Avatar, Yeats, and pantheism as ‘natural magic’

Well, I saw Avatar in the 3D theater this weekend. Wow. Absolutely stunning visuals. Definitely worth checking out if you haven’t yet.

As for the plot, you’ve seen it before, though perhaps with better acting (Dances with Wolves), more emotion (The Last Samurai), fewer phosphorescent trees (Dune), more music (Pocahontas), or more gags (FernGully). There is also the tragic edition where all the good guys die at the end (The Mission), which happens to be the only one based on a true story.

One thing I found interesting in the film is how Cameron (the writer and director) presents a wholly scientific explanation for the pantheistic energy that connects all living creatures on the planet. The trees have actual, observable neural-network connections to each other and all the plants around them and even the animals and people. The natives have nerve endings at the tips of hair that can be plugged into animals, trees, etc. to form a bond with nature. In one scene, the characters hook into one of the “sacred” trees (explained as simply a sort of tree with a much more dense neural network) and can hear the echoing voices of their ancestors and even the groanings of all life on the planet itself. It seems that a bit of their ancestor’s consciousness was absorbed into this network of memories. No spiritual or religious explanation is given. It is implied that perhaps long ago Earth used to have bonds similar to this between it’s organisms, but they have since faded and become difficult to observe by science.

So how would a devout atheist like Cameron reconcile “spiritual” phenomenon? This is one way – with a “natural” explanation. Drawing from my discussion of “natural magic” earlier, I actually think this is a pretty good way to set up a secondary (story) world. I really appreciate how he explained the phenomenon with visuals and not a lot of awful explanatory monologues. Explanatory monologues are the hallmark of bad sci-fi. If your story has to pause for 10 minutes while your character recites from the appendices of a role-playing game manual, you know your narrative needs a serious rewrite. Anyway, despite it’s flaws, Avatar did this part well I think. That’s cool.

It also struck me how similar this idea was to W.B. Yeat’s explanation of magic, which he outlined in one of his early essays:

I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are

(1) That the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.

(2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.

(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.

-W.B. Yeats, Magic, Ideas of Good and Evil, Essays, p.33

Yeats didn’t see God and spirits and demons. He saw memories and invisible connections between all people and places. Yeats often participated in seances where he believed he could tap into some of these memories. The similarities to his view of spirituality and the explanation presented in Avatar are, I think, remarkably similar. Yeats was a man of old literature and poetry though, not a contemporary scientist. He would not use the language of quantum mechanics and electromagnetic fields in his theories. He would instead draw on metaphors, mythologies, and symbols – the stuff he knew best.

Salvation for your flesh too

Check this out:

Finally, if salvation was only for the soul, what more would this be than what is already said by Pythagoras and Plato? The gospel is ‘a new a strange hope’, not a slight variation on one already well known. The fragmentary treatise concludes with a passage which belongs exactly with the overall argument of 1 Corinthians: because the flesh rises, its behavior in the present time matters enormously, whereas if it did not, one might as well indulge its various appetites. In fact (and here he quotes Justin Martyr) if Christ our physician(God having rescued us from our desires) regulates our flesh with his own wise and temperate rule, it is evident that he guards it from sins because it possesses a hope of salvation.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.503

Think about that. What is so different about the resurrection described in the Bible? It’s NOT just a spiritual fly away to heaven thing. It involves your body – the one you have right now. That’s why it matters what you do with your body right now (even though it’s going to be redeemed).

Glow in the dark people?

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

-Phillipians 3:20-21 (ESV)

“Transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” – does that mean we glow in the dark? Nope.

See Phil 3:21 where doxa ‘glory’ is contrasted with atimia, ‘dishonour’ and tapeinosis, ‘humiliation’. In a vast range of ancient literature the regular meaning of doxa is ‘good repute, honour’, as opposed to shame and humiliation…That the ‘glory’ of the different creatures does not primarily refer to luminosity, though in several cases it includes that, is clear from verse 40b, where physical objects in the heavens have one kind of glory, and those on the earth have another. Objects on earth do not shine as do the sun, moon and stars; but they still have their own proper ‘glory’. Here ‘glory’ seems to mean ‘honour’, reputation, ‘proper dignity’.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.345 (footnotes)

“Proper dignity” sounds like a return to pre-fall standards if you ask me. Again, not something ethereal and floaty. The post-resurrection accounts of Jesus didn’t include rays of energy shooting from his body. He only did that on the mount of transfiguration for a short time. Ours will be like his.

