religion, one that runs counter to Christianity.

    Seemingly, some professing Christians are only willing to declare the black and whites, not realizing that even those require us to think.

    A third reason I think Christians are giving the movie a pass is what Mike Duran said in his comment Monday:

    the reason more Christians aren’t critical of Avatar is because it is so graphically stunning, so fantastical — dare I say, breath-taking.

    I will say again, I left the theater so enthusiastic about the movie, I couldn’t stop talking about it (and now seemingly, I can’t stop writing about it! 😮 ) The visuals are astonishing.

    ***Spoiler Alert***

    I loved the mountains in the sky with the waterfalls that evaporated into mist.

    The imaginative world had texture. While much of it was borrowed from oceanic life, it felt fresh and new because it was put on land.

    I even loved the love story. Not new, not unpredictable, but sweet. I loved the “I see you” line.

    *** End Spoiler Alert ***

    And there is the point: some Christians aren’t “seeing” the movie. They are seeing the external trappings, the artistry in which the movie is wrapped, even the trite story that serves as the vehicle, but what literature, all literature is about is saying something (it’s called theme).

    Readers, then, must think it out and see if what the writer says in his story is true, or not.

    Christian writers have denied this, and consequently want to deal only with the tinsel and lights and decorations and star while ignoring the Christmas tree underneath.

    But there’s another reason, maybe two, and I’ve already written too much for one post (third day in a row—I think that’s what being away from blogging for two weeks has done to me! 😉 )

    For further discussion, see “Why Christians Aren’t Up In Arms About Avatar, Part 2.”

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