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Avatar, C.S. Lewis, and A Brave New World

  01/16/10 09:51, by jsignal, Categories: random ramble

When I sat down to watch Avatar in 3D last night, I had already been warned by reviews that this movie contained themes of nature worship, and I had heard snippets of the plot. These glimpses at the movie were not enough to dissuade me, however, once I saw the trailer of the film. This looked like something far beyond what I had seen before, and I really wanted to see it.

Walking out of the film, I realized I had just seen the most visually beautiful computer generated film ever. I had also seen a very thought-provoking film. And while I did not like the film, my mind has been mulling over the details of it since I walked out of the theater. Here are a few of my thoughts.

A short plot summary

For those who don’t know, the movie’s plot (with a minimum of spoilers) is basically as follows. Because we are greedy humans hungry for money, we want the rare ore that is found on a planet called Pandora. So we go there and mine it. Unfortunately there are natives that live on this planet, and their giant “Home Tree,” where they live, is right atop deposits of the ore. There are two groups of humans: the environmentalist "Avatar project" scientists who want to study the planet and the culture of the aliens from the inside using remote-controlled alien bodies that they have created, and the greedy mining company with their army of marines. In short, you can probably guess what happens from that short synopsis. War and carnage.

Spiritual themes and an insult to human dignity

The overarching theme of the entire film, as I see it, is that true happiness lies in being in union with nature. And not just in a sort of imaginary way. These happy aliens live in that union by truly connecting, physically, their bodies to the trees, the earth, and the animals they have domesticated (but in a very respectful way, of course). This process of “union” seems oddly sexual and bizarre. Hunting, for these aliens, ends in a sort of prayer of remorse and thanks to the soul of the now dead “brother” which has been killed and can become one with the divine Tree of Souls. Truly, the deity of Pandora is Pandora itself, with all its living creatures connected like neurons in a sort of brain that has, incidentally, “more connections than the human brain.” The goal of all life is thus to be united in the afterlife with the living planet itself.

As a Christian that does not sound quite right to me. I don’t see as my goal in the afterlife some sort of communion with nature on one planet. That is thinking far, far too small. Instead, I hope for union with the Creator of matter itself. And, if one reads the writings of the saints such as Saint Teresa of Avila and countless others, that union is real and can be experienced, to a degree, even in this life. And from what I have read and experienced, it is indescribably more beautiful – words always fail these saints as they try to express the experience – than what I saw on the screen last night. Even faithful Christians not versed whatsoever in Christian spirituality will know, through Scripture and the basic idea of monotheism, that there is only one true God, and that the spirituality of Avatar is severely misguided.

A week or so ago, I came across news reports of people feeling depressed after leaving the film because their real lives seem dull in comparison to what is on the screen. It was reported that people were talking of suicide because their real lives seemed dull and pointless after watching the beauty of Pandora. I, who had not seen the film at the time, did not believe that could possibly be true. Instead I concocted the conspiracy theory (for which I have no evidence but could still be true) that these discussion boards in which people described their post-Avatar depression were a creation of a viral marketing campaign, an attempt by the filmmakers to create a media buzz, which it did. But now that I have seen the film, I’m not so sure. Why? People applauded.

People applauded at the end of the film, which I found a bit disturbing. Visually, it was awesome. But we just saw humanity slaughtered on an alien planet. We just saw the greed of humanity at its worst. We just saw a terrible spirituality exalted as ideal. And, finally, we just saw the remnant of the humans sent back “to their dying planet,” and we cheered.

No wonder people feel depressed after stepping out of the theater and back into reality. We are scum. We are parasites. We deserve to die on this rotting planet for our sins against Mother Earth.

Yet people applauded. Was it just the visuals that they were applauding? Was it the predictable love story or battle scenes? I hope so, but doubt it. Many people are not seeking the transcendent God of reality, the one whose beauty and perfection we see reflected in that awesome beauty of the real planet Earth and in the cosmos. People are not seeking the transcendent God whose truth and wisdom is reflected in our own intellect and the sciences. Instead, they are stuck with a smallness of vision and are, even if they don’t realize it, turning to the religions of environmentalism and animism. Do not weep if a tree is felled in the forest. Yes, use the forest responsibly as a precious resource given to humanity by God. But don’t worship it. Worship its Creator!

