Popcorn and Penance

Tim Appelo of City Arts magazine met me recently to ask me about the debate amongst Christian moviegoers over James Cameron’s Avatar.

Our long conversation, which expanded to cover other movies that Christians have protested unnecessarily, became a brief article featured in the latest City Arts issue, currently available all across the Seattle area. Here’s the link.

I appreciate Appelo’s attention to this issue.

But I also think that the issue is complicated, and requires us to think through matters of art, faith, and conscience.

That’s why I wrote Through a Screen Darkly… which, even though it was written before Mark Driscoll’s condemnation of Avatar, contains most of what I’d have to say in response to that. Just read the second chapter – “Viewer Discretion Advised.” Or better yet, print them out and mail them to Driscoll.

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  • Wyldeirishman

    Iron Man 2?
    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen?
    Star Trek?
    G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra?
    The Hurt Locker?

    Of these, only The Hurt Locker tends towards serious and meritorious acknowledgment. The rest, I’m afraid, fall under somewhat of a less-than-genuine banner, or are just downright two-dimensionally cartoon-ish cannon fodder and/or eye candy.

    But, point taken. For awhile, it seemed as though a never-ending tide of anti-military crapulence was oozing its way from the cineplex, and it’s a trend that, quite frankly, I am more than a little bit weary of.

    And, back to the good author’s initial response:

    While at face value we shouldn’t act so put upon as to actually consider that this (or any) film is going to literally turn society as we know it upon its collective noggin, I think that there is merit in critiquing anything that falls under the paper-thin umbrella of “spiritual, but not religious.” I don’t believe that Cameron intentionally set out to create some sort of new religion when filming the movie, because a) pantheism and animistic paganism are nothing new whatsoever-we’ve lived with their heresy for centuries (both before and after the Incarnation), and will more than likely continue to endure them until Christ returns to make all things new, and b) I highly doubt that Cameron himself considered any such thing truly worthy of on-screen dialogue, as the focus tended toward that ever-present zeitgeist “spiritual, but not religious.” Not that the Na’vi weren’t religious in their own right (for they most certainly were)…but the whole shmeer is just vague enough to appeal to the aforementioned post-modern mantra without really forcing anyone to consider theological implications of any gravitas.

    Perhaps I’m only working to underline your initial argument, but I’m afraid it’s like battling a giant marshmallow :)

  • Bowen

    > Will there EVER be a film (be it sci-fi, zombie, or what have you) that seeks to portray the military in a more beneficial light?

    Iron Man 2?
    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen?
    Star Trek?
    G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra?
    The Hurt Locker?

    And that’s just 2009-2010.

  • Wyldeirishman

    Beyond all of the obvious pantheistic addendum, the film is littered with purposeful catch-phrases that, politically speaking, are nothing short of loaded catch-phrases.

    Will there EVER be a film (be it sci-fi, zombie, or what have you) that seeks to portray the military in a more beneficial light? Any sort of light?

    ‘Shock and awe.’

    ‘Fight terror WITH terror.’

    My Irish biscuits!!!

    I suppose the only thing missing from Cameron’s vision was the inclusion of either (or both) Al Gore or Michael Moore making cameos as Na’vi; they would have fit right in on Pandora.

    And to address another point found on this thread: are we REALLY intuitively truth seekers? Where, in all of Scripture, can we find such a statement?

  • Matt T.

    As a writer myself, I guess I have a tendency to look at it in terms of the motivations of the author. I believe James Cameron was creating a fantasy world, and that’s exactly what he did.
    Either that, or he’s secretly a ten-foot, blue cat person who communicates with a goddess named Eywa by wiring his hair into magic trees. Whichever seems more logical to you.
    The only clear agenda Avatar has is the usual protect-the-environment stuff.

  • Ryan

    I can understand a pastor trying to ‘protect the flock’ so to speak, but I don’t think it’s fair to make a passing condemnation from the pulpit about a movie without having an actual dialogue with his church members. The most satanic film he’s ever seen? Really? If it’s that threatening, have a discussion about it. On second thought, don’t bother, because I don’t think the movie is deep enough to really warrant much of a discussion. It was expensive entertainment wrapped in a pretty package. I’d like to think the thematic weaknesses of the film were present because they weren’t as important to Cameron as the world/visuals and the overall experience (which is the reason many saw and enjoyed the movie) 2 billion for a romanticized religious vision? nah. 2 billion for cutting edge technology and a simple, unchallenging story of love, peace, and harmony? sure.

  • jeremy.landes

    “it would be overreaching to say that he’s preaching for any particular religious belief beyond some generalizations that, frankly, don’t offend me.”

    I didn’t say “preaching,” but I did call the movie a commercial/promotion in which I suspect some agenda–particularly in light of Cameron’s opposition (aforementioned documentary) to one particular person: Jesus. Maybe the agenda is simply–”Respect nature.” I think it’s a bit more. I wasn’t “offended” by the movie either–I went twice and probably spent $40. I was impressed, frankly. It told me things I wanted to hear. Only later did I realize how many of the ideas are antithetical to truth. We don’t live in an ecosystem that’s in harmony with us and itself. It’s not a network. We are not all one. Sin entered the world and, until Christ, we couldn’t even be reconciled with other humans much less jellyfish.

