While a New York Times op-ed piece calls Avatar "a long apologia for pantheism," Wheaton College Associate Professor of Theology Jeffrey W. Barbeau says that's not necessarily a bad thing in this guest blog post for CT Movies.
Critics frequently bash blockbuster films for lacking the aesthetic, philosophic, and dramatic characteristics that distinguish them as works of art—and no one knows that better than James Cameron. His 1997 blockbuster, Titanic, displayed awe-inspiring technology while mixing history and dramatic fiction in a tragic, imaginative tale of enduring love. Critics demurred, complaining that the storyline was frequently cliché, sentimental, and relied on stereotypical characters (the vagabond, the repressed young woman, etc.). When Cameron declared, upon receiving 11 Oscars for Titanic, "I'm the king of the world!", backlash was strong.
Cameron likely won't win as many Oscars with Avatar, the current No. 1 movie on our planet, but it's a genius achievement of cinematography, sound, visual effects, and engaging ideas—even if the story is not wholly new. Some have it called an alien Dances with Wolves, a fair comparison. The stereotypes are there: the noble savage, the scientist who mediates between civilizations in conflict, and the transformed jarhead. The film's political concerns are evident: an anti-war, environmentalist spirituality ubiquitously appears in dialogue and images alike.
But I suggest that Cameron's use of a well-worn storyline is less detestable than some critics say.
Avatar draws on some of our deepest intuitions about the relationship between humans, nature, and divinity. In Avatar's world of Pandora, the bond between all things is acute: living and dead remain intricately tied in a near-pantheistic vision of the universe. Pantheism is philosophically akin to atheism: the world is God. One great threat to Christian faith in the modern world is the exclusive belief in nature. Some evangelical Christians object to Cameron's political interests and Avatar's not-so-subtle pantheistic themes, but I believe the film can spark dialogue about nature and the supernatural in an intellectual climate increasingly hostile to any discussion of that which cannot be empirically measured.
The world of Pandora is by no means a Christian allegory, but Avatar raises engaging ideas for Christians and non-believers alike. Above all, the film gives voice to something that many people have intuited: nature is not the sum total of existence. In fact, Avatar's near-pantheism is, arguably, better described as panentheism. On Pandora, the divine is a personal being named Eywa, the dead remain in communion with the living through memory stored in the fiber of their world, and evil is foreign to the original goodness of creation. Some features resemble the Christian gospel (such as the idea of a mediator between two worlds), but others create more problems than they solve (such as the idealization of the noble savage living in harmony with the world until the threat of civilization risks disrupting a peaceful existence).
Cameron's Avatar thereby reflects something of the inward connection that humans in every generation have felt with the world around us: the belief that God can be known through the vehicle or book of nature (see Romans 1:19-20). The outward appearance of nature belies a deeper reality: we must read through the text of nature to see that which is beyond. Some will say, no doubt, that such talk of nature and spirituality risks idolizing the vehicles of God's communication. The alternative, however, is equally frightening: in rejecting the idea of divine relationship to nature, we are left with a world without symbols or icons providing points of contact between human and divine. In Avatar, the line between nature and supernatural is thin indeed, but Christians who avoid all appeals to the role of nature as symbol risk a vain and nebulous belief in the unformed imagination (simply replacing God's handiwork for the less-concrete creations of fancy).
So, while some critics balk at Cameron's sermonizing and others fret over Avatar's near-pantheistic spirituality, I believe the film opens up a crucial line of dialogue about fundamental questions of existence that are too frequently ignored in the name of modern naturalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson once declared that the preacher's job is to translate "life into truth." I, for one, remain in the afterglow of Cameron's great oration.