Avatar and C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy

It seems to me that Avatar is to the new age and environmentalist religions what C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy is to Christianity. In Lewis’ Space Trilogy, there are planets that do not suffer the effects of original sin, not being descendants or homes of Adam and Eve. These planets are described as being incredibly beautiful. The Space Trilogy is what James Cameron should have filmed. In fact, he did in a sense do just that. Many of the visuals I saw in Avatar were stolen right from the pages of Perelandra, the second book in the Space Trilogy. If you enjoyed Avatar, read Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, all by C.S. Lewis.

Avatar and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

I also see a connection between Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Avatar. In Brave New World, a novel from, I think, the 1930s, humanity has progressed in science to the point of, basically, doing what we do today: things like test-tube babies and cloning. People aren’t “born.” They are grown in jars (sounds ridiculous, but it’s not far from IVF technologies of today). And what’s worse, they are modified as they grow in their jars to be a member of a certain class of society, and to be happy in that class, desiring nothing better. It is a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of science without morality, and consumerism, that we have not heeded in the decades since it was written.

Huxley’s Brave New World has and is becoming closer to reality, and many people seem content to go right along that path. In Avatar, the alien body that is remote controlled is not pure alien. It is a mixture of human and alien DNA, grown in a big jar, to be exactly what is needed. At the end of its growth, it is ready to be used and is “decanted,” a term the scientist in the film used to indicate the alien body’s removal from the jar. That is the exact phrase used in Huxley’s Brave New World. Perhaps the writers wanted to suggest that part of humanity’s depravity was its forays into genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and so on. Those who are not born but “decanted,” the products of misguided technology, are in fact themselves victims. In that, the writers are correct and should be commended. But most people won’t catch that reference. They will see no problem mixing human DNA with alien DNA to build a new creature for our use.

In short, the movie was visually beautiful. But it makes attractive a spirituality that is not in accord with human dignity and nature. It suggests, in no subtle way, that humanity is a parasite and that God exists in nature. Some will give me the cop-out comment of “It’s just a movie, get over it.” I say, this movie is the product of our culture.

Seek God, the true God, not the gods of nature. If you truly do so, you won’t be depressed because humanity is sinful and greedy. You will realize that your goal is union with the true God, not a tree, and that despite its flaws humanity is beautiful. Don’t despair; if you seek the beauty in reality, it is infinitely greater than fictitious Pandora.

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Comment from: Jayme [Visitor]  

And on a dissimilarly related note, what pissed me off is the portrayal of Marines as hired corporate thugs.

01/16/10 @ 10:12
Comment from: Jeff Geerling [Visitor]
5 stars

Excellent analysis of the movie. I also found a humorous take on the movie from the perspective of ripping off Pocahontas: http://9gag.com/photo/16103_full.jpg

01/16/10 @ 12:17
Comment from: jsignal [Member]  

As I thought more about it, this movie has the same plot as: The Lion King II, Dances With Wolves, and Pocahontas. Surely, there are others. But those movies didn’t have quite as many problems as Avatar.

01/16/10 @ 12:33
Comment from: Jayme [Visitor]
01/17/10 @ 15:36
Comment from: Cat [Visitor]

Heh, I thought Avatar looked like a remake of Fern Gully, complete with heart wrenching scene where the evil corporation tries to bulldoze the beloved trees.

01/17/10 @ 17:10
Comment from: Lori Schipper [Visitor]

I am a Lutheran Christian, and also a huge C. S. Lewis fan. I saw Avatar end enjoyed it very much, although the 3D effects left me a little seasick. This is the first commentary on the movie that I have read that discusses parallels to the space trilogy. I made that connection immediately, and am so happy to find people talking about it.

I was taken aback by the editorials I read claiming that the movie was pantheistic, anti-American, anti-Christian,
environmentally radical, etc. On the contrary, I saw profoundly Christian themes in the movie, as well as parallels to Lewis’ trilogy. Here is my interpretation of the movie.

God is a creative being and as such has created and is creating many different worlds and many different species of sentient creatures, all of whom are created with free will. One of God’s creations, the angel Lucifer, rebelled and was eternally separated from God. In the space trilogy, he is called The Bent One. He is pure evil. His goal is to cause all of God’s creatures to rebel against God and join him in this separation. He has partially succeeded in at least one world–ours.

But God, out of love for the fallen creatures of our world, put into action a plan for our salvation. The creatures of other worlds may not have fallen into sin, and therefore do not need a Savior. I don’t remember which commentator wrote that he would have liked the movie better if the Na’avi has accepted Jesus as their personal savior, but I do remember thinking it was utter nonsense. A race of sinners needs a Savior. An unfallen race, like the creatures of the two planets in the space trilogy and the Na’vi in this movie, do not.

