Someone emailed me with that question this week. I’m posting our exchange here in the hope that you’ll find my answer helpful.
I, too, am a recovering fundamentalist. So I really have enjoyed your web sites and the focus of your church. I would like your take on a topic that has me in some hot water with some friends…. The movie Avatar.
How do you address blatantly pagan entertainment such as “Avatar” which, apart from its pantheistic theme, is a fun, exciting, interesting movie? Why should a believer waste his/her time with this? How, in light of Phil 4:8 and Romans 14:23 can a believer ingest a movie like this “in faith”? I do believe some things might be fine for one person and not fine for another (Rom 14). But with movies like this – which I place in the same category as pornography – I find it hard to see how it’s a good thing for anyone to partake of.
What do you think? How do you counsel your people, if asked, about such a film that finds itself in the cross hairs of not just fundies, but also folks like Mark Driscoll.
Resting in peace because of what He has done, (name withheld)
Thanks for your email. I’ll try to answer you helpfully.
I’ve been pondering your question, as well as the appropriateness of entertainment such as Avatar for Christians, since it presents a portrayal of openly pagan elements. This really is an oft-raised question about the point at which it is appropriate to deem something “too pagan” for Christian consumption.
It seems to me that the question is one of degrees. Paganism has infected a great deal of today’s entertainment, so much so, that it is difficult to even notice it anymore, because it has become so common, and we’ve become so used to it, that we’ve become immune to it (which is a good thing).
For example, you could conceivably create a scale with TV programs and movies that use magic such as Bewitched or I Dream of Genie or Mary Poppins on one end of the scale, then you could move further up the scale from those lighter-fare shows (to which most people are immune to the paganism, and are thankfully able to be uninfluenced by the superstitions in them), to those programs containing a bit darker magic such as Star Wars or Harry Potter or even movies such as Avatar, which contains open praying to a goddess.
Honestly, different people would place these shows/movies on different points on the scale, depending on their sensitivity to such things, and the perceived blatancy of the movie’s attempt to influence the viewer to embrace ideas or practices clearly contrary to Scriptural teaching.
I know some people that condemn Bewitched and Genie, and even Disney’s Snow White and Aladdin, as being “too pagan” and therefore unfit for Christian viewing, whereas others I know actually came out of the theater after watching Avatar with a list of things in the movie that caused them to have moments of worship to Christ. They said things like:
“If the imagined world of Avatar is that astounding and beautiful and awe-inspiring, then what must the new heavens and new earth be like?”
“If a mere man can imagine that kind of beautiful world, then surely God has put eternity in our hearts, and what God has imagined, and will one day create, will be even more spectacular than anything man can imagine! God is beyond comprehension and full of glory!”
Also, Avatar was really nothing more than a future-looking take on the very well-known religion of the American Indian that most American school children are aware of (or used to be): a people primitive in weaponry, but skilled hunters with a sense of brotherhood with the animals, and communal worship of the “Great Spirit”, in Avatar’s case this was the goddess Eywa – who was strikingly similar to the American Indian concept of an all-emcompassing deity that is one with nature. It was all somewhat panentheistic. Pagan? Yes. More so than something we’d see in a cowboy and Indian movie? Not any more than ones I’ve seen in my day. Do the prayers to Eywa in the movie bother me? Yes, just like Luke using the force or Indians chanting and dancing for rain around a fire. But, I do not feel that my allegiance to Christ is threatened by those things, and can appreciate the imaginative value of the movie as an enriching experience, much like I can with Narnia and Lord of the Rings.
So, in my view, it is a question of degrees: where does it go on the scale of an acceptable vs. unacceptable portrayal of paganism? To what degree is it harmful to the souls of the viewers, or to the consciences of the Christians? (the latter is a question which falls within the scope of Romans 14). For this reason, I am unpersuaded by the comparison of this kind of exposure to pagan religious practices with exposure to pornography.
Being exposed to greater or lesser degrees of pagan religious practices can be withstood by possessing greater faith in the truth of Christ. But there are no degrees of exposure to pornography for which there is no defilement. Pornography does not call for an embrace of faith like false religion does, it lures one to indulgence of man’s carnal nature through lust. This is why a Christian can travel to an Islamic or Buddhist or Hindu nation and observe their worship in the streets and be unmoved by it, but cannot enter a strip club and be unaffected. There is a difference.
I know that that’s not a simplistic answer, but I hope that it gives you at least some helpful insight. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think out loud with you. These are good questions to wrestle with. Keep thinking through how to practice your faith in Christ. May God be glorified in us!