Something that jumped out at me in the film Avatar was this:
- the calamity that befell the blue pagan forest people came very close to tracking the calamity that befell the Jews in 70 CE (when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and drove the survivors into exile).
In the movie, the human techno-cowboy sky people are imperialists (as the Romans were) engaging in a relentless military movement toward the forest people’s most sacred tree—the tree that supposedly contained the spirit of their deity. Likewise, the temple at Jerusalem was also, for the Jews of 70 CE, the location where Yahweh was believed to dwell.
Like the Jews, the blue forest people collected around their sacred “temple” for a final showdown with the imperialists. But unlike the calamity that befell the Jews, who lost their showdown with the Romans, and saw their temple destroyed, the blue forest people hold off the alien imperialists and don’t lose their sacred home and tree “temple.”
The film, in short, suggests that the proper response to religious doubt is this:
- double down on your beliefs
Any sane forest person, witnessing the progressive destruction of the places that they regarded as sacred, would seem to experience some doubt about whether their god really existed and could let such a thing happen. But not in Avatar. What might have been responded to with doubt is responded to by ever more fervent belief, counter aggression, and collective prayer. It was as if the imperialist attack had released a fundamentalist backlash that drove the forest people into an ever more fervid commitment to archaic religion.
I think that in there is a lesson for today: a lot of people in the 21st century are doubling down on their traditional beliefs as a way of armoring themselves against the perceived calamities of modernism. I can’t quote it verbatim, but there is a line in the film in which the hero tells a group of imperialist commanders:
They don’t need our beer and blue jeans. We have nothing that they want.
Here’s an example of somebody—in this case, an environmentalist—evoking Avatar as a parable for fighting imperialism. I find the below video vaguely creepy because it could, with minimal tweaking, be the cloying “manifesto”—violent or nonviolent—of a Tea Party movement person, a jihadist, an abortion clinic bomber, or, indeed, any religious fundamentalist, political extremist, or Dostoevskian underground man:
It’s easy to be seduced by the simple categories on display in Avatar. But Avatar is a parable of extremity, and is thus ill suited as a model for a world that needs, not just true believers, but moderates and doubters as well. We all need to remember William Butler Yeats’s 1921 poem, “The Second Coming,” and make a place for the Yeatsian center as well:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.