Many of us go to blockbuster sci-fi movies simply to be entertained, for the special effects and the thrill of the ride. We don’t go to think. If thrills and effects are the gold-standard, Avatar is Fort Knox. It’s the ultimate I-Max experience: gorgeously filmed in 3-D, loaded with exciting action, wowing the imagination. Christians watching the movie may feel uneasy about the pagan worship rituals, but then the familiar voice tells them to lighten up: “Hey, it’s just a movie! I don’t have to believe any of it! That ride on the back of the pterodactyl was so cool!” I understand that some may dismiss what I’m about to write here as a grumpy overreaction. Let me say at the beginning, then, that I’m human. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie on the level of its visual effects. It was a thrill to soar on the back of the virtual pterodactyl and climb those sublime floating mountains. I’m not numb to beauty that delights the eye and the imagination. I watch movies with my senses alive, not just with my thinking-cap on.
But the reality is that if we’re Christians, followers of Christ the Logos (John 1:1), our thinking-cap should never be dropped off at the entrance of the theater. There’s a sense in which we should never “suspend our disbelief” for the sake of mindless entertainment. The Bible repeatedly emphasizes that in every arena of life Christians are renewed in their minds (Rom. 12:2), that they are to take every thought captive (II Cor. 10:5), that they are not to live as unreasoning animals (Jude 10) following their sensual lusts (Eph. 4:19), that they should interpret the signs of their times (Matt. 16:3) and be sober-minded in all things (II Tim. 4:5). “But we,” Paul says (and he would make no exception for the Roman Circus Max or the American Imax), “have the mind of Christ” (I Cor. 2:16). It’s this mind that we as Christians bring, must bring, to the theater.
There are good cultural reasons why we should think especially in the movie theater. In 1932, Aldous Huxley predicted a futuristic society ruled not by the iron fist of political dictatorship, but by the soft pleasures of its mass-media entertainments. He saw that in a post-literate age, visual media would gain an almost primal power to shape group thinking. And the masses wouldn’t even know that they were being manipulated. They would be enslaved by their pleasures, quite willingly. Huxley imagined a theater called a Feely, a 3-D multisensory total movie experience. Eighty years later, Avatar comes closest to realizing Huxley’s vision. But for Huxley, this was not good. The Feely, along with hypnopedia, soma, consumerism, and sex, acted as a mind-numbing drug to pacify masses of infantile people. The people of Huxley’s nightmarish “brave new world” were content to sit in their chains, enchanted by the flickering virtual images on the wall of the cave.
If movies shape thinking, and all the more insidiously because audiences are easily seduced into dimming their minds during the experience, the Christian will either allow his thought to be shaped or think back. It’s especially important with a movie like Avatar that we think back. First, because it’s visually attractive unlike any movie before it; second, because it’s proving to be a global attraction unlike any movie before it (now topping $2.2 billion in sales, 60 percent outside the U.S.); and third, because it’s not just epic but mythic: it presents nothing less than a comprehensive explanation of life, a religion. The religion is a composite of elements that have been falling into place for some time. Parts of the religion have been postmodern Holly-wood dogma for decades, but in Avatar the pieces coalesce—again, perhaps, unlike in any movie before it. And there’s something more brazen here that makes the visual thrills look disturbingly like expensive window dressing for the big seductive lie that even now is being unleashed on the world through multiple vehicles, this just being one of the more splashy to date. It’s not pleasant to think about what global horror will be spawned from this “beautiful” lie. But we can’t afford not to.
