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Avatar and contemporary spirituality

While the inhabitants of Pandora look strange, the religion of these corn-fed smurfs was a familiar one.  They did not worship a personal and holy God.  There never seemed to be a particular object grabbing the attention of their worship, although they were a worshipping people.  They worshipped all. There was a unity, a life force, that connected everything, and this is what they worshipped.  Simply plugging one’s tail into another object brought this reality to light.  And the most understanding of Avatars, Jake Sully, “got it.”  (Similar to those other enlightened Americans finding themselves in non-western settings like John Dunbar with the Sioux and Nathan Algren with the Samurai)

But here’s the irony: What Jake “got,” and what I suspect resonated deeply with much of the audience, is not that unique.  The spirituality, or worldview, and the green-leanings of these blue people are akin to our culture’s own religious assumptions and sensibilities.  Beginning in the 1960s (many trace it back even further to the Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries) there was a dramatic shift in how individuals conceived of the world.  Sociologist Steven Tipton describes this prevalent spirituality as beginning with the individual.  But it is not the individual as autonomous and rational agent that emerged during the Enlightenment, rather it is the individual “as a personality that experiences, knows, and simply is” (Getting Saved from the Sixties, 14).  The divine for these advocates of contemporary spirituality “tend[s] to be nontheistic or at least they describe a nonprophetic sort of god who issues no commandments” (14).  As for the world, it is not the mechanistic one emerging from Enlightenment thought.  “Instead,” writes Tipton, “there is the fundamental assumption of an acosmic monism, that ‘all is one,’ pure energy or existence without any enduring structure or logos” (14).

Tipton’s description of the spirituality emerging during the 1960s fits the natives of Pandora.  And it is a spirituality at odds with Christianity.  If contemporary spirituality begins from within the individual, Christian spirituality begins from without.  Or, as David Wells puts it, contemporary spirituality begins from below and Christian spirituality begins from above (see Above All Earthly Pow’rs).  For the Christian, humanity is not connected to all, but alienated from all.  One is alienated from oneself, from neighbor, and, most fundamentally, from the Trinitarian God.  And it is not mustering up the focus, plugging our tails into something, or doing anything in our own striving that will overcome this alienation.  Rather, it is turning to a blood stained cross.  Only through the cross can there be the kind of universal flourishing that the blue people yearned for.

Author: Casey Shutt

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  • Outstanding post, Casey. I recently saw this film and thought the same things you did. I recently read a book entitled “The Spirit of the Rainforest” about a Yanamamo in the Amazon. The book is written from the firsthand account of several men who were shamans. They tell a very vivid and graphic account of what life is like in the Jungle. It is not an Eden where people and nature live in a perfect balance of harmony and unity. The spirituality presented in Avatar conveys a widespread view that tribal nature religions are blissful and at peace. Christianity is viewed as a negative and destructive force that disrupts this balance. The Yanamamo, however, shatter that myth because those who have turned their lives to Christ brought an end to generations of war, pain, and suffering. To all those who believe that life in the Jungle is some sort of spiritual paradise, Chief Shoefoot would say “come down here to live and then see what it is really like.”

  • We need to Chief Shoefoot to blow the whistle on this contemporary myth that keeps popping up in film. Thanks for the comment.

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