Is ‘Avatar’ Anti-Christian? Anti-Corporate? Anti-Development?

Posted on December 29, 2009 at 3:58 pm

“Avatar,” which set a record as the biggest-budget movie of all time has also set a box-office record with a total world gross in its first two weeks of $617.3 million. It is a technological wonder, seamlessly combining live action and digital images in a story set on the planet of Pandora in the future, when Earth has been ruined by abuse of its natural resources and humans are about to disrupt a peaceful civilization called the Na’vi so they can collect a highly valuable mineral called “unobtanium.”
Most movie critics, including me, have described the story as thin, mundane, unimaginative, or almost an afterthought, just enough to add some emotional weight to the stunning visuals. But any movie with this level of visibility is going to attract the interest of columnists as well as critics. The very thinness of the story has the advantage of allowing for different interpretations, but that can be a disadvantage when commentators want to project their own ideologies onto it.
For example, on the right, John Podhoretz of the Weekly Standard calls the movie “blitheringly stupid.”

“Avatar” is an undigested mass of clichés nearly three hours in length taken directly from the revisionist westerns of the 1960s-the ones in which the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys.

Some people might say it is taken from the actual historical incidents in which the Indians were the good guys and the settlers the bad guys, or from other actual historical incidents involving colonialism and imperialism that resulted in the slaughter and exploitation of indigenous people. Or actual evil actions by corporations in externalizing their costs by pouring toxic substances into the water and air and toxic financial instruments into the balance sheets of the surrounding community. And they might say that comparing the characters’ worship around a sacred tree to the Keebler elves (whose tree is a factory, not a church, by the way) is condescending. But Podhoretz can only imagine that this movie is inspired by other movies or television commercials; he has no interest in engaging with its possible sources in reality.
What I think is especially fascinating about his commentary is his conclusion that the movie is not based in any expression of authentic concern about the issues of environmental stewardship, tolerance, and respect for other cultures. Whether he does not believe anyone can hold those views or whether he just does not believe this particular expression, he concludes that it is all as big a fake as the pixel versions of a lush, natural world on an imaginary planet.

The thing is, one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take “Avatar” — with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe’s adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool — at all seriously as a political document. It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.

This of course tells us much more about Podhoretz than it does about Cameron or “Avatar.” Podhoretz confuses insult with argument, calling Cameron or anyone who is moved and inspired by a “nature-loving tribe” as “mindless” without taking the trouble to explain why bringing environmental ruin on our sources of water, air, and food is not what is mindless and saying that Cameron would devote twelve years to making a film and then sketch in the story in the most cynical possible way because it does not matter to him. And he goes on to suggest that by telling a story that will connect to the broadest base of audience members, then it must be because the audience is mindless as well. What is particularly funny about this is that Podhoretz is livid at the portrayal in the film of an evil corporation and yet here he blithely assumes that the corporation behind this film is so soulless that it will churn out anything the audience wants to hear. Hmm, an evil corporation. Perhaps that could be the plot of a movie!
At the New York Times, Ross Douthat disapproves of the movie because he sees it as an apologia for pantheism. Movieguide’s David Outten sees it as an attack on both capitalism and Christianity. But a sympathetic, even romanticized portrayal of one belief system is not necessarily an attack on others. The bad guys in this movie are not affiliated with any religious practice or institution. Outten at least notes that it is not the structures that are at fault but the people in them. There is a reference in the film to a time in the past when the different groups on the planet did not live in harmony. And there are good guy humans in the movie as well, so I think Outten’s view is represented in the film, whether he sees it or not.
Some who wrote about the film approvingly or disapprovingly discussed the portrayal of the “noble savage,” the Rousseauian idea of a civilization untouched by corruption. But it is not so much that the “noble savage” is a myth — the idea of the “savage” is the myth. There is just as much savagery in societies of people who read books and live in houses as in those who cook on a campfire and kill their dinner with arrows.
Beliefnet’s own Pagan blogger Gus diZerega wisely called the film “a Rorschach of the Soul.” And then he tells us how it speaks to him as a Pagan:

It is a wonderful and very Pagan movie. As I understand it the movie’s basic messages are that completeness is achieved in connection with others, that harmony is the basic value and its loss the basic failing of the modern mentality, that individuality exists in the context of connection, and that Spirit exists as immanent in the world. It is a beautiful picture of breathtaking dimensions.

