Friday, April 02, 2010

Analyzing Avatar

I was of course blown away by the 3D effects of Avatar. It's quite a clever way to get us back into the communal experience of movie-going. I've got Netflix and a good TV, so for years I've been far more likely to watch movies in my own apartment with a friend or two, rather than going to the theater. The 3D phenom will draw me back a little... at least until they come up with holographic TVs. I'll probably go to the IMAX to see Alice in Wonderland, maybe even Dragons.

Few would argue that the plot of Avatar is as impressive than its technology. It struck me as simplistic in its Spiritual/New-agey "message." The heroes of the movie are the Na'vi, a native tribe presented as superior to humans, because the Na'vis are all about Oneness. They're literally "connected" to each other, to their ancestors, and to the plants and animals in their environment.

The movie's sensibility tends towards Eastern perspectives. All of creation has just one substance, so all people, all beings, all phenomena... are connected. A Yogi or Buddhist is likely to consider, e.g., that animals are fundamentally equal to humans.

To a Judeo-Christian, though, a human has a "soul" that animals lack. There's a God who's separate from creation; some souls are on God's Side more than others. This makes good and bad, heaven and hell, spiritual and mundane... distinctions which are seen as real, objective, impossible to discard.

(Why, after all, do fundamentalist Christians have a problem with Darwin? It's because the teaching of Evolution shows our connection to all other beings, threatening the separate special status that Western religions grant to humanity. It's the same reason that in the past, the Church was so fiercely opposed to recognizing that Earth isn't the center of the universe.)

The one line of Avatar that I really liked was when the big battle was about to take place, and our hero is talking to the Na'vi's great Goddess, asking for Her help in defeating the human enemies. His girlfriend overhears him, and explains that their Goddess would never take sides. The Goddess doesn't favor one being over another; She only cares about the balance.

That was a neat moment... though overall, the spiritual stuff got a bit sappy and heavy-handed. In Avatar, the spiritual people were the good guys, and the businessmen the villains. That itself is dubious, as in the real world, it's just as often the case that commerce is of huge benefit to beings, and religion the source of conflict.

And while Avatar has a lot of fancy words about Oneness, it all culminates in a Us vs Them shoot-em-up, so the message is decidedly mixed. The plot would have been more in harmony with the Message if it didn't so clearly divide Good and Evil, if the conflicts had more shades of grey, if the characters were a bit less (heh) two-dimensional.

All that being said, I was struck by how, at least superficially, Avatar was pretty Buddhist-flavored for a mainstream blockbuster. It takes the perspective of Oneness and Equality as a given. But how much does that matter?

Seeing Avatar made me remember decades ago, when Shirley MacLaine's Out on A Limb was one of the first books (and TV mini-series) to present to a wide audience a New Age perspective. Many of us Into the Spiritual Thing were excited; we thought this meant something big to society.

I'm not so sure that works like Avatar or Out on A Limb have that much effect on the culture (though maybe they reflect how the culture has already changed). Maybe things don't change so much from the top-down (i.e., influenced by a hit movie or book), but more from the bottom-up (i.e., to the culture at large from the changes made by countless individuals).

Newsweek recently ran a piece called We Are All Hindus Now. The point was that there's been a huge increase in Americans considering themselves "spiritual but not religious," seeing Truth as present in all paths, not restricted to One True Way. Even though few Americans would describe themselves with the word "Hindu," the Eastern world-view is stealthily taking over in the battle of philosophical ideas.

My Zen teacher used to say, "Jesus came to spread love to humanity; Buddha came to bring peace and compassion to the world. How are they doing?" I think his point was that we can't expect compassion to come down to us from some great powerful leader (much less a blockbuster movie). It's always up to us, it always comes down to how we as individuals act in this very moment.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

You ask:

"(Why, after all, do fundamentalist Christians have a problem with Darwin?"

One of the main reasons fundamentalist Christians have a problem with Darwin is because they have a high view of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Old/New Testament). Even Jesus spoke about Adam and Eve, Noah, the Flood, etc. as real history:

http://www.icr.org/article/who-jesus-christ-challenge-christians/
In Matthew 19:4 and Mark 10:6 He said: "From the beginning of the creation God made them male and female." At the beginning of creation, not billions of years later, God created them. So Jesus was a young-universe, six-day creationist! Jesus spoke of the days of Noah (Matthew 24:37 and Luke 17:26-27), recognizing Noah as a literal man who lived. He spoke of Noah and his family entering the Ark and the Flood coming and taking them all away. So Jesus recognized the Flood, the Ark, and Genesis 7 describing those events as real history.
---
See also:

http://creation.com/

Stuart said...

Anony wrote...
One of the main reasons fundamentalist Christians have a problem with Darwin is because they have a high view of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Old/New Testament).

Yeah, it does seem like much of humanity lacks the ability or desire to examine truth clearly for themselves. So instead, they blindly believe in some dusty old book. And indeed amongst such sheep-like believers, the Old and New Testaments are popular books to believe in.

There are people who don't think for themselves, who don't examine the great questions of life with their own clear mind, but rather believe in a book. It's not that I call them bad people; I'm more than happy to share the planet with them, as long as they leave me alone. I'm open to the possibility that these mindless followers are an important part of the human family.

That being said, if someone believes in scriptures, I can't take them seriously as an intelligent, clear-thinking person. Nothing I write in this blog is intended for sheep-like believers; they have plenty of other places they can go to get support for their dogma.

Anonymous said...

"The Goddess doesn't favor one being over another; She only cares about the balance."

It would have been a really interesting movie if it had ended right at that moment.

The shoot 'em up ending completely ruined it for me.

Doug said...

That being said, if someone believes in scriptures, I can't take them seriously as an intelligent, clear-thinking person. Nothing I write in this blog is intended for sheep-like believers; they have plenty of other places they can go to get support for their dogma.

I was surprised to see you write this, Stu. I've met enough intelligent, clear-thinking people who also believe in scripture to prevent me making a blanket statement like that. Diamonds in the rough they may be, but the same could be said of intelligent, clear thinking Zennists, when taken as a global community.

Marc Mannheimer said...

Hey Stuart,

I found your My So-Called Spiritual life and this blog was mentioned on a link. I will def. look into both.
Sorry for using a comment box to contact you, but (couldn't access your e-mail by your site and) I really wanted to communicate with an ex-SY -- I was banned from the Yahoo group ex-SY a couple of years ago(long story). I am in bloody earnest about questioning SY at this point and would like to e-chat. My e-mail is jazzcoffeefreak@yahoo.com.
I've written Dan Shaw and he is willing to consult w/ my therapist who knows little about cults -- so I am in good hands. Still, I'd like to chat.

take care,
Marc

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