Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Avatar & Religion

The question:

Week 9 and 10 Response Paper Assignment - Due April 14th

Very simply: write 500-700 words on the aspects of the film relevant for not just religious issues, but religious issues in America. What connections can you make between the film and particular themes we have discussed so far in class? What does this film suggest about the general relationship between Hollywood and religion in American society? Make sure to keep your response within the word limit, even if this keeps you from discussing every example of American religion in the film you’ve selected.

My answer:

I selected Avatar because Professor Cox promoted us viewing it in a lecture. As Prof. Cox indicated, it has broken box-office records around the world (including here in America) and was nominated for the “Best Picture” award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.

Most obviously, the name of the film has religious connotations for Hindus in America. The term “avatar” is used in sacred Hindu texts to denote incarnations of deities. For instance, Rama, the seventh avatar of the deity Vishnu, of the sacred poem Ramayana, is (in the Sanskrit language) an “avatar.” Krishna is the avatar in the epic poem Mahabharata.

The term “avatar,” however, is currently used by those who play virtual reality games or participate in virtual reality social networks or learning environments. In these contexts, avatars are the participant’s “incarnation” in the virtual reality world of the game, social network, or learning environment.

To all but practicing Hindus, the term “avatar” has this later connotation, most Americans being oblivious to the etymology of the word. Nonetheless, there are a significant number of Hindus in America and there were some initial protest from Hindus to James Cameron’s use of the term as the film’s title. Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism (based in Nevada), in a press release, said that “avatar” was one of the central themes Hinduism and insensitive handling of faith traditions sometimes results in pillaging serious spiritual doctrines and revered symbols and consequently injures devotees.

The interplay between religion and the film, however, does not end with its title. American Roman Catholics were warned by the Vatican that the film flirts with the worship of nature (see Alessandra Rizzo’s article in January 12, 2010 Huffington Post). Vatican Radio said the film “cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium.”

For many theologically liberal Christians the film’s exploration of the themes of imperialism, greed, ecological disregard and corporate irresponsibility were welcomed and warmly embraced. Neopaganism, of which Pope Benedict was concerned, did not seem to worry liberal protestant Christians.

Ross Douthat wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times that called the film “Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism.” I find that assessment unwarranted by the content of the film. “Apologia” is too strong a word. The Vatican’s “flirt” is more accurate. Ross goes on to say that “pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation.” And names, “The Lion King,” “Pocahontas,” “Dances with Wolves,” and “Star Wars” as examples. Again, I find his judgment unwarranted. Disney’s portrayal of African religious practice in “The Lion King” or the portrayal of Native American religion in “Pocahontas” and “Dances with Wolves” is hardly the advocacy of pantheism. You can quibble with whether or not the films gave an accurate portrayal (given the limitations of the genre and medium), but to suggest that the films promote or are an evangelistic tool of pantheism seems silly to me. Avatar struck me as a remake of “Lawrence of Arabia” and I have never heard anyone suggest that “Lawrence of Arabia” was an apologia for Islam. Ross believes pantheism to be religiously misguided. I agree. “Avatar,” however, is not to my mind (as he suggests) an apologia for pantheism.

More interesting was Jonah Goldberg’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times. Goldberg summarizes the film thusly: the hero “goes native, embraces the eco-faith of Pandora's Na'Vi inhabitants and their tree goddess, the "all mother," and rallies the Pandoran aborigines (not to mention the Pandoran ecosystem itself) against the evil forces of a thinly veiled 22nd century combine of Blackwater and Halliburton.” Whereas I was not sure if Ross and I watched the same film, Goldberg and I certainly did. Like Goldberg, what I find interesting is how the film is unapologetically religious and yet a “blockbuster” and an Academy Award nominee.

Ross’ litany of films he believes promotes pantheism can be seen as a litany of films that have religious plot elements or themes and I would note that all were successful at the American box office. To my mind, rather than seeing Hollywood as a den of heresy, the take home lesson here is that America is very comfortable with religion, even when the religious convictions being expressed are not their own and further the popularity of these films attest to not only the comfort with religion (which is passive) but the nature of America to be affirmative of religion (a more active/positive response).

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