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catholic cultureThe box office records set by James Cameron’s movie, Avatar, tell me that I was not alone in finding the movie’s visual presentation breathtaking. The 3D screen immersed me in the beauty and variety and power of Cameron’s imagined nature and machine. Along with leading character, Jake Sully, I re-discovered the delight of walking and running and got a taste of the joy of jumping and swinging and flying.

Avatar also attempted to satisfy another fundamental urge, that of encountering, exploring, and even becoming a part of an alien culture. Through his avatar, Jake gets to live the life of the Na’vi, fierce people native to the planet Pandora. Having come to destroy their way of life, he is surprised to experience a nobility, a sense of community, and an awareness of the natural that he has never known.

Avatar’s appreciative presentation of a non-Christian culture is in many ways very Christian. At Pentecost, the inspired Apostles proclaimed the praises of God’s saving work to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles from around the known world. Though many of them understood Hebrew or Aramaic, the listeners marveled to hear the proclamation in each of their native languages. This was the beginning of the “Catholic” Church, a Church which incorporates the many peoples of the Earth into one great united Body of Christ.

The Pentecost story exemplifies the Church’s perennial attitude toward human cultures. Blessed John Henry Newman explained why the Church has welcomed into her liturgy and teaching much that she has found in the cultures which she has encountered through the ages:

We prefer to say, and we think that Scripture bears us out in saying, that from the beginning the Moral Governor of the world has scattered the seeds of truth far and wide over its extent; that these have variously taken root, and grown as in the wilderness, wild plants indeed but living…The philosophies and religions of men have their life in certain true ideas, though they are not directly divine. [On the Development of Christian Doctrine]

So Catholics encountering non-Catholic cultures frequently find inspiration in their heroic stories and the virtues they exemplify. These remind us of what God has called us to and help us to see how the Christian life can be lived in new and perhaps more complete ways. They can also help us reflect on the culture we have received, so that we can sort out the wheat from the accidental chaff that is not essential to our religion.

So it is with Avatar. At the heart of what makes the Na’vi attractive is their contrast with humans: they enjoy communion with their gorgeous yet terrifying world and a living spirituality that extends beyond the grave. These themes can be like water in the desert to souls immersed in a secular society that thinks much more of what can be produced from the natural than what it is.

And yet Avatar deeply disturbed me and made me worry about the effect it might have on its millions of viewers. Jake Sully falls in love with the Na’vi to such an extent that he finally renounces his humanity to become permanently one of the tribe. And no wonder, given the stereo-typical presentation of “humanity.” Steven Greydanus of complemented James Cameron for his seamless presentation of the dominant Hollywood moral themes:

[Avatar is] noble primitives and warmongering Westerners, imperialist and expansionist guilt and no blood for oil, Cortez and Custer and George W. Bush in one fell swoop. It’s environmental apocalypticism, Gaia and the Force, Vulcan mind-melding and fal tor pan mysticism and Disney’s Grandmother Willow. It’s space Marines and military oppressiveness, mystic/enlightened feminist consciousness and interspecies romance..

In Avatar, as in so many Hollywood films, you can hardly help feeling that we, especially we Americans, we Westerners, are the bad guys. As Catholics, this attitude should cause us some concern. Certainly, the Church condemns the radical secularism and individualism that characterizes much of contemporary Western society. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has historically found its spiritual home in Western society, emanating from Europe. As Pope Benedict explains:

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe..

If the Western world were simply as it is often portrayed in movies – a realm of the power-hungry, pleasure-seeking materialists – then perhaps the natural animism of portrayed in Avatar should be seen as preferable. But animism means losing a transcendent God, a God who is vastly more than the nature which He has created, which also leads to a loss of the proper dignity of the human race. Blessed Newman warns us against returning to the easy Pantheism of pre-Christian days:

That truth and falsehood in religion are but matter of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing; that it is a duty to follow what seems to us true, without a fear lest it should not be true; that it may be a gain to succeed, and can be no harm to fail; that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; that belief belongs to the mere intellect, not to the heart also; that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith, and need no other guide,—this is the principle of philosophies and heresies, which is very weakness…..

The Scriptures urge Christians to “test the spirits.” As Catholic educators, we need to help our students learn to do that. They need to learn to question the one-sided portrayals that have become currency in our contemporary culture. More than that, we need to help them see the great value of our Catholic and Western heritage. If we don’t, then who will?

Not that we should hide the errors the Church has made, nor the failures of secularism which currently dominates Western culture. But even in these areas, we should show a kind of loyalty to our Mother, the Church, such as we would show to our earthly mothers. We would never take accusations against our mothers at face value; we would go to them, and ask their side of the story, with a willingness to believe. So we should help our students do that when the Church is portrayed in an evil light.

The real revolution against the false values of contemporary secular society will come from within the Church, where it finds a perennial source in the transcendent destiny of man, perennial strength in the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance, and perennial wisdom in the fathers and doctors of the Church. As GK Chesterton once wrote:

To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good any thing but good.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Yes, John, you lovable curmudgeon, we do. Avatar is one of the most creative and visually stunning films with mythological dimensions of our day. I was reminded of the mythical worlds of C.S. Lewis'"Perelandra" and Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." As imaginative conservatives who care about the culture, we need to see what is being created in the various realms of the arts and respond thoughtfully. Andrew's comments do that well, pointing us toward the Permanent Things by which we may evaluate the merit of such a film.

    I didn't see Avatar when it first came out, and was put off by the hullabaloo from some quarters about the pantheistic and anti-western elements of the message. But after I did finally experience it, I could see the power and the beauty, as well as the disturbing elements of some of the views it portrayed. Differentiation is called for to assess the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in the Na'vi culture and ours, as well as the untrue, the evil and the ugly in both cultures. What if you and I were sent with Jake to approach the Na'vi on Pandora as a pre-Christian culture? What would we offer them to complete their worldview– and their souls — without contaminating them with the elements of our own culture that are not healthy? It doesn't mean we have to reject our own culture to be critical of it.

    On the other hand, the prospect of becoming a giant blue bounding creature with enormous superpower strength is somehow oddly appealing…..

  2. Loving to be called "lovable" by the one that Eric the K called the "Barbarian" is enough to keep me on this post forever.

    Seriously, that's interesting. I make it a matter of honor to see a movie only after I have had it recommended to me by at least five people whose opinions I trust, and then to see it only after I have had enough time to reflect over a couple of adult beverages if it is worth spending the time that I could have otherwise spent reading another Jon Hassler novel.

    After watching "The Last Tango in Paris," "Easy Rider," and "Straw Dogs" in one week just about thirty years ago, you might imagine my hesitancy. On the other hand, if I had read Richard Russo's "Nobody's Fool" before going to see Paul Newman's movie of the same name, I would have missed one of my all time favorite flicks.

    Thanks, Barbara, you beautiful young woman.

  3. Well, my dear friend, a week with three films like that would definitely gag anyone with sense or sensibility. Or drive them to drink.

    About thirty years ago I remember thinking "A Clockwork Orange" was an outstanding work of cinema, and years later I can't think for the life of me how I could have been so desensitized to arrive at that conclusion. Now that I have grown out of my Barbarian phase, I'm more of a Merchant Ivory girl at heart.

    On the other hand, I have never read a Jon Hassler novel. Maybe I need to now.

  4. I don’t recall Christianity being present in the movie at all. It was not the Judio-Christian ethic verses the noble savage it was a empty post-modernism verse the native religion. All without any hint that Christianity had existed in the first place.

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