Faith, Science and Allegories in James Cameron’s Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar is a good movie — but as a paean to a path we forsook long ago, it’s anything but subtle, and its approach to race may even be a little troubling, for the simplistic sort of apology it contains. Should we, as a race, feel personally guilty for the sins of our fathers, and if so, how if at all should we express it? And is allegory so blatant any allegory at all?

These issues, raised by the film, might be worth debate. What’s not worth debate is the question of whether the film somehow marginalizes Christianity. And yet no less than two “mainstream” conservative commentators have attempted to roll Avatar in to the “war on Christmas,” for its failure to further the clear superiority of monotheism. Apparently, Eywa is not the reason for the season.

In his contribution, Jonah Goldberg, the cutting mind who brought us “Liberal Fascism,” starts with — and slowly rejects — the premise that specific religiosity matters. It’s a dishonest and deeply flawed way to deepen, and then purport to abandon culture war tropes.

What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.

Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na’Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers.

Awww, poor persecuted Christians. It’s tough to be an overwhelming majority and have to feign interest in other viewpoints. Now, watch the hands as Goldberg ditches this losing argument for another one. Apparently the absence of Christ in a science fiction film isn’t so surprising — what’s surprising is that religion is present at all.

What I find fascinating, and infuriating, is how the culture war debate is routinely described by antagonists on both sides as a conflict between the religious and the un-religious. The faith instinct manifests itself across the ideological spectrum, even if it masquerades as something else [as in Avatar].

Goldberg takes this as proof of God’s existence. The language is somewhat less elegant than Cicero’s (“nature herself has imprinted on the minds of all the idea of god”), but the notion is the same, and it suffers from the same flaws. That we think of God does not prove his existence. Indeed, the presence of the “faith instinct” could just as easily point to a shared human need to find (or, failing that, create) certainty in an uncertain world. God’s commonality could be his downfall, not proof of his existence.

Surprisingly, our second commentator is much, much worse. It’s seriously hard to be worse than Jonah Goldberg, but there but for the grace of God goes Ross Douthat, whose problem isn’t with Avatar‘s ignorance of Christianity, but with its apparent support for pantheism, a religion he judges as “empty” because it fails to offer a Christian form of salvation.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.

But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.

This really isn’t worth commentary, except to note how narrow Douthat’s field of vision is (salvation means a lot of things to a lot of people), and how far religion has fallen. He all but concedes that religion only has value to him if it can offer an “escape upward” — a comfort in the form of an afterlife, or close proximity to a physical, knowable God. That’s just sad. Wasn’t knowledge once its own reward, and its pursuit an integral part of religion? Don’t we want Marx to be wrong? Isn’t the pursuit of wisdom its own escape upwards? Douthat could have benefited from reading — among other things — at least a single page of Platonist philosophy.

Besides, Douthat fails at the threshold. The theology of Avatar begins as a type of pantheism, but slowly becomes a verifiable scientific construct. When your planet is a huge neural net that preserves memories in accessible form, ancestor- and nature-worship aren’t forms of religious reverence — they’re forms of racial memory. Eywa is less a nature-god than a naturally occurring Library of Alexandria. This is not a minor plot point: it’s the film’s writers explicitly avoiding deeper questions of religion. Goldberg yearns to alter, and Douthat tilts against, an allegory that ultimately isn’t there.

Further, the movie is better for it. Explicit religious allegory is a painful thing, because it almost always degenerates into a missionary tract. Science fiction and fantasy work because they let us see ourselves from a distance, and through other eyes: explicit allegory, of the type that our two Christian pundits crave, kills that distance, and strangles the genre of all but escapist value. Goldberg and Douthat would depopulate creative fiction of all works but Narnia knock-offs. And who wants that?

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24 comments

  1. Um, isn’t the Pantload Jewish?

    If so, BAD JEW with all that Jesus talk.

    Morons. Both of them.

      1. Yup. Short for “The Doughy Pantload.”

        That’s Jonah’s nickname.

  2. Gotchaye · ·

    But isn’t Goldberg right? Avatar would have gotten a whole lot of media attention if the blue aliens were all devout Catholics, though he was making the stronger point that you just don’t see many movies where the good guys are loudly and traditionally Christian.

