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Sunday, February 21, 2010

'Avatar' and Agenda

by Mike Duran

James Cameron's 3D sci-fi epic "Avatar" has evoked a wide range of responses from Christian critics and moviegoers. While some see the film as anti-military, environmentalist, New Age propaganda, others see it as a rather harmless story with fantastic special effects.

What's being lost in all this discussion, I think, is the rather tenuous connection between art and agenda. Christians are often scolded for using their art as a vehicle for their "message." But apparently, we aren't the only ones using stories to propagate a worldview. Only, in this case, the other guy gets a pass.

In an L.A. Times interview entitled Is 'Avatar' a Message Movie? Absolutely, Says James Cameron, the filmmaker eliminates all speculation as to an agenda: his sci-fi epic "Avatar" sails past $2 billion in worldwide box office, breaking the record set by "Titanic," his last movie, Cameron takes no small delight in the way conservative commentators have attacked the movie. "Let me put it this way," Cameron says during a recent dinner conversation at a Hollywood cafe. "I'm happy to piss those guys off. I don't agree with their world view."

...Yes, the movie boasts insane technological leaps for the medium. And, yes, there's a rock 'em, sock 'em action story with greed-head, colonial-minded humans battling blue-hued humanoid aliens over the resources of an Eden-like planet. But
those elements are the hook, Cameron says, to make audiences absorb the movie's pro-environmentalist "medicine."

...And what of those critics who say that "Avatar" is a success despite its message? Can audiences enjoy the movie's fantastical elements and have its cautionary content fly over their heads?

"The movie is designed to work as a straightforward adventure and a romance, and if that's all you want from a movie, that's fine," Cameron says. "But
the message isn't going over people's heads... " (emphasis mine)
So does this rule out Avatar as "simple entertainment"? Maybe not for a fifteen year-old video gamer. But anyone with an iota of discernment would be hard-pressed to miss the stereotypes, ideologies, and religious worldview ensconced in the movie. Or as Cameron himself put it, the stunning visuals and fantastical settings are just "the hook." He's trying to "make audiences absorb" a much deeper message.

Some would argue, I think rightly, that every artist has a message. We cannot compose anything without bringing our worldview with us. So what's wrong with James Cameron importing
his? Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with it. In fact, I think it's misguided, especially for Christians, to charge Cameron with propaganda. Why? Because we do the same thing. Christian art (film / fiction / music) is notoriously agenda-oriented. It is created by Christians, for Christians. Through it, we seek to bring hope, inspiration, and conviction of sin; we want to frame a biblical worldview and flesh out the Gospel so audiences can "absorb" our Message. Sure, Avatar is a gospel of another kind. But apart from its actual message (and a $500 million budget!), how is it really any different from agenda-driven "Christian art"?

For this reason, I think it's tactically wrong for us to critique Avatar on the basis that it is (as the Times puts it) a "Message Movie." Rather,
it is precisely Avatar's "message" which we should engage.

In a post entitled Avatar's Fickle Deity, I criticized the filmmaker, not for having an agenda, but for constructing a religious worldview that is daffy.

...James Cameron’s 3D CGI epic, walks a fine line between cutting-edge virtual reality and complete philosophical gibberish. Yes, the visuals are a revelation. But at the heart of the movie is a religious worldview so skewed and nonsensical that anyone with a molecule of discernment — i.e., those not suckered in by the mind-blowing graphics — will see through its vacuity.

If only Cameron had put as much thought into the religion he’s selling as the world he created.

In a fantastic piece entitled Heaven and Nature, NY Times' columnist Ross Douthat described the film as "Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world." Even the Vatican hedges, saying the film "gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature." Not only is pantheism diametrically opposed to a biblical worldview, it creates innumerable conundrums for the peace-loving Na'Vi of Pandora. So all the while Cameron is constructing a neutral, New Age deity, that deity is busy acting very non-New Age and un-Neutral, arming her forces to the teeth. In the end, the Impartial, Impersonal Force of Avatar turns partial and personal, comes to the rescue and turns, tooth and claw, on the bad guys. It's an incongruity of the highest order.

Which leads me to ask: Are Christians "getting" the message of Avatar, or do they just not care?

In Avatar and Christianity, blogger Becky Miller concludes by lamenting the lack of discernment on the part of believers:
To be honest, I’m stunned. Christian writers not up in arms at the preachy-ness of the movie?...

