Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Avatar and Paganism

This evening I just felt a bit bored and decided to see a movie. Nothing on offer looked particularly attractive at first sight, so I finally decided to buy a ticket for a new film called Avatar. At the door I realized that this one might be a bit different, because we received 3D glasses. But still, I didn't expect very much of the whole thing, to be quite honest.
Well, I was mistaken. Three hours later I came out of the cinema utterly thrilled and amazed by the total experience I had just gone through. Visually, I honestly don't think I've ever seen anything in my life that compares with this: it's an altogether new way of experiencing a movie. Sitting there with your 3D glasses, you are literally sucked, body and mind, into an incredibly exciting world which feels impossibly real. You're not outside: you're inside, and you just don't want to leave once it's over. Avatar is already marketed as a landmark event that heralds "the future of cinema", and it's hard to disagree. For example, I am certain that Peter Jackson is grinding his teeth right now, wondering "why didn't I wait just a few more years before making Lord of the Rings": rather than "just" seeing Arwen outrunning the Nazgul, in 3D we'd be flying right next to her, feeling that the iron-clad hand might reach out to us any moment, the Balrog's whip would be swinging right into our face, and the magic of Lothlorien would be, well, more than three-dimensional. Admittedly the 3D technology seems made for showing fantasy worlds more than modern urban architecture: in Avatar, too, the spaceship scenes with which the film begins look interesting but slightly strange, and it's only once we enter the forest that the magic really begins.
Apart from the obvious joys of watching such a spectacular movie, I was also struck by something quite different. Avatar, it seems to me, tells us something about how Western culture and society has been evolving over the last half-century. A convenient term of comparison is a famous blockbuster released exactly fifty years ago now, in 1959. Ben Hur won no less than eleven oscars at the time and remains an all-time favorite repeated on TV every Christmas season.
It is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", and although most viewers will remember it mostly for the dramatic human conflict culminating the circus of Rome, the story plot is really about how the Jewish/Roman hero is converted to the Christian faith. The interesting thing is that this was a big budget movie, designed to appeal to the largest audience possible; and as such, it shows that an evangelical morality tale about the superiority of the gospel over Judaism and Roman paganism was still unproblematically convincing to audiences on the eve of the 1960s.
And now what do we find fifty years later? Avatar is the most expensive movie ever made, and like Ben Hur, it must be designed to appeal to the largest possible audience. But the message could not be more different. The heroes of this story are the Na'vi: a blue-skinned tribe living in "Pandora", a wild natural world of spectacular beauty. Their way of life is based on a deep respect for nature, and their spirituality is a kind of generic shamanism centred around the supreme divine power, a universal feminine presence that permeates all living things, and is named Eywa: a transparent inversion of the male monotheistic deity, Yahweh. It will be remembered that the missionaries who "christianized" Europe in the middle ages were in the habit of cutting down the sacred trees of the native population to demonstrate the power of their god over the pagan deities. In Avatar, barbarian hordes of businessmen and mercenaries launch a savage attack on Pandora because of its mineral treasures, and they go right for the huge tree at the center of its culture. When it is destroyed by firebombs, the Na'vi gather around another tree, the most sacred of all. It is called the Tree of Souls, and in its branches one can hear the voices of the ancestors. It represents the very heart and essence of the Na'vi's culture, and the invaders understand that if they succeed in destroying it too, their victory will be complete and final. The night before the final battle - which you will have to go and see for yourself - a healing ritual is performed under the tree, to save the life of a mortally wounded victim. Sitting in large circles and holding hands, the Na'vi are chanting and swaying back and forth in a collective trance, while the female shaman invokes the power of Eywa.
Looking at that impressive scene, I realized how deeply our culture and our religious instincts have changed in no more than half a century. For at the time of the Ben Hur movie, audiences would undoubtedly have recognized all this instantaneously as pure paganism and idolatrous worship. Fifty years later, we see it differently: the very same beliefs and ritual practices that used to be the very antithesis of Christian morality are now recognized by us as reflecting a deep respect for the sanctity of life. And more than that, the fact that this movie is designed to appeal to the largest audience possible suggests that those who created it understand something even more remarkable: that even convinced evangelical Christians, for example in the United States, will probably not recognize something as pagan if they are looking right at it!
In short, Avatar proves a very important point about contemporary Western culture, but one that is seldom recognized. From the devil's own ritual, paganism has now become the religion of our dreams.