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Avatar whingers

I like to think of Mikey Lynch as the mini-tuna man of ministry blogging, serving up nutritious bite-sized chunks.  He recently posted about the way Christians react to Avatar.  I’ve had similar feelings.

In the first place, I reckon Avatar is far more interesting for what it reflects about our society than for what it might be ‘preaching’.

Mostly, though, I get miffed when people bash Avatar for somehow being bad art.  I doubt that understanding art has anything much to do with labels of right and wrong.  I reckon these critics have missed the significance of James Cameron’s hyper-visual storytelling in our very visual culture.

Many of us seem to assume that you can only tell a story properly by using plenty of words and logic.  Maybe that’s fair enough: our society is historically word-rich, and remains so.

James Cameron, however, is a visual storyteller.  A film like Avatar doesn’t need a conventionally complex plot or detailed characters in order to be compelling.  Avatar is all raw action and hyperkinetic visuals, yet it succeeds in handling broadly appealing themes not in spite of but because of its one-dimensional script and broad-brush characters.  That makes for an engaging movie!  Everyone has praised Avatar for its good looks, but that’s where its story lies.

And quite apart from being too ‘green’ or ‘New Age’, Avatar is stacked with big themes that people care about today.  Christianity Today has it right: Avatar taps into themes that matter — like greed, power, and corruption.

All this is not to say that Avatar is an especially innovative, intricate or enduring piece of art.  Let’s just make sure we’ve understood both its messages and its medium.

But I believe we should enjoy our movies, so I’ll leave you with this hilarious take on it.

Categories: Tanzanian culture Written by Arthur

Tagged as:

Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

16 replies

  1. Hey guys,

    Love your blog! What do you think of Driscoll’s sermon comments about avatar?


    Pete (From the Pete and Linda tribe)

  2. Great to hear from you, brother! :)

    Without having heard the whole sermon, I think MD ends up simply telling people what to think about Avatar rather than how to interact with it. That’s a pity, I reckon, because it leaves Christians as sectarian naysayers.

    The question I always ask myself with any cultural product is, how can I bring the Christ into this particular corner of human culture? Jesus is not the ‘No’ to our imaginations so much as the better story.

    I think Damaris provides a good, basic example of how to do this with Avatar.

  3. ‘Everyone has praised Avatar for its good looks, but that’s where its story lies.’

    I’m not sure that your argument makes sense here. There’s a difference between a story and telling that story, and that’s what people seem to be getting at with the criticism of Avatar. It is a very basic (and cliched) story, told with very compelling visuals. There’s nothing particularly ‘wrong’ with that, many films do that in order to entertain, and succeed. But I wouldn’t want to go further and say that somehow the visuals make the story transcend itself, because that is incoherent. If our culture is unable to discern the difference between story and storytelling, then the worse for our culture, because we will become less able to resist attractively packaged lies and propaganda.

  4. Hi Andrew
    I’m not trying to talk up Avatar. It is what it is — Pocahontas in space and all that! :P

    What I’m getting at is that the message is always in the medium to a greater or lesser extent. I guess that many of Avatar’s critics simply do not believe this — but this is probably not a problem with Avatar so much as another instance of modernism and postmodernism butting heads…

    Think of Wall-E. It has a simple and charming plot, but the power of the story is in the telling — with very few words at all! 2001: A Space Odyssey is another example. Can you see what I mean?

    The second thing — we can’t view Avatar as sheer lies and propaganda, because art is never purely evil or good. And even if it were, that’s no reason for us to dismiss it out of hand. I believe we must persistently engage with culture at every point — and of course that needn’t mean we buy into it! Think of Paul appealing to the Unknown God. As above, Damaris is one starting point for helping us to do this.

  5. Hey Arthur,

    I like your approach, and agree with it as a general rule. The only problem is that many people lack the insight necessary to filter through the amazing effects and attractive culturally-popular-worldview-consistent story features. So amongst culturally critical Christians, your proposal sounds great. But many people just lap it up, and take it as all good and harmless.

    The ideal would be to always be balanced with these things – there’s good and bad in all art – granted. But when things swing too far into cultural worldliness, then corrective efforts are needed. I think that was probably the case at Mars Hill – perhaps not for people from other parts of the world.

    Satan is holding the whole world captive (apart from those in Christ), including movie makers, and this strong truth needs to be able to be held with full strength along-side the truth that even in those things which Satan twists, God’s light shines through – the darkness hasn’t overcome it, and doesn’t understand it. So God can work for good even through Avatar.

