If only Avatar was more Christiany

Ross Douthat

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Ross Douthat is peeved. You see, there’s a pantheistic trend in Hollywood films, and where there could be talk of Jesus and The One God, there is only Kevin Costner dancing with wolves and Lion King metaphysics.  The most recent example of this is James Cameron’s Avatar.

Full disclosure: I have not seen this film yet, but I don’t think I need to have seen it to criticize the rest of this seriously weird column.

Douthat believes Hollywood keeps returning to pantheism because Americans respond favorably to this breed of spirituality. He even quotes a Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology, which found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains.

Here’s where it gets weird. Douthat believes that Americans’ preference for pantheism isn’t a sign that they are evolving out of the dark ages of monotheism into a more connected understanding of the universe and its complexities, but that we actually “pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society.”

Huh? Where is the poll saying that? So while the rest of human beings evolve, Douthat wants us to believe we are spiritually regressing. Yet The American Religious Identification Survey recently found the number of people who claimed “no religion” had nearly doubled nationally over the last 18 years to 15 percent. They were the only demographic that increased in all 50 states.

Depicting pantheism in film is just smart marketing. It’s familiar to Christians, so they’re not motivated to picket theaters with “JESUS RULZ” signs, and yet it’s also secular enough that atheists and agnostics don’t feel weirded out by all the celluloid bible-thumping.

If anything, the presence of all this pantheism in film shows that we’re a less religious planet that is more interested in the big questions of the environment and the universe than arguing over the fairy tales in our religious texts.

It seems Douthat skirts this most obvious reading of the pantheism trend because he’s terrified of nature.

Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

I can only imagine Douthat’s version of a Disney film would involve flesh-eating trees and necrophilic bunny rabbits.

It appears he never engaged in an eighth-grade, stoned philosophical conversation (possibly because no one wanted to offer him weed). This is when your basic questions about life and death are pondered (not, say, when you’re a middle-aged columnist for the New York Times). Yes, nature destroys, but from every destruction arises something. Nature is life, and really the only thing that matters, and that seems like an appropriate thing to enjoy and care for.

Or as Douthat calls nature: “cruel rhythms.”

Wow. Did this guy’s dad run over his pet turtle or something? Someone, send him a potted flower.

30 Comments

  1. Erik Kain

    I’d say that’s a rather shallow and uncharitable reading of Douthat’s column.

    • Allison Kilkenny

      Care to elaborate?

      • Erik Kain

        Sure. (Maybe I’ll write a post on it, but for now…)

        I think what Douthat is saying is that movies which fall back to the nature-is-god-god-is-everything theology are not dealing very seriously with human themes. His position is that this nature-theology is somewhat shallow and too easy, but more importantly it isn’t very well thought-out. Nature is not simply pretty and good – it is not just the beneficent “earth-mother” – it is also violent and dangerous and we, as humans, live in it but also apart from it. We grapple with it and struggle against it and our modern view of nature is distorted by our fragile domination of the natural world – a world we struggled to dominate for thousands of years.

        It’s not merely an op-ed about hoping for more “christianity” in movies, but one which asks for a deeper examination of these themes rather than taking the easy way out. Since Douthat is deeply religious he obviously would like to see those themes grappled with through a more traditional lens, but I don’t think he’s advocating a more Christian film. Just a more serious one.

        • Allison Kilkenny

          Right, I understand the “Nature is violent and dangerous” claim. It’s the thing I found so amusing. Douthat seems to think the universe is trying to destroy him, which doesn’t really surprise me, since Christianity is so deeply rooted in fear.

          I admit that I had some fun at Douthat’s expense, mostly because I think he’s a ridiculous human being. Avatar was not created to please Douthat’s weird religious fixations. It was created to amuse a large audience, and so when the plot called for a religious theme, using pantheism was an easy way to appeal to a large number of people (many of whom are losing their monotheistic faith, but can still believe trees are nice to look at).

          It’s just target marketing, really. (Maybe the decision to use pantheism wasn’t even that conscious — I can’t speak for the writers — but it’s a good way to appeal to a large demographic of moviegoers.)

          • Erik Kain

            So again – I think it’s rather strange to describe Douthat as having “weird religious fixations” merely because he’s Christian. That sounds rather prejudiced to me – or at the very least you’re painting with a very large brush. (The whole deeply rooted in fear thing is also more of a caricature than a serious statement, but maybe that’s just the Christian in me talking….)

            You are likely right that the pantheism/nature worship was simply smart marketing. But Douthat isn’t saying it wasn’t. On the contrary he is saying that it is this appeal to the lowest common denominator that is so frustrating.

            And no, you don’t understand the “nature is violent and dangerous” claim if you think Douthat is worried nature is out to get him. Nature is violent, if incidentally so. It is dangerous, only we’ve learned to harness and control it to some degree (the levies do break and two feet of snow still has us cooped up, but we’re a far cry better off than we were a thousand or two thousand years ago.)

