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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Worldview of Avatar

Jan 7, 2010

In terms of amazing techniques, stunning visual imagery, and incredible special effects, Avatar is certainly a winner. While the blockbuster film may be breaking box office records, and is the most costly film ever made, there are other considerations needed in order to get a full grasp of the film. One important element of assessment is the worldview which is being promoted. And for James Cameron that worldview is pantheism.

That his films would not exactly reflect the Judeo-Christian view of things should have been apparent to all by now. Remember his “documentary” of several years ago, The Jesus Family Tomb, in which he made the claim that the tombs of Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene have been discovered. I wrote that up here: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/02/27/more-nonsense-about-jesus/

While he is more remembered for his Titanic, which I also saw, I was not planning to see this film, but some visiting friends from overseas were keen to see the 3D film at IMAX, so I went along. Yes, in terms of going on quite a wild ride, replete with spectacular razzmatazz, it was quite a film. But I am afraid I have a habit of also judging such works through the lens of worldviews.

A number of other commentators have noted the various themes found in Avatar. A very good review, which heavily concentrated on the worldview of the film and its creator, was found – surprisingly – in the New York Times by Ross Douthat.

He rightly notes where Cameron is coming from, and how the film is actively pushing an agenda: “Avatar is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.”

Of course pantheism has long been promoted by Hollywood. Says Douthat, pantheism “has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Pocahontas.’ And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force ‘surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together’.”

Pantheism of course has always been an attractive option. There is no personal moral God that we are all accountable to. There is no creator God we must deal with. There is no afterlife and final judgment. There is just nature, of which we are all a part.

Douthat nicely explains: “As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. ‘Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,’ he suggested, democratic man ‘seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.’

“Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,’ and a piping-hot apocalypse.

“At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps ‘bring God closer to human experience,’ while ‘depriving him of recognizable personal traits.’ For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.”

Indeed, Avatar is a great example of what James Herrick wrote about in his book, Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs (IVP, 2008). In this important book he examines how a post-Christian West abhors a spiritual vacuum, and how new mythologies, based on speculative science and science fiction, are rushing to fill the void.

“Over the past several centuries, science fiction and the more speculative productions of scientists themselves have combined to create a virtually religious hope in aliens, space exploration, the future and the ‘next step’ in human evolution….

“We appear to have entered a second pagan era, complete with a new mythology in which minor deities once again descend from the stars, seek intimate involvement in our lives, direct our course into the future, invite us to join them in the skies, and even interbreed with us to create a hybrid species capable of meeting the challenges of tomorrow.”

Herrick correctly marvels at how our intellectual and scientific elites are rejecting as irrational biblical Christianity, yet seem happy to jump on board these New Age and pantheistic bandwagons. All of which affirms the maxim that when we reject the one true God, we don’t stop believing, but we then believe in anything.

Dances With Wolves on Steroids

In addition to the strong Eastern worldview which predominates, there is also the question of the leftist agenda of Cameron. This film pushes every politically correct button there is. Whatever PC agenda item you can imagine, you will find it in this film.

Many reviewers have noted this. Melbourne columnist Andrew Bolt offered a trenchant critique of the film, concentrating on the various crusades Cameron is on. He correctly notes the radical green, New Age mumbo jumbo which abounds in the film.

As with so many hard greens, mankind is seen as the enemy: “So complete is Cameron’s disgust with humans – and so convinced he is that his audience shares it – that he’s made film history: he’s created the first mass-market movie about a war between aliens and humans in which we’re actually meant to barrack for the aliens.”

Indeed, just as in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves in which all the whities were bad, except those who sided with the Indians, so too here: the only good humans are those who side with the aliens. All the rest are evil. In both films what we have is the perpetuation of the myth of Rousseau’s noble savage.

And the heroes in the film are not unlike our Hollywood elites: they are anti-Western, anti-capitalism, anti-technology, and anti-military. Says Bolt, “Naturally, like the most fashionable of Hollywood stars, they are also neo-Buddhist reincarnationists, who believe ‘all energy is borrowed and some day you have to give it back’. And, of course, the Na’vi reject all technology that’s more advanced than a bow and arrow, for ‘the wealth of the world is all around us’.”

Then of course there is the rampant hypocrisy in all of this: “Here’s Cameron condemning consumerism by spending almost half a billion dollars on a mass-market movie for the Christmas season complete with tie-in burger deals from McDonald’s and Avatar toys from Mattel.

“Here’s Cameron damning our love of technology by using the most advanced cinematographic technology to create his new green world. In fact, here’s Cameron urging his audience to scorn material possessions and get close to nature, only to himself retire each night to the splendid comfort of his Malibu mansion. Not even his own creations live up to the philosophy he has them preach.”

