Sunday, January 03, 2010

The God Who Takes Sides

I suppose I'll break my months of blog silence to do another movie review. I really can't resist, since Avatar brings out so many scriptural themes for me that I've addressed on this blog. Since I discuss major themes in depth, this will probably be a "spoiler" review. If you didn't want to know that the good guys win in the end, read no further! It probably would make more sense reading all this if you'd already seen the movie anyway.

The movie does an amazing job with seamlessly integrating 3D generated characters with live actors. And the artistic accomplishment really is breathtaking. By the way, please allow me a brief tangent. As someone who knows at least a little bit about computer graphics (read: master's degree), it is a little annoying to hear viewers praising the computer technology for works of art like this. It's as if someone, upon seeing Michelangelo's David, lauded the amazing developments in renaissance stone quarrying and the innovative toolsmithery of Florentine sculpting chisels. Yes, their work is important - especially insofar as Michelangelo might have needed people to develop new tools especially for him. But the vast bulk of the praise should go to the artists - for their vision, and for the long long hours of meticulous work! Every bit of terrain, every character, every glorious fantastic landscape shot represents weeks of work by artists: drawing concepts on paper, sculpting in 3D, painting with textures, carefully crafting the right lighting, rigging the characters for animation with skeletons, bringing them to life with motion capture combined with traditional keyframe animation techniques, and sending it all back to the drawing board after intense critiques. The brilliant technical work of the computer toolsmiths who work alongside them also deserves high praise, and none of this would be possible without the hardware architecture that gives us better materials each year. But to hear some people talk, you'd think the computer did all the work. Folks seem to imagine that technology involves pushing a button and getting the computer to spit out breathtaking images of cinematic art. It just ain't like that.

Anyway, the story is basically Dances with Wolves in space - which you can get from viewing the trailer. The human presence arrives at the planet Pandora in the form of a mining expedition for some Earth-based corporation. The expedition includes a private army to oversee the mining efforts. The alien natives (the Na'vi) have the beliefs, values, and culture similar to many of the indigenous North American tribes who were forced off their land by, well, us ethnically English North Americans. In this movie, the humans also want some "Unobtainium" lying conviniently under the Na'vi's sacred giant tree dwelling, so the Na'vi need to go.

The technologically superior humans also know how to create Na'vi bodies and drive them around remotely as "avatars". Thus Jake, the protagonist, infiltrates the tribe to gain intelligence on them. However, as he is immersed in their tribal way of life (with all its pantheism and reverence to the land), he becomes more and more sympathetic to them. Finally, Jake decides to join the Na'vi, and help them fight off their cruel invaders. By the end of the movie, we are all cheering as the brave, spiritual, noble savages fight off our godless technological behemoths, and avenge us for the cruel ravaging of their homeland and loved ones.

As I sat in a theater built atop the lands of displaced peoples, I couldn't help but think of Jesus' words:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
I don't have the wisdom to truly say where we may be filling up the measure of our fathers. It takes a lot of clarity and vision to judge these things rightly. From what I understand, it seems to me that the destruction of the Appalachian mountains and the devastation of the communities thereof might be a step in that direction. Regarding past atrocities, I realize that people rightly weary of guilty feelings about things we didn't do, as well as reparations for sins of their fathers that seem to perpetuate and enable other problems. Repentance is something deeper than this. It involves not vilifying our fathers as if they were unrecognizable monsters (as if no noble savage ever scalped their helpless, screaming wives), nor paying indulgences to assuage our guilt, but rather seeing our face in them and theirs in ours so that we may recognize our own subtle sins that we are blind to.

This wasn't, however, the most interesting thing about the movie to me. Even more interesting was James Cameron's praising of the Na'vi's pantheistic religion as the root of their harmony with nature. I don't know his religious and political views, but I'd venture a guess that Cameron is socially liberal and would perhaps describe himself as "not religious, but spiritual". He probably would decry the "intolerance of Abrahamic religions" in contrast to the richer spirituality of the noble savage. I'm totally stereotyping, and feel free to call me out if I'm missing the mark. But if this is true (and I'm almost certain my prejudice is correct), then I don't know if I've ever seen a more unintentionally ironic movie as James Cameron's Avatar.

In a moving scene, Jake prays to Eywa and the Tree of Souls for the salvation of the Na'vi. Neytiri comes up behind him and says that this won't work - Eywa doesn't take sides, as no true pantheistic deity ever would. Russ Douthat does a great job in this New York Times editorial in questioning the comfort of this pantheism, but I don't think he quite sees the full irony of James Cameron's movie. For, despite all his best efforts at lip service to pantheism, the author of Avatar is telling a fundamentally Judeo-Christian story.