I particularly like his description of the way that the conflict in the movie is more than anything else about power. Again, this is Outten’s point that it is not the belief systems or the societal structures but the people who struggle to aspire to the values of those systems and structures that get into trouble. And that is also the point of the movie.

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35 Replies to “Is ‘Avatar’ Anti-Christian? Anti-Corporate? Anti-Development?”

  1. What ever happened to just letting entertainment be entertainment. Why does everything have to have a hidden meaning. Just go out and enjoy getting away from the madness of the real world for a few hours. Escape.

  2. John, every story is shaped by a world view that expresses the beliefs and values of whoever is in control of telling the story. We can enjoy [or not] the story and reject the world view that is driving it. James Cameron tells this story from the world view of pantheism but he can’t maintain it consistently and tell a good story because it’s not true to our human reality. For instance, pantheism posits an impersonal deity that favors no one. But Ehwa “hears” the prayers of Jake Sully and answers them. That doesn’t happen in a truly pantheistic world. Though I reject his pantheistic vision of reality I still enjoy the story and heartily approve of many of the values of the movie. I live in Africa and especially appreciate the theme of cultural sensitivity. My analysis doesn’t ruin the movie as entertainment. It enhances it.

  3. Is true, because not escape of the real world just minutes…And I don’t liked this comparison…men and indians. I’m sorry!!!

  4. I find it all very amusing that proponents of Capitalism and the military industrial forces dismiss movies like this as anti-everything they hold dear. I have yet to see a movie or book that uses Capitalism and commercialism and militarism as forces for improvement or hope. Because it is so easy to see the road of Capitalism ahead as leading to an abyss, movies and books like this are made. Of course, that does not mean we have changed our direction – thus proving the maxim, “If you don’t watch where you are going you are get where you are headed” (Yogi Berra?) All of these works try to provide some sense of a better place or fate. What better place or fate is there in arms escalation, increased and unregulated manufacturing, or the “magical” exchange and illusory increase of abstract “wealth”?

  5. Wake up you full of faith!
    the country is in debt up to it’s eyes, dollar losing it’s value, everybody in in debt, medical bills is #1 cause of bankrupsy….this is gift of capitalism….Do you want anything more?
    And that’s why this movie is #1….

  6. The movie is anti-war and very Green. Evangelical Republicans who see Christianity as a form of holy nazism (and I’m speaking as a Christian who never gave in to the dark side)see any belief they don’t understand as evil. Indeed, they’ve killed millions of Muslims in Iraq, Afganistan and Palestine to emphasis their point. The movie is great and the motives of it’s critics prove it. Belief Net is dedicated to the destruction of beliefs starting with the Christianity it falsely professes to support. Shame on you.

  7. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my article in Movieguide (among others).
    When I went to the screening the studio had us all give them a brief comment on the movie just after seeing it. My comment to them was that Cameron portrayed humans as people whose only use for God was an occasional profanity. He portrayed the Na’vi as very spiritually-minded, god-(Eywa)-centered beings. They even held lovely worship services. The only decent humans were those who became Na’vi converts.
    Humanity has spiritually-minded, God-centered Christians who engage in beautiful worship services. They don’t worship oneness with nature but they are compassionate and caring. They even have a mandate to be good stewards of the environment. Apparently none of these humans made it to Pandora.
    My brother-in-law is a missionary to Haiti. While Haitians are not Na’vi they are certainly not living in American-style luxury. My brother-in-law and those who go with him do not go to Haiti to rip down the forrest and take Haitian minerals. Some actually go trying to plant trees and restore an environment ravaged by the Haitians themselves (in search of wood for cooking). Modern equipment is brought in to try to get water for those who need it.
    My complaint with Cameron is that he used his considerable power as a filmmaker to make Capitalism look as bad as he could and to portray humans as inferior beings unless they become born-again pantheists. Christianity is rarely presented by Hollywood as being as noble and Cameron presented the Na’vi.
    I was shocked and delighted when I saw THE BLIND SIDE. Warner Bros. actually showed a white Southern Christian woman to be compassionate toward a young African American (and it was based on a true story).
    Panthism is not the answer to our world’s problems. Christianity is.

