Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Posts Tagged ‘Avatar’

Avatar: The Spiritual Story Continued

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 8, 2010

I saw Avatar for the second time recently. It didn’t have nearly the same effect as the first time where I raised the possibility that the movie could be treated as a spiritual experience. Others have written about the spiritual side of Avatar and I thought I’d revisit the idea. [listen to Science Fiction while reading, it’s today’s blog backing track.]

One writer characterises Avatar as more a “spiritual fiction” than science fiction. James Cameron was interviewed on Oprah and the ideas behind the movie were raised. Oprah asked Cameron if he’s a spiritual person, after all, the Na’vi greeting “I see you” is a phrase with a deeper meaning more akin to “I understand who you are.” “I guess I must be”, replied Cameron, “because this film represents a lot of ideas and feelings I have as an artist,” going on to highlight his movie’s “environmental message and the idea that we are all connected to each other as human beings.”

Emmanuel Reagan writes:

Let’s explore “I see you”. When Jake is being trained by scientist to understand the Navi world view, he tells him, “if someone tells you ‘I see you’, they actually mean, ‘I see (into) you’”. They don’t see just the person. They see ‘into’ the person’s connectedness with the spiritual realm. In other words, the spiritual realm is a part of what they can sense. The biology of the Navis and other organisms in the Pandora is capable of connecting with the spiritual. In fact, Jake survives only because of a spiritual intervention early on. Just as a Navi arrow is about to be shot at him, the shooter senses that the Spirit Mother does not want him dead.

Dominique Teng and Brian Hines note a pantheistic slant in the movie. Hines discusses whether it’s pantheism or panENtheism before concluding the distinction doesn’t matter. However, Avatar’s is not a pantheistic deity. Eywa is LIKE a pantheistic deity. But at best, she’s a deity of the moon Pandora only. Really, this god is a god with a small “g”, a creature or demigod albeit a very powerful one. A bigger “pan” or theistic deity is still possible, and arguably necessary if one finds the classic proofs for god such as the teleological argument compelling.

Certainly watching the movie can make one yearn for the type of simplicty and perfection the Na’avi live in. It’s fiction, after all. Teng says, “[The Na’vi] are warriors and ready to protect their habitat. They understand and respect their connection with nature”, which looks rather like an ad for an “Iron John” type New Age men’s retreat. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat list 15 spiritual lessons from the Na’vi. It’s interesting that a spiritual message is equated by many with environmentalism. I guess that’s Lovelock’s Gaia coming through. Teng has identified the non-materialistic and eco-friendly aspects of Avatar well. Towards the end she mentions in passing that Jake’s avatar is a “genetically modified hybrid”. I think many New Age people are afraid of or opposed to GE technology. An interesting point in a pro-enviromental movie?

Teng writes of “Profit seeking corporations ruthlessly destroying both environment and the indigenous cultures”, the “lack of respect for the habitats of other living creatures” and “controversial military expeditions to secure resources”. However, these are ethical issues, rather that spiritual as such and I think it’s important to distinguish this. An atheist could quite happily make the same points. Ethics and spirituality overlap, but ethics do not require a spiritual base to work from. (Actually, I think there’s a strong case that ethics do in fact require a spiritual foundation, but I’ll save that for another time.)

She writes “In the Hindu tradition, avatars are the reincarnations of deities sent to save the mankind in times of great peril.” Perhaps this is where some of the accusations of racism have come from: Whitey has come to save the savages. It’s been pointed out that the main settler characters are white (but what about the Hispanics?) and the actors playing Na’avi are Black or Native American. I wonder what would be said if Jake had been black? “Jake Sully is our avatar and here to save us, the viewers. He is here to open our eyes and save us as a race, a species, on the brink of self-destruction.” Hello Christianity? The god come to inhabit a human form and save us is also a christian idea.

Some Christians have also found resonance with other messages in Avatar, with one writer praising its vision of interdependence.

The Na’vi (per Indigenous tradition) are incredibly spiritual, sharing a connectedness hard to describe. The sehalo bonds they establish with the creatures and the environment on Pandora prove this connectedness–a connectedness that implies interdependence i.e. the rejection of the cup running over due to sinful pride.

It’s interdependence that defines our togetherness, our teamwork; our collective contributions to the whole, which is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

On the other hand, some other Christians have denounced it. Notably, the vatican has criticised the movie for its “spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.”

