Hollywood’s Rampant Pantheism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 22, 2009 — 76 Comments

The New York Times conservative columnist (and blogger) Ross Douthat seems like a fairly smart guy, but he tends to lose his cool whenever his theological buttons (he’s Catholic) get pushed. Remember his “living in Dan Brown’s America” freak-out from May? Now he’s wound-up again over James Cameron’s new CGI opus “Avatar”, and how it’s symptomatic of a deep-rooted commitment to pantheism amongst Hollywood’s elite.

“It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing. If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.”

Douthat pokes pantheism saying it romanticizes nature instead of acknowledging the “suffering and death” of our world (with just a pinch of the conservative environmentalism = pagan religion meme, and a dash of despair over America’s syncretism added for spice). That it offers no transcendent literalism as the dominant monotheisms do, instead damning its adherents to simply being “dust and ashes”.

Smelling chum in the waters, Beliefnet’s conservative blogger, Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher, decided to join in on the anti-pantheism pile-on. Bemoaning how Hollywood has suffered a “creative defeat” by “trading in its sentimentalized version of Christianity” for a “sentimentalized pantheism”, (he also seems to misunderstand the concept of panentheism in relation to Orthodox Christianity, but that’s a different topic) and linking to Weekly Standard neoconservative commentator John Podhoretz’s review of the film.

“…one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar-with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe’s adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool-at all seriously as a political document. It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now.”

So I guess the conservative intelligentsia has spoken (David Brooks must not have gotten the memo). Pantheism is bad, Hollywood is bad, Americans are foolish eclectic-syncretic Eckhart Tolle-reading dupes who love pantheism, and we (and our souls) are all in big (I assume) trouble. Of course this reading of Hollywood’s output is a tad skewed, and relies on a rather scatter-shot selection of films (“Dances With Wolves”, Disney’s “Pocahontas” and “The Lion King”, “Star Wars”, and, well, “Fern Gully”, I guess) to convince us that pantheism is the with-it thing in Hollywood and beyond. But it just doesn’t seem to line up as well as they seem to think it does. I mean, isn’t Harry Potter supposed to be all stealth-Christian underneath the spells and hexes? Is the Dan Brown gnosticism panic over and done? What about Star Trek’s secular rationalist populism? Where’s the outrage there?

It seems to me that this is all just a big excuse to write about how America’s going to heck in a hand-basket because Christianity isn’t being treated like the cool kid at the pop-cultural lunch table in a few films. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Cameron’s “Avatar” (which I haven’t seen yet), from claims that it’s visually repetitive of his past work, that it peddles old white-guilt fantasies, or that it’s filled with clunky “godawful” dialogue, but pantheism? Really? That’s the awful thing that really stands out? Just wait, after “Hypatia”, the “Clash of the Titans” remake, and the “Percy Jackson” adaptation hit theaters in 2010, it’ll be polytheism, not pantheism, that’s the real problem. I look forward to the forthcoming Ross Douthat column on the subject.

For more Pagan commentary on “Avatar”, check out Chas Clifton’s musings on “creeping pantheism”, Adrian J. Ivakhiv’s review that notes the “pagan mythology with a sledgehammer” aspects of the film, and Kvond’s philosophical and multiple-hyphenated take on the whole thing. Have you seen “Avatar” yet? What do you think? Creeping pantheism? Popcorn-munching eye-candy? Something else?

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • I like that quite a bit "multiple-hyphenated". I wonder about that creeping of pantheism, like a dis-indigenous vine or weed I suppose, running up into our Catholic (universal) garden. Insidious invasion of both Nature and ideas, where is the Garden of Eden when we need it?

    I do actually agree that there is something repellant about "soft" pantheism, if we read this as the unthinking kind, just as there might be about soft Christian, the sense that we are changing or clinging to values unconsciously. But Hollywood is the place of such "soft" thinking, is it not. From patriotism to outer space spiritual renewals.

