‘Avatar’ and Agenda

by Mike Duran

James Cameron’s 3D sci-fi epic “Avatar” has evoked a wide range of responses from Christian critics and moviegoers. While some see the film as anti-military, environmentalist, New Age propaganda, others see it as a rather harmless story with fantastic special effects.

What’s being lost in all this discussion, I think, is the rather tenuous connection between art and agenda. Christians are often scolded for using their art as a vehicle for their “message.” But apparently, we aren’t the only ones using stories to propagate a worldview. Only, in this case, the other guy gets a pass.

In an L.A. Times interview entitled Is ‘Avatar’ a Message Movie? Absolutely, Says James Cameron, the filmmaker eliminates all speculation as to an agenda:

…as his sci-fi epic “Avatar” sails past $2 billion in worldwide box office, breaking the record set by “Titanic,” his last movie, Cameron takes no small delight in the way conservative commentators have attacked the movie. “Let me put it this way,” Cameron says during a recent dinner conversation at a Hollywood cafe. “I’m happy to piss those guys off. I don’t agree with their world view.”

…Yes, the movie boasts insane technological leaps for the medium. And, yes, there’s a rock ’em, sock ’em action story with greed-head, colonial-minded humans battling blue-hued humanoid aliens over the resources of an Eden-like planet. But those elements are the hook, Cameron says, to make audiences absorb the movie’s pro-environmentalist “medicine.”

…And what of those critics who say that “Avatar” is a success despite its message? Can audiences enjoy the movie’s fantastical elements and have its cautionary content fly over their heads?

“The movie is designed to work as a straightforward adventure and a romance, and if that’s all you want from a movie, that’s fine,” Cameron says. “But the message isn’t going over people’s heads… ” (emphasis mine)

So does this rule out Avatar as “simple entertainment”? Maybe not for a fifteen year-old video gamer. But anyone with an iota of discernment would be hard-pressed to miss the stereotypes, ideologies, and religious worldview ensconced in the movie. Or as Cameron himself put it, the stunning visuals and fantastical settings are just “the hook.” He’s trying to “make audiences absorb” a much deeper message.

Some would argue, I think rightly, that every artist has a message. We cannot compose anything without bringing our worldview with us. So what’s wrong with James Cameron importing his? Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. In fact, I think it’s misguided, especially for Christians, to charge Cameron with propaganda. Why? Because we do the same thing. Christian art (film / fiction / music) is notoriously agenda-oriented. It is created by Christians, for Christians. Through it, we seek to bring hope, inspiration, and conviction of sin; we want to frame a biblical worldview and flesh out the Gospel so audiences can “absorb” our Message. Sure, Avatar is a gospel of another kind. But apart from its actual message (and a $500 million budget!), how is it really any different from agenda-driven “Christian art”?

For this reason, I think it’s tactically wrong for us to critique Avatar on the basis that it is (as the Times puts it) a “Message Movie.” Rather, it is precisely Avatar’s “message” which we should engage.

In a post entitled Avatar’s Fickle Deity, I criticized the filmmaker, not for having an agenda, but for constructing a religious worldview that is daffy.

James Cameron’s 3D CGI epic, walks a fine line between cutting-edge virtual reality and complete philosophical gibberish. Yes, the visuals are a revelation. But at the heart of the movie is a religious worldview so skewed and nonsensical that anyone with a molecule of discernment — i.e., those not suckered in by the mind-blowing graphics — will see through its vacuity. If only Cameron had put as much thought into the religion he’s selling as the world he created.

In a fantastic piece entitled Heaven and Nature, NY Times’ columnist Ross Douthat described the film as “Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.” Even the Vatican hedges, saying the film “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.” Not only is pantheism diametrically opposed to a biblical worldview, it creates innumerable conundrums for the peace-loving Na’Vi of Pandora. So all the while Cameron is constructing a neutral, New Age deity, that deity is busy acting very non-New Age and un-Neutral, arming her forces to the teeth. In the end, the Impartial, Impersonal Force of Avatar turns partial and personal, comes to the rescue and turns, tooth and claw, on the bad guys. It’s an incongruity of the highest order.

Which leads me to ask: Are Christians “getting” the message of Avatar, or do they just not care?

In Avatar and Christianity, blogger Becky Miller concludes by lamenting the lack of discernment on the part of believers:

To be honest, I’m stunned. Christian writers not up in arms at the preachy-ness of the movie?…
And Christians not loudly declaiming the anti-Christian religious themes? Where are the people who condemned Harry Potter? Is the worship of nature somehow OK where as wizardry (even if that was what Harry Potter promoted, which it did not) is not? Perhaps the most likely explanation is this: professing Christians have begun to incorporate tenets of New Age spirituality with their church traditions so that what many call “Christianity” has become the actual mishmash. As a result, the majority are comfortable with, even blessed by, references to false religion. Where, oh where, has discernment gone?

Indeed. We cannot allow state of the art 3D CGI graphics to camouflage a pagan tract. Perhaps Avatar can be viewed as “simple entertainment.” Nevertheless, Christians should be wise enough to look beyond packaging and spot the lie. The issue isn’t one of boycotts, but of brains. Maybe the real problem here is not with agenda-driven art at all — it’s with people who “absorb” a message — any message — without discretion.