And Christians not loudly declaiming the anti-Christian religious themes? Where are the people who condemned Harry Potter? Is the worship of nature somehow OK where as wizardry (even if that was what Harry Potter promoted, which it did not) is not?

Perhaps the most likely explanation is this: professing Christians have begun to incorporate tenets of New Age spirituality with their church traditions so that what many call “Christianity” has become the actual mishmash. As a result, the majority are comfortable with, even blessed by, references to false religion.

Where, oh where, has discernment gone?

Indeed. We cannot allow state of the art 3D CGI graphics to camouflage a pagan tract. Perhaps Avatar can be viewed as "simple entertainment." Nevertheless, Christians should be wise enough to look beyond packaging and spot the lie. The issue isn't one of boycotts, but of brains. Maybe the real problem here is not with agenda-driven art at all -- it's with people who "absorb" a message -- any message -- without discretion.


  1. Mike Duran, if we set aside Christians' lack of discernment and the movie's breathtaking spectacle, how would you engage Cameron's worldview?

    And then to be fair, how would you engage a general audience perhaps less concerned with pantheism and Christianity but who identified with the movie's feeling of alienation and longing for real connection?

  2. Great questions, Loren!

    "[H]ow would you engage Cameron's worldview?" In one sense, it's essential that we agree there is a worldview or agenda behind Avatar. It's rather surprising to me how many Christians did not discern any overt message. Some even spiritualized Avatar to the point they claim its themes are "Christian." (For reference, see Becky Miller's link in the body.) So first, there needs to be a common ground about what's being said.

    I suppose it attests to the power of film that a conversation about religion has, because of a movie, moved into the public square. Christianity has historically flourished when it gets out of the churches, courts, and halls of government, and into the marketplace. So I think this discussion is ultimately good for Christians. For one, it affirms competing ideologies, a clash of worldviews, at the heart of American culture. The Bible teaches such a struggle exists in the "world." Secondly, it gives Christians a chance to articulate a biblical worldview. The differences between pantheism and Judeo-Christian monotheism are stark and should be understood by the culture at large. But how far that conversation can go -- especially if it's limited to blogs and movie theaters -- is another story.

    Secondly: "how would you engage a general audience perhaps less concerned with pantheism and Christianity but who identified with the movie's feeling of alienation and longing for real connection?" No matter what our religious beliefs or ideologies, we all share these same feelings of alienation and loneliness. People are hungry for answers, for inclusion, for significance. The issue is not whether such emotions exist (aren't these what draw us to stories?), but how they will be addressed. In the long run, I think Christianity offers a far more substantial answer to "alienation and longing for real connection" than does a fictional deity named Eywa. Whether or not Christian art / artists can provide that answer is another issue.

    Thanks for the comments, Loren!

  3. I think some of us, personality-wise and gifting wise, are cut out for confronting the falsehoods in "Avatar."

    I think others, including myself, are cut out for finding the tidbits of truth in the mess and then engaging nonbelievers in conversation in a non-confrontational way. I've had great dialogue with others, dealing with ideas of heaven, rebirth, and the reality of the physical world compared to the "more real world" of the spiritual, based on this movie.

    American Christianity has set itself up as an opponent of so many things. For me, personally, I've had Jesus work through me in the workplace, schools, and even church, by finding ways to connect with the heart and then redirect the mind, instead of attacking the mindset and leaving people cold.

    That's just my own approach, but I think we need to be careful about suggesting either way is wrong. I think God uses Peters, Pauls, and Marys in lots of different ways.

    As for the message aspect of "Avatar," the preachiness of it sometimes annoyed me, simply because the "message" was already there without having to be shoved down our throats. That's the difference between "show don't tell."

    I liked the movie, regardless.

  4. Eric, thanks for your perspective! I enjoyed the movie too, which is probably why the "preachiness" bothered me so much. Frankly, I'm not sure how any moviegoer could not find the film, from a craft perspective, revelatory. Those critics who pan Avatar simply because of its message are not being objective.

    I think you're right: "American Christianity has set itself up as an opponent of so many things." I hope I'm not coming across like that here. My point is that however Christians approach the film we should be discerning as to the author's intent. It is Christians gullibility, not Avatar's agenda, which I'm most worried about.

    Thanks so much for your comment, Eric!

  5. We're in agreement, Mike. I think much of our gullibility as Christians comes from our failure to teach and promote critical thinking.

    My motto is: If Jesus is the Answer, why are we afraid of the questions?