Sidenote– It’s interesting that the planet is called Pandora. There was no evil in that world until it was “opened” by mining. The name Pandora is also quite similar to Perelandria, which I too was reminded of by the movie.

And speaking of names, I found the names of some of the characters very interesting. Grace Augustine was the name of the Sigourney Weaver character, the scientist who was beginning to understand Pandora. Names like that don’t happen by accident. Also, the main male character, whose mission was to infiltrate and betray the Na’vi, was named Sully. That name, like the name of the main character in Lewis’ trilogy (Ransom), was also not an accident. My brilliant teenaged niece also pointed out to me that the Pandoran goddess, Ewah (I’m guessing on the spelling), sounded a lot like Jahweh backwards.

God, as a creative and all powerful being, may choose to manifest in different ways to different species. And because God, being God, the inventor of time, knew in advance that our species was going to fall into sin, and would need a father figure to show us that we were fallen, chose to manifest as such to humanity.

Perhaps on a planet that God, being God, the inventor of time, knew in advance would not fall into sin, would show forth in a completely different form–for instance, as a source of energy that was shared with all living things on the planet. Why not?
We live in a broken world, ravaged by sin, and see God “through a glass darkly.” Limiting God to what we sinners can know is thinking far too small.

The Na’vi, because they had never suffered the separation from God caused by sin, are constantly in communion with God through the living things on their planet. Why not? We commune with God through physical elements, although much less frequently and ecstatically than the Na’vi, once again because of sin. We use water in baptism and bread and wine in communion, in order to receive God’s grace. That doesn’t mean we’re worshiping the elements.

It seemed to me that the Na’vi weren’t worshipping the planet or the living things on it; they were worshipping the energy that gave them life. That’s not pantheism. In fact, it looks a lot like monotheism. I think that the main point of the movie is that true happiness lies in being in complete communion with God. That’s not going to happen to us in this world (sin, again), but is our hope and expectation for the next world.

Why would people feel depressed after this movie? Maybe because they know deep inside, whether they are Christians or not, that we are a broken people living on a messed up planet, and that we will never in this life know the beauty and joy of the creatures of Pandora.

It’s almost enough to make a person seek that joy they are missing, and maybe even look for it in the Bible, where they will learn that we really are scum, we really are parasites, and we really do deserve to die because of our sins against God, one another, and, at the risk of being called a tree hugger, against our beautiful planet. But they might also learn that God offers us salvation through the gift of his son, who was treated as scum and died in our place, so that we may in heaven experience true joy.

Sorry, that was my sermon on Law and Gospel–I can’t help it, I’m Lutheran. :-D

So, back to the movie. You say that you are a Christian. Do you think invading the home of sentient beings, destroying it, and killing them in the process is right or wrong? Moral or immoral? Sin or not sin?

If you think those things are wrong, then you have to admit that the corporate guys and their mercenaries were the bad guys. Why wouldn’t people applaud when the bad guys lose? Maybe some of those applauding were even seeing the big picture and applauding the victory of God over sin.

To they guy who was mad about the Marines being the bad guys–I think they were ex-marines working for the corporation. Hope that makes you feel better about it.


01/17/10 @ 21:04
Comment from: Dan [Visitor]

You’re comparing one religious group’s beliefs to a movie’s portrayal of a fictional time and place and suggesting that those who applaud the movie aren’t intelligent or have no sense of dignity because they’re not “on the side” of your specific religious group.

I would venture to say that both sides’ understanding represent an opinion and neither wholly represent the other’s version of reality, and that your statements are nothing if not divisive.

Another thing to consider is that people are not necessarily sheep, and the implication that they are is insulting. The movie is a work of art, no matter how objectionable you find it, and your dismissal of art’s significance in developing and further understanding humanity is appalling. Regardless, I think reflection on your statements about those who don’t believe as you do would provide some insight into why many do not.

Nothing in this world is wholly accepted, and berating those who think differently, especially without considering the true nature of the situation being analyzed, underscores little more than a deeper lack of confidence in one’s own core beliefs.

Difference of opinion, faith and belief and the ability to live with and accept those differences is critical. It’s not belief in any specific God or Gods that allows us to live in peace with one another, it’s the understanding and acceptance that not everyone believes the same. Without that understanding and acceptance, you’re just starting a fight.

01/20/10 @ 06:46
Comment from: jsignal [Member]  

To Lori’s comments, I would answer a few things.

I also thought, after writing my review of the film, that perhaps I was too harsh on Avatar … that maybe the writers were trying to depict a planet like that in C.S. Lewis’ work that did not fall into Original Sin. But then I rejected that notion for a couple of reasons.

