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AVATAR: The Way of Paganism

Poster courtesy of MMPA

AVATAR: The Way of Paganism

By Mark Harris

The two AVATAR movies by James Cameron have provided escapist entertainment to huge international audiences, in two of the highest-grossing films of all time. Although the storylines are predictable (and have been criticized for that), the CGI effects, and especially in the underwater sequences, have been groundbreaking and stunning. Three more films are planned to complete the series.

The story pits various clans of an idyllic tribal culture (called the Na’vi) on a planet called Pandora, with its harmonious relationship to nature and the spirit behind nature, against heartless, imperialistic, militaristic, capitalist invaders who are cartoonishly rapacious, violent, and unsympathetic to the extreme. It is this lack of any subtlety that has generated many eyerolls among those who aren’t leaning heavily to the political left.

In between the two extremes are a group of anthropologists who are sympathetic to the tribal culture, and through whose eyes we are invited to choose the obviously “correct” side in the conflict. It is very effective propaganda. The beauty of the movie is one key to its seduction, and even strong believers will find themselves being tempted to accept the message. All seduction bypasses the critical faculties and engages the heart directly, and only strong biblical grounding can effectively counter the temptation.

The purpose of this article is not to review the film itself (storyline, cinematography, aesthetics, etc.), but to examine how the worldview of AVATAR is deeply attractive to a public increasingly detached from the biblical worldview. Christians may take for granted the attractiveness of eternal childhood to a transcendent, personal Father God, and the joy of submission to the will of an infinitely good sovereign. But this reality is not attractive to the lost heart held captive by the enemy of souls. Rather, the promise of some sort of independent personal divinity, with no accountability to any higher power, is what is motivating much of the viewing public. The AVATAR experience assists in this deception in various ways, as we will see below.

An Ally from the False Light

First it will be instructive to see the message of the film through the eyes of Marianne Williamson, the New Age guru who recently ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination. Her interview with Cameron is a fascinating watch. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdhWN-iG3eY) In it she praises the movie and commends Cameron for the profound “truths” that he presents in AVATAR (the first of the two films).

The worldview that Williamson supports in AVATAR includes the connectivity of all living things to each other, with an underlying spiritual reality that is pantheistic. That is, there is only one immaterial reality, and everything and everyone is an emanation of that reality. This idea fits in well with the “spiritual but not religious” trend that is ubiquitous in our day. SCP has been writing about varieties of this basic New Age philosophy since the 1970’s. It is nothing new.

Cameron asserts in the interview that in AVATAR he was consciously referencing the pre-Christian pagan mystery religions that are more “goddess-based,” more wholistic and nature-worshipping, and less patriarchal to that which came afterward (that is, the Christian faith). Of course these were many and quite varied, so it was Cameron’s personal values that determined which particular features from pagan worldviews would show up among the Na’vi.

Cameron’s Syncretism

Although Marianne Williamson has a well-defined spiritual worldview, it seems to me that Cameron’s belief system is a mixture of faith in the scientific method along with an environmentalism that is not necessarily connected with a particular dogmatic worldview. He states in the interview that he “loves spirituality,” but that seems to be limited to the feelings and the general philosophies. When spirituality steps over a line into applying “magical thinking” to real-world problems, it steps into the realm of unprovable theories with no “checks and balances” where peer-review can demand evidence or else reject the theories. To Cameron it seems more important to get the “nature” right, and allow the spiritual to follow.

Thus, Cameron and Williamson are not really on the same page except for their common belief in the interconnectedness of all things in some way. But it doesn’t matter that they don’t share the distinctives of a particular worldview as long as they agree on the “main things,” which in their case is some sort of mother earth interconnectedness of all things, upon which is built some sort of worship of the natural order.

All New Age belief systems tend to develop common enemies. They all reject of dogmatic certainty regarding spiritual reality (which eliminates Bible-believing Christians) and they hate environment-harming capitalism and industrial development. In AVATAR, the second group is explicitly attacked, while the former is indirectly rejected by the affirmation of a pantheistic worldview.