            The point is that this sort of pantheistic nature worship tends to gloss over the darker side of nature and gild the good stuff. It’s easy to worship nature when we can do it from our comfy, air-conditioned condos.

          • Allison Kilkenny

            Well, to be honest, I do find Christianity to be pretty weird (what with the threats of being sent to hell for eating shellfish, whilst okaying the practice of selling one’s daughter into prostitution.) However, in this case, I meant his weird “Nature is going to eat me” belief. It seems hyper-paranoid.

            I don’t see appealing to pantheism as a lowest common denominator. I think it’s rather evolved (the reconnection with the universe I described in my post,) rather than obsessing over some old books about a dude, who once claimed to the son of God. Yawn.

            Nature is violent, but it’s also beautiful and our home. It provides life to all things — including humans and our future generations. This fear of nature fascinates me. It’s pointless, and it makes Douthat sound irrationally terrified. Humans cannot (nor will they ever be able to) control nature, so what is the point of fearing it? Let’s enjoy the good, endure the bad, and care for nature so future generations can enjoy it, as well.

            Humans had to adapt to nature (sewing clothing, building homes, etc.) partly because we’re poor evolved creatures that don’t do well in severe heat or cold (You think the Big Man could have bumped up the temperature come winter time, amIright? What a jerk.) But that’s no reason to hate and fear nature. To fear, fight, and try to control nature under the guise of some higher religious understanding or connection is laughable (and did I mention pointless?)

          • Erik Kain

            The point though is that we do control nature, or attempt to, all the time. That’s the shallowness of this modern nature-worship. Far from being afraid of nature, in his column Douthat is saying that these movies and themes refuse to even touch the surface of the deeper meaning of nature itself – it’s darker more dangerous side and how man interacts with nature as something not just to be revered (though there is that) but also contended with. What are the common structures of modern narratives? Man vs. Man; Man vs. Himself; Man vs. Nature…. The problem with the narrative in modern pantheistic stories is not that we are delving into this idea of man and nature, but that we aren’t delving deep enough.

            Either way, simply saying over and over that Douthat is terrified of nature doesn’t make it so. Perhaps if you could point to the part where he claims an unnatural fear of nature…?

            (P.S. – Christians do not believe that they will be sent to hell for eating shellfish or that they can sell their daughters into prostitution. There is this Part II called the New Testament which changes many of those older rules….)

          • Allison Kilkenny

            I take your point that Douthat is claiming the films fail to explore the darker sides of pantheism, but he also portrays pantheism as monotheism-light, a way for individuals to get their God fix without subscribing to the nuttier aspects of religion. I simply don’t agree with that. If anything, polls show Americans are “coming out” of religion, or are at least less enthusiastic about it. Pantheism-like subscriptions are just easing that transition.

            And if Douthat doesn’t want us to think he’s not wetting his pants during every thunder storm, he shouldn’t describe nature as “suffering and death,” and “cruel rhythms.” I’m going to take a wild guess and say he doesn’t camp much.

            (Isn’t it weird how an omniscient God keeps changing his mind all the time? Slavery is fine according to Exodus 21, though I’m sure — as you say — some sane individual came along later to modify the book, which just proves it is manmade and not the infallible word of God.)

          • everynowandthen

            “(Isn’t it weird how an omniscient God keeps changing his mind all the time? Slavery is fine according to Exodus 21, though I’m sure — as you say — some sane individual came along later to modify the book, which just proves it is manmade and not the infallible word of God.)”
            Its not weird. If everything (and nothing) is derived from God, then god can be anything. So sure, on one hand god can tell prophet A: “take slaves, pimp your daughter, dont eat shellfish”, and he can tell prophet B: “Slavery is bad, shellfish is good” and both would be the word of god. God is a pretty nihilistic entity(nonentity)?

          • Erik,

            Whether or not the New Testament establishes a new law of the land (certainly Paul’s contention, but clearly not the view of all the gospel writers), the reason people bring up the shellfish thing and every other laughably demented prohibition in Leviticus et al, is that Christian conservatives still pick and choose from the OT to buttress their noxious prejudices. (I’m not saying Christians at large, obvs) If they’re going to bash the gays on a biblical basis, then I hope they’re prepared to sequester menstruating women and stay away from Red Lobster and such.

  2. I hate to tell you guys, but as someone who has written many a screenplay (and understands the value of religious ‘undertone’ in stories), the writer of the film would likely be reading these posts with a large grin on his face. Believe it or not, nobody really sets out to write or direct a film with the lessons you seem to believe are present, or as Douthat thinks should be present. They are just trying to make a film that will put butts in the seats.

    • Erik Kain

      That may be true, Rick, but it’s the cultural critic’s job to do that for them, isn’t it? After the fact…?

