Having just returned from Avatar (something for Jews to do on a day like today), I’d like to pick a bone with the NYT’s callow conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who denounced director James Cameron a few days ago for soft-headed Hollywood pantheism. Yes, the movie does not lack for anti-colonialist, aboriginal people-loving tree-huggery. But strictly speaking, the Na’vi are not pantheists. They worship a Godness–a Nature Goddess, to be sure, but one who hears prayers and sometimes answers them. And in a way that kicks some Sky People butt.
Leaving that aside, however, consider the name of the scientist played by Sigourney Weaver: “Grace Augustine.” Is Cameron giving us a little hint that the film may have something more up its religious sleeve than the Gospel of Sustainability?
On first meeting our ex-marine hero, Jake Sully, the Na’vi princess Neytiri tells him that he, like the other Sky People (that’s us) is “like a baby”–and not in a good way. We’re greedy, thoughtless…unredeemed (uh, sullied). Did I mention that his life is spared and he is chosen to learn the ways of the Na’vi because the Goddess’ seeds alight on him? Later, he’s informed that the Na’vi believe every person can be “born twice”…born again. And, at the end, he is in fact reborn as his avatar. Throughout the film, Augustine serves as the Sky Person who pretty much understands all this, albeit (up to her dying moment) through a glass darkly. So without overdoing it, I’d say that Cameron has married some good old Christian grace-and-redemption theology to his eco-anti-imperialist parable.
Doesn’t that make you feel better, Ross?
Update: For some further, post-Oscar, thoughts.