Avatar: religious reflections

Bloggers and theologians have taken on the popular movie, Avatar, as the topic du jour. From theologian Kwok Pui-lan, professor at Episcopal Divinity School to a wide variety of religion writers and bloggers - many are fascinated by the themes that seem to touch on religion, race, and environmentalism. Have you seen it - what do you think?

Dr. Kwok Pui-lan writing in Religion Dispatches sees a subversive reading of the Bible:

I saw the movie on New Year’s Day and found it offers much food for thought on an anti-imperial reading of the Bible. The movie retells Rahab’s story in the book of Joshua with an interesting twist. In that familiar story, Joshua sends two spies to search out the city of Jericho. The spies enter a Canaanite prostitute Rahab’s house. When the king of Jericho orders Rahab to surrender them, Rahab hides them and saves their lives. Rahab makes a pact with the spies and asks them to spare her and her family when Jericho falls.

In Avatar, planet Pandora is not only a land of milk and honey, but also has a large reserve of a precious metal unobtanium. The avatar of Jake is sent as a messenger to ask the natives to relocate so that the humans can mine the unobtanium. Jake learns the native ways, falls in love with one of them, and becomes so identified with the natives such that he helps them to fight against the colonizers. The movie invites us to look at the world from the point of the indigenous people—to see the beauty of their interconnected way of life and learn about their culture. By doing so, it invites us to look at the Bible from the side of Canaanites.


Torey Lightcap, Episcopal priest and news blogger for Episcopal Cafe´on Sundays, writes at Explore Faith and notices a big unresolved issue in the film:
Despite the beauty and holiness of creation and our interconnection with it, in the end might still makes right; it’s conventional Hollywood, and someone has to win, and that means the great performances of war.

All of which, you might say, is Avatar’s main problem. It wants both the power of nature and the power of fire-power, and is loathe to resolve that the two might just be mutually exclusive. It therefore churns itself into its violent third act, hoping we don’t notice the issue.

Avatar goes on like that, this beautiful blather that it is, and it’s so tightly wound around its own vision of itself that it made me think of a line from one of its referents, Darth Vader: “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

Robert Morris, blogging at Provocative Ponderings looks into why conservative commenters don't like Avatar:

So far, the conservative writers on the Op-Ed page of the NYTimes are 2-0 against the 3-D blockbuster Avatar and its “left-learning” producer James Cameron. David Brooks claims the storyline is “simplistic.... offensive.... racist.... escapist,” covertly anti-American and demeaning to native cultures. Ross Douthat tells us that the film (along with past hits like The Lion King and Dancing With Wolves promotes a dangerous and delusional “gospel of pantheism” and a romantic view of primitive cultures which isn’t nearly as good for human beings as his kind of Christianity, which he tells us provides humanity with a “way out” of Nature, which is “amoral and cruel.”

Huffington Post reports the Vatican reaction to the film and links to other reviews:
The Vatican newspaper and radio station have called the film "Avatar" simplistic, and criticized it for flirting with modern doctrines that promote the worship of nature as a substitute for religion.

Bishop Alan Scarfe of Iowa began his sermon with his reflection on Avatar:

Having seen the new movie "Avatar" I am assuming that we should brace for a new catch phrase: “I see you”! It will probably go alongside “you had me at hello!”, or might even grow into the stature of “the force be with you!” which hangs around even after forty years, fueling new generations.

The “I see you” of Avatar is contrasted with the invisibility of disconnected and violent living which the humans (the aliens in the movie) are good at expressing. The notion is that you cannot see what you hate or are threatened by. If you were to see, you would then be forced not only to pay attention to the other but treat with compassion, gratitude and generosity

Comments (1)

"District 9" was the movie "Avatar" was touted to be. But, skipping over the hackneyed plot and dubious assumptions of all sorts, my real complaint about "Avatar" is that it gives a boost to magical spirituality. The communion with nature is hard-wired (literally) in the Na'vi. There is no ascesis to come to communion with one another or the Gaia, even though this is not a prelapsarian paradise. And a human can get this poof! Beyond cheap grace to cheap theosis.

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