Avatar is not Anti-Christian

Neytiri - Avatar ScreenshotThis 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.

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Why I Loved Avatar

Avatar Movie Poster

“I thought the cinematography was breathtaking, but the story was weak and derivative.”  That seems to be the consensus critique of James Cameron’s Avatar.  I think this critique misses two key points about storytelling.  One:  movies are not novels.  Two:  great storytelling is not necessarily about having an original plot.

For the record, I’m a word guy.  I love novels, and will often read a couple in any given week.  I also love movies and television shows that replicate the sophisticated wordplay of good novels.  Atticus Finch’s closing argument, Lorelei Gilmore’s run-on pop culture references, Will Hunting’s dressing down of a pretentious grad student, Malcolm Reynolds’ pithy observations about life on the lam, Hynkels closing monologue in The Great Dictator – I can think of countless moments on large and small screens that have rivaled the awe I have experienced and the brilliant craftsmanship of a thought-provoking novelist.

Words, however, are not the only way for a moviemaker to tell a story.  The clever minds at Monty Python built a creative empire by creating visuals whose humor actually undermined the words of the narrator.  In his “Man with no Name” trilogy, Sergio Leone allowed the landscape and the wrinkles at the corner of Clint Eastwood’s eyes to carry forward the story.  Michael Winterbottom’s controversial 9 Songs told the story of a relationship almost entirely through the two characters’ body language and sex life.

Music, landscape, movement, expression are all part of the filmmaker’s palette.  In Avatar, James Cameron has chosen to tell a story by creating a fully-immersive, coherent world.  For fans of science fiction, that alone is a huge gift.  Unlike books in the genre, science fiction movies only use as much pseudo-science as is necessary to tell their traditional stories in non-traditional settings.

The most successful science fiction movies make this clear.  George Lucas recreated World War II in space, even though dogfighting makes no sense in zero-gravity.  Gene Rodenberry wanted us to focus more on ethnic, class, and religious conflicts than on the fact that a “universal translator” is an impossibility.  The Wachowski brothers could not have asked their questions about identity and reality if they had allowed physicists to ask basic questions about the efficiency of using human beings as batteries.

In other words, if we look too closely at the world in which a typical science fiction movie is set, the story actually gets derailed.  In Avatar, the world is the story.  The ecology of Pandora is supposed to be completely real and breathtakingly alien.  Its humanoid and non-humanoid characters are familiar enough that we can predict their behavior, yet foreign enough that we can watch them in wonder.  Along with Jake Sully, we fall in love with Pandora – and along with him we feel it viscerally when greed and ignorance wound her.

The dialogue is secondary.  Even the specifics of the plot are secondary, most especially when they are obviously silly (unobtanium?  really?) or contrived (the only place you can get the rare ore is where the Na’vi live?  really?).  The story of Avatar is Pandora, and the way in which it swiftly and completely becomes our world too.

The plot that draws us into that world is hardly original, especially since it is a true story that residents of the Amazon would gladly tell us they are living out every day.  This is not the unpardonable sin some of Avatar’s detractors would have us believe it to be.  Some brilliant stories are completely derivative.  The story of star-crossed lovers preceded Romeo and Juliet by hundreds of years.  Surely Homer would recognize the plot of Oh Brother!.

Some stories are worth telling in new ways, so that new generations can hear them in their own language.  We can never be reminded too often that there are people and places with truths we might not understand.  We must constantly re-teach ourselves that power and selfishness can blind us to the destruction we wreak in our arrogance and greed

Quibble all you like about gravity inconsistencies and weak dialogue, James Cameron has crafted perhaps the most internally-consistent, immersive, extra-terrestrial world ever brought to life on the large screen.  In so doing, he has made the atrocities of ethnocentric consumerism real in a way that a cleverly contrived plot alone would not have.  For threats of mass destruction or genocide to be real to us, they must threaten our home.  This is why the apocalyptic scenes of Terminator are so much more terrifying than the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope.