The Story: Avatar tells of a futuristic expedition of earthlings to a beautiful alien planet, Pandora, which has been found to be rich in a precious mineral called Unobtainium. The expedition includes scientists, business executives, and Marines. The scientists want to study the planet’s ecosystems, the corporate suits covet the mineral, and the Marines pack the heat to back these initiatives. Jake Sully, a paralyzed Marine vet, is selected to replace his deceased twin brother in a cutting-edge “Avatar” experiment under the direction of lead scientist Dr. Grace Augustine. This involves projecting one’s mind into a virtual-reality body modeled after the 10-foot blue feline Na’vi anthropoids of Pandora. Incarnate in these svelte biologically-engineered alien bodies, the scientists hope to gain the trust of the Na’vi in order to study their society from within. Sully is the first to make contact. At first the Na’vi reject him as a dangerous colonizer, then he gains their trust, and finally he becomes one of their own, winning the hearts of princess Neytiri and eventually the clan. But even as he makes the rite of passage to becoming a Na’vi warrior, Sully works as a double agent, feeding Colonel Miles Quaritch strategic reconnaissance. The Na’vi live in a huge ancestral tree that sits over of a pile of Unobtainium. When they refuse diplomatic overtures to leave their home, the evil Marine Colonel unleashes a “shock and awe” invasion to force their evacuation. Under a barrage of missiles, the tree is felled and bull-dozed. The displaced Na’vi feel betrayed. Sully, heartsick over his duplicity, casts his lot with the Na’vi to fight as an insurgent against the humans. He regains their trust and rallies the clans, fulfilling his destiny as the messiah-figure so long prophesied. The mother-spirit acts on behalf of the Na’vi to rebalance the broken harmony of nature. All evil human colonizers are expelled from the planet. Finally, bidding good riddance to his paralyzed body and the humanity he has come to despise, Sully submits to a mystical neural-networking ritual that downloads his mind permanently into the body of his Na’vi avatar—now presumably no longer his avatar, but the home of his resurrected mind-body wholeness.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, such a bald summary of its plot may well elicit a good harrumphing belly-laugh and a “you can’t be serious!” (as it did from my dear wife). John Podhoretz wrote a hilarious review in The Weekly Standard (Dec. 28, 2009), ridiculing Avatar as “blitheringly stupid,” “among the dumbest movies I have ever seen,” and “an undigested mass of clichés nearly three hours in length.” His beef was that the movie was unremittingly humorless—that in three hours there was not even a single joke to lighten the mood of its pompous self-importance. Podhoretz may be onto something. If the movie is a dramatic front for the big lie, maybe the best way to call its bluff is to have a good chuckle, as G. K. Chesterton did with the atheistic bromides of H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. Paganism, Chesterton saw, is deathly mirthless, while joy is “the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Martin Luther said that the best way to get rid of the Devil, after quoting Scripture, is to laugh at him. This is a stinger to his pride. And yet, knowing that countless moviegoers seem to have taken Avatar seriously enough to have considered suicide after seeing it, we would do well to remember that “even in laughter the heart can ache” (Prov. 14:13).
Paganism: The big lie begins with blasphemy against the Fatherhood of God and His Holy separation from creation. All other lies proceed from this foolish denial of Creator God’s patriarchal authority. Paul writes: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). Paganism hopes to escape the awful transcendence of God the Father by fashioning an idol of the created world and worshiping her as a mother. So it comes as no surprise that on Pandora (a feminine planet, like the earth), the divine is indistinguishable from nature. This mother-earth spirit is Eywah, an unsubtle blasphemous morphing of Yahweh and a tribute to Eve. All life forms on Pandora are biologically integrated in a vast network—plants, trees, animals, animal anthropoids, ancestral spirits—with Eywah as its nurturing CPU. It all seems so sensitive and wonderful! But it’s a closed system, where the one inviolable ethic seems to be maintaining ecological balance. Imbalance is bad. But since plants, trees, animals, and humanoids share the same spirit, none is intrinsically more valuable than the other when the ecosystem demands a self-correcting sacrifice. In the end, though Cameron passes over the “inconvenient truth” of human sacrifice in pagan cultures, it’s still a terrifying struggle for survival. Nature’s red in tooth and claw; even the Na’vi hunt and are hunted. There does seem to be a hierarchy of value, but it’s the order of creation flipped upside-down: trees are more valuable than people. And when your god’s in the tree, you do exactly what fallen Eve does in Milton’s Paradise Lost: you who disdained to worship the Creator now bow down and worship a plant.
Chesterton wisely grasped that the path of pagan mother-nature worship leads only to a tragic view of life. He wrote in Orthodoxy that if you insist on looking at nature as your mother, you’ll find her to be an imperious stepmother. The liberating truth of Christianity is that nature is not our mother, but our sister: “We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father, but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity.” And truly, the childlike lightness of St. Francis of Assisi’s “brother sun, sister moon” is entirely absent from Pandora’s joyless nature-worship. Although she looks enchantingly beautiful, Pandora opens a box of sorrows. The planet is aptly named.
