This piece was picked up by Religion Dispatches and published here.
The conservative, evangelical Christian community has an automatic response to nearly every widely popular artistic creation. As soon as a new one hits bookstands (Harry Potter), televisions (“Glee”), or the movie theater (Twilight), the far right has to condemn it. The most recent example is James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar. The movie’s worldview is the subject of countless critiques on conservative websites, and a discussion of its theology even made the New York Times editorial page.
Many of these articles attack the religion of the indigenous people of the alien planet Pandora for its pantheism and planet-worship. Other articles challenge the anti-imperialist themes of the movie and their implied critique of current U.S. foreign policy. All of this manufactured outrage – which presumably serves primarily to tack a political agenda onto a new cultural phenomenon – misses the mark by a wide margin.
First, Christians have always been able to find theological depth in stories and traditions that are not explicitly Christian or Jewish. The first creation myth in Genesis, for instance, is a polytheistic account of a world made by a host of heavenly deities who appoint a sun god to “rule the day” and a moon god to “rule the night.” Later in Genesis an ancient story about wrestling with a river god becomes the story that provides the nation of Israel with its name. Much later on, the author of Revelation use the myth of Apollo’s birth as an image for the birth of the Messiah. Christians can and should find truth in the beliefs of other cultures.
And the Na’vi are an alien culture in every sense of the term. There would be little point in Cameron spending fifteen years creating the ecology and culture of another planet only to impose Christianity on it. The religious beliefs of the Na’vi are completely consistent with the realities of life on Pandora. Immersing ourselves in that world means experiencing the otherness of its theology along with its biology.
Of course, the beliefs of the Na’vi are not completely foreign. Although they are in part shaped by their unique ecosystem, they also reflect a somewhat idealized synthesis of the nature religions common to the indigenous peoples who have borne the brunt of Western imperialism over the past few centuries. Part of the genius of Avatar is reframing the conflict of imperialism away from battles among different ethnic groups. Instead, in Avatar, all of humanity bears the collective guilt of imposing its selfish whims on an entire planet.
Avatar makes the sins of commercialism and Western triumphalism into universal, human sins; and it does so after helping us to lose ourselves completely in the lives of the native people threatened by human avarice. As trite as this message might be, the human propensity for recreating these mistakes would seem to warrant Cameron’s retelling of this familiar cautionary tale. Even were that not true, the beauty and passion with which he tells the story alone would make the repetition worthwhile.
It is the seductiveness of that vision that is the real threat to which these conservative pundits are responding. There is no moral ambiguity in Avatar, and the clear villains are those who claim a manifest destiny for humanity and human commerce. This is a direct threat to a hierarchical understanding of creation which, in placing humans at the top of a divinely ordained pyramid, is often used to justify the exploitation of the environment for short-term gain. Such a view is not inherent in Christianity, but it is an essential tenet for those who wish to subvert Christianity into the service of their ethnocentrism and their greed.
The artistry of Avatar is not a threat to Christian belief, but it is a threat to arrogant assumptions about our own exclusive claims to truth, power, and wealth. Dig deeply enough and it becomes clear that it is in fact these desires which many people actually worship (after layering a veneer of Christianity over them). Unlike our fragile, human egos, the God of all creation is not threatened when we explore all of the possible permutations of that creation. Nor is God minimized when we seek to understand those who honor that creation in different ways.