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The Wordview Behind Avatar

The year is 2154, and humans are attempting to mine the valuable mineral unabtanium from the planet Pandora. Humans have virtually destroyed their own planet and desperately need extra-planetary resources to survive. Jake Sully, a wounded marine, is assigned to infiltrate the seemingly hostile indigenous aliens (the Na’vi) to win their trust and talk them into relocating their colony, which happens to be situated right atop a massive amount of unabtanium.

If he can successfully infiltrate the Na’vi people and negotiate their relocation, then the humans will not have to force them to move through military intervention (those of you who are observant already notice the political insinuations about the U.S. allegedly only going to war in Iraq for oil).

To infiltrate the Na’vi, Jake transposes his consciousness into an Avatar body under the supervision of Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).

Once inside Pandora, Jake meets Neytiri, a female alien who saves his life and introduces him to the rest of the Na’vi, who eventually accept him as one of their own. Neytiri plays the role of the mentor (ala Obi-One Kanobi, Mr. Miyagi, and Gandolf) who shows him all the ways of the Na’vi.

Through his experience with the Na’vi, Jake’s loyalty begins to change. He becomes a true Na’vi, which raises the question: which side will Jake choose? Avatar really tells the same story as movies such as The Last Samurai, Brother Bear, and Dances with Wolves—where a foreigner has preconceptions about an “alien” culture, yet upon spending time with them and learning their ways, realizes that his new “home” is truly the more benevolent, and that his original ways were really inhumane.

From the perspective of a 3-D film experience, Avatar is truly remarkable. I completely forgot that I was wearing glasses for most of the film! This is a huge step beyond the 3-D glasses with red and blue lenses (anyone remember Jaws 3?). The scenery on Pandora is nothing short of breathtaking. There are floating mountains, beautiful water falls, fascinating creatures, and luminescent plants that react to touch (Heaven?). Even though I think the film has potential to cause considerable spiritual confusion, I can’t help but give Cameron credit for his storytelling and creativity. Now, on to the worldview analysis…

ANTI-CAPITALISM

Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) plays a slimy, sleazy, flippant corporate “pig” only interested in the monetary bottom-line. His character is reminiscent of Paul Reiser from Aliens. He has no concern for the life on Pandora and is gladly willing to destroy them to obtain unabtanium unless a diplomatic solution can be reached. At one point Parker says to Grace, “What do they want? We’ve tried money and education, but nothing works.” The inference is clear: these nature-loving creatures don’t want anything that Western corporate capitalist culture has to offer. In fact, it’s the capitalists who need to learn a lesson from the Na’vi.

It might be possible to chalk this character up as a criticism of corporate greed rather than a criticism of capitalism per se. However, I’m just not convinced because this portrayal seems to go along too consistently with the anti-capitalist fervor that has been resonating in our culture recently. It’s certainly ironic that Avatar has a central character negatively portraying (and stereotyping) capitalists when it’s already grossed over 1 billion dollars! But this is a minor theme in the movie.

PANTHEISTIC SPIRITUALITY

It would be virtually impossible to miss the not-so-subtle pantheism that pervades the entire film. The Na’vi are spiritually connected to their entire world, including the plants and animals. Their home is a humongous tree, which is clearly representative of the idea of Mother Earth. The Na’vi are so connected to nature that they say of prayer of gratitude, and sometimes even cry, when they kill an animal for food. The audience is given a virtual lesson in pantheism while Neytiri mentors Jake into their way of life. A pantheistic explanation is given for EVERY aspect of life including what they eat, how they pray, how they worship the planet, and how they relate to each other. Avatar is filled with rituals that are overseen by a Shaman (there is a scene of tree worship that is so realistic my wife almost walked out. In her words, it was demonic).

The pantheistic worldview doesn’t simply play a background role to make the film plausible, like the Force does in Star Wars. Rather, pantheistic spirituality is literally preached to the audience through the characters and their interactions.

But there is a subtle difference that sets it apart from other pantheistic movies (such as Lion King, Pocahontas, or Star Wars).

SCIENTIFIC NATURALISM

While Avatar clearly portrays pantheistic spirituality in a positive light, I think it may be subtly subverting it with a naturalistic worldview. The naturalist in the film is clearly Grace Augustine (whose name is taken from St. Augustine who wrote, “The City of God”). She is the scientist who is constantly looking for a natural explanation for their spiritual behavior. While the Na’vi talk in spiritual terms (they describe “seeing” as looking into a person’s depth), there does seem to be a physical explanation lurking beneath all their behavior. Below the ground are cords that connect all the trees on the planet, like a giant network of computers. To “connect” with the animals, the Na’vi have to physically connect their hair to the animals’ manes. And to hear from their ancestors, they have to physically connect to the trees, not unlike connecting to the Internet. This is significantly different from the Star Wars films, for example, in which Luke, Yoda, and Darth Vader are capable of manipulating reality from a distance.

So, what is the moral of the story? Here’s my take: People ought to forsake greedy Western capitalism and embrace pantheistic spirituality, even though such practices have a perfectly natural explanation.

There is much more that could be discussed about in this film (e.g., environmentalism, or the way it portrays the military). I had great discussions in my classes this past week and have had many discussions with other young people as well. Even though this movie will likely cause considerable spiritual confusion, it provides a great opportunity for parents and youth workers to engage young people in worldview conversations.

Avatar is also an example of how one worldview (scientific naturalism) can be used to subvert another. I think this is exactly what Paul does in Acts 17 (See my book APOLOGETICS FOR A NEW GENERATION—the chapter by Brian Godawa). Christians ought to take a lesson from Cameron and do the same thing.

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About
Sean McDowell is a teacher, author, speaker, husband and father. He is an avid fan of college basketball, ping-pong, and his favorite superhero is the Amazing Spiderman.