      • Yes, I suppose so. But I know I always got a good chuckle when I would read about something – good or bad- that I intended knowing I never had even given any thought to it in the first place..
        I will, however, admit to using biblical concepts in science fiction things I have written. After all, the Bible remains the most popular story of all time and millions relate for better or for worse.

  3. goodkind

    “Douthat believes … that we actually “pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society.”

    Huh?”

    You say “huh?” precisely because you haven’t seen the film. I watched it this morning, and I thought it was absolutely beautiful. If you don’t cry sometime during the movie, there’s something wrong with you. It *does* make you pine for what we’ve left behind. Our technological society is incomplete. We have cordoned ourselves off from the natural world. We don’t merge with it. We eliminate it. And then maybe bring in some potted plants or leave behind some grass which is really nothing more than glorified concrete. Our civilization eats whatever it comes into contact with, and that’s the plot of the movie. There’s a different type of existence for people who don’t live like us; people who lives together with Nature. It’s a happier existence. A more sublime one. It’s not pantheism per se; it’s just wanting to be around things that are alive, not dead.

  4. rbenjamin

    Reading Douthat’s article I find he doesn’t portray pantheism as monotheistic-light; rather, he contrasts its anywhere-everywhere communal qualities with historical, writ monotheistic religion. Pantheism can certainly be considered religious-light: a way of tapping into a sense of righteousness and transcendence by communing with a nature that is universally benevolent towards the continuation and progress of life, but–as he points out in the article–the question of benevolence is glossed over when addressing our own situation. In terms of the film, the world of Pandora states benevolence as fact. The planet will literally respond in voice as its humanoid characters tap into its tree and listen. The whole world functions as an interconnected brain and its riches aren’t to be found in extracting its ore, but by interfacing with its network. It’s planet as player and characters as stage.

    As religion for our own earthly situation Douthat finds pantheism–minus this literal, voiced benevolence–lacking. Christianity, in which a world runs parallel to the actions of its people, is probably a better fit. In a cursory reading of the Bible, man, created in the image of God, is tied to Earth as God is to Heaven so that the image may remain intact. If the creature fails to keep the ways of his garden, it’s not God changing His mind about what’s right and what’s wrong, but people yearning for and failing at righteous callings, and seeing our world mutate and deteriorate as a result. To outline those separate worlds further, Jesus instructs his disciples to pray, “…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” I.e., if Earth goes the way we do, it will be short-lived. Pray for mercy.

    In terms of social ebb and flow, I think a desire for a return to, and stronger connection with, nature is an expected response from a society on the back side of an Industrial Age. Less than 200 years ago from field to face was a common experience for people securing their food. In the bulk of civilization now, it’s the exception. Camping is no proxy for a time when societies could be razed by the fluctuations of a season, or an untimely storm, and the disassociation people feel with their food and their Earth is something that should be rectified, but not by praying to their corn.

    • Allison Kilkenny

      Hooray! Great minds, David. Great minds.

  5. libtree09

    Ah…so let’s see how many native people’s have had Christianity forced on them? Imposed with guns and steel? Religions based on nature have in the past far out weighted the one truth.

  6. libtree09

    Ah…so let’s see how many native people’s have had Christianity forced on them? Imposed with guns and steel? Religions based on nature have in the past far out weighed the one truth.

  7. Todd Essig

    What an fascinating/enlightening conversation!

    If you take away the supernatural yearnings put opposite Cameron’s commercial myth, Douthat is exactly right; “But Nature is suffering and death.” As much love as we have for whatever nature we can find in our technologically-mediated world, we also have hate, revulsion, and fear. Actually looking the natural world in the eye is enough to turn anyone towards the supernatural (well, almost). The challenge is to look at the horrors of nature without going soft or supernatural–including our war-mongering, genocide-committing, climate changing, single-payer refusing (sorry, couldn’t resist) species. And for that, well, we need communion with each other because all we really have is conflict or it’s avoidance.

    Full disclosure: I have not yet seen Avatar, I eat animals (dead ones killed for my amusement and nutrition), I’m listening to a Pandora “station” right now, and nature horrifies/delights me.

  8. mattjumbo

    I had the same impression as Douthat after seeing the movie. It seems like a perfectly rational complaint to me.

    “And if Douthat doesn’t want us to think he’s not wetting his pants during every thunder storm, he shouldn’t describe nature as “suffering and death,” and “cruel rhythms.” I’m going to take a wild guess and say he doesn’t camp much.”

    Your point of view represents someone so far removed from nature, so completely blind to the reality of it and insulated by a cozy (but Evil of course) Western lifestyle, that you have imagined nature to be something like the forest The Smurfs lived in. Complete with a smiley-faced sun.