    Now, I don’t think that this says something about our culture in particular – you’re right to note that it’s not like Christianity in itself can be a turn-off when most Americans are Christians – but I do think that Douthat comes close to seeing why non-Christian beliefs play better in theaters.

    Douthat’s right that the problem is theological, though he’s way off in implying that tens of millions of Americans are closet pantheists. It’s just that Christianity doesn’t lend itself to producing heroes. It’s all in the gospels – Christianity is a religion for the powerless and oppressed. As Douthat notes, it’s focused on an escape upward from a generally unpleasant worldly existence. Jesus was all about forgiving enemies, turning the other cheek, etc. The closest a belief system like that can come to producing a hero is someone like Jesus, whose heroism mostly consists of allowing the bad guys to hurt him. And then when you do make a movie about a hero like that, people call it Christian torture porn. You just can’t win.

    I’d like to see Douthat’s script. I have a hard time imagining an action movie with a devoutly Christian protagonist. I suppose one could have a priest who fights demons, but you seem to always end up with something like Constantine, and at the very least it’s hard to make a movie like that where the hero’s Christianity is more than background to set up the existence of demons. But seriously – do Goldberg and Douthat want Rambo to kneel down and fire off a quick “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us” before slaughtering dozens of people? Shouldn’t they be grateful that their religions of choice don’t actually lend themselves to the sorts of entertaining and exciting but extremely morally questionable decisions that movie heroes make all the time?

    I definitely think that a devoutly Christian protagonist would cause controversy, but it’s just because the sorts of things that a compelling protagonist has to do and be are so obviously un-Christian that a very large number of real Christians (and not secret pantheists) would be (rightly) offended.

    The appeal of pantheism for movies is that it’s simple, exotic, and doesn’t come with any real baggage – any good guy can be a pantheist.

    I note that I’m talking about action movies in the above. You see dramas with Christian characters all the time, and those can be quite appropriate, but that doesn’t seem to me to be what Goldberg and Douthat are talking about. They want a good guy/bad guy movie where the good guys are Christian.

    This is getting rather long, but look at Christian books for an example of Christian “action” heroes. Left Behind is a good example – the protagonists don’t actually seem to do anything. The books have a lot of action in them by virtue of the exciting stuff that happens to the main characters, but the heroes mostly just meet and pray and hope not to be discovered (until, of course, Jesus shows up and starts killing things left and right). Not that they’re very good books, but they make even worse movies.

    1. Christianity may be primarily pacifist, but not defaitist. The use of violence is acceptable in the defence of innocents or for other just causes (although what causes are just can of course be argued).

      Certainly, a Christian-themed action movie would not be of the “uncritically mow down everything in sight” Rambo-type, but those are in themselves pretty crappy action movies if you ask me.

      A much better movie would focus on exactly this tension between Christ’s ideal of non-violence, and the harsh realities of the world that sometimes require the use of violence to prevent greater evil (cf. Obama’s recent Nobel speech).

      1. Christianity may be primarily pacifist, but not defaitist. The use of violence is acceptable in the defence of innocents or for other just causes (although what causes are just can of course be argued).

        As you will remember I am not a Christian, so I may not be the best to say what “Christianity” as practiced by people who have the illusion they are Christians is about, but that really does not line up with Jesus’ teachings as they are put down in the gospels. While he taught, he explicitly expected the end of world in the next ca. 30 years, and thus everything but your personal spiritual health was dead weight. Could you point me to the part of the gospels where he is all “and verily, thou shalt take a sword and chop the evildoer’s head off”?

      2. No, I cannot, because obviously he never said that, quite the opposite. But Jesus taught an ideal. We as Christians must try to apply that ideal to our lives as best we can, while still realizing that we live in an imperfect world.

        Sometimes that means we will fail to live up to the ideal because we also have commitments and responsibilities to other people, to communities, or even to whole nations. A policeman cannot and should not just ‘turn the other cheek’ if he has the opportunity to prevent a murder or other serious crime. And as Obama said, “a non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies”.