If Avatar were simply a bit of mindless entertainment, offering a few hours of recreational diversion from our everyday humdrum existence, that would be one thing. But because it is really a vehicle to push Cameron’s anti-Christian ideology, then I for one cannot really enjoy the film. Indeed, on a worldview basis, I give the film no stars.

www.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/opinion/21douthat1.html?_r=3
www.heraldsun.com.au/opinion/green-truth-is-alien-to-us/story-e6frfifx-1225812904687

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23 Responses to The Worldview of Avatar

  • Hi Bill – Great review! I actually did enjoy the film on its own merits, while agreeing with your world view critique. Some of the things that stood out to me about the film was that in its (truly) splendid action scenes and visually beautiful and stunning world Cameron creates it overwhelms your senses, and can let its agenda sneek in because the viewer is so caught up in the visual/audio experience.

    Of course it also trades on one level on biblical values- the bad guys are (most of the humans) are truly evil. People side with the aliens because they want to side with the good. Cameron must appeal to the image of God in us to make his point. He creates a truly visually beautiful world. God’s image in us responds to its senseless violent plunder. And who wouldn’t want to be a dragon rider like the aliens. What an adventure! But again, it uses an appeal to biblical values to promote a completely anti-biblical agenda.

    One of the dangers of such films is not that they are so obviously bad- it is that they appeal to the good in the audence to advance a malicious agenda.

    In His grace,
    Ed Sherman

  • I have to say I actually enjoyed Avatar, despite the pushing, as you say, of an anti-Christian worldview. For me, a couple of things enabled me to enjoy it more than I otherwise would.

    First, the portrayal of worship by the natives. Even though they were worshiping the planet/their ancestors, they were very passionate about it. It made me reflect on my level of passion when I worship and serve God and also to see the potential in others – people searching for the one true God and who have the capacity and desire to worship, but whose eyes have not yet been opened to the truth.

    Second, the battle scenes reminded me of the intensity and urgency of the real (spiritual) battle we’re in. I remember the feeling welling up in me of “Satan, you’re not going to take my friends” during one of the scenes.

    I think overall I enjoyed it mostly for the visual aspect, but also took away those couple of points which made me appreciate it more. But I wonder what a cinema-goer who does not subscribe to a Christian worldview would take away from a film like this. I guess without the Bible to compare the ideas being pushed with, then you might much more readily accept them.

    David Keen

  • “Pantheism of course has always been an attractive option. There is no personal moral God that we are all accountable to. There is no creator God we must deal with. There is no afterlife and final judgment. There is just nature, of which we are all a part.” – Indeed. This is what I often call “consequence insulation”, people “need” to get something that assures them they can do/can have what they like, and there’ll never be any consequence, effect, or result – no payback time. Such people often claim to be (or really are) afraid of death – but their certainty that death is the end is actually comforting, the ultimate consequence insulation. But even materialists are wont to say “What goes around, comes around”.
    John Thomas, UK

  • Thanks Bill, you mentioned the perpetuation of the ‘Noble Savage’ myth, which is so correct. I am amazed that we Christians have actually allowed our nations to erase actual history in regard to this myth. Recently reading some accounts of missionaries and explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries was a real eye opener. Savage was the word, not noble, making ‘noble savage’ a true oxymoron.

    Whether it was William Carey pioneering the fight against suttee (burning the wife of dying men) in India, or the likes of James Chalmers or John Geddie who battled to save South Pacific cultures from unspeakable savagery, I’m amazed that the church today is not capitalising on what is a marvelous and inspiring legacy.

    Rob Robertson

  • Amen!!!!
    Donna Opie

  • 3D film at IMAX, you lucky fellow, quite a rarity in the UK!

    Bill said: “I have a habit of also judging such works through the lens of worldviews.”

    Don’t we all Bill and rightly so. Film is so influential that it can re-write history!

    Oh by the way, a simply brilliant review!

    Thank you.

    Stuart Mackay, UK

  • It seems it’s not even that original, but then, I guess you could probably say that of many movies.

    http://www.blameitonthevoices.com/2010/01/disneys-avatar.html

    Mark Rabich

  • Carl Wieland has also done a great review from a worldview perspective: Avatar and the ‘new’ evolutionary religion.

    Ewan McDonald.