Feminism: Pagan animism denies the first line of the Christian’s creed, “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth,” elevating the imminent feminine in His place. It follows that woman becomes man’s leader, his moral and spiritual superior in every respect. For a good half century Hollywood has spared no expense to propagate the feminist line that women are tough, brilliant, sensitive, articulate, and emotionally and spiritually in tune with the vibes of nature; while men are moronic, monosyllabic meatheads who are hopelessly out of touch. Should we be surprised that this movie conforms to industry standards? The obligatory Alpha-male meathead Colonel Quaritch is querulous and itches to pull triggers. Played to ridiculous excess by Stephen Lang, who grunts his way through a dictionary of military one-liners, he’s the über-male nature-destroyer we’re clearly meant to despise. The one Marine moral and plucky enough to disobey his orders is, of course, a woman. She’s a model of a sensitive soldier: tougher than a man; too emotionally intelligent to fire rockets into a tree. Subtext: Would that all soldiers were women like her! The evil counterpart to the idiotically violent military brass is the idiotically greedy golfclub-swinging corporate executive who looks and talks like he just walked out of a college frat house.
In contrast to these irredeemably evil male oafs stands the brilliant, resourceful leader of the scientists, Dr. Grace Augustine. Her science is not mechanistic but intuitive, eco-friendly “soft science.” Even though the ex-Marine stud Sully, the movie’s reluctant hero, turns out in the end to be wonderfully in touch with his feminine side, Dr. Augustine and the Na’vi princess Neytiri repeatedly berate him as a “moron” and “baby.” Neytiri, the Disney Pocahantas to Captain John Smith, protects Sully from his infantile stupidities and then trains him in the art of becoming a sensitive warrior in touch with animal spirits (again, would that all warriors were women like her! Her brother, of course, is an aggressive Na’vi meathead.) It goes without saying that a woman pastor is the spiritual head of the Na’vi, leading her husband and the tribal congregation in the ecstatic ritual channeling of Eywah. Throughout the movie, women are smarter, more effective leaders, and more spiritually in tune with the balance of nature—than men. They leave nary a carbon footprint. This is blunt-force feminism that tries to knock the Fatherhood of God and the good patriarchal order of His creation upside-down. It no longer even tries to be subtle. In fact, the movie plays gratingly like a three-hour tract for Ecofeminism, one of the fastest-growing intellectual fashions in the American academy today. Ecofeminists make no secret of their hatred for Christian father-rule. Their goal is nothing less than matriarchy on every level of society. The fact that we might not even notice the extent of Avatar’s brazen sexual rebellion shows how successful this fashionable lie has been in turning even evangelicals on their heads.
Trans-Species: Paganism and feminism are standard Hollywood fare. What’s new, at least in a movie of Avatar’s global reach, is the suicidal postmodern romance with anti-humanism. The old sci-fi movies (where Sigourney Weaver made her name) generally pictured humans heroically defending themselves against savage creatures. We were clearly meant to root for our fellow humans, not the octopus-like alien tentacles coming out of their stomachs. Those creepy creatures have gradually matured in emotional and spiritual intelligence, not to mention physical beauty, until now (probably in no small part thanks to Carl Sagan’s yearnings for “contact” with superior consciousnesses beyond death) the nonhumans are morally, spiritually, and even aesthetically preferable to humanity. This is perhaps the strange culmination of Rousseau’s patronizing romantic myth of the “noble savage,” but now it takes a disturbing new direction: where in Costner’s Dances With Wolves the noble ones are human American Indians, in Avatar we find ourselves in the startling position of cheering for nonhuman anthropoids against humans. Except for a handful of exceptions (the sensitive ecologists), humans are toxic. In the end they must be expelled for the ecosystem to breathe again.
Peter Singer, Princeton’s notorious bioethicist, has accused humanity of speciesism. Starting from the premise that there’s no Creator God, he argues that it’s a worn-out humanist bias to pretend that there’s a line separating humans from animals. He likens man’s dominion over the animals to Nazism’s enslavement of the Jews. Humans are on the same level as animals, so we should extend to animals all the rights we enjoy, like autonomy and personhood. Singer may be pleased to see his ideas trickling down into the world’s most popular movie. In Avatar, the Na’vi are anthropomorphic cats. Sully and Neytiri bond for life in a primal mating scene. They plug their animal tails into other animals, feeling the surge of their oneness. And in the end, Sully turns his back on despicable humanity and gladly makes the permanent trans-species leap, because this movie ups even Singer to the next level: the animal is man’s superior. We may be so caught up in the 3-D thrills that we don’t notice the dividing line of the imago dei blur and then vanish before our eyes, and in the end we’re actually longing teary-eyed for the destruction and expulsion of hostile humanity. It isn’t difficult to see how this anti-humanist romance would make suicide look appealing to some.
