These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color — their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.
Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.
This is true, as far as it goes — especially when it’s James “Ham-Fist” Cameron doing the storytelling. The irony, of course, is that Newitz has just as strong a missionary imperialist impulse as Cameron, only she wants to pretend that she doesn’t have it. Cameron, at least, is oblivious to his missionary spirit and seriously thinks he is defending and affirming “native cultures” from white imperialism while he works through his narcissistic Hero’s Journey. Newitz knows what Cameron is up to; so how is it that she’s blind to the log in her own eye? She wants to pretend she’s not the beneficiary of an aggressively missionary culture called “Christendom” (identified by her under the secular label “European” or “White” rather than the theological marker “Christian”)?
Rubbish. Her very notions of egalitarianism and human dignity are simply one of the thousand legacies that Christian culture has aggressively spread all over the world. Pre-Christian paganism knew nothing of it, taking for granted that humans were emphatically not
created equal, and regarding the weaker as the natural slave of the stronger and women, by and large, as the natural inferior of man. Sure, the Spartans could be egalitarian with each other and impress ancient “Stuff White People Like“-types
like Plato as he dreamt of his Republic. But, of course, they pulled that off by forcing the Helots to do all the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, being confirmed empiricists, pre-Christian pagans could see nothing especially equal about all humans, who are fatter, skinnier, smarter, dumber, faster, slower, uglier, handsomer, weaker, and stronger than one another and who do not appear to the naked eye to have much in the way of self-evident equality.
It was the rude imposition of Christian mystical dogma on western civilization that pulled off that job of persuading us all that race, class, and gender distinctions don’t matter when weighing human dignity. Indeed, the only thing in antiquity to challenge the universal pagan narrative that some folks were “natural slaves” and “talking plows” was Christianity — an aggressively missionary Christianity that said things like, “God is no respecter of persons,” and, “In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Those ideas, unpacked slowly over centuries — and with no small struggle — are the things that gave birth to our modern assumptions about the human person (often via Christian heresies like the Enlightenment and Communism, and never via any tradition that did not trace its roots back to Christianity).
All you need to do to discover this is look at those places in the world where Christianity has either failed to penetrate or has been stomped into the ground. Or just look at pre-Christian humanity, where slavery was the universally accepted institution in every part of the world for time immemorial. The modern notion that Christianity is somehow to blame for slavery or the failure to grasp universal human dignity is like complaining that modern medicine, because it has not conquered cancer, is somehow to blame for it. It’s an astonishingly myopic and ungrateful approach to the only thing that has ever dealt slavery a blow. And that blow was empowered by nothing other than the purely mystical and aggressively evangelistic teaching that all human beings have equal dignity in the sight of God. Get rid of the dogma, and you will surely get rid of human equality with it.
But getting rid of it is exactly what Lefties are laboring to do, of course, because of their profound hostility to the fact that Christ offers grace and not magic. The difficulty with the Left is that it is contemptuous of human weakness. It has a vision of progress that leaves no room for childhood or weakness, especially the childhood of the human race. It is angry that God chose to reveal himself in a way that cooperated with human freedom instead of just cancelling it and decreeing insta-paradise. It wants to kick down the ladder of history and pretend that whatever progress we have enjoyed is due to our revolutionary selves and not to God or to the often weak and wicked (that is, human) people who have gone before us.
So Cameron is angry, in his SWPL way, about white imperialism and tells himself fantasies about Noble Savages while remaining the rich white guy he is. Newitz is angry at Cameron’s sublimated colonialism but is herself zealous to colonize the minds of every person on the planet with her Leftist ideology that owes its entire origin to European (and ultimately Christian) impulses rooted in a missionary impulse as old as Jesus’ command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Christian culture (including post-Christian culture) has done nothing but that ever since. That’s why the post-Christian West elites hate the idea of exporting the gospel but enthusiastically support the exportation of democratic capitalism, abortion, contraception, Madonna, James Cameron movies, and Annalee Newitz’s writings, while cheering when the rude natives cry out with the welcoming chant, “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!” The West is no longer Christian, but it remains deeply evangelical.
The Western tendency to practice narcissistic heroism for the sake of Uplifting the Savages is, then, merely a debased and perverted version of divine charity: It is rooted not in white skin or Eurocentrism, but in a revelation that invaded the world first in Africa (not Europe) via a little group of nobodies known to their masters as the Habiru.
Moses, you see, is precisely the guilty SWPL type in antiquity. He was a survivor of the first Cairo Conference on Population Planning (a plan rooted not in any rhetoric about Uplift, but in the frank pagan desire to cull the numbers of the Hebrew herd). He was fetched out of the Nile and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. He apparently knows, but doesn’t do much about the fact, that he is a Hebrew. This goes on for 40 years. The guy lives in the lap of luxury while his tribe is sweating as slaves.