  8. Keeps on dreaming. Neither Panthesim or Monothesim is answer for world and humanity. The answer to everything is treat human as human and spread love not conspiracy theory.We have seen enough , horryfying destruction created by Monothesim civilization to the world.
    Nothing last forever, those days pantheism was useful had social structure , then came monotheism give some new life for people that oppressed by invinsible kings but now Monotheism as body as whole is oppressing the whole world. look At Bosnia,Chenchen, Crotia, Serbia, Northern Ireland,Nigeria,Palestine, Iran , Gulf, Sudan,Zimbabawe,Pakistan,Venezuela,Bolivia even corrupted American ruined the economy. I safely say , fanatically rellgious people ruining the whole world.One day, SociaLism/Communism might lead the way against capatlism then what you going to do ? Feel sorry about it then?
    I respect religion but in the context of love and sharing not just the protocol. Love, respect for humankind and nature are the only way attain peace in everything and only GOD’s way.
    I’m thanking Hollywood and American/Canadian who believe in Democracy and love not fanatical religous hegemony.

  9. Any plots to any movies can be extrapolated into controversial interpretations… Avatar’s setting is in Pandora, a new and mysterious world; it lends itself to nativeness, struggle between nature and man. I’m sure if one cared enough, there are anti something to be found in Titanic, too.
    And that’s the motivation, we care too much about our feelings especially when it may ever so indirectly harm our personal space (thoughts, attitudes, habits, etc.).
    It’s just entertainment–unless adults brings this into the dinner table and perpetuate a message of anti-ness–and I’m happy all of us here are wise enough.

  10. Is Avatar anti-Christian? No. Avatar is not about pantheism at all. Eywa was not a deity but was rather a living organism.. a network of energy that included all life on the planet, and unlike an all powerful deity, it could be killed. It was after all, a SCI-FI movie. I can see though why many Christians jump to that wrong conclusion… they seem to be terrified of anything that resembles nature worship. But to do that and completely overlook the anti-war, pro-peace, environmental protection message is silliness, unless Christians are not amenable to such ideals….hmmm.

  11. ‘My complaint with Cameron is that he used his considerable power as a filmmaker to make Capitalism look as bad as he could and to portray humans as inferior beings unless they become born-again pantheists. Christianity is rarely presented by Hollywood as being as noble and Cameron presented the Na’vi. ‘
    Ive seen AVATAR and loved the film,and esp its messages. Does it make capitalism ,look bad? In the form of the rapacious RDA, yes,but these corps do exist here on earth.
    Christianity lost any chance of being seen as noble (or even christian) when it committed genocide against the native americans first under spanish dominion, and later further north.
    Eywa is not a living organism, nor is she a network…both are delf-serving human interpretations. Grace finally sees shes real, a living goddess.
    Chrianity has sought to make the world after its image,and weve seen this result in the destruction of cultures world wide.The struggle betwen natuer and ‘man’ is at least partly the fault of a mix or urban, christian and military influences.
    AVATAR is a timely and passionate statement.

  12. ‘I was shocked and delighted when I saw THE BLIND SIDE. Warner Bros. actually showed a white Southern Christian woman to be compassionate toward a young African American (and it was based on a true story).
    Panthism is not the answer to our world’s problems. Christianity is’
    thats not what the natives of the new world learnt.
    If you werent christian, you were forcibally made one. Would a christian help a person who was not christian?
    Would christians on pandora have put an end to the way of Eywa?
    You can be sure theyd love to burn the Tree of Souls.