  • Crystal7431

    Oh Kevin, you know the Garden of Eden was carefully cultivated. They pulled weeds and trimmed the hedges every saturday.

    • kevin

      Well, its easy to pull the weeds when you have given everything a "name". What is the name for pantheism creep, (I think I have answered my own question).

  • It's a fun adventure story with a blatant (though in my opinion, welcome) "we are all connected" message. I've always hated the tendency of pseudo-intellectuals to read too much into a good story, which is what I think they're doing. The pantheism is a plot device, when it comes down to it; the focus of the movie is much the same as the Last Samurai – outsider falls in love with the native culture and way of looking at things, fights against former culture in order to stay within it. Does this basic premise really require pantheism? No! But then, they wouldn't be complaining if it were an Abrahamic (sic: "Christian") culture being venerated; heck, I don't think Christianity's the bad guy in this one, it's not even mentioned or portrayed.

    The honest fact of the matter is, it's already been said. The association only brings the idea to the fore, for people to love or hate as they desire. Just enjoying the movie as a pleasant fiction would do more for their supposed cause; though I suspect their real cause is to stir up a bloody hornet's nest.

    That said, I say again, fun adventure story. Worth seeing, worth getting when it comes out on video. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece so much, but taken as a whole, it is greater than the sum of its parts.

    -G

  • I found the film great fun, and sad at the same time. The lines Jake had to Eywa, the world-tree earth mother, "The Sky People….where they came from there is no green. They killed their Mother" hit me quite forcibly. Some scientists believe that we are totally capable of killing our own Mother, or at least pissing Her off badly enough that She just shrugs us off, which, for us, is the same thing. If this film makes even one person re-examine their relationship with the world and with Earth, then it will have been an unqualified success.

  • Pantheism? We don't need no stinking Pantheism.

    Almost two thousand years before Spinoza, Plato wrote that the entire Cosmos is a single, living, conscious Being. He also wrote that this Being is ensouled, immortal, rational, and Divine.

    • Yes, I tried that argument on my classmates at Loyola. Their answer? "Yes, but Robin, Plato's vision wasn't complete, because he didn't have Jesus…"

      My response? "I have been sent here to destroy you."

      • "I have been sent here to destroy you."

        T-shirts, anyone?

  • This adds credence to the theory that James Cameron invented Wicca.

    • Hahahah! For the win!

    • Now I'm confused, I thought it was Al Gore who invented Wicca?

      • Nah, that was the intarwebs.

        • Juliaki

          So then technically doesn't that mean that Al Gore invented Neo-Wicca? 😉

          • That sounds like a resounding "yes" to me. Oh, and global warming, too.

            Powerful guy, that Al Gore.

          • Lynn

            I personally LOVED the film and am recommending it to all my pagan, tree-hugging, earth-loving friends. I thought it would be just another "video war game" and was surprised beyond my wildest expectations. Everything about it was amazing and I don't care whether James Cameron calls himself an "aging hippie", a nature lover, or a Pagan hight priest, this creation has an amazing message for anyone to see it. If only one person "gets" the message, it is well worth it. Everyone in the pagan community should support this film and take a friend.

          • Agreed.

          • This film might really have some serious subversive potential. A friend of mine who lists her religion on facebook as Christian is telling all of her friends how wonderful Avatar is.

            The more popular Avatar gets, the more snarktastic whinging we can expect from the Ronald-Hutton-wannabe crowd.

          • Cole Gillette

            I saw the film last night in IMAX 3-D, knowing nothing more about it than what I had heard when, within the past week, someone described it to me as an “environmental allegory”.

            I was conscious of the often unimpressive dialogue, and the painful clumsiness with which the film beats viewers over their crowns. But after some time, the realization dawned on me: the film is intended primarily for American audiences, who, by-and-large, require nothing less than the most vigorous beating a director can muster.

