Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar and Worship

Yesterday afternoon, my oldest son and I ventured out for some "guy time" and saw Avatar. If you haven't seen the movie yet, let me just say that if you saw the 1990 epic, Dances with Wolves, you already know the basic story line. In fact, one could easily say that it's just a futuristic rip-off in CGI form. Don't get me wrong, Avatar is an amazing and beautiful journey into pure fantasy and was worth the money. It's an escape, which is what most of us need these days. But is there much more to it?

Despite the usual political rhetoric regarding "evil" humans, and how we are too stupid and greedy to avoid destroying ourselves, and eventually other planets, the movie is very enjoyable. But I'll warn you... you may walk out of the movie carrying a burden of humanistic guilt the size of a Mountain Banshee! There's also the whole "Colonists suck, Indians rock" theme going! Avatar also smacks of universalist theology, pantheism and goddess worship, but what can you expect from Hollywood, and the man who arrogantly prides himself on miraculously discovering Jesus' tomb? The plot is very predictable and leaves you with the underlying theme that it is uncool to be Human.

Believe it or not, it is not my intention to slam Avatar. Like I said, I liked the movie and was very entertained, and I usually try and keep political agendas out of the picture. I'm not a film critic, but as with any movie I see, I always try and dissect the underlying theological significance and how it applies to today's culture. After watching Avatar, this wasn't difficult to do. One aspect resonated with me more clearly than any other movie in many years. It's subtle, but definitely there, and is also one of the main objections I had to the movie: the faith and worship of the alien civilization around which the movie revolves.

The Na'vi are a primitive race of aliens that inhabit the planet Pandora. As the movie progresses, you begin to see the lifeblood of this culture, which is its faith in their deity, Eywa. The center of worship is The Tree of Souls, which seems to be the point of spiritual contact with Eywa and the civilization's ancestors. The energy that emanates from this tree, and Eywa, is a living network that carries through all of nature, living creatures and the Na'vi themselves. It's the center of life on Pandora.

The point is, the Na'vi saw their deity and it's power as the center of their lives. Nothing existed independently from their god. To this culture, there was no distinction between faith and life. All aspects of life were united and flowing together, with their god at the center. It was a holistic picture of faith and one of the more beautiful images in Avatar. No, it was not Christian worship and I acknowledge that this movie paints a picture of a false god, and a fantasy god at that. But what I am focusing on, is the simple act of worship within this culture and what I think we can learn from it as believers in Christ.

As I've said before, we live in a very compartmentalized culture with very pluralistic belief systems. One compartment holds our faith. One compartment holds our family. One compartment holds our work, hobbies, friends, etc. Very rarely do we encourage, or even want the elements of our faith intertwining with other compartments of our life. But what would it look like if we did? What would it look like in our churches, if all elements of our lives revolved around our faith communities and the worship of Jesus Christ? What would it be like to see the power of the living God transcending every compartment, until we were left with a holistic picture of life, with God at the center? Everything moved within and intertwined until there was no distinction. No conflicts. No barriers. Just faith in a God that lives within us as Scripture says.

The ancient Hebrews knew this well, and it makes me wonder where we've lost hold of this essential key of worship. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, God encourages His people in saying "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates."

In John 15, Jesus reinforced this essential holistic relationship with God when He said, "I am the vine; you are the branches." Just before this in John 14, He says, "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;" Do you see this holistic picture that God has been painting since He first spoke to the people of Israel? God is the essence of all that has life. He lives in us and through us, and gives life to all that is around us. Why should we not then attribute all the aspects of our individual lives to God, and see that He is the object of our worship, not what He has created, but Him who is the creator? Worship as a lifestyle? Not just a Sunday morning ritual? Now that's an alien concept!


John Presnall said...

These are good comments, in that Avatar in and through the Na'vi indeed provides an image of life which would be wholly centered on what the divine demands for human (or Na'vi) life. In that sense, Avatar is a rebuke to our contemporary pluralistic religious universe. However, as you hint at in your post, and as I would argue after seeing the film, the god in Avatar is either some earth god or it is human human technology deified. As great as the movie was--and it was pretty amazing--I myself couldn't help wondering in what way this film contributes to a distortion of the teaching of Christian revelation. I wonder if pluralism, let alone the "wars of religion," are not both a blessing and a curse for a theology of a personal god as opposed to the earth-energy source of the Na'vi.

I know people say that it is only a movie, but James "King of the World" Cameron has given such a stupid theology in this film that it --almost--ruins it for me.

Jake Kampe said...

I agree, John. Thanks for joining the discussion. The more I reflect on the movie, the more I realize how much more there was in terms of philosophy and theology. There is so much underlying thought in this movie and don't think it is all good. I chose to focus on the one "good" element that I derived. But I'm afraid the negatives far outweigh the positive. It's too bad that Cameron cannot help but thrust his own political and theological agendas into his creations. He's an incredible film maker.