Three hours and $15 later, did James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar lead Fordham theology students to a deeper communion with God?
During a March 4 event on the Lincoln Center campus, students and theology faculty weighed in on how well symbolism and narrative in the film, which has grossed $2 billion, imparted the presence of God in the make-believe world of Pandora.
Karina Hogan, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, noted that the word Avatar came from Sanskrit. The concept of an Avatar is rooted in the Hindu religion, where it is realized through the God Vishnu, and “represents the coming into being,” Hogan said.
According to John Seitz, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, the film’s longing for “presence” is rooted in the pre-Enlightenment era’s desire to find an experience and closeness with God or the spirit.
What is clever in the narrative, said Seitz, is the fact that the technology, which traditionally leads to “absence, distance and gaps between people,” in Avatar leads its main character to find a spiritual connection with the natural world.
“The film really recapitulates the romantic longing for presence amid absence,” said Seitz. “The film itself, in its 3-D manifestation, allows us as consumers to bridge distance, to be present with these characters—and pay extra money doing it.”
While Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., had a positive reaction to the film’s premise of a world in which everybody is spiritually connected, she objected that the movie disintegrated into the “white privilege” message that “conflict is the way that differences get resolved.” She also questioned the premise that the Avatar was tall, slender and muscular and that the disabled human body was rejected in favor of it.
“What message is that sending?” she asked.
While some students questioned whether the movie offered any redeeming sense of faith at all among its characters, FCLS freshman Dylan Hamilton Freedman said the movie should be interpreted more as “an example of what we can become.”
“It can teach you broader lessons if you look at it that way,” he said.