  6. Eric, while I agree with your last comment, I think your first statement missed the point. Seems some people are co-opting the word discernment to mean "confrontation" when in fact it merely means "to judge well" or "(in Christian contexts) perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding" (Oxford American Dictionaries).

    Here's what I said to one of the commenters to the article Mike linked to, "Avatar and Christianity":
    My point ... is that this belief system is well known and recognized by knowledgeable people outside the Christian community ...

    Consequently, we’re not being alarmist by saying, By the way, did you see how the religious views in Avatar contradict the Truth of the Bible?

    That’s a question I think we should be ready to ask and discuss. But this position is a far cry from saying, It’s panentheistic; hide your eyes!

    I guess what I'm saying, Eric, is that I don't think we're discussing two different approaches to handling the theme. Rather, I, at least, am calling people to task for not seeing that there IS a theme.

    If you want to say, Panentheism has similar ends to those of Christianity, but here's why Christ makes more sense, while I say, Panentheism is different from Christianity in these essential ways, then yes, I'd agree we are taking two different approaches to the same issue.

    But what has me perturbed is that some professing Christians are 1) discounting discernment as if it is a hate crime (unfortunately, this is not an exaggeration); 2) unaware that the religion in Avatar differs from Christianity; 3) unaware that our society, including a segment of professing Christians, has begun to embrace the tenets of panentheism.

    I, too, think asking questions is a good thing, but that starts, I believe with What exactly is this movie saying about life and religion and God? followed closely by How does that view differ or square with what the Bible says?


  7. "Where, oh where, has discernment gone?"...

    Hebrews 5:14 says: "... strong meat belongs to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil."

    Christians do not have a corner on discernment. However, we as humans (even Christians) can become desensitized if we continue to engage with such things that first tweaked our consciences. Such as passing by homeless people so often that one is no longer moved with compassion for them. Many families (Christians included) who have movie viewing as part of their entertainment structure, have had slim choices over recent years offered to us from Hollywood. Often our standards have dropped to, "if there's no blood and guts plastered over the screen every five minutes, overt sexual content, or graphically depicted demons that will give the kids nightmares, it's viewable." Which doesn't mean we'll rave over it, or even remember it after next month.

    On the other hand, there has never been a time when families (even non-Christians) didn't respond to movies that present wholesome, uplifting, encouraging values. Evidenced by how many of them have incorporated watching IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE as part of their own Christmas traditions every year. That said -- and considering the fact that most of what is offered to us lately is murder or demons...

    What a prime time for Christian writers and producers to come up with something better!

    Thanks for another stimulating post, Mike. As always.


  8. This is why we need to know what our kids are watching. It was a fun movie! But I had a little discussion with them after. They're well grounded in their faith, and saw right through the false religion aspect. They practically laughed at the "we killed our mother" line. When you keep your kids informed and educated, movies like this won't sway them. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. Any adult who buys the message was already in that camp anyway (just like the Christian message). A Hollywood producer once said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." It's still the same today. Cameron is only fooling himself if he thinks he's making a dent in the conservative or Christian movement.

  9. Ron, that is such a good point. I saw the movie with my 21 year-old daughter and we talked the whole way home about the heavy-handed religious / environmental message of the film. I used to play a game called "Spot the Lie" with our kids. The objective: uncover the underlying message behind ads, films, and music. Watching Avatar with my daughter was like a grown-up version of "Spot the Lie." Thanks for your comments!

  10. I agree that discernment is key. Maybe my mistake is assuming that we are all starting from the same foundation of the Bible, understanding that key elements of "Avatar" have nothing to do with knowing Jesus. I didn't go into the movie expecting they did.

    My statements about different approaches assumed we are on the same page but dealing with others in different ways. I talk with my kids about the lies in movies, ads, sermons, etc, but I don't go shoving that down nonbelievers' throats because that's not my approach, and it's not something they usually swallow well.

    I agree with all the errors sited, spiritually, in "Avatar." I'm just not freaked out by any of it. It's not the end of civilization; it's the same false religion that's been spread for millennia, and so I prefer to find a common ground with others, then direct it toward the truth of the real Gospel.

    I'm more often worried about the movies that show adultery as normal, even romantic--and those are all over the place. I don't know too many people who go worship trees because of "Avatar," while I know many believers who have justified leaving marriages because they found their "soul mate."

