Atavar pushes religious buttons, taps into ancient thread of unity re-emerging with force today

Already there is a website on how to speak the Na’vi language of the lithe blue people of Avatar’s planet, Pandora. A Google blog search turns up 87,484 hits for the name of the tribe and its language and 917,000 for Neytiri, the main Na’vi woman in the film, played by Zoë Saldaña.

A professor of astrophysics who specializes in searching for life in the universe has written an extensive piece in understandable language on the accuracy of the science in Atavar and given it mostly high grades. (One item – there is a reason everything is so blue).

In its first two weeks, Avatar grossed nearly $213 million on about 7,000 screens nationwide, more than half showing the stunning 3-D version, in which fire sparks flicker and Woodsprites dance inches from the audience, and one can look deep into the lush landscape and almost ride the swooping banshees.

Outside the U.S., Avatar took in $164.5 million in five days from 64 markets, not counting Japan (opened 12/23), China (1/4) and Italy(1/15). It is showing on 1,350 screens in Russia.

President Obama and the First Lady took their daughters to see the film on New Year’s Eve while on vacation in Hawaii, in between calls regarding the Christmas Day attempted bombing of an intercontinental flight into Detroit.

All this is to say that the movie has been seen by millions of people around the globe, written about by thousands, and if we are to believe even the most skeptical media researchers, it will not only entertain and employ, but have an effect on the attitudes and behaviors of large numbers of people all over the world.

In the lingo of memetics, some people will link many of the concepts in Avatar with what they feel is a desirable way to live and pass those links, or memes, onto others.

This possible effect of movies isn’t new, but it is likely to happen much more quickly and extensively in our 2010 interconnected world that it could, for example, when Dances with Wolves presented some similar ideas in 1990 or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner challenged racial attitudes in 1967.

Our vast access to each other’s thoughts and beliefs is the first of two new forces involved. For example, among the tweets that were flooding Twitterdom at the rate of 50 a minute at about 9 p.m. Chicago time on New Years Eve were these:

One woman from Indonesia tweeted:
“Avatar seriously owns me. I’ve never wanted to be blue and to have a tail so bad in my life.”

Another tweet, from Bali woman, included a link to a photo of the sky she had seen during an outdoor New Year’s celebration:
“They’re bubbles in the air, and suddenly I miss Eywa from Avatar.”

And a third from Canada:
“A day after Avatar this thing landed on my son! So weird! He’s been chosen by Eywa!”

Sure, some of this is joking, and many people will forget about the movie quickly. But as the discussion of Avatar‘s religious, environmental, political, gender and racial dimensions continues to appear in media channels across the board, some people are being encouraged by the message of unity with nature and a Mother Spirit, while others are critical and even fearful.

Roger Ebert summed up part of the film’s impact:

“Avatar is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It’s a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message. It is predestined to launch a cult.”

It doesn’t seem to be the environmental and anti-war messages, however, that are stirring up the most heated discussions. It’s not even the “white people as oppressors and then saviors” undertones, although those are being criticized.

It is the vibrant and deep spirituality of the Na’vi, which includes a networked nature connected to and nourished by the Mother God, Eywa, that seems to push the most buttons.

On the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat derided the movie as another example that “pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation,” and then dismissed the spirituality depicted in the film as lacking any value.

In response, Mark Stricherz, a self-proclaimed “orthodox Catholic” writing on TrueSlant, toed the company line that pantheism was heresy, but still criticized Douthat’s view and gave Avatar a nod for containing the “kernel of truth” that “nature should not be subjugated or mastered…but celebrated as an expression of God’s bounty.”

But Stricherz and others, including the writer of  Avatar inspires thoughts about our awesome future,” are clear that it is a separate, transcendent God that they prefer people see as their spiritual link, not a female Deity and a conscious, interconnected world of spiritual beings, humans, plants and animals.

The concept of interconnectedness, however, is the second force involved in the potential power of Avatar, and its movement from the fringes to the main stream is accelerating.

The Internet has a lot to do with the growing understanding and acceptance of our interconnectedness, as does the maturing of the uber-connected Millennial generation, the technology that allows virtual meetings and a new physics that includes particles and waves that can communicate with each other across miles of space.

If this were a new experience, however, it would be easy to dismiss, but that is not the case.

Director James Cameron seems to have tapped into a spiritual thread dating back 2,600 years. It waned for centuries in the West, pushed to the side by Aristotelian/Cartesian dualism and Newtonian physics, which were important in their day, only to begin to grow again in the early 20th century as quantum physics emerged and a renewed interest in the unity of spirit and creation came to the fore.

One of the more thought provoking blogs about the religious aspects of the film comes from an unexpected source. Fr. Andrew Damick, who describes himself as an orthodox Christian priest, praises Avatar for its more pagan than pantheistic philosophy, pointing out that Eywa answers prayers and the Na’vi have temples, and considers this line of thinking to also be present in more traditional religions.

“What I think is worth noting in this pagan/pantheistic view of god, man and nature,” Damick writes, “is its similarity to Orthodox Christianity.”

He could have said the same about the concepts the film shares with Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism and the mystical traditions within Judaism and Christianity. A big, strong tent and growing.

For more about the reemergence of this philosophical concept of unity, its connection to science and Avatar’s contribution to that, please see CyberINKonline’s other blog, God Swimming in God.

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About jeanlatzgriffin

Jean Latz Griffin is the owner of CyberINK, a small business that produces quirky skeleton-themed products. She has finished the first draft of a historical fantasy and received comments from her agent. She has turned to Orson Scott Card for tips on the second draft. She is author of "In the Same Breath," and "One Spirit: A Creation Story for the 21st Century." She has a certificate in creative writing from the University of Chicago's Writers Studio. Griffin is a member of the growing community of former Chicago Tribune reporters, enjoys Weekend Writing Warriors and the Story Studio in Chicago. Her Sheltie, Thunder, likes to "type" on her computer keys, and Dr Wu, a Weimaraner, likes to lick her ear when she is trying to think. Her husband passed in June of 2011. Her three fabulous grown sons live nearby. She plays violin in an amateur string orchestra.

2 Responses

  1. This possible effect of movies isn’t new, but it is likely to happen much more quickly and extensively in our 2010 interconnected world that it could, for example, when Dances with Wolves presented some similar ideas in 1990 or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner challenged racial attitudes in 1967.

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