Thursday, January 14, 2010

AVATAR – It Has Something To Say About Your Politics And Your Spirituality

Reading the various reviews, comments, and technical critiques of James Cameron’s genre defining blockbuster, AVATAR, I’m reminded that the best any of us can do when coming to a work of art is to see how it confirms or challenges our own built in preconceptions and assumptions. Such was my experience when I saw AVATAR twice this past weekend. I saw it first in 3D, then took my wife the following evening to watch it in 2D.

I can tell you that the 3D experience is real, visceral, and emotion-laden. Comparing it to my 2D experience the following night, I felt more engaged and part of the story while watching in 3D. This will change the way we view movies. As others have more eloquently stated, this is simply the most visually stunning movie I’ve ever seen. While the technology is astounding, in other hands the movie would have faltered. I cringed at the B-movie trailer for “Piranha 3D!” I shudder to think what Michael Bay would do with this technology. I agree with other movie critics: This is our generation’s “The Jazz Singer.” Go see it if for no other reason than to experience it as it is now, not later when you’re trying to fill your bucket list before you die.

Beyond the technology lies what some have called a simplistic story. It needed to be simple so that as many people as possible would feel the full impact of the message. Judging by all the Establishment criticism, even the Vatican weighed in, they felt it. I call it the classic hero meta-narrative. People will see in this movie what they want to see. Some will see a racist screed. Others see “Liberal” propaganda. Some will interpret an anti-Christian bias and plead with their fellow Christians not to see such trash. Understanding that I have my own biases, I see an allegory.

I am a Christian and I accept AVATAR as the fictional story that it is. We use stories to relate truths to one another and AVATAR has some good things to say if we can get past our rose-colored glasses.

AVATAR Has Something to Say About Your Politics

The Christian right, myself included, was taken in by fascist propaganda with the election of George W. Bush and especially after 9/11. We all believed that George W. Bush really was a Christian, and had God’s plans written on his heart. We listened to Sean Hannity rail against the lasciviousness of Clinton and longed for a change. Now we realize that Bush, while he may have been sincere at the time, has shown by his actions to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He did not hold a traditional Christian worldview. On the contrary, he embodies the worst of our Imperialistic Christianity that is Christian in name only. What has all of this to do with AVATAR? By Cameron’s own admission, the movie is a polemic against government-enabled corporate greed that rapes the environment and scrapes the people off the land. Those that see this movie as anti-American will shut off their critical thinking right there. And this is where I take a different path.

I started out as a Reagan Republican. I graduated from the Air Force Academy. I have served my country to the best of my ability. But along the way something has changed. I don’t know if I am only now discovering the neoconservative agenda that has been present in some form since before 1900; or, if the neoconservatives have finally gained power in the 20 to 30 years since I was a boy. But what is currently popularized as patriotism is nothing of the sort. It is more properly defined as Nationalism, or jingoism. America and other corporate controlled countries operate as imperial powers in the finest traditions of the colonial powers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. AVATAR uses a familiar story to illustrate just what this looks like in 3D.

AVATAR, for me, speaks first to the political spectrum. It is not anti-American to challenge the corporate greed and lust for blood that has become the hallmark of American wars the last few decades. This is what Cameron is doing. He is challenging the assumption that resource acquisition at all costs is an amoral issue. Politically, I guess this puts me in the “Liberal Left.” I disagree with the label. Instead, we should be focusing on core beliefs and world views and how those views cause us to treat our fellow human beings. I applaud Cameron’s critique because the story, though often told, challenges our political assumption that whatever America is doing must be right.

While my politics have changed since I was in the Air Force, something else has changed in me as well.

AVATAR Has Something to Say About Your Spirituality

AVATAR is a great picture of new birth, new life, and second chances. This is precisely what is promised in the Gospel of Jesus Christ: that we will live forever with God and Christ in new bodies. I’m also reminded of the verse that talks about the whole creation groaning waiting for the revealing of the sons of God. In my understanding, the verse refers to people who will treat the earth and all of its life with respect. This bears out with the natural inclination of most people to care for a wounded animal. There is something tender in our hearts to other life and I believe that was put there by God. I know many have criticized the pantheism or ancestor worship of the film, but it led me to see what is true in the Christian tradition; that is, that we are to be stewards of the earth and not takers only. We are not to strip all of its resources and dump them in a hole or in the ocean when we are done with them.

So why do we support an economic model that treats as linear a finite, circular biology? I want to challenge the traditional American notion that we are to take as many resources as possible, by force if necessary.

I also challenge the notion that it is un-Christian and “Liberal” to support environmental causes. I tire of the language that we use to box ourselves in when the arguments belong in a different arena altogether. Let’s shed these monikers of Liberal or Conservative. Let’s stop demonizing one another because of our pet issues. Christians of all nationalities owe their allegiance to Christ first, not the state. I’m told the United States Marine creed is “Country, Corps, God, Family” in that order. What an affront to God! Christians should see that this is idolatry! Ah, but I digress.

I have a question for Christians who support what America is doing right now in Iraq: “What is so Christian about dispossessing people of their land and resources, killing them if necessary to obtain it?” What was so Christian about destroying the Native American cultures in the 1800’s to make room for white settlers? What was so Christian about the British East India Company (and later Britain) subjugating the continent of India from 1612 to 1948? If the U.S. truly cares about nations, why have we intervened in Afghanistan, but not Rwanda? I will tell you why. Rwanda had no strategic diplomatic benefit, nor did it have any resources important to the United States. This should be a big eye-opener to Christians that the United States government does not make decisions based on a Christian understanding. They behave as nation-states have for hundreds of years: in their own self interest. Even though AVATAR uses a well-known story, that doesn’t make its critiques any less impactful. Indeed, a simple story is what’s needed to shock people out of their slumber.

AVATAR allowed me a fantastic glimpse of what Heaven could be like. It led me to examine what is promised to Christians after death. Pandora is allegory for Heaven. I know the depictions aren’t biblical, especially with all of the fierce creatures waiting to eat you, but it did emphasize Christian themes: community, respect for all life, respect for elders, respect for proper authority, and courage to challenge immoral authority. Those things don’t need to be told in a setting that matches what the Bible says. An intelligent person should be able to separate story from reality.

AVATAR makes a strong statement. Politically, it challenges nation-state hegemony. It challenges unchecked corporate greed. It personifies the evil of taking what you want, consequences be damned. Spiritually, it leads me to the best of Christian traditions: courage, community, honor, and humility. (Jake humbled himself and admitted when he was wrong) I see a hero literally born again into a new body. This parallels the Christian understanding of new birth when you are saved and then new life and a new body after death. The story challenges us to become better stewards of our own earth. The story inspired me about the joys of living in a vibrant community that respects life.

As I stated in the beginning of this article, the critics will see what they want to see in this movie. I saw a triumphant vision of what life could be like. I saw a people unashamed of their traditions. I saw a hero transformed from a broken servant of the company into a man of courage, conviction, and moral clarity. What’s not to like about that? Would that we all could have the courage of our convictions, fight for what is right, and be unashamed of who we are as humans, as Americans, and as Christians.

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