My friend Martin Pribble notes that Joseph Campbell’s monomyth can be seen in the story. While I enjoy Campbell’s writing, I don’t find his ideas compelling. According to one commenter

I think the problem with Campbell is also the virtue: namely that the framework of myth he proposes is so malleable it can be adapted to almost any protagonistic narrative. It is a sort of Turing Machine of narrative, in the sense that almost any narrative can be shoehorned into a Campbellian form if it has a beginning, middle and end, and a protagonist. See here for more Campbell criticism and this Christian-based critique of Campbell.

This warm fluffy vagueness perhaps explains why people from quite different perspectives have seen both spiritual truth and damnation in the same movie. This neglect of nuance and detail is the fundamental error of all-religions-are-the-same thinking. On a surface level much in common can be found. Many religions have very similar ethics. However it’s insulting to their teachings and adherents to say all religions are therefore the same or are based on the same ultimate truth. Those who say this simply don’t have a deep enough understanding of the religions (cultures) they exploit by misunderstanding.

It appears the message of Avatar is broad enough to be compelling to many while the details my be quite vague. Can spirituality be vague, or does it have to have a definite content? I’m not sure definition-wise, but for me I want to follow something where the content is clear.

What are your thoughts? Comment below.
Edit: More on Avatar and Pantheism.

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listening to Haujobb | The Noise Institute
tful Clever animation

Posted in Christianity, New Age, pagan | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

My Avatar Spiritual Experience

Posted by spritzophrenia on January 3, 2010

Susan suggested I write about personal stuff. She thought you’d like to hear about practical experiences, ways to connect with g0d. Well… there’s movies?

I’m sure a billion other bloggers are writing about Avatar as we speak. There’s good reason for this: It’s a great film. By “great”, I am not so much talking about plot, acting, dialogue, direction – though I don’t think it’s too shabby here either. I say Avatar is great because it’s rejuvenated the movie experience. It’s the first of the next gen cinema experience, imo [1].

Avatar, rated SAO (Spoiler Alert OK: Only contains minor spoilers). I took my 11 year-old son to Avatar, it’s a great age for this movie and I wanted to share the experience with him. It’s been quite some time since I walked into a movie theatre. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing film on the big screen. It’s a function of my recent poverty that has restricted me. It wasn’t unusual for me to see two films in the theatre per week at one point. I still watch around 4 films per week at home. (Thankyou BitTorrent.)

I knew very little about Avatar aside from the basic premise, I wanted to surprise myself. And surprised I was. Tears fell freely down my face at some points. Tears can be a sign of a spiritual experience I think. At this point my fellow agnostics and hardened atheists will be rolling their eyes. Yes I know we can put this down to emotionalism, and psychology. But this raises a very important question:

Just what IS a spiritual experience anyway? How would I know if I had one?

You’ve probably read of the recent studies of brains having religious experiences, specifically under deep meditation or prayer. At the very least, a spiritual experience would be something that activates that part of the brain. If spiritual experiences are merely a particular kind of brain experience akin to an emotion, then atheists can sleep easily at night. But this doesn’t cover all religious experiences. For example, a miraculous healing might affect my body but not activate that part of my brain. This would be because the external ‘spirit’ would be acting on my body, rather than me experiencing the numinous through prayer. I think we’ll have to return to this question in future posts, would you agree?

Why was I feeling this way in the cinema? Some feelings were romantic feelings – I’ve recently broken up with someone I love. She was special to me, and I was a fool. It made me yearn for something I’ve lost, something I hope for. Yeah, I’ll confess I’m hoping the alien sex scene is included in the DVD. Incidentally, having only seen Zoe Saldana as her N’avi character I didn’t realise – she’s hawt! I suspect the loss of something important and profound is a theme in many religions. Certainly this is so in the churchianity I grew up in: The loss of innocence, the breaking of the world, the loss of connection with a creator. More mystical churchians could also point to the divine romance between g0d and ourselves.

I had feelings of hope, of inspiration, feelings of injustice and pleasure at seeing justice restored. Can you “feel” spiritual experiences in a different way to emotions?

Avatar also hints at the possibility that some kind of “god” is real. Any human being with a heart not too bruised by cynicism would surely weep at that? The interesting thing in Avatar is there’s a non-supernatural explanation for the goddess. It evolves out of a kind of natural neural net covering the surface of the planet via tree roots. Once again, a ‘supernatural’ being that atheists could see as a pal. In a way it was kinda like Jung’s theory of the universal unconscious, but with a practical mechanism.