    The entirety of human civilization (Western or otherwise) has been about surviving, and then thriving, in an ecosystem that generally prefers animals (human and otherwise) to live short lives and then die in agony. Not that there is any cruelty in that fact, the universe is largely blind to us, but surely that total neglect is the *very* definition of cruelty among humans. There is a baby crying, possibly freezing, in a dumpster that you walk by. Do you just keep walking? Because that is darn sure what “nature” would do.

    If Cameron (and everyone else in Hollywood) wants us to return to nature, they should have the guts to show one of those big blue guys dying in agony while his leg rots off because there is no such thing as antibiotics. Or maybe they could show one of the babies crying as it dies from any of the dozens of maladies that are easily cured by Evil Western Medicine. Of course in Cameron’s world, a tree root would pop up and heal the would or feed the baby. Sadly, there are no flora that considerate here on Earth.

    If Avatar had any of that balance, at least we could make a honest choice. As it stands, Avatar, like most Hollywood flicks, just launches the nature-is-God crap because the audience is used to people bashing Christianity. Those faults are well-documented. Nature-worship is so far gone from everyday human reality (at least among most audiences) that you can dress it up and pretend it’s utopia.

    When someone sticks Jim Cameron butt-naked in the middle of a rain forest with no medicine or any modern tech of any kind, and he chooses to *stay* there (yes even after several months of training my a mostly-naked Zoe Saldana), then I’ll give his point-of-view a serious look. Until then it’s just Cameron spouting his weak, sadly outdated hippy garbage.

    You just don’t see what Douthat describes as “suffering and death” in nature because thousands of years of human achievement keep you from ever having to encounter it, and a lack of imagination apparently keeps you from even thoughtfully considering it.

  9. bonniestone

    Douthat’s viewpoint is, indeed, just that, his viewpoint. Another amongst many others, and all can, and tend to be, criticized by everyone else.

    Whether Douthat truly fears that nature will eat him or not, he has brought up a valid point that we, as a society, tend to Disneyfy nature and pantheism as a whole. It’s not to say that movies such as Avatar, Dances with Wolves, Legends of the Fall and others are not wonderful means of conveying a meaningful message-but perhaps that those particular means of doing so are a bit overused.

    I would also like to point out that we do not control nature. We try to, and it certainly seems that we do, but for every tree we cut down and every grass and chico bush field we raze for housing, the cold and snow and rain still drive us to find comfort inside, and the summer’s heat still forces us to find means of cooling ourselves off. Our “control” over nature is an illusion no matter what religion, or not, one believes in.

  10. jcalton

    I’m assuming Douthat does not spend a lot of time worrying about the effect man has on the Earth. He probably thinks it deserves whatever we do to it.

  11. david2

    Allison wrote:

    “(Isn’t it weird how an omniscient God keeps changing his mind all the time? Slavery is fine according to Exodus 21, though I’m sure — as you say — some sane individual came along later to modify the book, which just proves it is manmade and not the infallible word of God.)”

    See:

    Defending the Bible’s Position on Slavery
    by Kyle Butt, M.A.
    http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/368
    ——————————————–
    Reverend John Stott, rector emeritus at All Souls Church (London, England) writes:
    “First, we will avoid the deification of nature. This is the mistake of pantheists,
    who identify the creator with his creation; of animists, who populate the natural
    world with spirits; and of the New Age’s Gaia movement, which attributes to nature
    its own self-contained, self-regulating and self-perpetuating mechanisms. But all
    such confusions are derogatory to the creator.”

    “…Second, we must avoid the opposite extreme, which is the exploitation of nature.
    Just as we must not treat nature obsequiously as if it were God, we must not behave
    towards it arrogantly as if we were God. Genesis 1 has been unjustly blamed for
    environmental irresponsibility. It is true that God commissioned the human race to
    ‘have dominion over’ the Earth and to ‘subdue it’ (Genesis 1:26-28, NRSV), and these
    two Hebrew verbs are forceful. It would be absurd, however, to imagine that he who
    created the Earth then handed it over to us to destroy it. No, the dominion God has
    given us is a responsible stewardship, not a destructive domination.”

    “The third and correct relationship between human beings and nature is that of
    co-operation with God….God planted the garden, but then put Adam in it ‘to work it
    and take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15).” (p. 5)

    http://www.canadianmennonite.org/vol10-2006/10-13/10-13small-671.pdf

  12. ghowardjr

    I see lots of criticism and sneering at Christians based on writings from a book I believe is still the foundation of the Jewish religion-(most Christians tend to take the New Testament as the last word, where none of these laws exist)-yet no criticism of Jews.

    Or for that matter Muslims whose holy book makes eating pork a sin, along with many other things (including condoning polygamy and murder of infidels) that are ripe for sneering at.

    Yet, only Christians get snarky jokes thrown their way. Why? Christians deserve criticism, so does everyone–atheists included–so why leave anyone out unless of course you are being a hypocrite.

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