The Agenda

The key practical agenda of AVATAR, which is shared by those espousing New Age philosophies, is the urgent need to “save the planet.” They envision themselves as being part of a great crusade, in the face of a dangerous evil dominating our planet. Williamson finds hope in the power of Cameron’s film to change the minds of people and perhaps turn the tide while there is still time. This is why the mutual admiration evident in this interview is more instructive of the core values and intentions of the film than any Christian critique would be.

Cameron is therefore pressing the environmentalist message, while assuming the Na’vi worldview. The nature of the spiritual world is taken for granted; it is the wallpaper behind the explicit message, which makes it all the more subtle in its persuasion. The desperate desire to change the course of our treatment of the planet is the more widely accepted goal in society. But pagan spirituality is promoted as the worldview required to reach the environmental goals.

The Powerful Appeals and Dangers

There are several ways that the worldview of AVATAR appeals to our post-Christian culture, and especially young people who did not grow up with an assumed Christian worldview. Here are a few of the more obvious appeals, along with some dangers inherent in them.

– Innocence and the Noble Savage – Everyone is aware of the evils and corruption that mar our societies, and the anxiety and depression that commonly afflict individuals in the modern world. People wish to excuse themselves for the dark mess they find themselves in, and to find something or someone else to blame. The source of evil is commonly accepted to be outside of the heart, embedded in the evils

of modern society. They readily accept the claim that we are victims of an evil trap; that this is not our “real self” that is being displayed. Enter the helpful myth of the innate nobility of simple people who live in harmony with nature. If we could return to that innocence, we could solve our problems.

Williamson asserts that native people are more correctly spiritual than we are, because they understand the “connectedness of all of life,” and “the energy that flows through everything.” They are deeply connected to nature and a realization of its sacredness that goes far beyond what our eyes can see. Cameron shares the concern that we have lost our connection to nature, and notes that such natives tend not to see nature as something separate from themselves, as Westerners do. Since they are a part of nature, they don’t even have a word for “nature.” There is nothing that is “not nature,” including themselves, so they are in a bond of brotherhood with all of life, a reality displayed in the metaphysical connections they have to the creatures of Pandora.

Western culture received its understanding of creation from the worldview of the Bible, in which only humans are in the image of God, and the earth was theirs to subdue and manage. And they don’t expect a utopian possibility as long as they are in a corrupt world. But that assumption is now being increasingly seen as a false narrative that was imposed over innocent pre-Christian societies. But the reality is that apart from the light of God, most of indigenous religion was dark; it was an existence of constant fear of evil spirits that needed to be appeased. It was spiritually slavery, not freedom.

The noble innocent savage myth has at least two major dangers. First, it tempts people to assume that they are victims and not perpetrators. As long as they excuse themselves from any evil, they understand that they don’t need the kind of salvation that entails forgiveness. Second, it leads to a focus on the innate rather than the transcendent. All that is good and beautiful is to be found only in the here and now, and so worship is aimed at the creation instead of the Creator.

– The Divine Mother Nature – Central to the spiritual worldview of AVATAR is the goddess Aywa – the source of all life on Pandora. All of nature embodies this goddess spirit. The mother spirit is a nurturing and life-giving force. She is in all, all are in her, and she connects all together. This vision of the life force is common to all New Age philosophies, having been borrowed from forms of Hinduism. When a growing percentage of Westerners identify as “spiritual,” this is what they are talking about. They imagine an inner divine spark that connects them to the universal spirit, and which they need to fan to life in order to realize their full potential.

