Jan 14, 2010

Of Avatar and Catholics... and Other Christian Arrogance

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.


As I said here,  I've been, over the past couple of weeks, noting incidents of jaw-dropping arrogance, in the name of Christianity. Having been raised in the Episcopal Church, with its emphasis on ecumenicism and tolerance, I always find this kind of thing rather jarring. So, as promised, here's a quick round-up. Sadly, I think this could be a regular feature.

The Vatican vs. Avatar:

The Vatican has weighed in on mega-blockbuster "Avatar" and given it the thumbs down. Some of the criticism is fair. The story is a little "simplistic." It is a James Cameron vehicle, after all, so it's somewhat formulaic. Anyone who expected otherwise from "Avatar" would be disappointed. It is still wildly entertaining and cinematically spectacular. (See it in Imax 3D, if you can. You won't regret it.)

Of course the chief criticisms from the Vatican newspaper and radio are ideological, not artistic.

L'Osservatore said the film "gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature." Similarly, Vatican Radio said it "cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium."

"Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship," the radio said.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that while the movie reviews are just that - film criticism, with no theological weight - they do reflect Pope Benedict XVI's views on the dangers of turning nature into a "new divinity."

. . .

In a recent World Day of Peace message, the pontiff warned against any notions that equate human person and other living things. He said such notions "open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man's salvation in nature alone."

Oh, where to begin... Firstly, how does a movie become 'bogged down" in the screenwriter's choice of spiritual belief system? Getting "bogged down" is a problem of style, not theme; excessive detail, poor plotting, leaden dialogue... These things will bog a story down; not pantheism.

Secondly, both L'Osservatore and His Holiness misunderstand the nature of pantheistic religions. While I will grant you that these belief systems vary, even from person to person, having spent a good deal of my life studying and practicing Pagan and shamanic systems, I feel fairly comfortable dismissing their interpretation, in toto. Pagans and pantheists don't "worship" nature, in the sense that Christians worship God. (Nor, do the natives, or Na'Vi, in "Avatar." Something quite obvious to anyone who actually paid attention to the movie.) They do not put nature spirits above themselves. They honor them as part of the same divinity that expresses itself through all manifest reality. They pay respect to all living things as their relations. They do not look to nature for salvation, because they don't think their souls need saving.

I'm not surprised the Vatican is threatened by the record breaking success of a movie that extols the virtues of a pantheistic lifestyle. After all, early Catholics worked very hard to convert pagans, by successfully coopting their symbols and holidays. They gave them their mother goddess in the form of the blessed virgin. They gave them their Saturnalia, by renaming it Christmas. They adapted to the indigenous beliefs of all the "savage lands" they conquered. But, these pagan beliefs have proven very difficult to stamp out completely. They keep re-emerging. And, according to some conservative critics, Hollywood is having a love affair with them.

Douthat & Goldberg vs. Avatar:

New York Times  columnist Ross Douthat also pounded Avatar for its pantheistic themes:

It’s fitting that James Cameron’s “Avatar” arrived in theaters at Christmastime. Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James.

But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.

In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing.

If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now...

Why pantheism needs defendng by Cameron, or anyone else, I don't know. Ironically, Douthat goes on to write a fairly decent apologia for pantheism, but dismisses his own argument.

Over at the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg picked up Douthat's ball and ran with it, crafting his own apologia, for the oh so unfairly maligned Catholicism.

What would have been controversial is if -- somehow -- Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.

Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that's the point, isn't it? We live in an age in which it's the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na'Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers.

Goldberg goes on to expound on the theory that human beings are hard-wired to experience some form of spirituality, even as he mocks this particular expression of that spirituality. What Goldberg seems to miss is that the rebellion against imperialism (as in the mercenary enforced take-over of a fictional planet's resources) and what he calls "traditional religion" are of a piece. Hollywood's fascination with pantheism is just so much pandering to a ground-swell of rebellion against the hierarchical systems that have crushed civilizations and individuals, throughout recorded history. People are turning to more pantheistic, pagan, shamanic, and mystical beliefs, because we are taking our spirituality back.

Brit Hume vs. Buddhism:

Meanwhile, Brit Hume used his pulpit at Fox News to lambast Buddhism. In hopes of saving Tiger Woods's beleaguered soul, he offered the following:

The extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So, my message to Tiger would be: Tiger, turn your faith, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.

A good round-up of the responses to Hume's proselytizing, from across the political and religious spectrum, comes from David Gibson at Politics Daily. Gibson also offers the fairly obvious point that Christianity's track record on reforming behavior isn't so hot.

The other problem with Hume's comments is that they are contradicted by so much evidence. Anecdotally, one need look no further than the sanctimonious Christian pols-turned-philanderers, or the many high-profile pastors who turn out to have feet of clay. Statistics also show that Christians are as likely to divorce or abort as everyone else, and Bible Belt states often have much higher rates of marital breakdown and teen pregnancy than other regions.

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