John Podhoretz’s review of Avatar in the Weekly Standard is an interesting starting point for some thoughts on American religion. While Podhoretz and I are certainly from different camps, there’s very little in his article I’d disagree with (except his vague suggestion that the film encourages support for Iraqi insurgents, which I think goes too far and so does he).
I’m not a big Avatar fan. It’s fun enough, but I think it stretches “suspension of disbelief” to the breaking point. Look, you want a mineral and you don’t care one whit about the indigenous and hostile life? Sigourney said it best herself: “Take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” For a 3D movie, the characters, plot and premise are completely 2D.
Avatar may be nothing but three hours of clichés, but that’s what makes it so interesting, because it’s our clichés that tell us what we really believe.
I find little insight in much of Jonah Goldberg’s writing for the LA Times, but he makes an excellent point here:
Cameron wrote “Avatar,” says Podhoretz, “not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”
What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.
Goldberg is right. Americans are comfortable with Pantheism, even the wildly extreme Pantheism of Avatar. Biblical Christianity makes Americans nervous. We’re comfortable with a vengeful Gaia. We’re comfortable with the “go with the flow” of Yoda’s Force. But “let go and let God” or “God rescues only the faithful” are not common themes.
We’re also comfortable with heros saving the day and kicking evil-guy butt. Aslan can be Christ as long as he stays in mythic hero mode: killing the White Witch and then slipping away. As long as there are clearly good and clearly evil creatures, we’re ok. But even Lewis couldn’t bring himself to torture Susan for all eternity just because she lost her faith in Aslan and loved the ways of the world (c.f. The Last Battle). Even the Dwarves’ “hell” is only their own blindness to their blessings. This is no White Throne judgement in Narnia, no Outer Darkness. Lewis’ God smites the irredeemably wicked, but doesn’t punish the “misguided,” no matter how Biblical that predicted punishment may be. That pretty much lines up with every Hollywood portrayal of Heaven and Hell (What Dreams May Come).
In the end, real mainstream American religion is closer to the extreme Pantheism of Avatar than the extreme Christianity of Left Behind. As Podhoretz obliquely points out, Hollywood is the follower here, not the cause.