The mother image is a comforting one to those who want to feel accepted and loved as they are. Your mother tends to be the one who takes your side, defends you, comforts you when you are hurt, and tells you how wonderful you are. This is the divinity sought by the lost. They don’t want a stern judge who has defined His law and holds them accountable to it. They don’t want to be condemned, but they don’t want to repent from their sin either. The loving, accepting mother releases them from judgment, and in this spirit, they attack the Christian God as an invention of male-dominated societies that used such an image to control people. True liberation, in their mind, is to throw off any notion of guilt and realize their own divinity. It is hard to overestimate how powerful this notion is, since it fulfills the evil desire of the human heart and is supported by demonic counterfeit light.

The great danger here is obvious. Humans are, in their natural state, spiritually dead and separated from a holy God. It is only this starting point from which redemption springs, because it is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring this conviction. Pantheism soothes the self-centered soul with a dream of being an

essential part of a universal whole. The belief in a spark of internal divinity, which can be actualized by connection with the whole, puts all of the control in the hands of the creature. It is a deadly illusion.

A Vision of Earthly Harmony – The attention of postmodern spirituality has focused on the creation, and away from the Creator, as noted above. But this awareness becomes the motivating factor to a meaningful earthly life. Suddenly the soul awakes and realizes that everything is one, and that the harming of nature is harming the one spirit of which all are a part. This, in turn, ignites a passion to fight against any harming of animal life (thus the veganism that is not done for health purposes alone, but for the restoring of harmony in the life order). Global warming is seen as the result of unenlightened souls harming their mother. Suddenly life has purpose, in the form of a utopian vision of harmonious life on this earth.

Not every form of New Age spirituality buys into an entire package of a utopian earthly salvation, but the compelling images from a movie such as AVATAR invite them to give themselves over to this struggle for survival. And, as seen by the extreme self-righteousness of those who take these stances, there is not much sympathy for the Christians who do not share this same vision.

Christians are not ultimately optimistic about the future of the world in its present form. It is inevitably headed to destruction prior to the only true utopian state, which is a Heaven totally ruled by our infinitely benevolent Father God. Although we seek to be wise stewards of this temporal creation, we are not as concerned about finding a way to preserve creation as we are to save others out of an approaching darkness. Our urgency is for the souls of men and women, because only those souls are eternal. We don’t consider the current natural order as essential to the eternal scheme of things, because our Creator doesn’t.

It is this ambivalence which will put Christians at odds with any coming dominant Satanic worldview. We will be singled out as the preservers of an evil system. This is already evident in the attitudes present in every “progressive” development in society, where the shackles of a holdover religion, which never escaped the Dark Ages, must be thrown off to set people free. It is only because Christians still maintain a sizable minority that they are partially immune from heavy persecution – but who knows how long that will last.

A Visible Object of Worship – Christians may have historically read Romans chapter 1 and considered much of the degradation as describing only a dark past that at least the Western world has overcome. Not so. Believers see as a dark and lowly evil the focus on created things rather than the Creator. They think of unsophisticated people living in jungles and being controlled by their ignorance. But AVATAR flips that notion on its head. The closer the protagonists are to the created order, the more light that they have, and the more righteous they become. It is thus seen as a sign of high enlightenment to worship the creation, and an ignorant darkness to worship a transcendent Creator.

It is thus understandable that one of the first elements of degraded society, the acceptance of homosexuality as normal, has accompanied a rejection of a holy God. People who have their own divine spark need to be allowed to express who they truly are on the inside. Thus, a same-sex attraction is not only to be accepted, and not judged, but should even be considered as beautiful. Also, if a man thinks he is a woman trapped in a man’s body, who are we to reject his inner truth?

Returning to the issue of environmentalism, when you worship the creation, you see any harm to nature to be a disruption of the entire physical and metaphysical reality. If you cut into a tree, you are cutting

into all of us. Environmentalism moves beyond preserving the natural habitat and becomes all about saving ourselves, since we are an interconnected part of nature. The future of all things, in this worldview, is an ultimate merging of all life into one soul, and so those who are harming this created order are getting in the way of this vision (as noted above). Only a fully-formed worship of creation will be an acceptable “religion” for the enlightened.

