In Defense of AVATAR: Or Why Mark Driscoll Just Doesn't Get It

Yesterday, a friend directed me to an article about a recent sermon by Mark Driscoll (pastor of Mars Hill Church) in which he called Avatar  “the most demonic, satanic film I’ve ever seen.”  Check out my response after the jump.

While Avatar isn’t the best film of the year, it certainly isn’t the worst, and it is by no means the most demonic, satanic film I’ve ever seen.  Of course, I’m not Mark Driscoll.  In a recent sermon, he commented:

The world tempts you to sin, to use people, to disobey God, to live for your own glory instead of his own, to be a consumer instead of generous, that’s the world system.

And if you don’t believe me, go see Avatar, the most demonic, satanic film I’ve ever seen. That any Christian could watch that without seeing the overt demonism is beyond me. I logged on to christianitytoday.com and the review was reflective of Christianity today, very disappointing. See, in that movie, it is a completely false ideology, it’s a sermon preached. It’s the most popular movie ever made, and it tells you that the creation mandate, the cultural mandate is bad, that we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t develop culture, that’s a bad thing.

Primitive is good and advanced is bad and that we’re not sinners, we’re just disconnected from the divine life force, just classic, classic, classic paganism, that human beings are to connect, literally, with trees and animals and beasts and birds and that there’s this spiritual connection that we’re all a part of, that we’re all a part of the divine.

It presents a false mediator with a witch. It presents false worship of created things rather than Creator God in absolute antithesis to Romans 1:25, which gives that as the essence of paganism. It has a false incarnation where a man comes in to be among a people group and to assume their identity. It’s a false Jesus. We have a false resurrection. We have a false savior. We have a false heaven. The whole thing is new age, satanic, demonic paganism, and people are just stunned by the visuals. Well, the visuals are amazing because Satan wants you to emotionally connect with a lie.

Two things are abundantly clear from this section of his sermon:  1) Driscoll is a pathetic pop-culture critic, and 2) he has clearly never seen The Exorcist.  Hello, Mark!  In case you missed it, a young girl masturbates with a crucifix in that film!! But no, that is apparently not as Satanic as the notion of the interconnectedness of all things or attacks on consumerism and exploitation.

According to Driscoll, this is less offensive than Avatar.

Driscoll and I will definitely agree on one thing, Avatar is not a great movie.  However, we come at it from drastically different view points.  You can see my review here.  But let’s get the film’s strongest asset out of the way.  It is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen and will most likely change the nature of science fiction films forever.  It’s 3D cinematography is absolutely engrossing, and when paired with a much better narrative will create a cinematic experience the likes of which we’ve yet to enjoy.  As far as its weakest asset:  it suffers from a weak story and a poor script.

Now to Driscoll’s failings.  First off, he clearly cannot read a room.  Avatar is, or at least is on its way to becoming, the highest grossing film of all time.  You know what this means?  People are flocking to it in droves.  It’s also won the Golden Globe for best picture and has been nominated for, and many critics think it will win, Best Picture in the upcoming Oscars as well.  You know what this means?  Many people like it.  Guess what?  Many of those people might be actively involved in his church, living healthy, fully committed Christian lives.  Not only has he demonized the film, he’s demonized hundreds (?) of his faithful followers in the process.  There is no desire for conversation with or respect for congregants here.  Instead of asking why people are flocking to the film or what about it resonates with them, Driscoll leads with blanket condemnation which will most likely shut off any avenues for fruitful conversation.

Second, the film is a thinly veiled attack on consumerism, greed, manifest destiny, and exploitation…all of which have unfortunately characterized not only the growth of this country but the spread of Christianity as well.  Instead of attacking these evils, Driscoll, in a roundabout way, attacks the attack.  This should not be surprising given that his church and culturally ambiguous evangelicalism simultaneously embraces and rejects a rampant consumerism from which they greatly benefit.  It is this type of consumerism, not Avatar‘s attack on it, that leads evangelicals like Tony Campolo to bemoan the future of Christianity in America (see his comments in the documentary Lord Save Us From Your Followers).  To the extent that real-world modernity mirrors Avatar‘s depiction of it, then it is evil, plain and simple.

Third, the film is in no way meant to be a literal depiction of heaven, salvation, Jesus, or resurrection!  It is a science fiction film about a planet called Pandora and an energy-rich ore called unobtanium.  Jake is not Jesus (a more fitting Biblical comparison would be Jacob), but Jake does present a model of what standing in solidarity with the vulnerable and oppressed could look like.  That this notion is present in a mainstream film with such wide appeal should provide ministers with a perfect lesson to share with their congregants.  Unfortunately, Driscoll just doesn’t get it.

Fourth, Driscoll’s “theological” critique of the film is simply misguided at best.  You get the sense that he hasn’t fully thought this out or, worse, that he doesn’t believe it himself.  It sounds like he’s stammering here:  “It’s the most popular movie ever made, and it tells you that the creation mandate, the cultural mandate is bad, that we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t develop culture, that’s a bad thing.  Primitive is good and advanced is bad and that we’re not sinners, we’re just disconnected from the divine life force, just classic, classic, classic paganism, that human beings are to connect, literally, with trees and animals and beasts and birds and that there’s this spiritual connection that we’re all a part of, that we’re all a part of the divine.”  So which is it Mark?  The creation mandate or the cultural mandate?  These are two distinctly separate entities in the film.  It seems to me that Avatar promotes the notion of creation and damns a blindly destructive culture that would spread at the expense of that creation.  Moreover, the ways in which the Na’vi literally connect with their surroundings is fantasy.  I doubt Cameron and his crew are advocating bestiality, which is what Driscoll probably fears.  But the notion of the interconnectedness of the created order is something that we have lost in recent Christian history and is responsible, in large part, for the economic and environmental crises in which we now find ourselves so deeply mired.  If Driscoll is quick to throw out scripture to damn Avatar, I’ll turn to a couple of verses in its defense.

In Colossians 1:16-17, we find these radical verses, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  This is a pretty fantastic notion of the created order being held together in Christ without any division.  Jesus himself seems to have a richer understanding of the created order and its potential as well.  In Luke 19:37-40, we find this account:  “When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’   Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’   ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’”  Where is this sensibility in Driscoll’s half-hearted condemnation of connectedness?

Finally, Driscoll’s recent comments on Avatar are simply untimely and, quite frankly, seem self serving.  He’s just now getting around to talking about a film with such cultural appeal almost two months after its release?  This represents just the type of religious cultural engagement that no longer has a place in contemporary public discourse…if it ever did.  This is yet another example of a public figure wanting to be heard rather than saying anything substantive or potentially transformative.  In the end, I guess he got what he wanted.

Here’s the link to the original article which contains video of the sermon:  http://blog.seattlepi.com/thebigblog/archives/195724.asp.

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