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.