First, it is quite clear that the ultimate goal of the Na’vi is not union with a transcendent God, but with the created beings of Pandora. They are in apparent ecstasy when thy connect to the Tree of Souls - an image of what happens in deep mystical prayer, the closest union with the true God we can have in this life (though, as a sidenote, the Tree of Souls is an interesting metaphor for the Communion of Saints). As a Christian, I believe differently. The true God exists outside of this universe, except, of course, for the entry into time of the co-eternal Son, Jesus Christ, as part of God’s plan for our salvation. Thus, the Na’vi notion of God in nature is a pantheistic notion of God because their “deity” exists on their planet, not in the supernatural realm. At the very least, Na’vi thus posits two gods worthy of worship. Because, to me, it certainly looked like the Na’vi were worshiping their “deity.” Good call on noticing the similarity to Yahweh in the name of that deity. But it’s a flawed notion of Yahweh if it exists in nature.

A second reason I don’t buy the notion that the Na’vi religion/spirituality is an attempt by the filmmakers to portray a race that has not fallen is this: it is too close to real pantheistic, animistic spiritualities that exist. They aren’t conjecturing what it would be like if the Na’vi were free of sin, they are conjecturing what a religion of environmentalism or new-age union with nature might look like. This is more about “gaia” than it is about God, in my opinion.

Thirdly, as Fr. Robert Barron pointed out, such an “energy” or “life-force” running through all of the life on Pandora, uniting it, could actually exist and not be in conflict with a Christian understanding of reality. BUT, it would be a creature, not worthy of worship.

Another point I wanted to make has to deal with Lori’s Lutheran anthropology and my Catholic anthropology. I disagree with the Protestant notion that humanity is truly scum. We are part of God’s creation, and he loves us. He created us so that he could love us, and so we could return that love. Yes, we (like Lucifer, as Lori pointed out) rejected God in Original Sin and every day in actual sins we commit. But God didn’t give up on us. He redeemed us. We are washed clean in the Blood of Jesus Christ. We deserved damnation and could never merit eternal union with God, but that is what is freely given to us, should we accept it. The Protestant notion is that God does not wash away our sins, but ignores them. Humanity thus has no dignity or beauty in Protestant eyes. As a Catholic, I disagree. God has washed me of my sins, and as a human I have a dignity that no other creature on this planet has (except all other humans, of course). Whether the Na’vi have that dignity or not … well, that’s science fiction and conjecture.

Lori asked “Do you think invading the home of sentient beings, destroying it, and killing them in the process is right or wrong? Moral or immoral? Sin or not sin?”

I would say that, as portrayed in the movie, the killing was sinful. If the Na’vi are persons (with intellect and will) it is especially sinful - murder, in fact. If they are not persons, I would say it is sinful because it is a terrible use of God’s creation.

Lori, thank you for the thoughtful commentary and for sharing it here. If I come across as hostile or arrogant in any way, that is not my intent. I am trying to respectfully share my understanding of things. I’m not saying you have to agree with me (as if I could say that).

01/20/10 @ 13:29
Comment from: jsignal [Member]  

And in response to Dan’s comment. Thanks for posting, Dan. Good to hear from you.

My original post was largely a critique of many of the problems I see in our society. These difficulties, these violations of human dignity and the spiritualities that support them, are present in this film. I find it unfortunate that people celebrate art, or anything, that draws people away from what I find to be truly beautiful - human dignity as understood through Christian – Catholic, in particular, eyes. I don’t believe everything we call art has innate value for helping us understand the human person. Art can be used as propaganda to distort or damage our understanding of the human person.

I’m trying to show people, through this blog, that Catholicism as I see it has a great deal to say about the dignity of the human person, and about the reality of union with the transcendent God.

All religions, spiritualities, or belief systems are attractive in some way because they have elements of truth within them. Communism, socialism, Buddhism, environmentalism (as a religion), and so on all participate in the beauty that is the objective truth. But they are all missing something essential. They don’t have the full truth embodied in them. Thus, adherants to these belief systems go astray. History bears this out.

As a Catholic, I believe that the Catholic Church, by the grace of God, has persevered through the centuries (despite and through the sinners who populate it) because it was created by God to bring to humanity through all of time His truth about the human person, about marriage, about Himself and, indeed, to continue his own true presence in this world through the Holy Eucharist.

It is good, for example, to live in harmony with the animals and natural resources of our planet. But if I place that above God, I end up justifying, for example, things like forced abortions in China or euthanasia of the sick or elderly because, suddenly, people come second to the environment.