  13. At a very young age I chose to make it my lifelong quest to try and figure out why we are here, what is our purpose. After all these years of exploring I’ve determined that if I were to claim there was a higher power, I would claim it to be Mother Earth. Without question science is reality and religion is only a fairy tale, a stepping stone in our evolution, a mental crutch. For those that have reached this smae conclusion, for those that realize that we are about to hit an environmental wall, THIS MOVIE IS BRILLIANT.
    But for those that have not realized the above yet, and have a tendency to disregard environmental warnings, you hated it. I was once an Ayn Rand, Libertarian! Now that I have learned so much more in life, I cannot deny that being an environmental blue dog democrat is a step up in maturity and knowledge.

  14. Cameron, much like George Lucas who shoves his new age ideologies down the consumers throat (star wars), knows exactly what he’s doing through the use of characters and even their names. It’s all part of the conditioning process for the eventual strong(2 thess 2:11) delusion, which will culminate during the soon coming tribulation period. Eywa, who’s name is one letter short(H) of Yawheh and is portrayed to be a Goddess is another example of the twisting of scripture which unfortunately, too many biblically illiterate Christians fail to see.

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  16. It find it a source of continual amusement that the commentators and critics who see films like Avatar, the Star Wars series (did I miss seeing any Jawas in Avatar?), or Harry Potter as attacks on capitalism, Christianity, or conservatism cannot offer anything as an alternative. Would Podhoretz want to defend the corporate lackeys in Avatar? Did he pay any attention to any of the back story or was he simply stunned by the visual effects? Would he be willing to offer an alternative film about Hogwarts where Malfoy is the hero and the Deatheaters are righteous? Would he like to present Darth Maul as the Hero of the Empire whose sacrifice should be a model for all young Sith?
    These films, like Jesus’ parables, favor the characters who have no authority and have yet to realize their own power. I guess if they see the bold strokes of evil in the antagonists – and recognize it as caricatures of themselves or their colleagues – then perhaps the producers and writers have indeed succeeded. Of course, the success is pale because rather than change their ways they simply sit off to one side, pouting and complaining that the movie was not fair (which translates to “it made everything I believe in and write about look bad”)

  17. Oops – my bad – I meant to ask if anyone thought they might have seen any EWOKS in Avatar. They could have taught Pandora’s residents a thing or two about fighting mechanical opponents with vines and spears. I know, I know – the Jawas were on Tattoine.

  18. So far off the mark are the criticisms of Cameron touting pantheism at the expense of Christianity. The movie is replete with Christian symbols. But what Cameron chose to do is to include Christian symbols among mythology and other religious references — Native American as well as Hindu. The title alone is a reference to a Hindi deity. Here’s the link to my review and analysis. I hope I’m right. If I’m wrong, it’s marvelous coincidence.

  19. I’m honestly shocked that the American Family Association and Dobson haven’t freaked out totally over this movie and lauched a boycott. They boycott stores that say “Happy Holidays” in their advertising and the like, but they don’t say boo about this one? Maybe it’s because:
    1. They won’t go anyway.
    2. They will go and cluck their tongues the whole movie, but enjoy it.
    3. They know that a boycott of a few thousand people will mean nothing to a movie that has made over 1.2 billion dollars already. LOL.
    I loved this movie and as a Christian respected it as a form of entertainment. I can extrapolate my own messages from the film and from what I come up with, they are all good, positive ones. In my opinion, anyone who walks out of this movie grumbling about “tree-hugging” or “Indians” or “anti-capitalism” or “anti-Christian” is just looking for an excuse to complain about Hollywood. If that is the case, please just stay home and watch Left Behind a few hundred more times so you won’t be offended.

  20. Why does it seem now that every cultural product that even hints of pantheism or pandeism instantly unleashes a wave of anti-pantheist and anti-pandeist bigotry? Are theists that insecure about their uncohesive fairy tales that they have to bash someone else’s religion, even one far less abusive than their own? And would any newspaper dare print so brazen an attack against a theistic faith?