    “I haven’t bothered to claim Cameron is presenting a profound religious vision anywhere.”

    Maybe Cameron thinks it is a profound vision. I wonder how many other people are also being influenced to drink his special blend of Kool-Aid now, especially kids. My guess is that the film is a reflection of what Cameron actually believes and wants others to embrace. I’m thinking back to the end of The Abyss (Director’s Cut), too, when the seas (controlled by water-aliens) threatened to wipe out the human race. I can’t expect Cameron to put my worldview on screen–just his own. Now that it’s out there, I see an allegorical “blend” in which pagan animism thrives, and I define this as the deification of what God has created. Worship of trees, animals, mountains, sexual organs, etc.

    Again, I’m not offended. Because I expect nothing less. I’m not happy that people who see it are being influenced to move one step closer toward pantheism, but what am I going to do about it? Sharing my point-of-view on your blog and warning people in my circle of influence to be wary is probably as far as I’ll take it.

    I read the links you provided and found lots to agree with. I don’t happen to agree that Cameron earns points because he chose not to showcase any of his villians as being hypocritical Christians. That doesn’t negate the other junk ideas his characters spout as if they’re true. Because Pandora doesn’t actually exist, fallible human audiences, myself included, look at Pandora’s new animals, plants, and rituals, then we relate them back to what we’ve known or have seen already. We’re naturally truth seekers, and we look for new stuff to worship. Avatar puts a whole lot of extras on the menu.

    I do have respect for people in churches who bow, gesture, or move their bodies into positions that foster reverence in their hearts toward God. I’m very wary of traditions/religions that encourage people to go into a trance and/or endlessly repeat phrases or movements in order to please the god(s). Jesus told His disciples to avoid these Gentile-like practices, too. (Matthew 6:7) Jake Sully didn’t go into the trance. Cool. I guess you could call what he said to Eywa a prayer. Not impressed.

    My boss was talking with me about the movie recently and was referring back to the worship sessions conducted by the Na’vi, saying, “They’re all trying to get [Eywa's] favor with their chanting. Next step is, ‘Hey, let’s try human sacrifice! I’ll bet that will get her attention.’ ” Human sacrifice didn’t happen in the movie, but that’s historically where these kinds of rituals have led humans. Since animism is part of our history (and still the current practice of millions), then we can always go back to it. Hope that’s not the future’s next wave. However, $2 billion worth of ticket sales shows me it’s still a seductive point-of-view even if people aren’t exiting the theatres and rejecting their faith to immediately embrace pantheism. If that’s what it takes for people to believe a movie is influencing people…that’s not really the way half-truths typically work on people. They take time to fester and grow.

    I’ve got a lot of other things more important to worry about besides the message of Avatar, and I found a lot in the movie to enjoy. But there is some poison in this apple, and since I’m supposed to help others know the truth, recommending this movie isn’t something I can do anymore with a clear conscience. I can understand why shepherds/pastors like Driscoll are trying to protect their flocks by addressing the film.

  • Luke Shea

    This is why I love reading this blog. You put more genuine thought into that comment than Cameron did into all of Avatar.

  • http://www.lookingcloser.org closerlooker

    Of course it doesn’t make you right-wing. To claim that Cameron is presenting a false religion is not inaccurate, but I would say that it would be overreaching to say that he’s preaching for any particular religious belief beyond some generalizations that, frankly, don’t offend me.

    I haven’t bothered to claim Cameron is presenting a profound religious vision anywhere. I’m just saying he invented one that sounds like a lot of religious beliefs thrown in a blender, and that in that imaginative, make-believe, hybrid religion we can see the universal longing for the things that Christianity offers to the world.

    What is your definition of animistic paganism? I’m curious.

    I encourage you to read Steven Greydanus about this, here.

    And here.

    And Peter Chattaway here.

    You describe Cameron’s fiction as

    …promoting a different kind of deity swayed to action by chanting…

    So… were the aliens just chanting, not praying? In the movie I saw, the hero fails, realizes he cannot save the day, and offers a prayer to Eywa asking for help.

    I’ve visited Christian churches that involve a lot of gesturing during prayer… and at mine, we are invited to kneel before God for confession, a physical embodiment of an appropriate spiritual posture before God.

    So I think there’s some merit in portraying worshippers who offer prayers not just with gestures of the heart, but gestures of the body.

  • jeremy.landes

    I’m going to take a risk of being labeled one of those bigoted Christians and say that, while entertaining (saw it twice), I thought Avatar was largely a long, religious commercial, and the religion was animistic paganism. Very seductive half-truths interwoven throughout. When a filmmaker like Cameron goes way out on a limb to disprove the resurrection of Jesus (via that documentary he recently produced) and then makes a film like Avatar promoting a different kind of deity swayed to action by chanting, I do sense an agenda. Does this make me right-wing now?


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