A Call to True Awakening

A film like AVATAR can insinuate its worldview into the culture more rapidly as the prevailing assumptions of prior generations, raised with a Christian worldview, are rejected by more and more of the emerging generations. Tipping points are reached when enough people openly challenge the one-time Christian consensus. It takes time to change cultures, but as old worldviews lose their potencies, they can be ultimately overrun. A constant diet of self-affirming spirituality has made the biblical worldview sound evil to the deceived masses. They are discarding the patriarchal idea of God as the product of male domination and are receiving the more all-encompassing spiritual reality that envelopes everyone equally, without distinction. We are all one. This is attractive. What are some lessons for us?

– Sin is Relentless – We should not wonder how things could deteriorate so much, in such an accelerated manner, as if the West should not be susceptible to degradation. The reality is that sin is constantly on the attack. To suggest a metaphor: we live in a leaky boat, where water invariably presses into any new gap, and will always do so, without fail, until the vessel is saturated. If we are not bailing out faster than the water is pouring in, the ship can sink.

So long as we are on this earth, in this age, we can never create a vessel impervious to corruption by evil. Countless churches, organizations, and educational institutions have been established with godly sincerity and attempts to build permanent doctrinal and moral purity. Some succeed longer than others, but evil relentlessly attacks subsequent generations, who capitulate in the name of cultural relevance, harmony with the world, or the avoidance of humiliation in the face of critics. And this goes for cultures as a whole. There was no controlling mechanism that could ensure the continued respect for the founding values of our country. They are not self-evident to those living in darkness.

– Youth is Corruptible – Young people have a natural attraction to godless belief systems, or else to a lifeless membership in the system in which they were raised. They are naturally overconfident and self-righteous and lack the life experience to test the theories that sound attractive to them. They are idealistic and passionate, and deeply affected by peer pressure. They are simple-minded children who have no qualms about belittling their elders. In other words, they are ripe for the picking when new spiritual fads become widespread.

The stodgy ways of the adults are usually connected directly to the idea of a sovereign lawgiving God, and young people are always attracted more to a worldview that gives them license to be what they want to be. All pantheistic or animist worldviews offer a “spirituality” without a need for repentance – although ultimately, they enslave the soul because the promises are empty. The illusion of a great escape from corruption into beautiful, joyous existence is powerful, but it is a lie.

AVATAR is recruiting more pagan pantheists, right under their parents’ noses. And those parents who are complacent, or who are simply traditionalists themselves (with no spiritual life) don’t have the power to counteract the pressures on their children. It is the apparent “true believers” among their peers who appeal to their sinful desires for self-glorification. And, as the older generations die away,

they begin to look a bit like the stereotypical bad guys being “exposed” by the film. Perhaps they are beloved family members, so they may not overtly attack them, but in their hearts they write them off as old-fashioned people whose out-of-touch spiritual systems need to die away. Christian parents thus need to take very seriously the discipling of their children, never assuming that their youthful acquiescence to the Christian beliefs of their parents constitutes saving faith.

– The Battle is Spiritual – As we know from Ephesians 6:12, our battle is not against flesh and blood. We are fighting a battle against an unseen enemy, and only the weapons that have been given to us by the Holy Spirit will have any effectiveness against those powers. And those weapons (listed in verses 13-20) are the Word of God and focused prayer. This is why the enemy makes such constant attacks against the Bible, and tempts believers to lose hope and stop praying. They fight for keeps, without mercy. We can’t stand against them unless we do it God’s way.

So, stay strong, preach the gospel, lead people to repentance, and pray without ceasing. This battle is inevitable, but it won’t last forever. The King will prevail in His time.

Editor’s Note: Mark Harris is the President of Spiritual Counterfeits Project. He has an MA in New Testament and a Doctorate in Intercultural Studies. SCP publishes journals and newsletters covering unbiblical spiritual trends in church and culture. This article is used by permission. It appeared in the SCP NEWSLETTER, Spring 2023 Volume 47:2. For more information, please go to: https://scp-inc.org