Avatar: A Visually Stunning and Expensive Tract For Paganism

Expensive?  Yes.   The New York Times pegs the price tag at around $500 million, which makes it the most expensive movie ever produced.   As of January 3rd, it is now the 4th-highest grossing movie of all time and has broken the $1billion revenue mark.   This alone makes it a significant movie.  But so do its effects.

James Cameron’s film is also technically brilliant and visually stunning.  Cameron’s last film, the Titanic, the 1997 epic, became the highest grossing film of all time.   Avatar, is bigger and bolder.   It has been in the making for the past 15 years.   It has been described as a gigantic, special effects-watershed opus.  It uses 3-D technology to create a realistic and beautiful world on another planet.   Even the flies of the jungle stand out and look close enough to touch.

But more interesting than the expense or the ground breaking technologies is the story-line.

My college aged son Jonathan described it to me saying it was “like Pocahontas, the Last Samurai, Lord of the Rings and Blue Aliens.”   One reviewer described it as a “science fiction-like revenge of the Native Americans,” or “Dances With Wolves in space.”

It is a story about a space colony from earth on a moon called Pandora in the year 2154.   The decaying, oil-depleted earth has prompted space exploration for new resources.  The challenge is that this pristine, forest covered world is not only alive with all kinds of deadly fauna and strange creatures, it is also populated by a ten foot tall blue-skinned humanoid race called the Na’vi.   There is an inevitable clash between the miners, botanists, engineers and soldiers who want to take the resources of Pandora with little regard for its natural inhabitants.

The plot centers around an ex-Marine paraplegic Jake Sully who signs up with the security arm of a mining company on Pandora.   Sully is used by a group of scientists for their Avatar project.

The project involves bioengineering Na’vi like bodies, and putting a human mind into their bodies.  Sully, and the chief scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine, enter the world of the Na’vi, first to make contact with them.  However, in time, they become attracted to them.

In the film, the bad guys are the humans who spoil everything they touch.   They have wrecked their own planet and are now about to spoil another, even if it means decimating an indigenous population in the process.

The good guys are the Na’vi.  While they are looked upon by the colonial explorers as animals, they are a native American-like people who are romanticized as being enlightened, virtuous, in touch with nature, and deeply spiritual.

The Na’vi hold to a blend of native American spirituality, new age mysticism, ancestor worship, pantheism, nature worship and Wicca. They have a harmonious relationship with the environment.  The Navi’s holiest place is The Tree of Souls, where they gather to worship chanting ecstatically before the Great Mother goddess Eywa.

Enlightenment  comes to Sully and Augustine when they realize they’ve had it all wrong.   It is not they, but the Na’vi who are the truly enlightened ones.   As Grace Augustine discovers—“(Eywa) is real.”  Sully too concludes, the world of the Na’vi is the true world, the world of the humans is a dream.   Humans should leave indigenous people as they are.

Leave this romantic view of paganism and native American religion aside, the movie does ask the right questions.   The questions are—“what have we made of the world and what is the way forward.”  This is a relevant question for our time.  But then the movie gives the wrong answer.  It commends the path of nature worship.

From a Christian perspective, this answer is not only wrong, it is a dead end.  Why?  Because nature is radically broken and not worthy of our worship.   It is a gift from our creator, but it is not the creator.   There is a distinction between the creator and the created.

Not only that, but the old nature gods enslaved people in deep darkness.  We revert to such a world view at our own spiritual peril.   These forces are not neutral.

I find it fascinating that Avatar has the Na’vi worship at a tree.   It was common among pagans to worship trees.   You see this in Bible passages like—Jeremiah 10.1-10.  Why did they do it?  Not by chance.

It seems that many pagan peoples had some knowledge of a powerful tree that gave life.  Was this faded memories of the tree of life described in Genesis that God barred humanity from touching after the first sin?    The dream of paradise and the tree of life is a good dream.  The problem is that throughout history, humanity has been trying to get back to paradise on its own terms, not God’s.

Not surprisingly, the film oversimplifies when it presents only two options.  You are either a tree destroyer or a tree hugger.   Or, better put, you are either an earth destroyer or an earth worshipper.

Of course the Bible commends neither view.   It views the worship of trees and natural forces as a huge mistake.   We are not to worship any created thing but God alone.   Nor are we to make God in our own image and blur the line between God and nature.

But the Bible also views the ruin of the environment as a denial of stewardship and a slap in the face of our creator.   We are called to celebrate nature and protect it.

One leaves this blockbuster movie with the message that the way of our world is a grave mistake and enlightenment is found through imitating the Na’vi.    Of course, this is Hollywood preaching again, which is why I call this film an evangelistic tract for paganism.   It is not just entertainment—though entertaining it is.  A world view is being commended, and someone is going to great expense to get it across.   As brilliant and powerful as this film is, its message is not only deeply flawed but also incredibly incomplete.

Yes our world is broken.  Yes we need to get back to paradise.  Yes we need to get back to the tree of life.   But we cannot get to it on our own.  The only one who can open the way back is the redeemer that God sent into the world—the Son of  God made flesh at Bethlehem.    As the old Easter hymn puts it, “Christ has opened Paradise.” He does so by his incarnation, atonement, resurrection and ultimately by his re-creation of the world.

Is it any wonder that the last chapter of the Bible shows us a new heaven and earth, with a prominent tree—the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations?

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  • Mike Pritchard says:

    Great post Pastor Don!

    Pastor Mark Driscoll with Mars Hill Church in Seattle posted up on his Twitter a link to a very interesting New York Times article about the movie’s “theology”:

  • Craig Britton says:

    Thanks Pastor and now President!


    I left a viewing “Avatar” thinking harder about all the political/environmental/spiritual implications of “getting” the story and wondered how many will see as you have, an intentional declaration poised for an eager world’s response.

    Not that I think Avatar will change the world. The world was changed and cast so many centuries ago when our first parents “touched” the tree.

    Pray for discernment and wisdom and digest those Bibles everyone. And let the redeemed of the LORD say so!

    • dwsweeting says:

      Thanks! The proceeds keep rolling in. Its opening in China was late, but has the potential to be the biggest of all. It is the scope of reception for the film that is amazing.
      So the “evangelism” goes far beyond anything we’ve ever seen. My hope is that believers will keep their minds engaged as they watch, so they can speak Christianly about the issues it raises. Blessings. Don

  • John H. Armstrong says:

    A fine review Don. I just heard the news about your calling to RTS, Orlando. Every blessing my brother. I would love to see you when I am there this year. I keep and value many friendships at the school.

    • dwsweeting says:

      John ,thanks. Rumor has it that you are a baseball fan……and a Yankee fan? Is that true? I am very thankful for God’s blessings in my life, including this opportunity at RTS. We are in the process of a slow goodbye to a wonderful church. As you saw, I start mid year. Look forward to visiting….maybe taking in a Spring training game once I am there.

  • Chadley says:

    This is a great response to the movie, I always wondered how to address those who view relationship with nature superior to relationship with the creator, whom many often deny sadly. By the way, Jonathan is so great, he and I lead a Discipleship Small Group at Wheaton. 🙂 God bless.

    • dwsweeting says:

      Thanks for your note. We miss Jon already! But we are so glad he is at Wheaton. I will be out to see him in Feb. God bless you as you lead this group.

  • mo leverett says:

    Congratulations on the recent appointment to RTS. Hope to meet you sometime in the near future. Thanks for all that you do for the kingdom.

  • Brad Strait says:

    As always, the best person to sit next to at a movie is either you or Cathy. For Avitar, I’m glad I chose you. We will have to figure out how to do this long distance, me thinketh.

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