Monday, June 14, 2010

Christian Research Journal on Avatar: Wishing For Greater Breadth in Pop Cultural Engagement

Given my interactions with the religious and cultural implications of Avatar in numerous postings on the Internet in various forums, I was intrigued to find that Christian Research Journal has an article on the subject in the latest issue of the publication, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2010). The article is titled "Avatar: A Postmodern Pagan Myth," and the piece is written by Brian Godawa. Godawa is a Christian screenwriter and author who frequently provides commentary on contemporary cinema for evangelical publications.

Given that Godawa's article appears in a publication written for an evangelical audience, and one interested in apologetic and theological forms of cultural engagement, the author's approach to his subject matter is not surprising. After summarizing the film's story Godawa moves to analysis from an evangelical apologetic perspective wherein he frames Avatar as "a postmodern pagan myth of nature worship," which includes elements of animism, polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism. Godawa concludes his article with discussion of James Cameron's abilities as a mythmaker for our time.

In my opinion Godawa's article is fine as far as it goes, and as stated above, it is not surprising to see this kind of treatment given the journal's perspective and the intended audience. However, there is a place for broadening the approach in interacting with popular culture in an effort to assist evangelicals in a broader and deeper understanding and engagement with the issues of the day. I think that Godawa's analysis falls short in the area of empathetic consideration, Christian reflexivity, and awareness of (or at least discussion of) Avatar's connection to broader cultural phenomena.

In terms of empathetic consideration, like many apologetic writings by evangelicals, Godawa's article demonstrates little by way of an attempt to sympathetically enter into the thought processes and affective dimensions of those who produced and consumed Avatar as a powerful piece of mythmaking. Numerous stories can be found of individuals who have had a deep connection with various facets of this film, from viewing the moon Pandoria as a utopia to which they wish they could escape, to those who have identified with the Na'vi as an oppressed people, to those who find a resonance with the eco-spiritual aspects of the film. Evangelicals will benefit in many ways from attempts at entering into the perspective of others as we form our understanding and critique.

An attempt at reflexivity is also absent in Godawa's analysis. Reflexivity is a process whereby the study of another culture provides the opportunity to step outside of one’s usual conceptions of cultural normality in order to not only understand another culture, but also to critically reassess one’s own culture and social location in light of the encounter with the cultural other. This stance is crucial as Gordon Lynch has stated:
"Judging popular culture on the basis of our own preformed religious and cultural assumptions, without allowing the possibility for these to be challenged or changed in some way by our study of popular culture, will not help us become better cultural critics or more thoughtful theologians."
Had Godawa adopted a reflexive stance in regards to Avatar, he and his readers might have a greater appreciation for the the claim that Christianity has played a significant role in the West's exploitation of indigenous peoples and the environment. Although this claim is often overstated in popular discussions of the subject matter, the church's failures in these areas must be acknowledged if we are to engage the post-Christendom West with credibility in the twenty-first century.

Finally, Godawa's analysis would have benefited from some discussion of the connection of the film to broader cultural phenomena. Specifically, as I have discussed elsewhere, Avatar taps into our dissatisfaction with our failed technological paradise and finds solace in a mythic narrative of indigenous peoples. Beyond this, Avatar also taps into the growing and increasingly popular eco-spirituality that Bron Taylor has called "Dark Green Religion." As discussed in a previous post, this nature religion “considers nature to be sacred, imbued with intrinsic value, and worthy of reverent care..” The reference to “dark” in connection to the green is a dual referent, with application both to the depth of commitment of those to nature religion, and also to the possibility of a “shadow side” to the religion that “could even precipitate or exacerbate violence.” By connecting Avatar's portrayal of sacred nature not only to the Gaia Hypothesis, but also to Dark Green Religion, Godawa would have helped his readers not only understand Avatar's appeal better, but also made them aware of a significant new expression of the sacred, the religious, and the spiritual.

I am pleased to see an evangelical publication interact with contemporary film, and even more so that it engages one of the most popular films of all time, but it seems to me that we evangelicals have a way to go in providing a broader consideration of this topic. Only a broader approach will help us speak beyond the evangelical tribe.

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