    So sometimes people need to be reminded that God is reflected, although twisted by us, in all things. And sometimes people need to be reminded that Satan is holding all things captive. And sometimes people need to be reminded that we’re set free from Satan’s captivity in Christ. And sometimes people need to be reminded not to demonize culture. And sometimes people need to be reminded to relax and stop analyzing things; the latter being most applicable to my current comment.

  6. Pete, you analytical monkey! ;)

    There are a couple of issues on view here.

    One issue is how we should treat art and culture — a question of our theology of creation. Although Satan is ‘prince of this world’, there is a distinction between the ‘fallen’ creation and the realm of Satan, not a one-to-one correspondence. Satan’s influence is on human persons, so Satan isn’t ‘in’ Avatar any more than he’s in a piece of furniture. Avatar is like any other human product: a piece of clothing, a novel, or a website. All these things have mixed messages and mixed uses because their producers are ‘broken images’. A revealing piece of clothing can be a tool for sexual immorality or a tool for sexual goodness. As Christians we’re in the business of doing whatever will serve others and glorify God. So, God can work for good especially through Avatar — if only his people will speak up. :)

    The other issue: How should Christians relate to the world? Like you say, we need to cut a path between syncretism and sectarianism to be ‘in the world but not of the world’.

    Firstly, a comment. We’re in the business of training all Christians how to think (Rom 12:2, 1 Cor 2:16, etc). I don’t buy the idea of treating some Christians as if they simply lack insight. ‘Knowledge’ is for all Christians, not the preserve of a gifted few. Christian leaders are shepherds, not transmitters. We need to watch out for ‘expert culture’, where church leaders do too much of people’s thinking for them. Incidentally, I think this is a pitfall of the online sermon phenomenon.

    But to return to Avatar — in this instance, MD’s ‘corrective effort’ just seems to be a flat ‘No’. In the clip, he simply says that Avatar is satanic, and that’s about it — no real application. Now, what are people meant to do with that? I guess the automatic response is, “We must avoid Avatar!” But what are people to say to their friends who are watching Avatar? What are they to do when the Avatar sequel comes out? Just hide their heads in the sand, or dismiss it as ‘satanic’?

    I don’t see how that’s a sustainable option for Christians who hope to bring the Christ to the world. It would be a terrible mistake to think that being savvy about culture is only for the Christians who are smart or gifted enough.

    Do check out Damaris — they’re a good model. :)

  7. I think that guy put it well, Tamie: “Pandora is real, it’s here now for all who would enter it, in Jesus”.

    Like this guy says:
    Some films and books are also good at creating an indefinable sense of longing for something more — what C S Lewis called ‘sehnsucht’ — a hard-to-define feeling that somehow, somewhere, there is a deeper meaning and purpose, joy itself. It is well illustrated by French writer Antoine de St Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

  8. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think the direct meaning of Avatar (whatever that is) really connected that strongly with the audience. To me, the scenes have been played out in so many other movies, it was stuck in a story-telling paralysis that would have rarely moved the average adult movie-goer to think. At all. Except maybe linking a corrupt, greedy authority to a real one.

    I think the real meaning is the idea of ‘Avatar’, the desire to be a part of a different (and sexier, but that’s not the point) world. Without being too existentialistic, I think who we perceive ourselves to be is becoming more and more avataric (did I just invent that word?). I think our mind is becoming more disconnected or at least dissatisfied with our body that there is a real desire to become something else where our life is more fulfilling, and have the greater ability to influence things that in our normal life/world/body we can’t. The message of this movie, for me at least, is the fact it was put on hold to be released with the right 3D and CG effects was needed to achieve the most avataric, dissociated from bodily reality (is there actually any reality in 3 dimensions on a movie screen?). To me, along with some of the plot, this is a scream of dissatisfaction of everything real.

    1. Good one Marty — the quest for the hyperreal, right? This really ties in with the ‘Avatar blues’ that some viewers have reported — feeling depressed because Pandora appears so much better than the real world.

  9. G’day Arthur.

    I think you’re right – the interesting thing about the movie is what it says about society and our longings.

    But, I also agree with Driscoll that it is throughly demonic. Half truth is more dangerous than a bald lie.

    We’ve got to recognise both what’s true in something and also what is false. We need to articulate both.
    We need to give people a doctrine of Creation (and New-Creation) that is greater and ultimately more satisfying.

    1. Sure thing, Rob. Unfortunately MD didn’t say any more than ‘it’s demonic’. What I’m saying is, don’t leave it at that!

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