After finally watching the viral You Tube of Mark Driscoll’s rant about how Avatar is “the most demonic, satanic movie” he has ever seen; (View at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cI5GxM4f50 ) after seeing Avatar three times and getting “choked up” three times; after watching how indigenous people around the world have embraced James Cameron and expressed their gratitude since Avatar’s release; I must say, Mark Driscoll’s take on the movie was typical but disappointing. Nothing personal, I’m not questioning Driscoll’s love for Christ, his commitment to Scripture or his intelligence, nor am I casting dispersions at anyone who agrees with him. I’m just saying, we all need to open up our worldviews a bit or we will never “get it.”
The reason why Driscoll and some Evangelicals just don’t “get it” (with Avatar being only one example) has little to do with truth and everything to do with the Western Enlightenment worldview that they bring to the issue. This view depicts a syncretistic perspective where White Middle-class American culture becomes the Christian “gold standard” for not just White Middle-class Americans, but everyone worldwide. I beg to differ. The significance of a movie like Avatar and the truth it conveys to us about the state of indigenous peoples around the world is a reminder of hope and assurance that God has not forgotten the oppressed and marginalized peoples of the world.
To Driscoll’s claim that the movie is satanic I say:
It’s easy when you are in a position of perceived moral authority to brand something or someone as “satanic.” The West was at one time full of gunslingers. Reckless White men would shoot first and ask questions later. Today, segments of Evangelical Christianity seem to draw people who will join together to pass lightning-quick, knee-jerk judgments on devils of their own making. In fact, no mass movement can exist without a devil. Evil’s favorite trick is to send the followers of Christ out to fight supposed demons (reminiscent of “Don Quixote’s windmills,”) instead of just simply doing good for others in Christ.
In this case I would have hoped that Christian leaders could have used such an opportunity to address the many past and present injustices against indigenous people rather than chase windmills. European immigrants, under the guise of Christianity, have done enough evil to indigenous people in America and around the world. Don’t we deserve a little human kindness somewhere in the balance? Not that Indigenous peoples are not used to being demonized, I just thought the cycle would last a bit longer before it came around again.
Members of the fanatic group are taught to have a common hatred, a single foe, a devil. The ideal devil is a foreigner….Hitler—the foremost authority on devils—found it easy to brand the German Jews as foreigners. (Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements 2002: 92-93).
To Driscoll’s claim that Avatar depicts culture as bad, I say:
Whose culture? The movie leaves us thinking about the injustices that have been levied against indigenous people for centuries, including the attempted genocides, mass land thefts and the ultimate choice that we as indigenous people have been given to either assimilate to Western values or die. What Cameron failed to show in the film was that it was often Christians who were behind these deplorable acts and popular Christian doctrinal interpretations that were used to justify such exploitation. Instead of condemning the movie, Christians should be thanking James Cameron that he was not so true to history to rightfully indict the church in his film.
Driscoll’s view of progressive civilization is naïve at best. The Western view of progress is tied into colonial and neocolonial imperialism. Such a view judges seemingly less complex, less materialistic, indigenous, host people societies to be inferior to, and less deserving than imperialistic, immigrant, materialistic settler societies. I suppose one’s view of civilization depends on which side of the bomb you are on or under, or which multi-national corporations control your chance at economic development. Modern humanity has always found newer, more efficient ways to kill and control other peoples but I am not sure Jesus would call this view advanced or civilized. Certainly he would not call it Christian.
For the most part, contemporary historians have proceeded from the presumption that modern people are different from and superior to those who came before–especially those designated as “primitives.” Distortions and incomplete and even dishonest renderings of the past are found in many modern accounts of ancient peoples and contemporary “primitive” peoples; these accounts serve to reinforce the sense of difference and to distance moderns from unflattering legacies of the past.” (John Mohawk, Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the World 1999:260)
To Driscoll’s charge of pantheism I say:
The movie does not express Pantheism, in the way Driscoll is thinking of, but it does express Panentheism. Panentheism is not the same as Pantheism. Basically, the difference in this context is that Pantheism understands everything to be god and Panentheism understands that “God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.” Panentheism is defendable from Scripture, seeing God’s hand in all he makes.
In a Western Enlightenment worldview such as the one Driscoll is expressing, human beings can be categorized apart from and over creation. The result is a false dichotomy between the physical earth and spiritual beings. Human beings are fully physical and the earth is fully spiritual. All of creation is sacred and there is a problem with worldview, not truth when one is considered sacred and not the others. Indigenous people understand creation as God’s first discourse and constant teacher. All Indigenous people hope that others will understand the connection we have to all of creation before we completely lose the health of the planet God has given us.
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect. -Chief Seattle, 1854
In summary, I don’t believe the movie even suggests the other many accusations which Driscoll levies against it including “a divine spark in everything,” “a sinless humanity,” “a false Christ, “a false resurrection,” etc. Cameron’s work was not made as a “Christian film” and imposing Christian motifs into the story betrays more of the reader’s baggage than the screenplay’s. One should judge Avatar on its own merits, as speaking to humanity in general, rather than casting a false set of religious assumptions upon it.
It’s also interesting to note that while Mark Driscoll singles out the resurrection of Jake Sully into the body of a Na’vi in Avatar as a “false resurrection” he had no such publicly allergic reaction to the resurrection of Aslan in the 2005 production C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or how about Gandalf’s resurrection in the 2002 live action Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Unless one is willing to elevate Lewis’ or Tolkien’s work to the level of canon, it’s difficult to see how one story is more truthful, more sacredly allegorical, or even, more false than the others.
Driscoll’s critique is too familiar to indigenous peoples. We have heard for centuries how our cultures are demonic and unredeemed. I understand how one people group with the strongest voice and most privilege can expect everyone else to become like them. When you have all the power, capital, and influence, you can choose to be that hulking, ugly, yellow bulldozer that mows down everything in its path: you don’t need to listen to other viewpoints and worldviews. We Indians get that. But we remind our privileged brothers and sisters that being the bulldozer has and will continue to have negative consequences for all of God’s children. Those who follow Christ should know better.
For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all…collectively their history is our history and should be part of our shared and remembered heritage…When we forget great contributors to our American history—when we neglect the heroic past of the American Indian—we thereby weaken our own heritage. We need to remember the heritage our forefathers found here and from which they borrowed liberally.
Our treatment of Indians…still affects the national conscience…It seems a basic requirement to study the history of our Indian people. Only through this study can we as a nation do what must be done if our treatment of the American Indian is not to be marked down for all time as a national disgrace.
–John F. Kennedy, 1961
Fortunately for us, Cameron didn’t just get the plight of indigenous peoples, he used Avatar to expose it to the world. I hope more Christians will eventually “get it” as well.