  11. I wrote a movie review of Avatar back in late December 2009 for a Christian blog called Writers Rest.
    http colon backslash, backslash writersrest dot blogspot dot com My opinions then were similar to those of the writer here, and I agree that Christians who found no fault in the movie, Avatar, lack decernment.
    To read my review, click on the address above and scroll down, down. Then click Older. A new page will appear, and you then scroll down until you see Avatar--a movie review.
    Molly Noble Bull
    www dot mollynoblebull dot com

  12. I agree with all the errors sited, spiritually, in "Avatar." I'm just not freaked out by any of it.

    I don't think a call for discernment is asking anyone to be freaked out, Eric.

    You mentioned movies that show adultery. I'm right there with you, thinking believers ought to be looking at a hedonistic or promiscuous worldview and saying, Now how does this compare or contrast with what the Bible teaches?

    Ron and Mike and others I've talked to are doing it right, I think—taking the time to discuss the movie and "spot the lies."

    The thing is, I've read comments and posts from Christians who are so upset with Avatar's socio-political views, but say little if anything about the worldview. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some are outraged that a character takes God's name in vain or that the Na'vi are "practically naked." But what do these same folks say about the lies told about God? Nothing! These are professing Christians.

    Of course there is also a group who profess Christ who say that Avatar shows the right way to evangelize—by letting those with whom we enter into a conversation change us as much as we change them.

    These are important issues, I think, and believers can use a movie like Avatar to discuss them—but not if we only think it's got rip-roaring good graphics. We need to move behind the art (the subject of my blog post yesterday) to see what we can see.


  13. Becky, I'm in wholehearted agreement, and I didn't mean to imply that you were freaked out about these things.

    If, however, we feel the need to point out every spiritual error around us--in movies, TV, music, the workplace, government, our friends, spouses, and so on--we sometimes take over the Holy Spirit's job and fail to accomplish our purpose or His.

    My experience in working for years with nonbelievers is that it's God's kindness that leads to repentance, that they respond best to a respectful, honest approach that includes my willingness to listen to their struggles and doubts.

    In working with believers, yes, I get frustrated that so few seem to know even the basics of Scripture. In a land inundated with churches, why are so many still drinking spiritual milk instead of getting into the meat? Part of the reason, I believe, is because we get focused on surface issues and don't go deeper to the core fallacies that drive many of us on a daily basis.

    This sounds like your heart, to address this. It's mine, too. This is where the different approaches come in, and I think God has given you a place to speak out and me a place to come alongside. My prayer is that He uses us both as He desires, to His glory.

  14. So...what parts of the "Avatar" worldview do you agree with?

  15. I don't agree with the worldview. I do, however, love the imagination and creativity.

    One example: In discussion with nonbelievers, I've talked about how the main character began to realize the other world, the world of the Na'vi, was more real to him than his own. I've explained how this is true in the spiritual life, the Christian walk, as our minds are renewed and discover that the spiritual reality is more concrete than the temporal physical realm.

    In the movie, the character is lured to stay in the first reality by the temptation of getting back his legs. The temptation is real, but fleeting. And that is the sort of visceral temptation Satan offers us, when in fact we can run and soar in the other reality.

  16. I was tracking with you, Eric, right up to the end when you said: This sounds like your heart, to address this. It's mine, too. This is where the different approaches come in, and I think God has given you a place to speak out and me a place to come alongside. My prayer is that He uses us both as He desires, to His glory.

    I just don't see this speaking out/coming alongside dichotomy when it comes to informing Christians of the need to discern the worldviews we are exposed to.

    I am advocating information, not confrontation. I would hope my readers, and those here at Novel Journey, think more deeply about the ideas conveyed in what they read and see. First, don't they have to be aware that there ARE ideas being conveyed?

    How exactly do you "come alongside" Christians in interacting with a movie like Avatar? You said in your answer to Loren that you do not agree with the worldview. Do you engage Christians over the subject?


  17. Maybe what I should say, Becky, is that I don't feel called to bringing Christians to discernment over these issues, but to taking the Gospel to nonbelievers.

    On a battlefield, there are those engaged in combat, those engaged in healing, and those engaged in strategy, reconnaissance, training, and administration. All are important. No one benefits by pointing fingers at the others and expecting them to accomplish a different task.

    I trust you are where God wants you (since I am powerless to change anyone, apart from His Spirit), and I know I am where He wants me.

    I'm glad to be your brother.

  18. Maybe what I should say, Becky, is that I don't feel called to bringing Christians to discernment over these issues, but to taking the Gospel to nonbelievers.

    Aaahh! Now this makes good sense. I've known for a long time that my calling is more about "rallying the troops," to fit in with the your metaphor.