            Avatar was practically fine-tuned to arouse in conservative critics a maximum of annoyance, scorn, and perhaps even plain, unmitigated hatred; throughout the film’s three hour run time it plunges its gargantuan blue fingers into every historical soft-spot to be found on the anatomy of the American rightist movement. Displacement, mistreatment and genocide of native populations, militarism, colonialism and expansionism, wanton environmental destruction, industrialism, paternalism, corporatism, state-capitalism, even religious bigotry are the subjects of the grand, Hollywood-style (no political doublespeak intended) appeal to the hoi palloi that is James Cameron’s Avatar.

            Students of history will recognize that the film’s lackluster delivery of critically important messages does not detract from the truth of those messages, and Pagans will see Avatar for what it is–a line of demarcation between the modern cultural and religious right, and all that our own religious traditions hold sacred.

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  • Pitch313

    I'm wondering what Holly-ideology-wood poses the loomingest menace to the Christian America conserve us way of life as we never ever lived it.

    Sex.

    Communism.

    Drugs.

    Body modification.

    Fashion.

    Gossip.

    Communism.

    Pantheism.

    Money making entertainment.

    If nature is so threatening, put foil over all your windows and keep it out!

    • That's funny, because conservatives are into everything on this list (except pantheism, apparently, though the Roman Catholic Church describes the Trinity as being a form of pantheistic worship).

  • Mathias

    Even better (IMHO) is Kvond's latest deconstruction on Avatar: http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/12/21/avatarship-

  • Crystal7431

    Saw it last night. I really loved it. I plan on seeing it again with my husband. The audience last night really loved it to. Several clapped when- well, I don’t want to spoil it. But I was eavesdropping on some as I left the theatre just to gauge their reaction. One group of teens “totally want to be blue cat people.” Even the adults viewed it favorably.

    • Tea

      Sounds like a good movie, but I have to see The Fantastic Mr Fox first.

  • Cameron helped design new paradigm busting visceral 3D immersion technology while already including what could bust social, political, and religious reality bubbles.

    Most people cannot tolerate both impressive dialogue/plot and having more than one paradigm buster at hand.

    Cameron helped his interests as an inventor (Avatar’s digital 3D system), auteur, director and capitalist, all of them, by not overwhelming the masses with too much dialogue or complex plot. He knew open dialogue would follow and those not up for the task would be the losers, something not entirely missed even by many of the most casual observers.

    That little bit of K.I.S.S. genius is likely to take Avatar into the memetic stratosphere, thus enhancing both long term profits and societal impact, which in turn gives rise to more open dialogue, which lends towards more profits on an international scale for many years to come. He did it again. It's not a fluke.

  • Saw it. Loved it.

    Green Pluralism vs. Genocidal Imperialistic Exploitative Planet-Ravaging Corporatist Ideologically Unsound Paramilitary-Loving Capitalists

    That's pretty specific, nobody needs to act like or be defined by the latter — Avatar is not anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-technology, anti-human, anti-military or anti-capitalist. Instead, it suggests spirituality and any ideology may have **their place in the scheme of things.** That message contrasts sharply with religionist "Green" = Paganism and Forces of Good™ vs. The Forces of Evil™ dualism modes that leaves some movie critics spitting vitriolic alarm words like communist, anti-human, greasy, dirty, pagan and bestiality. Some Christian movie reviews went as far as to view the movie as a call to kill humans, Americans, specifically, and got themselves into particularly perturbing Christian Nationalism waters.

    By extension, the movie should help underline the difference between religion and religionism and busts any false idealism vs. materialism dichotomies.

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  • Jenn

    OOOoOOooo Pantheism bad James Cameron. What still shocks the heck out of me is that we didn't get this same mush when Beowolf came out. I heard nothing about the obvious anti-Christian lines in that movie. Nope it's all secret agendas and hidden meanings for these people. Ignore the obvious and go after what you MIGHT assume by reading between the lines.

  • Auberon Draenen Wen

    I'm looking forward to rants on Polytheism in the nearish future. It's about time we got recognized as a legitimae threat to Western Society!

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