Yeats was no musician

In reading a collection of essays by W.B. Yeats, I came across this passage:

A girl has been playing on the guitar. She is pretty, and if I didn’t listen to her I could have watched her, and if I didn’t watch her I could have listened. Her voice, the movements of her body, the expression of her face, all said the same thing. A player of a different temper and body would have made all different, and might have been delightful in some other way. A movement not of music only but of life came to its perfection. I was delighted and I did not know why until I thought, ‘That is the way my people, the people I see in the mind’s eye, play music, and I like it because it is all personal, as personal as Villon’s poetry.’ The little instrument is quite light, and the player can move freely and express a joy that is not of the fingers and the mind only but of the whole being; and all the while her movements call up into the mind, so erect and natural she is, whatever is most beautiful in her daily life. Nearly all the old instruments were like that, even the organ was once a little instrument, and when it grew big our wise forefathers gave it to God in the cathedrals, where it befits him to be everything. But if you sit at the piano, it is the piano, the mechanism, that is the important thing, and nothing of you means anything but your fingers and your intellect.

-W.B Yeats, Essays, p.332

Ha! Try telling a piano player that. Your playing is all just fingers and intellect and mechanism? Yeats may have been a great poet, but it’s clear he didn’t rub shoulders with many musicians or attended the concert hall often. He would have been cured of these silly statements in short order. The fact that the first thing he notices about the guitar playing is that the performer is a pretty girl… that is telling. By these standards, perhaps he would have enjoyed some booty-shaking on MTV more than a night at the symphony.

The 10th commandment is the key

Right here at the start, Girard lays down the biblical foundation for his theory of human conflict. I believe this reading of “do not covet” is much more accurate than we are used to.

In the bible, and especially in the Gospels, there is an original conception of desire and its conflicts that has gone largely unrecognized. In order to grasp how old it is we must go back to the Fall in Genesis or to the second half of the Ten Commandments, which is entirely devoted to prohibiting violence against one’s neighbor.

Commandments six, seven, eight, and nine are both simple and brief. They prohibit the most serious acts of violence in the order of their seriousness:

  • You shall not kill.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

The tenth and last commandment is distinguished from those preceding it both by its length and its object: in place of prohibiting an act it forbids a desire.

“You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him.” (Exodus 20:17)

Without being actually wrong the modern translations lead readers down a false trail. The verb “covet” suggests that an uncommon desire is prohibited, a perverse desire reserved for hardened sinners. But the Hebrew term translated as “covet” means just simply “desire.” This is the word that designates the desire of Eve for the prohibited fruit, the desire leading to the original sin.

The notion that the Decalogue devotes its supreme commandment, the longest of all, to the prohibition of a marginal desire reserved for a minority is hardly likely. The desire prohibited by the tenth commandment must be the desire of all human beings — in other words, simply desire as such.

-Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p.7

He goes on to explain how desire per se is not evil (like some Buddhists would assert), but that desire for what belongs to our neighbor (his social capital, his possessions, his wife, etc.) can be convincingly proven to be the root of all human conflict and ALL hatred and sin against others.

Heaven comes DOWN to Earth y’all

Our western view of heaven as a pie-in-the-sky spiritual place light-years away from anything we experience as humans now has it’s root in Platonic and Gnostic separation of spirit and body. But as amazing and glow-in-the-dark as heaven is presented in Biblical prophecy, if you pay attention it’s a lot more down-to-earth than that.

The picture of the heavenly city in the last two chapters of Revelation has often been interpreted through the lens of later western piety, imagining that this is simply the ‘heaven’ to which Christians will go after their deaths. But that view is not simply somewhat deficient; it is failing to read the text. IN Revelation 21 (and elsewhere; this vision dominate the whole book, not just the ending) the heavenly city comes down FROM heaven TO earth. That is what the narrative is all about. As Christopher Rowland has insisted, the end of Revelation offers an ultimate rejection of a detached, other-worldly spirituality in favour of an integrated vision of new creation in which ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’, the twin halves of created reality, are at last united. Always intended for one another, they are by this means to be remade, and to become the place where the living god will dwell among his people for ever.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.470

Here, again, Wright speaks of how when you investigate the thought of the ancient Jews and Greek Christians, you don’t find anything resembling our current idea of “go to heaven when you die”.

But to approach the present passage [Luke 20:27-40] with that set of ideas in one’s head is like looking at a picture of Jerome while thinking of Daniel in the lions den. We cannot stress too strongly that this whole complex of ideas, developed so massively and many-sidedly over the years, was simply not in the heads or hearts of either Jesus or the Sadducees, or indeed the Pharisees, or indeed ordinary Jew or pagans in the first century. One might as well assume that when Herod wanted music playing in his court he had to choose between Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Within the Jewish tradition, at least, ‘heaven’ was not, and did not become until some while after the first century, a regular designation for the place where the righteous went either immediately after death or at some stage thereafter.


Atheists have dibs on little good literature

A conversation at the BHT worth saving:


Kurt: How atheists “cope” with Christmas. Is it wrong of me to feel snarky?

Spike: Why would an atheist consider ancient paganism to be more atheism friendly? As I recall, they had a couple of gods.

Kurt: I’ve heard it alleged that most atheists are mostly opposed not to the idea of “god” in particular, but opposed to Christianity. I wonder if this is because Christianity is the prevalent belief in the USA, or because it’s the one that rankles the nonbeliever most?

