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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