  • Dear Bill, Thanks for the review. I won’t be going to see it even though I am a keen cinema goer – that is – when I can find a decent movie to go to. The ‘pictures’ are in my blood.There was no television in my childhood. They relieved the grimness of life in a Yorkshire coal mining village in the forties and fifties. After more than sixty five years of movie going I can say with some authority that most of the films they are producing have got steadily worse. Too much emphasis on special effects and not enough substance. The latest film on the Titanic wasn’t very good really. If the special effects had been taken out it would be utter crap. The black and white version with Kenneth More in it was by far the best in my opinion in spite of its datedness. It was made up of little cameos of real people. The same can be said of many of the black and white films. We recently went to see Sherlock Holmes and was disappointed in that. Too loud and too many special effects which tended to distract from the plot. The producer said it was meant to appeal to a wider audience. Yes! by naming it Sherlock Holmes they hoped to con old dears like myself and my husband into going. The special effects would appeal to a younger audience half of whom wouldn’t have heard of Arthur Conan Doyle never mind read his work. Anyway it was ghastly! What I call excellent films don’t seem to be widely shown and it is easy to miss them because they aren’t in cinemas near home. Just four examples would be the Pianist [The survival of a Jewish pianist in nazi occupied Poland and how a good German soldier helped him], The Nativity Story [A truly beautiful portrayal of St Joseph], Downfall [The last ten days in Hitler’s Bunker with German subtitles] The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas [About the innocence of childhood and how evil has a habit of backfiring on those who support it.] Hope my comments are useful.
    Patricia Halligan

  • “democratic man ‘seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.’”

    That does not sound right. I have read quite a bit on the history of political thinking and don’t recall seeing any trend for belief in democracy to slide into pantheism. Recurring surveys of religion in the American democracy have shown the vast majority to be Christian.

    The comment on rampant hypocrisy would have to be right. But that’s Hollywood (example: Jane Fonda posing with Communist peasants shooting down her countrymen, then returning to her comfy millionaire’s mansion back home). These are shallow, narcissistic people.

    Thanks for the review but I think I’ll give the film a miss. I’ll triple the cost of the ticket and give the money to a monotheistic charity.

    John Snowden

  • Hi Bill,
    Another point about this film is that it is not all that original either. It seems to be a rather loose remake of Pocohontas.
    Warwick Murphy

  • I understand what you are saying and agree with your comments Bill. I have to confess I saw the movie and enjoyed it immensely.
    From where I stood it actually encouraged me to think about God throughout the movie. I found some interesting parallels in my faith walk with God. We often let the materialistic side of life cloud our worship of God and in following Him more wholly. It was also a good analogy of how the Avatars held ‘the truth’ and others didn’t understand the truth and looked lowly on them because of their beliefs. God is in control even when life looks like it is falling apart. Trust in Him and put your faith in Him. There were many parallels in the movie.
    When you watch the movie from an anti-pantheistic world view and a pro-biblical worldview you can actually reflect on your own personal relationship with out Creator.
    In saying all that, I do completely agree that without a Biblical worldview this film could lead you astray to worship Nature, rather than its Creator.
    Scott Haas

  • I’m pleased you do a review of these PC Godless movies Bill. You provide a good service. As for me, if reviews in newspapers rave over any movie, that’s an indication that I should give it a miss. I have a fairly large library of movies in my home, about 1,500 of them. My favourites are westerns. I just love them and you can’t get into much trouble (in the mind) dodging those bullets in those great movies.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld
    PS needless to say, I won’t be going to see AVATAR.
    Too big a burden. F.B.

  • Hi Bill,

    I really enjoyed the following mentions;

    “Here’s Cameron condemning consumerism by spending almost half a billion dollars on a mass-market movie for the Christmas season complete with tie-in burger deals from McDonald’s and Avatar toys from Mattel”

    “Here’s Cameron damning our love of technology by using the most advanced cinematographic technology to create his new green world. In fact, here’s Cameron urging his audience to scorn material possessions and get close to nature, only to himself retire each night to the splendid comfort of his Malibu mansion. Not even his own creations live up to the philosophy he has them preach.”

    I haven’t seen the film but I think I’ll go grab some Mcdonald’s (or Krispy Kreams if we had it here in Perth) and see it for myself. Thanks for the great review.