        If this means we will fail to live up to the ideal, so be it. We must take a lesson of humility from that failure, and learn that we are not all-powerful, and that many things are not under our control. But there is also a lesson of hope in that it is the intent and the attempt that counts in the end, not the failure. This is an essential part of being a Christian, and if I may, there is nothing ‘illusionary’ about it.

      3. And Obama is quite right (with the Hitler remark; I still deny that Afghanistan is a good idea…). But then you are not a good follower of Christ, a Christian, anymore, which is what Gotchaye’s argument was all about. You are basically saying something like:

        Environmentalism may be primarily about conserving nature, but not totally hands-off. Polluting is acceptable in the defense of economic interests or for other good causes. Certainly, an environmentalist-themed movie would not be of the “uncritically poison everything in sight” type, but those are in themselves pretty crappy movies if you ask me. A much better movie would focus on exactly this tension between the environmentalist ideal of non-pollution, and the harsh realities of the world that sometimes require the dumping a shipload of toxins to prevent greater downsides.

        Yeah, there are trade-offs between different ideals, everybody but a fundie gets this, but the Christian ideal is non-violence and forgiveness. If you trade that away, you may be a very reasonable person, but are you still a Christian action hero? That is the question. And of course I know that there are plenty fundies who want to kill an abortion doctor and still consider themselves Christian, I just don’t think that they are correct in that self-assessment.

      4. Unless you wish to subscribe to outright literalism, the Gospels are the primary, but not the only guiding line we have in these matters. We also have theology, moral philosophy, and the experiences of actual, living Christians through two milennia who had to reconcile their beliefs and ideals with the realities of the world.

        Yes, non-violence is the ideal. But is it acceptable to allow others to be harmed because of your own insistence on an inflexible pacifism? Are you not in effect making their decision to ‘turn the cheek’ on their behalf? I don’t think any moral philosophy would deem such a thing acceptable. Not even outright pacifist Christian denominations such as the Quakers reject the need for things like armed police to defend the public security.

        But certainly there is a tension between the ideals and the reality, and it is this tension which, if treated with a minimum of finesse, could make an interesting premise for a movie.

      5. You are right, of course, that this tension specifically would make for an interesting story. But I also think that this would not be a movie about a hero whose defining character is that he is, as opposed to other action-heroes, a Christian. You can look at people and say, here, this person calls himself a Christian, and he belongs to a church, and then he goes and sprays bullets at some “evil-doers”, like Vietnamese who want to govern their own country without US inference or suchlike, so there you have it. From a certain point of view, this is a Christian, yes, like a libertarian would be a communist if he became a member of the communist party. But in this way, he does not behave differently than a not-specifically-Christian action hero, so there is no difference – Rambo also does not shoot indiscriminately. What would make him a specifically Christian hero would be not shooting, and Gotchaye’s point is that this would make for a poor action movie. I concur.

      6. Let’s make a little thought experiment here. Imagine Sgt. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, the courageous and upstanding Irish-Catholic police officer from Boston. He’s facing off against the evil and wicked Dr. Malicious, who has wired explosives into the walls of the Holy Mary Orphanage and is about to set it off by remote control! (Oh noes!)

        But hope is near! Sgt. Patrick has trained his gun on Dr. Malicious, and can prevent this insidious event from occuring, but! it will be at the cost of the wicked doctor’s life. Sgt. Patrick has a split-second choice to make. Does he pull the trigger and take another person’s life, or does he stay his righteous hand, and permit the destruction of the orphanage and the deaths of the 48 poor, innocent orphans inside?

        Have I understood it correctly that your contention is that the more Christian choice for our Sgt. Patrick in this situation is not to pull the trigger and thus let the 48 poor, innocent orphans get blown to Kingdom come, so to speak?

