Surely, I was one of the last pop-culture-friendly religion writers on planet earth to get around to writing about Avatar. To be honest with you, I didn't want to write about the movie -- especially after I saw it. I thought it was simply another James Cameron passion play about the 1960s, full of digital spectacle and vague Oprah-esque spirituality. I couldn't even get all that worked up about the offerings by the movie's many conservative critics, other than Ross Douthat's analysis in the New York Times.
As it turns out, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Avatar actually contains some very interesting and very specific religious content.
I was clubbed over the head by this fact during an interview with Dena Ross, the Beliefnet.com entertainment editor, while I was writing a column about the site's annual Best Spiritual Film award. As it turns out, I had missed a major concept from Hinduism during my graduate-school classes about world religions long, long ago (in a universe far, far away).
To cut to the chase, I didn't know what the word "avatar" actually meant (other than its modern application in digital gaming). It appears that I am not alone. Anyway, that led to a Scripps Howard News Service column that opened like this:
In one of Hinduism's most sacred poems, the lord and sustainer of the universe chooses to be incarnated in human form -- the ancient term is "avatar" -- to help the Pandava people fight evil invaders and defend what is right.
In director James Cameron's blockbuster "Avatar," a U.S. Marine is transformed by technology into a blue-skinned warrior on a planet called Pandora, where he helps the Na'vi people fight evil invaders and defend their sacred lands and traditions.
There seem to be some similarities in these epics.
"The ancient Hindu scriptures have forever reiterated that whenever the world would be on the brink of disaster and mankind faces extinction ... the divine Lord Vishnu would manifest himself in mortal, palpable form to save mankind from the impending doomsday," noted the Bengali director Sudipto Chattopadhyay, at the Passion and Cinema weblog.
When evaluating Cameron's movie, he added, one thing is clear. "The use of the word Avatar hence could never be an accident. The Avatar is meant to be the savior, the messiah of his own race and people."
Obviously, I had a blind spot when -- notebook in hand -- I went to the theater to see this megahit movie. Ross (and Google) helped me realize my limitations and learn something new about an important concept.
By the way, I urge you to check out that Chattopadhyay essay. To me, it seems highly unlikely that Cameron was simply dabbling in some vague symbolism when he was making this movie.
All in all, this has to be considered an unusually faith-based year at the multiplex. This week, the Religion & Ethics Weekly team at PBS did a discussion-starter piece -- click here for the page with two videos -- on this topic for the show's website. The producer for the segment saw my Scripps Howard piece and I ended up being part of the trio of voices featured in the pre-Oscar discussion.
So check that out. Then, let's open this thread up, in the final hours before the red carpet. Any comments on the role of religion and spirituality in the important films this year? Any comments on the press coverage of these themes? Please share some URLs with us.