Avatar: “It’s an Indigenous Thing” by Randy Woodley

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.

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14 Responses to Avatar: “It’s an Indigenous Thing” by Randy Woodley

  1. Greg Vaughn (Lone Wolf) says:

    `Siyo Randy !

    I agree with you 100% !! I have watched AVATAR three or four times at the theater and once at home on dvd and every single time I end up crying because of the truth and similarities it brings out about our native culture past and present and the genocide that has come upon our people !!! I will pray that Driscoll hears from CREATOR and Son JESUS from the heart this time and not from some preconceived ideas. Aho !

  2. brazenbird says:

    Hear, hear. I didn’t hear about Driscoll’s comments regarding Avatar. Thank you for exposing his point of view. It’s far more dangerous to me than any point of view coming from a movie like Avatar.

  3. Excellent and comprehensive response! I appreciate this very much.

  4. Art Brokop II says:

    This response is important! (I have not seen the movie yet) the disparages between dominating peoples and dominated – whether assimilated or not shouts about the moving of ancient boundaries and taking advantage of widows and orphans. These admonitions in Scripture are warnings. These warnings indicate less then blessings upon the perpetrators of such actions. As mentioned, unfortunately the representatives of Creator known as the Church in many cases acted against these admonitions. A Biblical worldview does not homogenize culture moreover taking Scripture at face value based upon Gen.11 multiple cultures reflect Creator-Yahweh. Therefore to Demonize one or any is the Demonic!

  5. matt belgie says:

    I think Driscoll is picking on Avatar. There are many Hollywood movies he could have chosen to point out the idolatry of worshiping mother earth (intentionally lower case) and self. It is yet another movie that asks individuals to be their own gods and to look inside themselves for strength and truth and light. Cameron tacks on an issue to the prevalent Hollywood world view. While Driscoll’s interpretation of one of Hollywood’s main world views is correct, he certainly could have pointed out the other message that is important for Christians to hear. He could have asked the question; why does it so often take a non-believer from Hollywood to act justly and love mercy? It becomes a chicken or the egg question. Did Cameron tug at the hearts of those who sympathize or need to sympathize with those who have suffered past and present from colonialism to get across his idolatrous world view, or did he tug at the hearts of those who are soothed by the idolatrous world view to get across the evils of colonialism? I believe both were present. While i believe its responsible for Christians to evaluate all media and art from the Christian world view, i also believe that more Christians should using media and art (of great quality) to raise real issues should tug at the hearts of Christians and non Christians, particularly issues that effect the least, last and lost of Gods Creation. Driscoll could have picked on any mainstream Hollywood film that mixes the common world view with a meaningful issue. Any Disney movie would have sufficed.

  6. Nitin Jain says:

    In india people liked the movie but can’t say if they have actually understood the baseline……..

  7. Fantastic response brother woodly, I was very happy to see this, now lets hope that Mr. Driscoll views this. You speak for most if not all of us brother.

  8. Art Brokop II says:

    John
    First if you go with the”cultural names for GOD” concept then you had better stop saying and using “Jesus” in prayer ect because Yahweh is his reveled name, check Exodus. He who became the incarnation (a change by the way) bore the name “the salvation of Yahweh” – Ya’shua. If the Creator is omni and sacred then what He made has His attributes, yes the fall influences the current condition, however since He holds together everything by his word (who became incarnate) then the sacred is still embedded. The relationship of Creator’s image – Man changed after the Fall. Thus the interaction between His image and Himself changed – no longer face to face but through intermediates – first angles (read Hebrews) then the second part of the Tributary Godhead the Son who veiled Him self so we could see Him face to face again so to understand Him and not tremble (check Exodus again Mt. Sinai) even though He is the same yesterday today forever. Creator – Yahweh changed His non essential aspect of Himself – His image to place Himself in a context “incarnation” by which we could hear, see, and understand (for those who have ears to hear…).
    Homogenized humanity does not express Yahweh’s omniness otherwise the event of Babel (Check Genesis) would have no meaning and reflects contradictions of “made in His image”. The response here is an outline and for pondering because a complete detail is a ministry that is needed even if one strips feathers and leather!

  9. Randy says:

    John,

    Once again, all us in culturally contextual Native American ministry are indebted to you for letting us know who is a real Christian, who is a real Indian, and who has a valid ministry and theology. If you could just be with us all the time we wouldn’t even need the Holy Spirit.

    If ever you could discuss a theological issue without disrespecting the people who disagree with you, it might be interesting to hear what you have to say.

  10. Daniel F says:

    “One last thing, it is blasphemy to use cultural names for GOD, or names of Supreme beings, and simply add the name Jesus and expect GOD to listen or answer. Cultural names are unredeemable and any prayers offered to these false gods are going no farther than the ceiling.”

    John, you list your deity’s attributes as “holy, sovereign, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, self-existent, eternal, immutable, perfect, and infinite. ” Did you, maybe forget “deaf” or perhaps “capricious?”

    Do you think an all-powerful, sovereign being really cares what people on earth call it, as long as they are respectful?

    How can your divine being, who supposedly created the known universe be threatened by mere dust calling it “Creator?” Isn’t creating one of its attributes?

    Is your God also so blind that it cannot divine the hearts and motives of those who cry out to it, regardless of their tongue or name for it?

    You can argue that “Creator” doesn’t encapsulate the entirety of an infinite character, but then, what human word/concept can enclose an unenclosable being? No single language is adequate to the task, nor would an infinitely intelligent being expect that of its finite creations.

    You wrote your post in English. Do you think true followers can only name God correctly using the English language?

    After all, people have been around a lot longer than the English has. If that’s the case, when did your deity first begin listening to humans? Only after they got its name correct (in English)?

    All appellations for God are cultural. Humanity has never known an existence without culture and neither have you, though you might not recognize it. Culture cannot exist without language, language cannot exist without culture. Names cannot exist without language. Cultural names for God are appropriate because every name for God is cultural, even yours.

  11. Larry Shelton says:

    John,

    You have provided an excellent example of the mentality that in the name of “sound doctrine” was complicit in the cultural and personal annihilation of millions of created beings while claiming to be glorifying Jesus. Where in Scripture would you legitimize this kind of genocide? Your response pretty well shows Randy’s point. Thanks.

  12. Patti Cutler says:

    John,

    I just finished reading a book called “Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola and George Barna. It was helpful to me because it showed the tremendous impact Greco-Roman culture has had on defining the “white church.” It also helped me to see the valuable role that our native friends will play in restoring the church of Jesus. Their understanding of some very key principles needed to rebuild the church into a living organism from its current state of a dying organization has not been as muddied by cultural bias as it has been for those of us who grew up in the Western church.

    I have found that when I take the time to really listen to what the native followers of Jesus are saying, my faith is not destroyed, but transformed! But that happens only when I am able to listen beyond the thoughts of “They are messing with the things I learned way back when I was a little girl in Sunday school so they must be wrong.”

    One of the important lessons I learned is that people from an oral tradition do not “hear” stories in the same way that Western people do. And that greatly impacts how we understand the Bible and I think it probably influenced your understanding of the movie Avatar as well.

    I encourage you to continue to listen…

    • Art Brokop II says:

      AMEN, literature based thinkers, MUST REMEMBER THAT THE HEBREW PEOPLE WERE ORAL PEOPLE THUS THE COMMUNICATION OF TORAH OUR FOUNDATION NEEDS CULTURAL TRANSFORMING AS WELL.

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