    Jeanie de Beer

  • I hope to see this movie Bill.
    Is modern day technology creating fantasy worlds for people to live in? Is it causing a move towards Pantheism? Why have a Creator God who brings eternal joy when you are able to create a fantasy utopia? I’ve seen young people leave the church having been taken in by these worldly desires. Church seems dull compared to an iphone.
    David Visser

  • I disagree. By your thinking Lord of the Rings must be bad as well. The trees are alive and it’s the bad guys who hurt the trees. Like LOTR it’s a fictional story with a good message. There may be some young people who take it too seriously but they would be coming from a base of no religion. What’s worse atheism or pantheism? Given 9 out of 10 movies the teens got to see are transmitting a Godless message I think Avatar is comparatively suitable. Its about native people being wiped out for their land. An evil that has happenned many times in history. In the movie good triumphs over evil. Although primitive, the inhabitants of the far away planet have an intellect and therefore a spiritual soul. The best thing we can do for young people is pass on the Faith, so lets spend out time doing that. There are plenty of other movies to criticise that are far more evil.
    Matt Woodbury

  • Thanks Matt

    But your comment is a good reflection of the very thing I was talking about here: the need for biblical worldview thinking. The worldview of JRR Tolkien and James Cameron could not be further apart. Tolkien of course was a Christian while Cameron is most certainly not. Indeed, Cameron would scoff at any notion of being in the same worldview camp as Tolkien.

    Of course there is a conflict between good and evil in the film. All successful films (and works of literature) involve conflict and conflict resolution, usually with good triumphing over evil. But that very notion of good winning over evil is something that comes from the Judeo-Christian worldview. It certainly does not come from Eastern thinking, where good and evil are two sides of a coin – yin and yang, and so on.

    And even if we leave religion out of this assessment, his idea of good and bad is the stuff of the radical left and is simply an espousal of political correctness. The West, technology, the military and the free market are evil, while the Noble Savage is the force of good. Even on those terms alone I find the film quite problematic.

    As to atheism and pantheism, again your lack of worldview understanding is showing. The two in fact can easily go together. Atheist Sam Harris for example looks to Eastern religions as a possible option, while a new book points out the close connections between atheism and Buddhism (see Paul Dahlke, New Atheism Meets Buddhism). A Buddhist can of course be an atheist, and its worldview – including pantheism – can make for good bed fellows with atheism. Increasingly these two worldviews are coming together on a number of fronts

    And are there “far more evil” films around? Sure. But that is not the point. Most really evil films are viewed by very small audiences. Avatar of course is breaking all viewing records. While my site is not a film review site, it is dedicated to commenting on cultural trends, and this film is certainly an important cultural trend. Thus I have every right and even an obligation to comment on it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hey Bill,
    Thanks for the review… its given me more perspective before I even step foot towards the theater. Also, its been the buzz of different conversation’s so thank you for your insight on Cameron’s agenda for Avatar.
    Blessings
    Andrea Cizej

  • Thanks once more for great comment Bill.
    Stan Fishley

  • Tidy review Bill. I saw the movie with my pastoral son, when both our wives preferred shopping. As someone involved in multimedia, which uses 3D animation and special effects, I felt is was technically brilliant, amazing even. I normally sit through the credits to see what software and hardware was used, which my wife utterly hates.

    As for the overt pantheism undergirding the movie I have only this to say. All pantheists worship a dying god that is running down towards heat death, along with the disintegration of biological and cosmic information and order – which will be the ultimate fate of this deified universe and everything in it. Argue as some will, there is absolutely no point in following a dying dependent god, that cannot maintain itself, let alone all those that worship its dissipating ‘divinity’.

    The appeal of this movie clearly shows that we truly live in an age of mass delusion. Having rejected the true God, people now worship a dying creation and a delusional blind mindless evolutionary mechanism, which has absolutely no idea of knowing where its evolving to, or even why. In short, as the apostle Paul predicted, we are now at that point where the world foolishly worships the creation, rather than the creator.

    The movie is everything you and Carl Weiland says it is. I’ll stick with the creator God of special revelation, the self-existing first cause creator, without which nothing would exist, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    John Heininger

  • Thanks for the review Bill,
    I think it’s more than just pantheism in the movie, there’s also the worship of a feminine deity, something that sadly is moving into some churches using ‘Mother God’ language. The prophet Jeremiah warns against this, ie. worship of the Queen of Heaven, in chapter 44. I’ve also done a Christian review of the movie that’s posted in the Notes on my FB profile.
    Danny Saunders

  • Hi! Saw your blog and thought you might be interested in a brand new pre-publication offer from Logos Bible Software on film analysis from a Christian perspective: http://www.logos.com/products/prepub/details/6003
    Sarah Wilson

  • I never even thought about any type of religion when I first watched this film. Then for my world views class I had to pick a film from a list and this one jumped at me. I had to write a paper and in this paper discern and identify the world views depicted in the characters. I was amazed at what I noticed all the different world views in this film. Thank you for your review. I will be citing you in my paper.

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