Virtual Reality: There’s another explanation for the suicidal effect of this beautiful drug. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we might remember, longed to escape his human body: “Oh that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” Too bad the melancholy Dane couldn’t “melt his sullied flesh” into the escapist trips today’s virtual-reality technologies offer. What Jake Sully accomplishes at the end of the movie when his mind is permanently downloaded into his big blue Na’vi avatar is the holy grail of virtual reality gaming: the total escape of consciousness from the prison-house of the human body, this too sullied flesh melting into pure mind. When Sully’s eyes open wide in the movie’s last frame, we’re to think he’s like a bird soaring out of his cage. The movie makes us cheer for this ultimate release by emphasizing the total contrast between Sully’s life in his body and in his avatar. In his paralyzed, wheelchair-bound body he’s lame, lonely, and increasingly depressed; in his avatar he runs like the wind, mates with a princess, and soars on his pterodactyl. Who in his right mind wouldn’t choose the avatar over the suffering human body?
This “avatar” suggestion that you can somehow plug your mind into a different body can be traced back in the western world to Descartes’ mind-over-body dualism, but its roots go back even further into the first great heresy to threaten the early church, Gnosticism. Gnostics taught that certain really smart people could find salvation in the philosopher’s quest of escaping their bodies into higher consciousness. This low view of the material human body has led to much historical mischief. It’s especially prominent in many nonwestern religions. Indeed, the word avatar comes from the Hindu “descent and incarnation of a deity in human form.” But it’s a devilish parody of the flesh-and-blood Incarnation of Christ, because an avatar is really only an illusion. Avatar is a key word in the virtual-reality gaming lexicon. Your avatar is your fantasy projection, the image you choose to inhabit, the ideal idol you make of yourself. What your avatar promises is freedom to escape the difficulties and pains of life, but it’s a suicidal escape from reality. Paul wrote that pagans “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). Virtual reality offers lying images so beautiful you’d rather live in the image than in the real world. Pornography works the same way. Satan presents himself most effectively to people not as the prince of darkness, but as the angel of light. When Sully goes to live in his avatar permanently in the end, how many are so swept up in the grand illusion that they would willingly join him? And if we need the 3-D virtual magic of the movie to feel this rush of pleasure, what does it say about our growing desensitization to the true beauties of a real flower, sunset, or flesh-and-blood friend in our Father’s world?
Ironically, the cultural export that’s proving to be such a welcome boost to our national GDP is openly anti-American and anti-corporation. It also works hard to make the American military look villainous. The collapsing ancestral tree calls to mind the falling World Trade Center on 9/11, but now U.S. Marines take the place of the terrorists. Alternatively, Americans are invading bigots, steamrolling sensitive ecosystems with Stormin’ Norman “shock and awe,” while we applaud the insurgents. No wonder this movie is so globally successful: everyone outside America will find his worst Bush-era American hatreds confirmed and fed.
What do we make of all this? Avatar appears to nurture a host of God-given longings in the human heart—for beauty, worship, community, love, faithfulness, courage, justice, freedom from the suffering of the body, eternal life. It emphasizes man’s spiritual nature and even seems to borrow elements right out of the pages of redemption history: the sovereign providence of a higher power, a messianic figure to lead a nation through its time of crisis, an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, an eschatological hope. It’s sprinkled with odd Judeo-Christian references that hint confusingly at symbolism: Grace Augustine; Na’vi (Hebrew for “prophet”). But these are clever and ultimately meaningless decoys in a movie heavily invested with Satan’s seductive lie. The devil takes our good God-given longings and twists them, pointing them to the wrong ends. Everything here is flipped upside-down: creation over God, woman over man, animal over human, virtual over real. The end seems to promise resurrection unto eternal life, but it’s only an avatar’s illusion.
What’s not an illusion is that this world is feeling colder. If movies both reflect and influence culture, Avatar’s rapid global conquest may be an accurate barometer for taking the spiritual pressure of our times. And what we read here, behind the “beautiful” 3-D spectacle, is no laughing matter.