    In the case of pop culture, be it movies or TV or books—whatever—I think a "be on the alert" caution is necessary because so many Christians are stepping into the line of fire worried about the pop guns they can see and clueless about the mines they cannot.

    Well, "cannot" isn't really the right word, so the metaphor breaks down, but you get the idea.

    And, yes, neither of us works sans the power of the Holy Spirit. It is He who will guide Christians into all truth. It is He who will convict non-Christians of sin and the need of a Savior.

    And I'm glad I'm your sister in Christ, Eric. (Do we need a group hug now? ;-)


  19. Interesting discussion. I saw the message in the movie, but ignored it and enjoyed the art. I'm not sure if that makes me discerning or I mean, who doesn't wanna be blue and have those cool ears?!


    I agree that the church is picking up too much of the pagan-heart of the world and incorporating it in life, but I also see a trend of walking around in the name of Christ picking so much of life apart, the church leaves itself, standing in a hollow cathedral, scolding thin air so that it can hear its own voice echoed back.

    Maybe growing up in church did me a disservice, I don't know. I hear the church speak against anything, and it only spurs my curiosity--the rebel in me, I suppose.

    I look to the scripture: John 12:47 "As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it." If Jesus hands the gavel over to God the Father, then so can I.

    That's my decision, though. I understand that some are called to speak out about stuff. I envy your stout minds. We all balance the body, like Eric said.

    Besides, I'm waaaay more irritated at the TWILIGHT books and movies, than Avatar. Pagan views verses twisting and morphing love into dysfunction and obsession. Pagans I can see clearly. It's the slippery snakes we have to watch out for.


  20. Rach, I have to confess, I've never wanted to be blue. Or to have pointy weird ears. LOL

    I think the fact that you recognized the false religion as false is really all I'm advocating. Maybe Mike is thinking something else.

    Apparently Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle's Mars Hills Church took a stronger view and called Avatar satanic in a recent sermon--which has raised a stir.

    I hadn't thought about the movie being "satanic" before, though I think the worldview is pagan. It's espousing worship of a false god. Is that "satanic"?

    Well, I suspect most of the movies coming out of Hollywood espouse a worldview contrary to Christianity, and I don't know that it's helpful to label them all "satanic."

    "False" is good enough for me.

    But I'm getting far afield. As one commenter said at my site, the problem with movies like Avatar that we like so much is that they can turn us a degree south of where we're supposed to go, without us realizing it.

    But if we do as you did, Rach, and recognized it as espousing false religion, then we've already done the heavy lifting.

    On the contrary, if we think the movie is spiritual and might give us insight into our own spiritual life, how we can grow closer to God, then I think we are taking that turn south.

    Really, if we can say, Oh look, the Na'vi are worshiping the earth instead of God, then see what the Bible has to say about worshiping the created instead of the Creator, we've done what we're supposed to.

    We don't need to post warnings a la Driscoll (though I haven't listened to his sermon and don't know the context for his remarks) or hide our eyes as if we'll be tainted by exposure to false religion (unless we're coming out of paganism, in which case there might be reasons to hide our eyes).

    As to Twilight, I think you've made a valid point. Seemingly, evangelicals jumped on the bandwagon because here was a teen movie that didn't end up with the loving couple in bed.

    But shouldn't we take a look at the attitudes--the worldview--the movie is espousing?

    I've been writing a series of posts on my blog this week interacting with screenwriter Brian Godawa's book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment. I highly recommend the book for anyone wanting to think more deeply about stories.


  21. Thanks for the Driscoll link, Becky. And for all those staying with the discussion.

    I wanted to add this re: Christian worldview -- Some aspects of Avatar (minor, yes) could be interpreted as part of a Christian worldview. For one, there are spiritual components to Pandora; it is not purely materialistic. There is a Higher Power, a deity, that exists, as opposed to a Cosmic Void. Even the environmental message and the interconnectedness of species parallels biblical realities.

    As I see it, a "Christian worldview" isn't necessarily about articulating hard theology, which I think far too many Christian filmgoers impose upon movies. The more we demand "hard theology" of our movies, the more rigid and unrealistic (and prudish) we become. My criticisms against Avatar, at least in this post, have more to do with Cameron's openly expressed agenda and with Christians who approach the movie -- and any movie -- uncritically. While Avatar does not have a blatantly Christian worldview (in fact, it may be openly pagan in parts), it does contain some elements that -- and I think this is the point Eric was making -- we can use as springboards for discussion and outreach. Thanks for all the great discussion!


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