Fearsome: Why Atheists Love Pagans:

It’s the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” syndrome. If you hate X enough, you start to think that anything that is non-X is favorable to you. So, since ancient pagans weren’t Christians, they are taken as somehow the ancient allies and forerunners of modern atheists. Christianity is the root of all evil, so paganism, merely by being non-Christian, must have been good. It’s sort of like how during the Cold War, we assumed that if you were fighting the Communists, you must be at least partially on our side. You know, like the Taliban. Nevermind that one for the Romans’ favorite excuses for burning Christians was accusing them of atheism.

Mark N: Someone should inform the atheists in that article (who, to be fair, were probably not the best representation of your more thoughtful atheist), that one of the most popular christian writers of this century also wrote great pagan influenced fiction: CS Lewis. We already got dibbs on the pagan lore 😛

Fearsome:  I think pagans have dibs on pagan lore. Atheists have dibs on…uh…VCR manuals? They don’t even have dibs on science fiction, since Jules Verne was a Catholic.

We live between resurrection and resurrection

Here, Wright gives a summary of Paul’s view of man and his future.

I LOVE these answers.

The answers Paul would give to the worldview questions are easily tabulated:

1. Who are we? We are ‘in the Messiah’, identified solely by our confession and faith in him as the risen lord; we are the new-covenant people, the Torah-fulfilling people, the worldwide family promised to Abraham by the one true God.

2. Where are we? In the good creation of the good God; creation is still groaning in travail, awaiting its own liberation from decay, but is already under the lordship of the risen and ascended Messiah.

3. What’s wrong? The world, and we ourselves, are not yet redeemed as we shall be. Most people in the world, pagans and Jews alike, remain ignorant of what Israel’s God has done in Jesus the Messiah. In particular, the present world rulers (Caesar and the rest, and the dark ‘spiritual’ powers that stand behind them) are at best a parody, and at worst a monstrous and blasphemous distortion, of the true justice and peace the one God intends for his world. Because sin still has idolatrous humankind in its grip, death still acts as a tyrant.

4. What’s the solution? In the long term, the creator’s great act of new creation, through which the cosmos itself will be liberated, true justice and peace will triumph over all enemies, all the righteous will be raised from the dead, and believers alive at the time will be transformed. In the short term, the gospel must be announced to the world, doing its own powerful work of challenging, transforming, healing and rescuing, and thus creating ‘resurrection’ people in the metaphorical sense.

5. What time is it? The ‘age to come’ has been inaugurated, but the ‘present age’ still continues. We live between resurrection and resurrection, that of Jesus and that of ourselves; between the victory over death at Easter and the final victory when Jesus ‘appears’ again.

This now/not yet tension runs right through Paul’s vision of the Christian life, undergirding his view of [everything], (for instance) suffering and prayer.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.275

Resurrection at the center makes the gospel offensive

This is a big part of what makes the gospel offensive at least.

Proposing that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead was just as controversial nineteen hundred years ago as it is today.

The discovery that dead people stayed dead was not first made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.10

In case you’re wondering, I found a text file with notes I had made on this book when I read through it a couple years ago! If I post them here then I won’t lose ’em.

We don’t know jack about the early church

It seems like nearly every Christian book I’ve ever read that advocates a particular position plays the card of the “early church”.

THIS is how the early church did it. That’s a good reason why you should too. Let me give you a few verses from Acts or Ephesians and explain how they back up what I’m saying.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the position is either. Somehow the pure, spotless apostolic early church did it the right way.

  • House churches? Early church dude!
  • Lots of structure in your big church organization? Early church! (Deacons, bishops, apostles, presbytery meetings in Jerusalem, etc.)
  • Lots of speaking in tongues? Early church. (All over the place.)
  • Long teaching sermons that put people to sleep? Early church! (Paul and the guy who fell out the window)
  • Infant baptism? Early church! (His whole household was baptised…)
  • Immersion baptism? Early church! (They found a place where there was lots of water)
  • Communism? Yes!
  • High view of personal property rights? Yes!
  • etc.

Now, some of these arguments are more dubious than others. Some of them aren’t bad in fact. But here, early on, Wright points out the obvious:

…the problem with all such theories is that they are themselves based on nothing more than elaborate guesswork. We simply do not know very much about the early church, and certainly not enough to make the kind of guesses that are on offer in this area. When traditio-historical study (the examination of hypothetical stages by which the written gospels came into existence) builds castles in the air, the ordinary historian need not feel a second-class citizen for refusing to rent space in them.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.19

Wright is one of the brightest NT scholars ever. He knows as much about the early church as anyone you’re going to run into. And what does he know? “not very much”.

So, for example, I’m down with the idea of house churches, but can you really write a whole book (200-300 pages) on how to set up a house church and claim the bible AND history are backing up all your ideas? Seriously? This sort of thing happens all the time though.