Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why don’t conservative commentators like Avatar?

So far, the conservative writers on the Op-Ed page of the NYTimes are 2-0 against the 3-D blockbuster Avatar and its “left-learning” producer James Cameron. David Brooks claims the storyline is “simplistic.... offensive.... racist.... escapist,” covertly anti-American and demeaning to native cultures. Ross Douthat tells us that the film (along with past hits like The Lion King and Dancing With Wolves promotes a dangerous and delusional “gospel of pantheism” and a romantic view of primitive cultures which isn’t nearly as good for human beings as his kind of Christianity, which he tells us provides humanity with a “way out” of Nature, which is “amoral and cruel.”

The unsuspecting reader may not realize how much these sophisticated commentators reflect a much more down-and-dirty campaign by right-wing Christians to block serious criticism of the global marketplace’s environmental destructiveness. Their main talking points just happen to be that such criticism is “leftist” (and therefore essentially un-American), and “pantheistic” (essentially anti-Christian). Criticism of the “desacralization” of Nature that so characterizes modern Western culture is quickly deftly avoided by smears rather than direct response to the environmental critique.

“Simplistic,” or just too pointed for comfort?

The storyline of Avatar is certainly open to the charge of “simplistic” — bad corporate lust for resources backed by a grim military phalanx battles against earth-loving, tree-communing, dinosaur-flying natives. The dialogue is peppered with snarky barbs aimed at “quarterly profits” and “shock and awe” campaigns with clear contemporary references.

Indeed, the plot is so morally simplistic that one might be tempted to dismiss it—except for the fact that it is so sadly representative of the real moral struggle for our planet’s well-being being fought out this very day. The global climate change deniers, the heedless overfishing, the relentless habitat and species destruction, the poisoning of the water and degradation of the oceans—all in the name of “progress” (which more and more seems to equal “profit”) — all these are so morally obtuse, alas, that they already form simplistic stereotypes of themselves. Our civilization, our global market, cannot continue on this destructive path. That’s the real “bottom line.” One doesn’t need to be “leftist” (and I’m not) to agree with the critique.

"Pantheism" phobia

As to the “pantheism” charge, Douthat apparently has such Christian-Right selective vision that he gets major plot and character points of the film wrong. He imagines (incorrectly) that the Na’vi are a gentle, paradisiacal people (they’re not), that “Eywa, the All-Mother” is a deity morally indifferent and devoid of personal traits (She’s not), and that human beings are “not at home” in the midst of Nature’s “cruel rhythms” because, presumably we’re above all that, being spiritually superior to nature (huh? and exactly where did we come from, if not this world?)

So much of Douthat’s kind of Christianity (that strange marriage between Jesus and free-market capitalism) seems blissfully unaware of how profoundly unbiblical, how in service to the world-view of the modern, denatured world, it actually is. If animals are intelligent and trees en-spirited we might have to behave differently toward the world that sustains and supports us.

And the Bible says.....what?

Far from dismissing nature as merely “amoral and cruel," the Bible sees it as alive, en-spirited and indwelt by God. Cruelty is there, but cooperation and community, too (see Psalm 104). Human beings, far from being “above nature” are made out of the very elements of the planet (“dust thou art”), created right along with the land animals on that symbolic Sixth Day, made in the “image and likeness of God” in order to tend and keep the earth (Genesis 1). Not only that, the Bible reports the experiences of prophets who see nature as imbued with Divine Spirit (“heaven and earth are full of His glory” — Isaiah 6).

The whole world is caught up in what can only be described as a kind of planetary worship (“O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord ....sun and and snow....summer and winter.... mountains and things..... whales..... fowls....beasts and cattle.... everything that hath breath..... bless the Lord” — In the Catholic edition of Daniel). Sounds a lot like the planet Pandora to me. Furthermore, this immanent presence of God in the world, God’s “glory” is described in Scripture as a feminine energy and Spirit, Holy Wisdom, “the fashioner of all things” (Wisdom 7-9) who is “at play” among human beings. How shockingly like Pandora’s deity Eywa, the All-Mother!

The earth is a) the Lord's or b) a Pantry for human beings

The purposes of industrial and post-industrial society are all-too well served by seeing Nature as a gold mine for human needs, a set of resources for Man, rather than hew to the Biblical vision of humanity as the steward of the planet, the choir director of a planetary act of worship. But if it is really true that “the earth is the Lord’s,” there might actually be moral constraints on our ways of “using resources,” as we still put it. And it might also be true that Pandora’s “living web of interconnected creatures” is an apt and biblically resonant portrayal of planet earth. If so, "sharing resources" with all the other lifeforms in the web might be a more biblical viewpoint.

Biblically, "the earth is the Lord's" in all its multi-species "fullness" (Psalm 24). If Hollywood is friendlier to Native American, Eastern and New Age spirituality than to Christianity, it may be because Douthat’s version of the faith speaks so loudly today, and is so strangely joined at the hip to a run-away marketplace that badly needs a course correction. And that, underneath it all, is most probably why Brooks and Douthat don’t like the film.

But I’m happy to say that Avatar, in spite of its moral over-simplifications, seems very much on the side of the angels to me.

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