      7. Gotchaye · ·

        I wouldn’t myself call that the “more Christian” choice, but it’s the more distinctively Christian choice (although I find it odd that someone who might choose not to shoot Dr. Malicious has chosen to be a Boston police officer). That is, perhaps he ought to shoot, but the shooting can’t be held up as exemplifying Christian virtue. It’s just run-of-the-mill human decency. Almost any conceivable “good guy” would shoot, so Christianity isn’t doing much work here. On the other hand, it would be possible, although in such extreme circumstances rather difficult, to present a decision not to shoot to kill as being full of Christian virtue. This is partly because the choice he makes closes the door on those futures which might have resulted from the other choice. If he kills Malicious, we don’t know that the good doctor wouldn’t have had second thoughts and repented, that the sergeant wouldn’t have been able to defuse the situation without loss of life, or that God Himself wouldn’t have intervened to save the children if such was His will, so we can’t guarantee that he actually brought about the best possible world by shooting. You’ve also got to use movie-logic here – if he doesn’t shoot, and you’re not making a tragedy, then the kids are still going to survive, which retroactively validates the decision not to shoot, and distinguishes the Christianity of the sergeant from the (in this case, because it’s a movie and you knew how it would end when you were making it) reckless and overly-violent response of a Rambo-type. But that’s also much less exciting than killing the guy.

        I’m prepared to agree with you that in the real world a Christian police officer who fails to use lethal force in that situation is a bad person. But, first, using force isn’t distinctively Christian, and, second, action movies have an out in that the hero can always find a way around the seemingly impossible choice, and a wildly implausible result brought about by narrative causality can justify a “stupid” decision in the context of the movie. And this is in fact how movies work – it’s very often the case that incredibly violent heroes are differentiated from incredibly violent villains by virtue of their willingness to be just slightly less violent some of the time, even (or perhaps especially) when it’s just stupid to put the mission at risk in order to not kill the bad guy. This is expected of movie heroes, though, and so a distinctively Christian hero would have to take this even further.

        Compare this to Avatar, where the hero’s experiences with the big tree and the alien culture generally compel (instead of merely allow) him to fight against his own people. It’s very clear what motivates him to be a hero and what motivates all of the aliens to fight against such seemingly long odds – they share the same pseudo-religion. And, thanks to narrative causality, the incredibly stupid choices he makes all work out pretty well for him. I’ve never seen a movie where Christianity functions in this way, except where it’s obviously meant to be an absurd pairing (as in The Boondock Saints), and I would hope that no one ever actually in the position of that sergeant would choose to shoot just because his religion tells him it’s the right thing to do.

        That’s another part of action movies – the distinctively heroic choices almost always need to be objectively dumb. That’s what makes them distinctive, and it’s left to narrative causality to guarantee that the world doesn’t reap the likely results of those choices. Taking Avatar again, it’s pretty obvious that the overwhelmingly probable result of the hero’s choices would have been the genocide of the aliens and the execution of basically the whole science team, whereas different choices on the hero’s part could have basically guaranteed that the majority of the aliens would have survived for at least another few generations and could have kept the science team safe.

      8. That is, perhaps he ought to shoot, but the shooting can’t be held up as exemplifying Christian virtue. It’s just run-of-the-mill human decency. Almost any conceivable “good guy” would shoot, so Christianity isn’t doing much work here.

        Well put!

      9. Gentlemen, I believe you are sliding into the common error of literalists everywhere: Focusing too much on the individual passage, while ignoring the whole system and the theology surrounding it. We are called to avoid violence, certainly, but we are also called to promote justice and to protect the weak and the innocent. Reconciling these sometimes contradictory expectations is not easy, but it is also what makes it interesting.

        (And for the record, just sitting around doing nothing and expecting God to intervene is the sin of “temptation of God” – one does not have the right to expect or demand miracles.)

        All that aside, I don’t think the interesting question here is so much the general “what is distinctively Christian” as it is the specific “how would an actual Christian character act under certain circumstances”. Generalized beliefs detached from reality are boring. Beliefs acted out and reflected upon by credible characters are awesome.

      10. Okay, but what I do not get is how this Christian action hero would behave differently from any other good guy action hero. My guess is: not differently at all. And then the Christianity of your action hero would be nothing more than a character-consequence-free label pasted onto his forehead so that the filmmakers can pander to a certain demographic, and thus everybody else would have good reasons to be annoyed without you having made any interesting religio-philosophical point with that character. This is probably exactly what the conservative pundits cited here want, by the way.

      11. Gotchaye · ·

        But I’m not saying (and I don’t think Mintman is either) that Christians shouldn’t ever use violence, and I won’t even argue here that Christians qua Christians shouldn’t ever use violence.

