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 on Avatar


After posting yesterday, I did more reading. One writer, Ross Douthat, published a piece in the NY Times op-ed section, “Heaven and Nature,” that raised some rebuttal.

The article I read answering Douthat, “The Meaning of Avatar: Everything is God (A Response to Ross Douthat and other naysayers of ‘pantheism’)” by Jay Michaelson in the Huffington Post spells out the beliefs propagated by Avatar and connects them to ancient religions.

While Michaelson is obviously a proponent of these beliefs, his article removes the gloss from the movie so we can peer beyond the imaginative to the metaphysical.

This is what Christians should be doing!

Instead of thinking and studying to find out what the movie is actually saying, many seem content to watch Solomon build his high places for his foreign wives.

This is not OK! Christians need to recognize error from truth, no matter how much or little artistry clothes it. Christians need to say to their friends and children that the message of Avatar is opposed to the message of the Bible. The two beliefs cannot coexist.

Am I saying Christians should not see the movie? Far from it! We should see it and realize that the religion espoused by the Na’vi is the religion espoused by influential people in our culture, especially in the movie industry.

But here’s what at least one voice in the Christian community is saying:

Douthat goes on to call the film “a long apologia for pantheism” that merely reflects the results found in a recent Pew Forum report — that “many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the ‘spiritual energy’ of trees and mountains.”

Hmm, interesting observations, and quite possibly on target. But I simply say, relax. Avatar isn’t forcing anything down anyone’s throat, no more than any other movie — and less so than many agenda-driven films made by Christians — with a message. It’s a fantasy film about an alien planet.

Can’t we all just chill out and enjoy the cinematic ride? I haven’t hugged any trees since seeing Avatar — though they sure are beautiful outside my window right now with today’s fresh snowfall — and I can’t wait to see it again.
Avatar and the Gospel According to James,” by Mark Moring, in Christianity Today Movies & TV Blog

This latter view is what I feared. Christians above all others are not to preach—so say Christians as well as others in our society!

If nothing changed in Avatar except that the Na’vi called their god “Jesus,” I believe there would be a controversy swirling around the movie, the likes we haven’t seen since The Sorcerer’s Stone.

Avatar preaches! It preaches a religion, it preaches a political and social ideology, and Moring has the audacity to say it’s OK because it doesn’t force anything down anyone’s throat. Is that because Cameron didn’t ask for decisions at the end?

I’m sorry, but I don’t see how honest critics can know what the movie was about—and Moring apparently hasn’t missed the pointed message because he says he believes Douthat is probably right in his claims—and still think it isn’t poison.

Poison!

From time to time we have poisonous things in our houses, but we also clearly mark them with the symbol for poison. Poison is only dangerous for improper use if it is easily accessible and unmarked. However, if it is served in a beautiful goblet, flooded by a sweet smelling wine, it may not be detected at all. In such an instance poison becomes deadly.

Shouldn’t we who know there’s poison in the glass be shouting at the tops of our lungs?

For more discussion on Avatar and Christianity see “Why Christians Aren’t Up In Arms About Avatar”.

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