If Eywa doesn't take sides, then the God of Avatar is none other than the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation. The God of this movie is a God who has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate. He is near to the Na'vi when they call on him. When in the time of their suffering the Na'vi cried out to him, he heard them from heaven, and according to his great mercies he gave them a savior who saved them from the hand of their enemies. His servant was slow of speech and tongue; he had no form or majesty that they should look at him, and no beauty that they should desire him. He was despised and rejected by his people when he sought to warn them of the folly of their ways, and strung up on a tree. He was then left for dead. But then before all the people he was revealed in glory, that at the name of Jake all the Na'vi would bow, and every tongue confess that he is their savior. In him their arrows would slay gunships, like David laying low the giant. The proud and the powerful would be cast down, and the meek would inherit Pandora.

Folks, I don't intend any insult to pantheists. Their view of the world has coherence to it; it rings true to much experience of the natural world. But this is simply isn't the sort of story true pantheists (as opposed to PINOs) tell. Watching Avatar isn't, for instance, like watching the haunting, beautiful, and deeply Buddhist (and therefore, to a Christian, alien, bewildering, and utterly unredemptive) movie Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring. But this story is an awful lot like the stories we read in the Bible, over, and over, and over again.

I agree with you on some levels, not on others - but as always with us its so nuanced that I can't find the right words. Overall, agreed.

Though I will point out two bits of low hanging fruit:

First, I disagree with your chracterization of the natives as being the "beliefs, values, and culture" of Native American tribes. This statement suggests that there is such a thing, when of course there were and are hundreds. It also leaves out indigenous tribes from other parts of the world who share much in common with the movie's natives as well.

Second, when the angel of the Lord appeared to Joshua before the battle of Jericho, Joshua asked "are you for us, or for our enemies?" The response was "neither - but as commander of the Army of the Lord I have come." Discuss.

Another thought - what Cameron believes I have no idea. But as you may know, I study World Religions as a hobby and in the past several months have been enjoying looking at what primitive religions looked/looks like. Though it wasn't a perfect portrayal, he did a better job than I would have expected him to especially on a few very nuanced points, indicating to me that he took the time to find out what this tribe might have believed and what rituals might have been linked to those beliefs, and what kind of impact both the beliefs and rituals had on the people and community. So I actually enjoyed the aspect of what you are calling pantheism very much...for me it made the movie.

On the first point, I'll add a "many" qualifier to make it all better. ;-) I daresay that's a "nuance" rather than a disagreement. If you're suggesting we can't talk in general about cultural differences between the American Indians and the Europeon Settlers (especially as they are representitive in contemporary films), because there were both Hurons and Mowhawks and Puritains and Catholics and Irish and English - well - you're quite simply wrong. My point is that Cameron seems to be drawing more than a little bit from portrayals like we see in "Dances with Wolves" and "Last of the Mohicans" - the Na'vi don't remind me of Aztecs or Africans or Mongols at all. I don't think this is even remotely accidental.

The comment from the angel of the Lord is interesting, of course. Especially in the case of Joshua where the Lord is definately fighting on the side of the rag tag band of Israelites against the mighty cities of Canaan. I take it to mean that God has his purposes, and that we can't ever just assume that he will endorse and support our own ambitions. Witness Israel losing his support at Ai after Achan's sin. Or the exile. Or Jesus' critiques of the nationalistic ambitions of the Israel of his day.

So God taking sides is never underwriting one side, right or wrong without strings. But I do think there is a mountain of scriptural language saying things like "God opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble". He is the God of the underdog - always choosing the younger brother, the barren woman, etc. More than anything, he is the God who listens to his creatures when they cry to him, and acts with a mighty hand to rescue them.

So when I'm watching Avatar, and hear that the goddess of the land doesn't take sides, and only seeks to preserve the balance of nature, I see this as starkly contrasting to the God in the movie who acted in the story for the salvation of the humble and lowly and the downfall of the proud and mighty. This isn't a God who is for the Na'vi, right or wrong - irrevokably on their side. But it is a God who is going to save those who cry to him for help.

Pantheism may indeed not necessarily be the right word - perhaps it is technically panentheism. I got headed down that path from the New York Times article. But really, any religion that sees nature, or even the balance thereof, as unqualifiably good is going to have this problem at some level. It's the difference between a God of scarcity and sacrifice and a God of inexaustible goodness.

By the way, don't hear me saying I didn't enjoy the movie. I enjoyed it immensely.

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