Sunday, January 3, 2010

They Can't Help Themselves

Having seen the new James Cameron movie "Avatar" this weekend, I'm left with mixed reactions to this cinematic spectacle. At the very least, I was extremely impressed with the artistic achievements represented in the piece. We paid the extra money to get 3D glasses and have the most awe inspiring experience we could. Certainly there was little about the film that did not deserve numerous and varied accolades for the animation, the imagined world of "Pandora," and the combination thereof. The fantastical creatures, landscapes and vegetation left the viewer amazed with wide-eyed surprise.

However, it is not the special effects or artistry of "Avatar" that deserves the greatest consideration, but its broad themes and story elements. Upon first examination, the film appears very much as a well produced, and skillfully stylized work of propaganda for the present day earth-worshiping, anti-military segments of western society. Several story elements convey these "liberal agenda" items:
  • Pantheism - the film depicted a world in which all of the flora and fauna of "Pandora" comprised the god of the Na'vi. So interconnected were the trees, plants and parts of nature in this world as to achieve sentience at a level greater than the human mind. To this end, all of the natural order comprises the god "Eywa," a personal deity to which the main character even prays and has his prayer "answered." While it would be preferable to grant this story the "immunity of fantasy," excusing this theme as mythological license, the film denies itself this luxury by seeking to incorporate our reality into it. Indeed the main character is from Earth of the future, and prays to Eywa, "They have already killed their mother [Earth], and now they seek to do the same here."
  • Anti-Military - the military personnel, command structure and machinery in "Avatar" are depicted as having one function: empower and protect an expansionist-industrial complex. A mammoth company desiring to mine a ground mineral are enabled to simply take what they want from the Na'vi and Pandora by the "hired guns." It would be nice to imagine that this story is depicting this rather sinister use of military force as isolated and anomalous; yet this is an accurate depiction of how the modern liberal sees all military. They cannot countenance a potentially noble use for military in an "evolved" society. Though the phrase "no blood for oil" was never used in the film, concepts of a preemptive strike and fighting "terror with terror" smack a heavy-handed reminder of evils that the filmmaker perceives the industrialized nations (and the U.S. specifically) as guilty of.
  • The Noble Savage - the modern liberal maintains an anthropology that suggests all the ills and evils that have befallen peaceful, self-sufficient and primitive people groups were introduced from industrialized, expansionist imperialism. People were fine, so goes the logic, before we came along. No argument against this anthropological view should posit that introduction of the West into native populaces were trouble free. However, it is shortsighted to imagine than the imperfections of humankind are found only in the West, which are then exported. We're all crooked deep down.
For these reasons, "Avatar" appeared pathetic and insulting at several moments. So blatant were the agenda laden elements that it seemed to convey the values of the modern liberal with comparable sermonic obviousness to how "The Passion of the Christ" sought to tell Christian message. As a propaganda piece, it was both skillfully executed and crafted with excellence.

Having said that, there were other aspects of "Avatar" that stand out (though it is doubtful James Cameron intended them). It is doubtful Cameron intended these because the 2007 Discovery Channel documentary he produced "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" sought to disprove the biblical depiction of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is safe to assume that James Cameron would not intend to tell aspects of the Christian story. Nevertheless, because he is created by the one God who is, he cannot help but tell aspects of God's favorite story. Human beings are a curious lot, given over to depraved imaginations that debase ourselves and reveal our long war against our Creator. On the other hand, that same Creator gets "the last laugh" in how we cannot help ourselves but to tell echoes, shadows and allusions to His story of redemption through our art. For those "with eyes to see and ears to hear," evidence of this is on display everywhere.

In the case of "Avatar," some curious elements stand out:
(Allowing very general allusions in art is healthy, but analogies must not be pushed to far).

The Incarnational Messiah - the main character is sent from outside of the native people to become one of them. Having fully taken on their customs, their hunting skills, their method of bonding with creatures and nature, indeed even taken their "flesh" upon himself, he is the ideal figure to gain their trust. When his intermediary role is misunderstood and judged to be treacherous, he is despised and rejected, and stung up on a pole. Nevertheless, to regain their trust and accomplish their deliverance he must become what they expect of a "messiah," riding the largest predator of the sky and uniting the tribes of Pandora. The "sign" that the Pandora deity has "selected" the newcomer for a special purpose is the way that the illuminated "seeds" flutter and come to rest on him, almost like a dove might. The irony is that the viewer can be fairly confident that James Cameron is NOT attempting to tell a story that glaringly alludes to Jesus Christ.

If anything, the modern liberal should be offended that Cameron would, in a brazen display of ethnocentrism, select a Marine from Earth (an American no less!) as the "One" who must rescue the Na'vi. Why could not a "savior" have risen up from among their own ranks? What message does THAT send that these 'noble savages" were seemingly unable to save themselves? Why especially must an outsider become "incarnate" with the Na'vi in order for their deliverance to be accomplished?

The analogy must not be pressed to far, but secondary elements also emerge. The "teacher" who instructs Na'vi children and comes alongside Jack Sully to motivate him to "incarnate" into the Na'vi is Dr. Grace Augustine (I swear I'm not making this up. Cameron named the "paraclete" who comes alongside the "messiah" figure in his journey to become the savior of the Na'vi, "Grace."). Those of us with an Augustinian anthropology will also see a wink to humankind's helplessness and need for salvation. While the evil, corrupt industrial invasion can be viewed as sin entering Paradise in Genesis, such an analogy would point more toward Egyptian mythology (that sees sin entering the world because of a conflict between gods more than a fault of man). Therefore, such a connection does not hold up as well.

Nevertheless, the helpless Na'vi need an outsider to become one of them to save them from the invasion of something foreign to their paradise. Such a broad theme smacks of the Christian message with surprising clarity. With our tongues planted firmly in our cheeks, those that have eyes to see and ears to hear smile our knowing smirks as we witness James Cameron borrow elements from the only story worth telling to tell his story. Arguing authorial intent paradigms here would be irrelevant, for clearly Cameron is not intending to tell a story that points to Jesus Christ. They can't help themselves though. It's woven into our creation. We cannot help but display the glory of God, in some way, even when we do not intend to at all.

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