In short, there is objective truth out there. Not all religions or spiritualities are equal. All are attractive because they have some grain of truth and because all humans seek, innately, something more than themselves. But when a belief system is lacking, problems result.

Don’t get upset, however. I am not shoving my religion down your throat. I cannot! It’s impossible. I have stated my belief, and you are free to accept or reject it. God gave us free will for a reason.

01/20/10 @ 13:46
Comment from: Dodey [Visitor]

I finally went to see this movie today that so many were excited about and left wishing I’d saved my “3D virginity” for the next Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie Alice In Wonderland. I think that team promises much creativity, but then they have a great story to work from. Battle after battle was boring and the story narrative/characters were NOT 3d, barely 2d. My partner and I could almost recite the lines before they were spoken. Hard to believe people take this so seriously. In my opinion; all that glitters is not gold.

02/13/10 @ 15:03
Comment from: Christian Girl [Visitor]
3 stars

Your opinion is your opinion and here is mine. I’m a Christian and I do not have anything against the movie. It represents the good and the bad.Heaven versus hell. The greed of some humans and the kindness and nurturing nature of others. Just because the Navis worship the trees, it doesn’t mean it’s anti-christian. I believe God comes in all forms. He is energy that is life and flows through all life’s matter. Okay let’s say that there was no tree they worshipped, and they replaced it with our own Alfa and Omega God. Wouldn’t that offend people all of other religion?would the movie have been a hit? The creators had to somehow make everyone feel connected to the movie.I’m sure you wouldn’t have gone to watch it if the Navi’s God was a Hindu. Life is how you perceive it. Avatar is a beautiful film that has the magic of opening eyes and hearts. While watching the film, I put God in place of Eywa(don’t know the spelling). It makes sense that way. But we are all apart of God, so is Earth. So using a tree as a representation of their god is nothing wrong. If you truly do think this movie is anti-christian, then you should’ve read up on it and not gone to see it. I read that the pope had something against it.Then again, the pope has something against tampons.Being a Catholic who attends mass every week, prays to God randomly through out the day, I do what i feel is right.God knows me better than the pope does(in fact…I’VE NEVER MET THE POPE!so he can’t really make rules for me.That’s it from me. God bless you all.

03/03/10 @ 15:02
Comment from: jsignal [Member]  

Christian Girl,

The Holy Father has no problem with tampons. I can’t imagine where you heard that! God is not “energy that flows through all lifes matter,” and we are not all “a part of God.” We are our individual persons, and God is distinctly other, though we can come to know him in this life, and hopefully the next. And we do say that at Baptism the Holy Spirit dwells in us. But, unlike the Na’vi, we do not become materially one with God, and God is not in nature. In truth, nature was created by God and gives him glory through its beauty, but he is not in nature the way the Na’vi gods are.

Also, just to clarify, the pope doesn’t make rules for you, he helps to make sure you have access to the truth given us by Christ 2,000 years ago. Study up on all this stuff, it’s awesome! The more you learn about the True God, the more you’ll realize His beauty and the problems with the gods of the Na’vi.

Thanks for posting.

God bless,
Jason

03/03/10 @ 15:52
Comment from: Peter [Visitor]

Hello, please visit my page and listen to the sermons of Scott about Lewis “In His Own

Words", they are eye-opening! He quotes him from his own books (and so on), showing who

he really was. Its very important, you should listen to!
http://www.4shared.com/dir/NqMKaOV_/Scott_A_Johnson.html
:) Peter

06/24/10 @ 14:51
Comment from: MT.CSlover [Visitor]  
3 stars

Explaining his thoughts about writing the Space Trilogy, CS Lewis once said that he is not sure if other worlds and other races exist. However, if they do exist, then there would have to be the overarching story of a Creator God, a wayward people, and a Suffering Servant who reconciles people unto God. That springs from the nature of God. It’s who He is, unchanged throughout the universe, and it involves a God who grants free will. Avatar portrays the eco-gospel. There was no redemption or reconciliation of the wayward race. There was no redemption of the “holy” race. There certainly was a suffering servant, but rather than becoming “like” the race he reaches out to and returning to a heavenly realm, he exchanges sinful humanity for a life of holiness among “the pagans". The premise of the movie is anti-Chrisitan. But it’s a fun movie to watch, great for discussion, and opens the doors to speak of Christ-followers as stewards of creation (stewards meaning those who humbly live within creation, protecting it, growing it, and participating in creation with our Lord).

06/28/10 @ 18:18
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