Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

A Spiritual Blockbuster: Avatar, Environmentalism, and the New Religions

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

A Spiritual Blockbuster: Avatar, Environmentalism, and the New Religions

Article excerpt

over the past ten years, religious studies scholars have used newly acquired knowledge of film history and theory to support pathbreak- ing research in the area of religion and film. Although valuable work on religion and film has emerged in media studies, the field's coverage of this topic has not kept pace with religious studies. I believe media studies scholars should look to religious studies methods for ways of constructing interdisciplinary projects in this area. In this spirit, I take up work on the new religions to survey changes in the way Hol- lywood addresses religion and spirituality.

New religions are religions that have emerged in the recent past. Scholars define them according to different time frames: the past century, the post-World War II period, or the post-1960s period. I am using a preva- lent model that defines the new religions as religions that have emerged since the 1960s. This is a moment that corresponds roughly to the emergence of the New American Cinema. I argue that sociological shifts chronicled in work on the new religions help to explain changes in the way religion and spirituality appear in con- temporary Hollywood.

The focus on new religions supports new ways of conceiving relations between religion and film. But I am not thinking of the new religions as fringe phenomena. On the contrary, I argue in this article that the new religions help us to understand that religion and spirituality play a foundational role in contemporary commercial filmmaking. New religious aspects appear in numerous contemporary blockbusters, includ- ing Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)-my primary example. In the first part of this article, I lay out the area of the new religions, concentrating on a large shift away from formal religion and toward forms of spirituality that are often personal and nontheistic. This part maps a wide context for a type of film I call the spiritual blockbuster.

In part 2, I look at Avatar within the specific context of film and ecology. Environmentalism has a long history, but I focus on movements such as deep ecology, Earth First!, and ecofemi- nism, which emerged in the wake of the first Earth Day in 1970 and which have been called new religious movements. These movements fall under the umbrella of dark green religion- a term recently coined by Bron Taylor. Bron Taylor has produced extensive cultural research linking religion to many forms of environmen- talism. He suggests that when one studies con- temporary environmentalist culture, one can detect the emergence of a dark green religion, with members bound by an absolute commit- ment to nature as sacred and with common beliefs in animism and Gaia (Dark 13-41). Bron Taylor chooses many examples from contempo- rary cinema. Avatar clearly participates in this dark green religion. But for some the question remains: what does it mean for a blockbuster to take up activist discourses?

Film and the New Religions

Scholars of the new religions offer many social factors to account for changes in the contem- porary religious landscape: increased immi- gration, increased travel, growing affluence, globalization, and the rise of the new media. They point out that multireligious cultures have become the norm in the West. Christopher Partridge credits the media and increased levels of literacy with disseminating informa- tion about other religious communities widely and rapidly: "The twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented exposure to and, conse- quently, a greater understanding of the beliefs of others" (15). Scholars such as Shawn Arthur point to the Internet as a place for receiving religious information and practicing religion- for example, the performance of Wiccan rituals (303-14). New religions are fluid, transnational, and media-ready-hospitable terms for com- mercial cinema.

I am interested in a particular theme char- acteristic of work on the new religions: in the West, the traditional religions have been losing ground, while the spiritual religions have been gaining it. …

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