Movies are today's most popular means of influencing cultures on a worldwide scale. They have been effective in that way for the greater part of a century. They are, and always have been, teaching machines.
Although most people regard them as simply escapist fare or a mode of entertainment, they nevertheless always teach something. That fact became shockingly clear to me in my pre-Christian days when I was in Iran as a screenwriter on a Hollywood production. The time was just prior to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. The revolution was literally ignited by Muslim clerics who had ordered their followers to set fire to movie theaters (packed with audiences). It was a protest against the teaching and influence of Western culture contained in the films, particularly the immorality and degenerate conduct displayed. With obviously less drastic reactions and consequences, no place seems to be out of the reach of the influence of movies no matter where one travels these days.
That is certainly true of one of the most expensive films to date, the quarter-of-a-billion-dollar production of Avatar, which has already grossed 2 billion dollars. No film thus far has matched its stunning production value in creating a fantastic world of computer-generated characters that seamlessly match and interact with the physical actors and the world we know. Believability is the "do or die" quality of every movie of any kind, and Avatar makes believers of all but the most critical film goers--few of whom could complain that this extraordinary production did not give them their money's worth.
My objective in writing this article is not to complain about the movie production (I paid the matinee, senior-citizen price, so I hardly felt cheated) but rather to give my view of the theology communicated in Avatar. We at TBC have received questions from concerned parents who aren't sure the film would be appropriate for their young teens to see and want to know how to discuss the movie's content with them. Avatar's theology is my primary concern.
First of all, it shouldn't be surprising that the beliefs of most people are not derived from Sunday school or church teaching but rather religious ideas they pick up from a wide variety of sources as they go through life. Prior to being born again and becoming a biblical Christian, for example, I had received a great deal of religious instruction, growing up Catholic, to which I added all kinds of contrary spiritual ideas, from reincarnation to the denial of hell to the universal salvation of everyone. I've had conversations with those who claim to hold the Bible as their only source of faith and practice yet who also hold ideas they have gleaned from Oprah Winfrey or some of her New Age guests. Humanity in general seems to be a magnet for all kinds of beliefs about God, and this would include not only the very religious but the agnostic and the atheist as well.
Movies often teach theology. Some have greatly influenced our last two generations about the character and qualities of God and perhaps none more than the Star Wars series, which began in the late 1970s. This series promoted the supreme deity as an impersonal, amoral energy "Force" that could be tapped into and used for one's own end through mental techniques. "May the Force be with you" was even interpreted by some sincere (but sincerely wrong!) Christians as Jesus being the true "Force." Such a promotion attributes characteristics to Jesus that both distort and demean His character as presented in the Scriptures--resulting in "another Jesus." Star Wars wrapped the beliefs and practices of Hinduism in a high-tech, science fiction saga. Obi Wan was a sorcerer; Yoda was a yogi by design and practice, and the incredibly successful film series propelled Eastern mysticism into the minds of Western youth. Avatar does the same for shamanism.
Shamanism is the religion of nature and spirits and is the most widespread of all the religions in the world. It's found among every indigenous people group throughout the earth, and its beliefs and techniques are the same wherever it is found. This is due to the fact that shamanism is a practice that comes from the spirit realm, with the spirits themselves not restricted by distant geographical locations. The term shaman comes from the Tungus people of Siberia and has been preferred by anthropologists over "witch doctor," "medicine man," "wizard," "sorcerer," etc. According to noted authority Michael Harner, an anthropologist and shaman, "a shaman enters an altered state of consciousness at will to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons. The shaman has at least one, and usually more, 'spirits' in his personal service. To perform his work, the shaman depends on special, personal power, which is usually supplied by his guardian and helping spirits."
Avatar is a spectacular platform for preaching shamanism. The story line is neither unique nor complicated. A distant moon planet called Pandora is colonized by a corporation that is mining a metal of great value for the earth, which has been ravaged by the exploitation of its own natural resources. The enterprise, however, is hampered by a tribe of indigenous humanoids called Na'vi, whose village and land cover the main core of the precious metal. Diplomatic attempts to persuade the Na'vi to resettle elsewhere have ended in failure, primarily because of the Na'vi's religion of shamanism. They worship Eywa, a goddess akin to what the Greeks called Gaia, or Mother Earth. Eywa appears to be an impersonal, godlike force that is responsible for maintaining the balance of all life. Everything in Pandora is linked to Eywa mystically and biologically. The biological emphasis amplifies the critical nature of preserving the planet's physical ecological system for future survival. Demonstrating the connectedness of all life forms, the spirits of animals that are killed for food or in self-defense are addressed by the Na'vi either in thanksgiving or apologetically.
Nothing of the sort is found among the humans. The mining enterprise is protected by mercenary soldiers who are gearing up to remove the Na'vi should they ultimately refuse to vacate their land.
The hero of the movie is a paraplegic former marine (Jake Sully) who learns the way of the Na'vi by utilizing a Na'vi-human hybrid body, a creation of incredibly advanced bio-technology. It is called an avatar. Jake, in his avatar body, is accepted by the Na'vi because of initial signs that he is favored for some purpose by Eywa and the spirits.
Director and writer James Cameron makes his theological (and ecological) bent quite clear in nearly every frame of the film. The movie's title and image of the Na'vi are derived from the Hindu god Krishna, a blue-skinned incarnated avatar of the god Vishnu. Hinduism teaches that throughout history avatars have manifested in human and/or animal forms to restore the balance of good and evil. The emphasis on trees in the movie is consistent in all shamanism. The huge Hometree that housed the Na'vi clan and is destroyed in the attack by the humans is representative of Eywa providing for the Na'vi through "Mother" nature. The luminescent Tree of Souls, which provides direct communication with Eywa, is also a power center that can transfer souls to other bodies. In traditional shamanism, the tree is a universal communication medium for such cultures to connect with deceased shamans, ancestors, and the spirits themselves.
Cameron has added his own twist to native shamanism by having the Na'vi communicate with the Eywa, spirits, and animals through fiber optics in their braided hair tails. The Na'vi plug the strands into similarly compatible devices found in animals and plants. Although at odds with the actual practice of shamanism, this does reflect the necessity of "experiencing" a god that cannot be "known" through reason, intellect, or science. It also solves a problem for Cameron the filmmaker. In what was no doubt a box office-related decision, he avoids the method commonly used by shamans to contact the spirits: inhaling or imbibing hallucinogenic drugs. Na'vi "doing drugs" would have forced Avatar out of a PG-13 rating, eliminating an age group that is prone to seeing such a movie many, many times, as well as being a top consumer of Avatar-related merchandise.
In true shamanism, there is no physical "plugging into" or direct biological connection to the spirits. The spirits are nonphysical entities. Other than the drugs that are taken to produce an altered state of consciousness, connecting with the spirits is a mental process. Yet Cameron's deviation from true shamanism ultimately leads to the belief in Eywa. Dr. Grace Augustine, the female scientist in the movie, declares that all of the so-called spiritual phenomena she has observed on Pandora can be explained biologically. In the end, however, Dr. Grace undergoes a conversion. As she lies dying beneath the Tree of Souls, her final words are those of a materialist who allows her "experience" to override her "science" as she declares her belief in the panentheist goddess of the Na'vi: "Eywa--I see her. She's real!" Grace became what C. S. Lewis described as the ideal work of Satan--a "materialist magician." She submitted to a "Force" god without acknowledging the reality of personal spirits behind such an entity, i.e. demons. Jake, on the other hand, although he initially disdained what he called the "tree-hugging" stuff of the Na'vi, fully commits himself to their "natural" way of life and their mother goddess Eywa.
After reading dozens and dozens of comments by young people enamored with the theology in Avatar, it is apparent that its false gospel is finding fertile soil worldwide as it introduces and attracts millions of moviegoers to shamanism.
James Cameron has presented what the Bible calls the "doctrine of devils" promoted by Satan, the father of lies, and taught directly by demons. Cameron's pagan beliefs are diametrically opposed to what the Bible teaches. Furthermore, his idealistic view of the natural purity of an indigenous tribe such as the Na'vi is pure propaganda (see my interview with a former Yanamamo shaman in TBC 11/03). The belief that naturalism produces a life of harmony, fruitfulness, and peace is a lie taught by many anthropologists yet contradicted by the experience of every shamanic society wherever they may be found. How can I be so sure? All indigenous groups are made up of people, who, like all people everywhere, are sinners. This innate evil, moreover, is compounded by seducing spirits bent on deceiving and destroying the humans who find themselves in bondage to them. No anthropologist has ever produced a tribe that was an exception to this destructive condition.
Cameron is certainly entitled to preach the shamanic gospel of Avatar. Christians, however, need to be aware of what they are being fed along with the overpriced popcorn. It is a general lack of discernment among them that is often maddening and spiritually treacherous for the upcoming generation of believers. The maddening part comes when professing believers attempt to read Christianity into popular movies that are thoroughly antichrist. It happened with Star Wars, the Harry Potter series, and too many others to list. It's a foregone conclusion that we will see much of the same for Avatar. Christianity Today, for example, often leads the way in anointing the world's popular delusions as Christian. In its supported blog site directed at women and titled Her·meneutics (ironically a play on the word that fosters accurate Bible interpretation), a female Princeton Seminary student writes the featured article, suggesting that the character of Grace (mentioned above) may have been "Avatar's Christian character," and then adds a qualification, "Well, Christian-ish anyway."
Christian-ish?! James Cameron would be appalled at the suggestion; I am angered. The only insertion of any thing "Christian" in the entire movie is the name of a floating mountain range ("Hallelujah") and the mention of the Lord's name, which is used as a curse word. That's also a paradox for a story set more than a thousand years from today, seemingly far removed from the religious content missionaries supposedly used to "spoil the purity" of the noble savages. Although Christianity has obviously died out in the movie's future setting, ironically its God remains in the psyche and on the foulmouthed lips of the characters in the movie.
Christianity Today, the Emerging Church Movement, Rick Warren's Global P.E.A.C.E. plan, and those among some mission and parachurch organizations (e.g., those that follow the leadership and teachings of C. Peter Wagner) have a penchant for trying to find buried nuggets of Christ in the culture, or accommodating Christianity to the culture, and vice versa. Many are about sanctifying and redeeming the paganism of a society, or at least trying to harmonize and work with all religions. This is all fodder for syncretism and ecumenism. They are contributing to the religion of the Antichrist. A. W. Tozer took such an endeavor to task by noting that Moses did not enter into a panel discussion with the Israelites for finding some spiritual merits of the golden calf, nor did Elijah trade edifying insights with the prophets of Baal, and neither did Jesus seek a meeting of the minds with the Pharisees. Furthermore, promoting a "group hug" among contradictory religions with the intention of solving the world's problems is a grand delusion at best. Isaiah, speaking for Jehovah God, makes His view absolutely clear: "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this [God's] word, it is because there is no light in them" (Is 8:20).
Warnings are also clear in the Word of God that a great spiritual battle is being waged all around us, that we are in the days of rampant apostasy in the church, and that we are being subjected to an increasing antichristianity in the world. What then must a believer do? We must diligently follow the Lord's prevention and protection program, the heart of which is found in Psalm 1: "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper." But certainly there's more: prayer and fellowship, for example. We need to circle the wagons at times--for spiritual protection, counsel, encouragement, and ministry to one another. If such things become our disciplined practice of life, though the Apostasy dries up the spiritual environment around us, we and our families nevertheless shall be fruitful in the Lord. TBC