        The heart of my point is that something like Avatar’s pantheism can provide a unique motivation for movie-heroic action whereas Christianity can’t. As Mintman just said, if your hero’s Christianity-driven actions aren’t distinguishable from generic good guy stuff, then your hero’s Christianity is just narrative window dressing. It’s superfluous in the context of the story. In fiction (particularly action movies), when we’re talking about background details, we’re really only concerned with those details to the extent that they impact the story. If one could remove your sergeant’s Christianity, he would act no differently. Remove Avatar’s earth god thing, on the other hand, and the whole movie falls apart.

        It occurs to me that some of the reason why Christianity might have this problem is that modern Christian views on violence just are our culture’s views on violence. Either modern culture has so warped the original Christian message or the Christian message has so influenced modern culture that we can’t distinguish between generic good-guy heroes and Christian heroes on the basis of their actions. You may have to give your heroes explicitly non-Christian motivations if you want them to come across as more than just generic good guys to an audience steeped in the Christian tradition. One can imagine a culture whose views on basic decency differ dramatically from our own, and it’s easy to see how you could have a distinctively Christian action hero in that case.

    2. Off the top of my head Braveheart and The Boondock Saints are both “good guy/bad guy” action movies where the good guys are explicitly Christian (specifically Catholic, in both cases). Anecdotally, they were well-received with various Christians I know…

    3. There’s Pulp Fiction, too, with the whole theme of Jules’s redemption and conversion. Doesn’t get much more Christian than that.

    4. I’m aware of those, but are those things that Goldberg and Douthat are going to count? Braveheart probably comes closest, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it doesn’t seem to me that the characters’ Christianity is particularly important to the movie. Obviously if you’re doing anything at all based on European history Christianity is going to come in somewhere, but the Christianity in Braveheart is functioning very differently than the pantheism in Avatar. The Boondock Saints was something I had in mind while writing my comment – the heroes aren’t what you’d call good Christians. In many ways, the characters’ prayer before killing mafia is like my Rambo example, and the movie clearly intends for the juxtaposition to be jarring and absurd. Plus it’s not at all clear that the Saints are the good guys.

      I have yet to see Pulp Fiction, but I’ll give you that one. I still think it’s the case that the vast majority of traditionally Christian action heroes whose Christianity is important to the story aren’t very active. I think Left Behind typifies the Christian action genre (it certainly has the marketshare), and I think it says something that not even explicitly Christian publishers putting out work for an explicitly Christian audience can do a good job of satisfying Douthat’s requirements. And most of it, of course, is crap, in part just because what the characters are allowed to do is so circumscribed by how the audience expects good Christians to behave.

      To try to put it another way – there’s a sense in which Avatar is an “apologia for pantheism”, at least insofar as the obviously good guys are clearly motivated to goodness by something like pantheism. So pantheism is portrayed sympathetically. I just don’t get that from Braveheart or BD Saints, and I don’t know that I’ve seen an action-packed movie that does that for anything like traditional, conservative Christianity.

  3. I think, honestly, most of the time when Conservative Christians bitch about nobody making movies about Super Tuff Christian Heroes, it’s a passive-aggressive way of saying they’re better than other people, more moral, blah blah blah.

    It’s all crap.

    Conservative Christians are no more moral than any of the rest of the population, and often they’re decidedly less moral.

    It’s just their constant-victim/faux-superiority complex expressing itself in an unusual way.

  4. […] Religion | Tags: Avatar, Fundamentalism, Religious politics, Science fiction Perpetuating his remarkably shallow critique of James Cameron’s Avatar, Goldberg notes with horror the depths of sorrow and misguided zeal […]

  5. What mystifies me, is that no one one mentioned that Avatar was not a very good movie. It was heavy on effects but light on story and that makes gods of all religions cry.

    1. Exactly. It was a fun sci-fi action movie, visually impressive, but very middling. The plot was cliche and predictable, and the themes and commentary were extremely heavy-handed, which is not something we associate with masterful filmmaking. (But then again, Crash did win best picture…)

  6. […] fiction’s moral authority, and petty anti-pluralist tyrants’ tendencies to — like Jonah Goldberg — dislike or misunderstand its ability to review modernity from a distance. I expect that […]

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