  21. Thanks, K. Mapson, I appreciate the comment. But bashing goes both ways, as your reference to “uncohesive fairy tales” shows. Everyone’s faith seems like fairy tales to someone. And a good way to demonstrate the more secure and less “abusive” elements of pantheism and pandeism is to show some grace and tolerance about other faith traditions.

  22. My wife and I just saw the movie today. My two cents: Every faith belief system that people identify will see in this movie what they want to see in it.
    Personally, as a believer in Christ, I did notice the sublte and not-so sublte references to Hindiuism and other new age cultisms. The referne to the “life force”, mother tree-the spirit goddess of everything.
    Although the imagry was very good-the message itself I wasn’t buying into-the new age isms so intrically woven into the script. people need to discern between what God says as absolute TRUTH, and what the world recognizes as truth-not the same.
    Best- Wayne

  23. I think your first point is very astute, Wayne, thanks. And that’s one of the reasons for the movie’s success; the concepts are vague and broadly applicable in a way that encompasses many belief systems.
    Most people do not believe that every fictional story they see has to be consistent with their particular faith or that any that are not are intended as an attack. But I would not call Hinduism “new age” or a cult. It is the world’s third largest religion and is based on traditions that go back before the time of Christ. The worship of a tree deity is also a tradition that goes back thousands of years. So there is nothing new about either one. God is a concept too large for any individual to comprehend, so it makes sense that each of us would see and understand only the part that is most meaningful to us.

  24. I am an agnostic leaning toward atheism. To be honest I was expecting all kinds of petty Avatar-bashing by a broad spectrum of the Christian community.
    I have been pleasantly surprised by the highly intelligent, astute, and broad-minded commentary of the Christian community on Avatar.
    Well done.

  25. Thank you, Steve! I am always concerned about people who try to squeeze movies into particular religious or political agendas but was very pleased with the willingness of so many commenters to engage with this movie in such a thoughtful way.

  26. It’s disappointing how, as a society, everything has to be Christian-friendly. However, it doesn’t matter if it bashes any other religion. As long as it’s Christian-friendly, nobody gives a crap otherwise.
    But, if it even has slight messages of pantheism, atheism, whatever — it’s considered evil and should be banished from society as a work of “satan”.
    This is sad. Very sad, only.

  27. Thanks, Anon. Given that it is now the highest-grossing movie of all time, it’s pretty clear that any attempt to “banish” it was unsuccessful. Many people found that it promoted the spiritual values that they consider important.

  28. I finally got around to seeing this movie last night. I found it to be very entertaining and inspirational. As a Christian I was not insulted by this movie nor did I feel that my faith was under personal attack. In fact, I felt that the Jake Sully character in many ways, was a messiah of sorts and just like Jesus revealed God’s true nature to man so did Jake reveal that a more personal relationship with Eywa was possible.
    But regardless of intent, I didn’t feel the movie beat anyone over the head with religion or anti-religion. I also did not feel this movie was anti-American. Greed and the lust for power are evil elements in any political system and are present in every political system. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights do not compel us to behave greedily or to lust for power….if we do so we deserve to be portrayed as evil men.
    I found the imagery and attention to detail to be awe inspiring and just fun to watch. and I would certainly recommend this movie to anyone and would urge them to take the family. Maybe I am just naive but I don’t believe this movie was intended to be an indictment on the American way of life……but no doubt elements of greed and the lust for power do exist in America, as in many other parts of the world, if you are offended by that then perhaps it is time to change our direction?
    Finally, to all of the peaceful loving atheists out there, who love to blame Christianity for all the evils of the world. Remember that just calling yourself a Christian does not make it so….you must be reborn and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Many of these heinous acts you attribute to Christians were more likely committed by unbelievers…possibly even atheists gone bad! For the Bible tells us in Matthew 7:21-23 –
    21 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
    22 Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?”
    23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
    True Christians are among you if you honestly take the time to look for them.

  29. Thanks for the comment, Inayat — I think the movie’s success shows that it delivers that message. Not sure who you mean by “you guys,” but most of the people quoted and commenting are on your side.

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