64: Feast of the Epiphany: The One True Avatar
Avatar: Hinduism: “the manifestation of a deity in human, superhuman, or animal form.”
Last weekend I did what a lot of people have been doing in the last two weeks. I went to watch Avatar. Thanks to a pair of grotesque yellow 3D glasses, “reach out and touch someone” was never more possible in a movie theater, especially if ten–foot tall, blue–skinned, flat–nosed and flat–bellied humanoids are your cup of tea. At the end, the audience in the packed–out hall broke into applause. In terms of creative filmmaking, Avatar is a brilliant cinematographic tour de force. After 2 weeks, it was the second largest–grossing movie of all time, with $1 billion in receipts. Once more, Hollywood has produced a cultural event of global dimensions. But will the long term effects throughout the world be merely technological?
Here is the plot. The idyllic life of very spiritual native people on the planet Pandora is threatened by armed–to–the–hilt, technically–savvy, greedy Western, white males, intent on raping Pandora. While attempting to infiltrate the Na’vi in an “avatar” identity, an ex–Marine, Jake, bonds with the native tribe, and fights against his military handlers. In the end, the totally non–technical, ten–foot tall “little guys” win.
The plot’s “deep” message is mind–numbingly predictable. While the film’s technology is dazzlingly futuristic, its ideology is a retread of ancient paganism. There is unintended prophetic truth here, which James Cameron would doubtless not put into words—as our world becomes more impressively technological, it also becomes (at the level of spirituality) more repressively pagan.
Whereas the film is 3D, the story line is 2D. Militarism confronts pacifism; materialism takes on spirituality; the present is bad and the future is glorious; the good guys defeat the bad guys. You have to choose a side, and, if you have any self–respect, you must side with the Na’vi. There is no complexity, no nuance, no real drama, no flaws in the natives, and flaws galore in the rapacious industrialists. Someone has said that Avatar is a wonder to behold and a story to forget.
But will they forget? The millions who shell out $16 a ticket will remember, even instinctively, the basic, sometimes subliminal message that modern Hollywood constantly delivers on the technically seductively silver screen—the earth is divine; those who worship it are pure as day; and we are evolving ineluctably towards a humanly–produced, this–worldly utopia. Viewers will remember the conversion narratives—the tough war–torn ex–marine becomes a pacifist; the hardened scientist (Sigourney Weaver) bcomes a worshiper of Elwya, the goddess of Nature. At some level the audience yearns for the native spirituality that mystically brings people into oneness with the All. They will remember what Hollywood wants them to remember and forget what Hollywood wants them to forget. The transcendent good Creator, who is both Judge and Savior, is incrementally blotted out of our Western cultural memory.
Recent blockbusters have done this. Think back.
George Lucas’ Star Wars encouraged acceptance of his syncretistic religious approach, blending Buddhism and liberal Methodist Christianity. Presently Buddhism has never been more popular in the West. Lion King promoted spiritual connection with the circle of life and millions now practice yoga. Disney’s Fairies franchise, aimed at young girls, now proposes animism as the answer to life’s basic questions. When kids ask, “Why do leaves turn color? Why are there dew drops?” Disney’s Lasseter says: “the perfect answer for every parent is: ‘The fairies did it,’” and the occult is exploding around us.
These are all deeply religious messages, but people howl in opposition whenever the message of Christianity appears in public. When Brit Hume on the O’Reilly Factor called on Tiger Woods to look the Christ, not Buddha, as the only source of true forgiveness, immediately MSNBC’s David Shuster invoked the “separation of church and television.” Pagans may constantly evangelize through Hollywood blockbusters, but Christians must forever keep silent on the public waves.
But some in the public eye, following Brit Hume, are now speaking up. The next day, Erick Erickson, of the influential daily political blog RedState, declared: “those of us who are Christian…are called to share the good news of God’s redemptive power…for those who will believe and repent.” Ann Coulter, the beautiful, acerbic TV pundit, immediately chimed in: “Christianity…is the best deal in the universe…God sent his only son to get the crap beaten out of him, die for our sins and rise from the dead. If you believe that…your sins are washed away from you…because of the cross.”
There was one true Avatar, God the Son, who in Jesus took our humanity to deal with sin and make things right. That is worth publicly talking about because you neither need blue skin nor flat bellies to receive his pardon.