Another test: If it was a true spiritual experience, should it motivate me to social justice? This is indicated in the Christian New Testament

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

and by the Buddhist Monk I quote here

The ‘insights’ claimed by some who [allege spiritual experiences] should be tested against the difference which these experiences make to the forces of greed, aversion and delusion in their hearts and conduct.

I think Avatar reinforced my ideas around justice for minorities and native peoples, although I haven’t had that tested yet. Intriguingly, this is an area where there’s been criticism of Avatar. A New Zealand Maori academic says Avatar repeats “negative stereotypes” about indigenous people:

The head of the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury, Rawiri Taonui, said Avatar addressed the impact of colonisation on indigenous people in an entertaining way, but relied on stereotypes.

“It was a great movie and had some progressive themes, but did it in a way that still repeated some stereotypes,” he said.

Taonui said the “rhythmic body swaying” of the indigenous people during a ceremony only appeared in “B-grade movies” and “just doesn’t happen in any indigenous population”.

There’s more at Stuff

Feminists with Disabilities makes some good points, and links to other criticisms of racism:

This is a movie which is not only racist as all getout, but also centers around a Miracle Cure! Which, of course, means that the disabled character will be played by an actor in crip drag. And, of course, this story automatically assumes that having paraplegia and being a wheelchair user is a tragedy which would make one bitter and furious at the world, and that, of course, everyone would want a cure.

Contra this, in their comments Anna says “I’m a wheelchair user and not only did I not find it offensive, I thought it was a much more accurate, positive portrayal of disability than any other film in recent times.”

I don’t think all spiritual experiences would necessarily drive one directly towards justice; I can conceive of valid experiences that are only internal. If you’re seeking a spiritual experience; perhaps a movie could be a gateway for you? I’ve already blogged a list of movies you can try. Completely off topic, but I can’t resist throwing in the very funny making of Avatar the bootleg. Anyone seen a bad, 2D version with camera shake yet?

It’s not just the liberals hating on Avatar either – Patrick Goldstein in The LA Times asks “Why do conservatives hate the most popular movie in years?”

As a host of critics have noted, the film offers a blatantly pro-environmental message; it portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and it clearly evokes the can’t-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s counterculture. These are all messages guaranteed to alienate everyday moviegoers, so say the right-wing pundits — and yet the film has been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences everywhere, from Mississippi to Manhattan.

To say that the film has evoked a storm of ire on the right would be an understatement. Big Hollywood’s John Nolte, one of my favorite outspoken right-wing film essayists, blasted the film, calling it “a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and PC cliches that not a single plot turn, large or small, surprises…. Think of ‘Avatar’ as ‘Death Wish’ for leftists, a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you freakin’ hate the bad guys (America) you’re able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all.”

There you go people, have at it. Meanwhile, I’m gonna be over here with the popcorn enjoying the movie, and possibly finding g0d.

Someone else took his 11 year-old son to the movies and came out with a Buddhist perspective on Avatar. “My 11 year old son … watched the movie with me and we both talked and talked about the movie. ‘Little Anthony’ said, “Dad this movie was just like Buddhism”. Not surprising, considering Mr Elmore is Buddhist. Everyone wants a piece of Avatar. (It seems appropriate to plug my article on the dark side of Buddhism here.)

Avatar also raises the question of the consciousness surviving death, and of soul transfer. The same day I saw Avatar I found out a high-school friend is dying of leukaemia. Coincidentally, he’s my own age, a born-again christian and a pastor. I visited him the day after, I hope to report back soon.

What do you think? Criticisms? Has there ever been a movie that spiritually moved you?

Here’s my follow up post.
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listening to The Electric Six | Antisocial Sex Boy Hit Machine, Pitch Black (The New Zealand One!) | Ape to Angel (Blutech remix), Apoptygma Bezerk | Soultaker, Arch Enemy | God Dethroned
tful [2] A fun and funny way to help the planet
reading Appignanesi & Garratt | Introducing Postmodernism

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[1] Yeah yeah, I know we can all point to similar films plot and genre-wise, and earlier 3D efforts. It’s because Avatar has done it so well, that I suggest it’s the first of the new generation cinema experience. The archetype, perhaps.

[2] Today’s Fun Unrelated Link

Posted in agnostic, atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, New Age, personal development | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments »