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.

About J. Ryan Parker
  • http://orant.blogspot.com/2010/02/why-mark-driscoll-hates-avatar-and-you.html Billy Kangas

    from http://orant.blogspot.com

    After watching the video I think it’s very odd that Mark Driscoll is the pastor of a church called Mars Hill. For those of you who don’t know Mars Hill is the place where the book of Acts records the Apostle Paul’s sermon to the Athenians. In it the apostle Paul introduces the Gospel to the Greeks by proclaiming one of the God’s they serve is really the God of Israel. He then uses a pagan work Phenomena by the poet Aratus to communicate how we are related to God. The lesson I take away from this encounter is that something completely pagan can be used to proclaim the truth of God.

    One might think a Church called Mars Hill would be about claiming truth for God.

    After watching the video I got the distinct impression that Mark is more interested in claiming art for the devil. In it he claims the movie is demonic, the visuals are a tool of Satan, and calls the Christianity of those who don’t agree with him “disappointing.”

    Although I firmly belive that spiritual warfare is a reality that Christians deal with on a daily basis, the passages that talk about our spiritual struggle have nothing to do with what world views we are exposed to, but the realities of our lifestyle. For example let’s look at Romans 13:12b-14,
    So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. (13) Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
    Early Christians were surrounded by Paganism, but their response was not to give the stories and poems over to Satan, on the contrary they used them to communicate the Gospel to new cultures and peoples, and there are few places that illustrate this tendency better then then Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill.

    If Jesus Christ is truth what are we afraid of?

  • http://www.marshill.org Esteban

    That would be Mars Hill Seattle rather than Mars Hill Grand Rapids…

  • http://www.rednow.com Bob

    Well played Craig… well played.

    Someone needs to step up and correct this dude on a number of issues. Thanks for doing so here.

  • http://www.theofantastique.com John Morehead

    I am stunned that Mark Driscoll would say such things when I understand his ministry to be presenting itself as cutting-edge in presenting the gospel to culture in a postmodern context. His comments read more like a fundamentalist rant against all things cultic than a thoughtful and reflective piece of theology and cultural analysis.

    Surely there are things evangelicals will disagree with in Avatar, but the film also brings much-needed critique to western culture, and the church in the West as well. I’ve touched on some of this in my writing on the topic at these locations:

    http://www.theofantastique.com/2009/12/26/avatar-probing-beyond-visuals-to-culture-and-identity/

    http://www.theofantastique.com/2010/01/13/avatars-pandora-depresses-some-viewers-utopia-escape-and-the-realized-ideal/

    http://www.theofantastique.com/2010/01/27/avatars-success-romantic-narratives-and-dark-green-religion/

    If evangelicals want to be taken seriously in the late modern West we’ve simply got to do better in terms of bringing theology, culture, and the imagination together. Here’s to hoping that Driscoll becomes a regular reader of TheoFantastique.

  • http://www.theofantastique.com John Morehead

    One more thought on this related to your mention of The Exorcist. I know what you were trying to say, but even the popularity of The Exorcist can be viewed as an argument for Christianity, at least in terms of its folk piety in response to secularization. See http://www.theofantastique.com/2009/10/27/joseph-laycock-the-exorcist-secularization-and-folk-piety/.

  • http://poptheology.com Richard Lindsay

    In my class, I use Mars Hill Church in Seattle as a prime example of people who don’t get it when it comes to pop culture. They exploit pop culture (if that’s possible) basically as an inducement to come in and hear their (sexist, homophobic) version of the gospel. There is no exchange of ideas, no concept that one’s theology or relationship with God might actually be affected by interaction with popular culture. Unfortunately, it works. They’re growing like a weed. It’s a fundamentalist church posing as a “hip church.” You should hear their views on women. I’ll give you a hint: they’re here to reproduce and generate more fundamentalist Christians. Paleolithic stuff.

    This is why more moderate to liberal, even conservative but not fundamentalist Christians need to learn how to speak to culture.

  • http://poptheology.com Richard Lindsay

    Oh wait, and did you notice the subtle dig at gay people? Romans 1:25, a prime “clobber passage”: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” Which is followed by the old classic: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

    So there you have it kids, Avatar will make you gay.

  • http://spwise.com Steve

    We walk a fine line when we criticize other Christians for how the Lord speaks to them. Let us be careful not to emulate the world in this. Other believers are rightly anxious about living in a culture that in many ways wars against holiness, however it is expressed. Lets us acknowledge their anxiety, for if we are honest, we all feel it to some extent.

    But you are quite right to identify the greater evil, materialism, and its motor, the capitalist system, which is far more pervasive and corrosive of Christianity that all other social evils combined. It is materialism that eats at the heart of the church of Christ. It is this evil that Christ preached against more than any other. How we are going to stand with the poor of Africa and Asia in eternity I don’t know. We have a lot to be ashamed of.

    As for Avatar, I have never been so entranced by a movie since my childhood wonder at The Wizard of Oz – which incidentally is director James Cameron’s favourite movie. Like Oz, Pandora is a world of wonders, sparkling with creative beauty; a cinematic jewel, as aesthetically appealing as a painting by VanGogh. Should we not praise the God of Wonders for bestowing such creative fire is these His creatures, and appreciate the beauty they bring to this world? Or should we, like that Muslim fanatic in Amsterdam, murder their relatives, stabbing them forty times and leaving curses pinned to their dying bodies? Is this level of hatred the kind of God that we want to present to the world? Lord forgive us our excesses. If Christ is no longer the God of compassion and understanding, then we as Christian have lost our way and have nothing further to say to this world.

  • David

    Here’s a sermon on Avatar that takes a much different approach from Driscoll. Rather than view Jake Sully as a “false Christ”, Albert Chu views Sully as a Christ figure. Big difference.

    The Theology of AVATAR (Mar 7, 2010)
    Sermon: Pastor Albert Chu
    http://www.thetapestry.ca/tappodcasts/oscar_sunday_the_theology_of_avatar_mar_7_2010

  • Mike O’Dea

    I am wondering if anyone who has thus far posted has bothered to view the entire sermon in which Mark Driscoll made the comments about Avatar. It comes from the 17th Driscoll Sermon in the book of Luke and the text is from Luke 4:31-41 which talks about Jesus healing a demon possessed man. Driscoll has begun a 3 year series on the book of Luke. To get the context plese view and listen at the following:
    http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/luke/jesus-and-demons
    Also, we can all learn a valuable lesson from the following clip from a Driscoll sermon from 1 Peter 3:8-17:
    http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/trial/suffering-to-bless/dont-shoot-other-christians (humility required)

  • shayne

    who cares. i know the void of the internet is “endless”, but this website is seriously a waste of said space, and i cant believe you couldnt find something better to berate this guy for. Avatar sucks, and so does your shotty attempt at discrediting the bulletproof theology of a man way smarter than you, and way more inclined to do something of value for Jesus Christ..

  • Richard Lindsay

    I worry anytime somebody uses “bullet” and “theology” in the same sentence.

  • http://Website Ike

    I saw Avatar…demonic, satanic, tree worshiping, anti-American. I saw the exorcist and it is demonic, but they didn’t hide behind pretty colors and “profound” talking. Everyone knew the movie was ablut satan.

  • http://philliphigley.com Phillip Higley

    Wow, just read this blog after watching Avatar tonight (way after the release date 12.4.2010). Thanks for posting it. Great perspective.

    That said, It’s really sad that Driscoll apologists can’t exercise some theological humility of their own (I’m thinking of the previous posts by ‘shayne’ and ‘Ike’) when making comments. I live in the Seattle area, go to an Acts 29 church, and am aware that Driscoll sometimes shoots from the hip and says outlandish stuff. The guy preaches a lot of sermons, is strong willed, and is bound to say something ridiculous here and there. He human and fallible! His comments about Avatar make this evident. Although he’s a great teacher, his apologists should keep in mind that his—and nobody else’s—theology is “bullet proof.”

    Again, thanks for the blog post…

  • http://philliphigley.com Phillip Higley

    Excuse me: “He’s human and fallible.”

  • http://Website Shea

    Many of you don’t realize the argument Driscoll is making. In the movie Avatar the Na’vi worship not only their deity Eywa but also nature itself, That is called PANTHEISM. And that is satanic. God made nature and we are called to protect and enjoy it but not to worship and be “one” with it. It’s like a man making a birdhouse and other people saying they are “one” with the birdhouse and worshiping it thinking they are closer to the man, but in fact they are worshiping a created thing rather than the man himself, which is demonic and satanic. It’s the whole Lion King Circle of Life gig which is completely against everything the bible tells us. Where are to worship the one true God, Jesus Christ and nothing above him. And sadly the majority of people in America worship created things rather than Jesus. i.e. Money, sex, sports, jobs, cars, NATURE.


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