|Breaking Open the Word|
|World & Nation|
|DCR Advertising Rates|
|DCR Submission Guidelines|
March 17, 2010
'Cathol-Atar': Hollywood pantheism vs. Catholicism
By Christopher Stefanick
Last Sunday “Avatar” ended its 10-week stretch grossing more than any other movie ever made. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and for good reason. Visually, it was in a different league than any other movie ever made. Spiritually, however, there was nothing unique about it. And its pantheistic theme is one of the reasons it was so popular.
“Avatar” is about an earth-worshiping alien race defending its planet from the evil American capitalists who want to exploit it for its rare mineral “unobtanium.” They worship Eywa, their version of Mother Earth and the personification of the life-force within their world and themselves. And though the version of pantheism we see in “Avatar” has Christian characteristics (Eywa is portrayed as intelligent and personal rather than as a vague life-force) it still promotes a spirituality that finds its origin and end in the ground.
Earth religions that romanticize primitive, pantheistic cultures are regularly celebrated on the big screen. But the reality is that there was just as much greed, gambling, land-grabs, murder, substance abuse, and sins of the flesh in the wigwams of New York as there were in the cities of Paris. Arguably more. Life was often short and violent for our ancient ancestors. Hollywood is too enamored with pantheism to see this.
Hollywood also overlooks the most glaring philosophical flaw of pantheism. It’s as foolish as honoring the “Pieta” without giving a glance to Michelangelo. St. Augustine tells us to “question the beauty of the earth … sea … sky. …They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we are beautiful.’ Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable?” Only cultures with underdeveloped philosophies fail to question creation in such a way.
But for all its love of pantheism, what Hollywood truly loves is what sells. And since pantheism sells so well to modern man, it’s important to ask why. Every error that has become mainstream was only able to do so because it answered a legitimate longing in the human heart.
“Avatar-ahontas Dances with Lion Kings” taps into a very real and legitimate longing of modern man. It’s a longing to be reconciled with the earth. We are divorced from creation. We spend more time walking on hard concrete than touching the earth with our feet. Denverites rarely make their way into the Rockies just an hour west, or to the Eastern Plains where our children would be amazed to see that our food actually grows out of the ground. Most people have never smelled the groves that grow our oranges or seen the fields that grow our soybeans. Most Los Angelites are too busy to soak in the ocean more than a few times a year. And we rightly sense that there is something wrong with this disconnect.
Where Hollywood goes wrong is in the assumption that we need to look outside of our faith in an intelligent Creator to reconnect with creation. An ever growing number of Catholic movements are overtly rejecting this notion. To name a few: The Christian Life Movement, tens of thousands strong, whose spiritual pillars are reconciliation with God, oneself, others and creation; “Creatio,” a Catholic movement whose environmentalism seeks to bring about the reconciliation of man and nature; Wyoming Catholic College which kicks off freshman year with six weeks of outdoor survival training from the National Outdoor Leadership School; and the JPII Adventure Institute which offers environmental education in the Rockies to hundreds of Catholic middle- and high-school students each year.
Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have spoken forcefully about our obligations to the environment. John Paul II went so far as to speak of man’s need to “rediscover our fraternity with the earth” and said that “If nature is not violated and humiliated, it returns to being the sister of humanity.”
Catholicism does not divorce man from nature. To the contrary, faith gives man the ability to see nature in the proper light, without divorcing him from his Maker or making him forget his place of dignity above the fleas. It helps man appreciate nature while remembering that he can never be fully satisfied with this world because he straddles time and eternity, the temporal and the spiritual. Most important for the faithful, nature provides a glimpse into the heart and mind of God himself. In the words of John Paul II, nature is a “gospel that speaks to us of God.” He added: “Faced with the glory of the Trinity in creation, we must contemplate, sing and rediscover awe. Contemporary society has become dry, ‘not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder’ (G.K. Chesterton).” We can perceive the very face of God mirrored in creation. No pagan praise could equal this honor.
So if watching “Avatar” made you want to paint your skin blue and run half-naked through our national parks, that’s fine. Just make sure you bring your faith in God with you—and a good lawyer.
Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick is director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Denver Archdiocese. Visit chris-stefanick.com.