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Christian, Muslim and Jewish views of “Avatar”

It’s interesting to see what commentators from these religions have to say about the film.  The Muslim and Jewish reviewers I have read liked it better than the Christians.

The American Muslim has two glowing and deeply considered reviews:

Avatar, a film for your inner child, by Arman Musaji, who says: “It reminds the viewer to open their eyes and see the world with renewed wonder and optimism… In my humble opinion Avatar is truly epic film experience, so see it immediately, and don’t forget to bring your inner child.”

Avatar as a mythic heroes journey by Sheila Musaji, who has a great deal to say in praise of the movie, and even brings a Quranic quote to back this up: “The world view of the NA’VI [the alien people who feature in the film] reminded me of the Qur’anic verse:  “The seven heavens and the earth, And all beings therein, Declare His glory: There is not a thing But celebrates His praise: And yet ye understand not How they declare His Glory! (Quran 17:44).”

She also quotes at length a letter from Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who thinks the film is so important, he urges interfaith groups to go see it:

“I urge that we begin by going , anytime from now till January 29, in interfaith, multireligious groups to see AVATAR and then discuss its meaning in our lives. And then I suggest we gather on the evening of January 29 to celebrate the sacred meal of Tu B’Shvat together”.

Another writer, Jay Michaelson, also draws parallels between the film and Tu B’Shvat – the Jewish tree planting holiday - in “Avatar, Tu B'Shvat and the connection to Jewish mysticism” (Haaretz):

"At first blush, "Avatar" may look like a beautifully rendered bit of Hollywood fluff, with risible cliches of enlightened natives fighting off dastardly industrialists. To be sure, it does paint with a broad brush. But spiritually and practically, it is also a challenge to question what we think we know about theology, ethics and contemporary values -especially in a new year that may not be such a happy one for the trees."

The Vatican, in newspaper and radio reports dismisses any such challenge rather quickly, calling the movie “bland” and “rather harmless”: 

"In the end it is just reduced to an anti imperialistic, anti militaristic parable which doesn't have the same cutting bite as other more committed films on the same theme."  The Vatican is also afraid of the film’s spiritualism.  According to the Associated Press, the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore said “the film "gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature."

Some American Christian reviewers are even less happy, as is reported in The Examiner, “Christian reviews slam AVATAR - why?”.  The Examiner says, “If you read reviews on Christian sites you would think AVATAR a horrible attack on every warm-blooded American. James Cameron is out to convince your children to abandon the ways of Christianity and accept Gaia type spiritualism. ”

One of the reviews, “Otherworldly "Avatar" Familiar in the Worst Way” from Crosswalk.com (“The intersection of faith and life”) frowns, “In describing the military assault on Pandora, Cameron cribs terminology from the ongoing war on terrorism and puts it in the mouths of the film's villains, who proclaim a "shock and awe campaign" of "pre-emptive action," as they "fight terror with terror." Cameron's sympathies, and the movie's, clearly are with the Na'vi—and against the military and corporate men.”

A Muslim reviewer, Imran J. Khan, in “Avatar is a Metaphor for Palestine or Something Else Probably” agrees, but thinks that Cameron didn’t go far enough: “I could not draw any connections that meant anything substantial. All of the characters were far too simple and straightforward to make any provocative or interesting analogies. Sure, you could say Pandora is a metaphor for Iraq, Palestine, or even pre-colonial America. But that’s the problem. The story is so generic that you could apply the Avatar plot to literally dozens of human conflicts over the last six centuries.”

As for Cameron’s intention on that score, we have that in “Movie's blue-skinned aliens aim to open our eyes to War on Terror” : “.Cameron said yesterday that the theme was not the main point of Avatar, but added that Americans had a “moral responsibility” to understand the impact that their country’s recent military campaigns had had.”

Films reflect contemporary culture, but they also help in a small way to shape attitudes.   Avatar has certain advantages  in this regard in that it is proving to be one of the most watched movies in recent years and that, with all its visual wizardry, it is able to express its themes in such a palpable, realistic and unforgettable way.  In the best tradition of cinema, it doesn’t tell, but show, or rather, with its 3D tech, immerse. 

Religions attempt to overlay our vision of reality with a kind of 3D glasses of their own.  They would have us interpret experience from a certain contrived perspective and code of values.  Or, to put this in a more charitable way, to offer an alternative to the perspective and code of conduct we already impose.

Now that the age of exploration and conquest has been concluded, there are no new world cultures to encounter, subjugate or convert.  Faced cinematically with a virtual new world and culture that present an alternative to our own, it is interesting to see how people of various religious perspectives meet the challenge of this encounter. 

Significantly, those who were most likely to reject the values expressed in the film were those who found the film the least convincing as a cinematic experience.  The Vatican newspaper called the film “bland” and said there was "Not much behind the images".  And Christian Hamaker “if you go strictly for the experience, be prepared for a gooey, New Age romance with thematic elements that will likely make you squirm.”  These reviewers’ cultural/religious glasses were so strong, and their resistance to the movie was so rigid, that they were not able to immerse themselves in it.  Their reviews were full of moralizing and worries about its possible effect on the audience: 

“The danger to moviegoers is that AVATAR presents the Na'vi culture on Pandora as morally superior to life on earth.

If you love the philosophy and culture of the Na'vi too much, you will be led into evil rather than away from it.”

Those religious viewers who were more confident in their faith, apparently had less fear of the movie.  They saw it, embraced it and, far from squirming from its challenge to their own faith, found many points of convergence with their own belief system and values.  Rabbi Waskow:

“See it!  See it in the spirit of its watchword: “I see
yo
u
.” For Pandora’s people, these words express what in Hebrew is “yodea,” interactive “knowing” that is emotional, intellectual, physical/ sexual, and spiritual all at one…”

Arman Musaji:

“Avatar is a film with many levels and themes. It is about redemption, war, love, nature, spirituality, and lots of other things. Most central to the film however, is the theme of innocence which is not only central to the story but to the experience of watching the film as well. This movie does not ask the jaded contemporary audience for the suspension of disbelief that must traditionally be given in order to “feel” as though a fantastic story has real emotional weight. It doesn’t have to. The world of Pandora and it’s people are so vividly portrayed, so aesthetically and visually believable that if your mind is even slightly open to the experience, you will lose yourself entirely for the film’s two hours and forty minute running time.”