Last night was my first experience of the blockbuster movie Avatar. The epic was a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the nerves as I watched on the edge of my seat. Even with the obvious comparisons with Pocahontas and Fern Gully, it was a definite delight.
But Avatar is NOT Christian.
Rev. Roy Shaff apparently agrees, but thinks that it is a prime opportunity for “discussion” about “spiritual truths.” Rather than relying on the Bible (which is supposedly authoritative) to bring its own truth, Rev. Shaff advocates for taking this film as a primary source for discussion. In a post on his blog, he tries to pull out what he says are excellent discussion points that connect with the message in Scripture.
I came across this post via Tim Stevens, lead pastor of Granger Community Church. In his book, Pop Goes the Church, Stevens goes into depth about how important he thinks it is to be in tune with popular culture and how to use it in local church services. Even with his ear to the ground on finding these alleged gems, he admitted in his own post on the topic that he was so engaged in the story of the film itself in two viewings of the movie that he was not able to extract spiritual themes to offer. It is in this context that I offer this assessment.
What Planet Is Cameron On?
James Cameron, director, writer, and producer of Avatar, has little to do with faith in general. Sources indicate that Cameron is “only marginally religious” while connections as the executive producer of the film The Lost Tomb of Christ suggests that there may be more to the picture. This film is a sort of mock-umentary which bolsters evidence that suggests that Christ did not raise from death and questions his very existence.
Yet, while there is this sort of near hostility to Christianity, this does not mean that there could not be elements of the faith in the film, right? It would be very unwise to encourage untrained members of our churches to go trolling around in cinema produced by someone who has a questionable relationship with Christianity and then assume that they will get their observations correct.
More Hindi Than Christian?
Back to Roy Shaff: the post begins by explaining that Hinduism and Lord Krishna explain some of the basic setup of the movie. The blue skin of the natives of the planet “Pandora” indicates the incarnation of a deity, and “the deity who has the qualities of bravery and determination the ability to deal with difficult situation of stable mind and depth of character” [sic]. Just from something as basic as skin color we already have to do a comparative study of two of the world’s major religions to make this movie “relevant” to our Christian listeners.
The first point of discussion that Shaff suggests is how in John chapter 1 Jesus is the Logos, the “Avatar” of divine wisdom. He suggests in this statement that there is indeed a comparison to be made between the character Jake and the now alleged “character” Jesus who is not actually God, but is “divine wisdom” that never actually indwelled the body but simply pulled the puppet strings from a cloud up in heaven. True Jake’s experience was real for him, a main tension in the story, but to suggest that Christ’s incarnation is anything similar to the experience of these characters? If it is not blasphemous to even suggest it, it is at least substantially confusing and unnecessary.
A Lesson from the Shaman
Shaff’s second discussion point is decidedly not Christian. The main character in the film, Jake, comes into the natives camp (in the body of a native) and is decidedly arrogant. He was on a mission to get to know the people, encourage them to trust him, only to betray them. Yet the shaman sees something inside him that is different: “[Jake] has unprecedented heart. It is enough to ensure his ‘insanity [of spiritual pride] could be cured.’” The suggestion here is that what makes Jake different is what is inside him.
Christianity actually teaches the opposite. Christianity teaches that we are nothing except for what God has put within us by the power and sacrifice of Christ himself. The vivid picture of Ezekiel 37 is one with no hope, except that God chooses to pour breathe back into our dry bones and give us new life. The human soul has been blackened by our inheritance of sin from Adam, but in Christ is our hope and it is his heart that is “unprecedented.” Teaching our church members that what is within them is what makes them special is not teaching them biblical truth.
The Infamous Search for God
The full nature of God and his revelation is likewise called into question with the next “discussion point:”
Third is the universiality of our search for God. Creation is designed to remind us of our need for a relationship with something or someone extraordinary (like God). This is a good discussion starter on general revelation (see Romans 1). Christians also believe that God is (personally) self-evident (though deniable) and rewards of those who pursue the Spiritual journey with all their heart (Jeremiah 29:13). [sic]
The word “search” means simply that something is being looked for, and with the implication that it is in earnest. Has something been lost? Can what is lost be found? Every religion has this search for God in common; seeking after God, God’s favor, and God’s blessing. Every religion, that is, except for Christianity.
In the first chapters of Luke, we hear the story of shepherds who looked long and hard, searching house to house to find the promised child. We read a story of magi from the East who looked all over the countryside and yet came up empty handed. Actually we find quite the opposite. The shepherds hear the message that the Child is born and they are told where and how they would find him. A star led the magi to the place where the Child was.
Let us not forget that God came to us.
One Sure Thing
The final point Shaff makes actually blows all the others asunder and oddly makes all the other points irrelevant. As the human character Jake continues to spend more and more time as his avatar, he becomes more and more dissatisfied with his own life and reality. There have been stories of viewers of the film becoming depressed after watching because the beautiful world of Pandora was so intangible. These movie-goers, along with the character Jake, must be reminded that this is not their world. Shaff quotes CS Lewis in support of this point:
If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
While I would caution preaching a Avatar-themed sermon (same with any feature film), using the movie and the vicarious experience of some movie-goers makes a beautiful point that for those who are called by God, this is not our ultimate reality. The entire book of Revelation tells of a world to come, where sin will be completely abolished and those who have been redeemed will live in complete freedom with God.