Rod Bennett, author of Four Witnesses (a fine book about the apostolic Fathers) and a very creative, insightful, and orthodox thinker, pushes back against the meme that a film like Avatar is somehow irreconcilable with the Faith. Sez he:
It ought, for instance to be pointed out that Cameron’s space epic isn’t one iota more or less “green” than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings —a Catholic and “conservative” masterpiece wherein the chief villain’s chief crime is cutting down trees to make room for factories and the heroes literally-not-figuratively hug the trees instead of cutting them.
Now Avatar, I’ll grant you, isn’t anywhere near LOTR when it comes to literary merit (nor cinematic merit, for that matter). It really is little more than a high-tech remake of Pocahontas. And yes, the film’s comic-opera bad guys and elbow-in-the-ribs parallels to Iraq make Cameron’s earlier Rambo: First Blood Part 2 seem subtle and self-reflexive. But his “save the forest” message, his instinct to “put down the mighty from their seats, and exalt them of low degree,” to “fill the hungry with good things; and send the rich empty away” ought to strike a responsive chord in any properly formed Christian heart.
There were, after all, Spanish missionaries who tried—and failed—to stand between the conquistadores and their tribal victims…a truth which tends to be forgotten by both the right and left wings alike. And those missionaries, I think, would (if God provides cinemas in heaven—blessed thought!) like Avatar a lot. ;-)
There seem to be two approaches to things like Avatar among Christians. One is the bunker approach which regards such tales primarily with fear—fear of political liberalism, fear of pantheism and paganism, fear of their popularity, fear of being, in a word, seduced. And, to be sure, Catholics do need to approach tales like this with discernment. But it is one thing to discern and another to hunker in the bunker and assume a purely defensive position based on ideological rigidity and not on Christ. That is not the way of the Church, which for 2000 years has moved out in the confidence that God is the maker of this world, that our faculties as sub-creators made in his image cause our art to bear witness to him even when the artist is a pagan, and that all that is best in our ordinary human life ultimately has him as its source and goal. It’s why Paul could affirm what was good in Athenian paganism on the Areopagus in Acts 17 and it’s why St. Thomas could affirm what was good in both Aristotle (a pagan) and Averroes (a Muslim) in erecting his massive Catholic synthesis of human thought and divine revelation.
Bennett gets that, and so he quite properly understands that for all Cameron’s ham-fistedness, there remain deeply embedded in Avatar some profoundly Catholic themes which we reject and sneer at only to our impoverishment. A character named Jake Sully (Jacob=Deceiver) who is “sullied” by sin and saddled by what St. Paul calls “this body of death” (Rom 7:24) is, through the ministrations of a character named “Grace Augustine”, reborn into a glorified new body. He is confronted with his own capacity for evil, undergoes death to his old self, learns to embrace self-sacrificial love, and becomes a member of a new family, a priest-king who comes to live in harmony with his neighbor and with a New Heaven and a New Earth.
Where have we heard these themes before? And why are they so popular?
We’ve heard them from the gospel. They are popular because they pluck strings at the deepest levels of our being. Tolkien plucked at these strings with his tree-loving heros who rely on the grace of the Valar to overcome the power of the Ring with self-sacrifice. C.S. Lewis does something similar in his Space Trilogy when his simple hrossa natives on Mars are seen being pointlessly slaughtered by the evil European materialist Weston whose plans to rape the Martian landscape are indistinguishable from the mining corporation that is raping Pandora. In all such stories is a profoundly Christian theme: burning shame for the loss of Eden and longing for the redemptive power of Christ. We need not fear that theme in stories any more than we need fear it in Genesis 3.
That’s why I think guys like Fr. Robert Barron have a healthy Catholic approach to the continual emergence of Catholic themes in pop culture. He can mine something good, even out of an overtly anti-Christian piece of schlock like 2012. Instead of hunkering in the bunker and denouncing movies, TV shows, music or pop fiction as pagan or pantheist (which, by the way, they very often are) he instead teaches people (as Paul did) to plug those disjointed themes and images back into the gospel, where alone they make sense and will not lead to futility and frustration, as paganism always does. That’s true discernment and not mere ideological reaction. Let’s have more of it!