Then, one day, the bored dilettante rich kid who wants to feel like he has a purpose murders an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave and ditches the body. Next day, this preppy from the Ivory Tower, filled with a newly raised social consciousness, comes upon a couple of Hebrews quarrelling and deigns to swoop in and break it up. The slaves basically tell him to buzz off and add, “Oh, and everybody knows what you did.” Turns out Moses’ whole “Brothers! Join me!” shtick doesn’t play real well in the ‘hood, and people resent SWPL types working out their Hero’s Journey fantasies at their expense. So Moses the Savior Preppy gets scared and hotfoots it to the desert when he realizes his little Weatherman moment of Killing for the Revolution is likely to cost him something.
That’s not a very promising beginning for the story of the Exodus. But the thing is, from this frail clay vessel, God really does raise up a liberator for Israel. And, likewise, from egocentric SWPL guilt, it’s also the case that God has wrought rather impressive gains in human history over the centuries. Unlike the Left, God has patience with human frailty. So, from Bronze Age barbarian patriarchs to adulterous kings to thin-lipped abolitionists to snooty educational reformers to colonializing medical missionaries to burdened white men who labored to do something about suttee and genital mutilation and debtor’s prisons and madhouses, thoroughly Eurocentric notions of How Things are Supposed to Be have done a world of good for human societies in the thrall of foot-binding, slavery, idiotic superstition, and despotism. That’s because sometimes the itch to stoop down from the Ivory Tower and make things better for miserable people in chains, while it may be called narcissistic and self-serving and imperialist, is also the right thing to do, because the itch came from Christ who tells us, “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
Which brings me to the funny thing
about films as insufferably PC as Avatar
or critiques even more insufferably PC like Newitz’s: namely, that we keep running into what film critic Jeffrey Overstreet
calls the “inescapability of the gospel.” His point is that, because God is the Creator of the human person — and the human person, made in His image, is a sub-creator — we simply can’t help putting themes into our stories that recapitulate the gospel willy-nilly. Often those themes will be torqued badly by human sin or stupidity, but nonetheless they are discernible again and again: themes like redemption through self-sacrificial love, the exaltation of the humble, the passage from sin to glory through redemptive love, the final judgment against evil, etc. Where would storytellers be without them?
And so, for instance, in the tale of Moses, we find the story of a selfish man who is slowly brought by God to the place where he is willing to give up his life for his people. In this, he stands as a sort of dim foreshadow of the perfect sacrificial offering by the utterly giving and unselfish God incarnate in Christ Jesus. It’s a story that’s rough around the edges, since Moses is a sinner and not perfect. But God, unlike Lefties, can work with that.
Likewise, Avatar intuits something of the gospel in the notion of a savior who takes on the flesh of those he is to save and works from within, not from outside. It’s a little echo of the idea of the Incarnation, though garbled up with a lot of other confused echoes, such as the dim notion that creation is sacred (packaged as Gaia worship), the dim notion that the humble are exalted (packaged as warmed-over Marxism and class struggle), and the dim notion that grace (packaged as movie romance) gives us the strength to do good and win through to the end. One can always find the gospel hidden in human storytelling if you try. But it’s often pretty well hidden, sometimes at the conscious decision of the anti-Christian storyteller himself.
Similarly, in Newitz’s complaints about white neo-colonial narcissism, we hear the demand of the gospel that love be genuinely ordered toward the good of the beloved and that our acts of charity not merely be a way of using others to work out our own narcissistic vanity trip. We also see, in her insistence on human equality, the gospel insistence on the dignity of each human person.
Newitz’s resentment against the idea of the outsider who becomes the ultimate awesome insider and saves the helpless natives can be resentment against a SWPL narcissism fantasy, it is true. But we should also bear in mind that it can also be prideful resentment over the fact that we need a savior. For a far better storyteller than James Cameron reminds us that another Privileged Outsider to our race became the Ultimate and Most Awesome Insider to the tribe of Adam:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Co 8:9).
Leftism, being a Christian
heresy, is, to be sure, sometimes about love for the saving grace of God for the weak. But being a Christian heresy
, it is also sometimes about hatred of the saving grace of God for the weak
. But even in that hatred, the enemies of grace have to borrow from God whatever arrows they shoot at Him. Again and again, we discover that even people who would never dream they owe the gospel a thing fulfill the promise that every knee shall bow to Christ. Attempt to repress it how we will, the gospel of Christ can’t be entirely repressed. Ultimately, on That Day, even the knees of His bitterest enemies shall bow and their tongues confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That’s just how reality works, due to the fact that God is the Author of reality — and that’s a rankling fact to those who believe the lie that conflict between race, class, and gender are the ultimate realities, and that God is just a sky spook invented by evil white males to disguise this fact. But the truth is that even the enemies of the gospel already owe all that is best in their own ideologies and myths to Him. That truth will be more clearly seen — and more bitterly and violently denied — as we near That Inescapable Day.