Avatar tells us how an alien land can become our home, and it does so by making Pandora our world, causing us to feel her wounds, and cheer at her defense.  James Cameron did not accomplish this with brilliant writing or an innovative story, he did it by making even the tiniest details of Pandora as real and vibrant as possible.  It works, spectacularly.

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Thoughts After Reading and Seeing Watchmen

Watchmen Cast - Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Watchmen Cast – Courtesy of Warner Brothers

For years I’ve heard friends talk about Watchmen and I never got around to reading it. I’ve always found the style of storytelling in graphic novels to be distracting. I’m a word guy, and superimposing images with words usually distracts me.I finally sat down to read the graphic novel in its entirety this week, and I think it’s fair to say that Watchmen reaches the full potential of the medium. It tells its story on multiple levels with sophisticated interaction between the evocative images and the (several?) brilliant storylines(s).

The movie trims out a few layers to focus on the central themes and images of the novel; an appropriate recognition of the limitations of the genre. Visually, the movie is stunning – it recreates the world of the Watchmen flawlessly, and it does so in ways that replicate the emotional impact of key moments in the novel. The acting feels a little weak and contrived in places (especially Matthew Goode, who clearly doesn’t understand the subtlety of his character); but overall the characters are well-represented. The subtleties and moral ambiguities of the novel’s plot are also generally well-implemented, and the overall experience of seeing it all take place on the big screen was awe-inspiring.

John-Francis and I were actually struck silent for a few moments after it was over, something that is rare for both of us. Then we found ourselves talking for some time about the various moral and anthropological implications of the story.

Having read the novel, I was initially hesitant to take John-Francis to the movie. Admittedly, the violence didn’t exceed what he’s seen on evening television or in James Bond/Jason Bourne movies. In fact, the worst scene in Watchmen almost perfectly mirrors a scene from Battlestar Gallactica. The sexuality barely went beyond that of a perfume ad. And the language is no worse than he’s heard from his classmates. Still, it’s our job to filter that sort of thing and to help him to process what he does encounter in a manner appropriate to his emotional maturity. (Of course, no one was monitoring our emotional maturity as kids when we found my grandfather’s Playboy collection, but you tend to forget that sort of thing as you get older.)

Ultimately, I decided that he was old enough to understand the themes of the movie and appreciate its artistry. I really wanted him to see it on the big screen, and I wanted to watch it with him and interpret it with him. For me, discussing these sorts of powerful artistic experiences – engaging in deep discussions about the nature of good and evil – is the very best part of being a parent. I wanted to share this with him, and I thought he was ready for it.

I was right, and here are some of the things we discussed on the car ride and after we got home. I’m listing them here, because I’d love to talk about them with you if you’ve read the novel or seen the movie; and I’d like to encourage you to talk about them with your kids if they’ve seen it.

– Which is more important, justice or peace?

– Should we have to choose between the two? Do we?

– Is humanity capable of real heroism?

– What defines a “good” person? A hero?

– Are there some flaws that cannot be balanced by any level of heroism?

– Are there any heroes in the movie? Any villains?

– Is fear the only real motivation for peace?

– How do we determine the right thing to do?

– Why is it important to ask these kinds of questions? How does good art make us think in these ways?

In case you haven’t already realized it, this is not a typical action movie, nor is the graphic novel what you might expect if you aren’t familiar with the deep and morally complex themes dealt with in modern works of that genre. Don’t go and see Watchmen if you’re looking for a Superman movie. Also, I’d highly recommend reading the book first.

Even if you don’t see the movie with your kids, I think these are important themes and I hope you’ll find other ways to talk about them. Our children are exposed to more images of violence, sex, and profanity than we realize; and it’s important that the feel comfortable looking to us to help them make sense of them.

Excerpt from Watchmen, Vol 1

Excerpt from Watchmen, Vol 1

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