With "Avatar" now the highest-grossing movie of all time, some evangelical Christians are wondering how to respond to the cultural phenomenon.
Some have slammed the film for promoting pantheism and an anti-human message. Others have joined fellow moviegoers in literally applauding the film as the credits rolled on the big screen.
And still others have not denied the entertainment value, but are concerned that Christians are getting caught up in the culture and raising fewer questions.
"Evangelicals are now consumers of popular culture as if there are no moral questions about it," said Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, at a panel discussion Thursday.
Mark T. Coppenger, professor of Christian Apologetics at the seminary in Louisville, Ky., remembers a time when Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois, prohibited students from going to a movie. Decades ago, conservative Christians would avoid Hollywood and its messages altogether. Today, many have become immersed in the culture.
"We've become so cool about it that we don't realize the dangers," Coppenger warned. "We probably need to take a deep breath and back away from being so enculturated that we don't have any critical distance now."
Fellow Southern Baptist Russell D. Moore, dean of SBTS' School of Theology, believes the pendulum has swung from a strict fundamentalist generation to one that is exhausted of all the parameters.
"I think most people in this room have probably seen a movie that your grandparents would consider to be pornographic in a way that was not even alarming to you because you don't even have the tools anymore to discern what's there," Moore said during the panel discussion at the seminary.
The real danger with Hollywood films, Moore says, is not the negative or anti-Christian messages that are obvious but the subtle ones that even Christians nowadays don't recognize.
"What concerns me is not so much the message but the fact that most people aren't really getting or seeing the message," he said, as he noted that people in his conservative neighborhood applauded "Avatar" at the theater. "Keep in mind this is the same guy (James Cameron) who had evangelical Christians standing up and applauding to scenes of fornication in 'Titanic.' It's so subtle the way that it works through that you become emotionally connected before you realize what's going on."
Taking a critical look at "Avatar," which has amassed more than $2 billion worldwide, the panel agreed that the film undoubtedly reaches beyond a large market and taps into some kind of religious longing people have.
In what many call a postmodern world where truth is relative, "Avatar" has a wide appeal.
"He (James Cameron)'s not doing a religious message people don't want to hear," Moore pointed out. "Otherwise he wouldn't be making the money. There's a market out there."
Ted Cabal, professor of Christian Philosophy and Applied Apologetics, submitted, "Even though it's got a mixture of sci-fi where the religion can be explained in naturalistic terms, it's still very much appealing to the average, what I like to call, postmodern religionist who's not real clear as to what he's after.
"It doesn’t' matter if it doesn't make a lot of sense. Everything is God impersonally but you can also pray to this God and so at end Awa (the deity in the film) answers the prayer. So you're like 'okay mix a little personal God in there for those Americans who like prayer.'"
The film contains reference points to the Christian Gospel but recasts it as a completely different gospel, as Mohler put it.
This includes a "secular Eden" (Pandora); the reference that every person is "born twice" – the second time is when you become part of your people forever; and its own metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation.
Coppenger believes there's a hunger and longing for Eden or something paradise-like. "But the world supplies [that hunger] in very ideological, ungodly ways," he lamented.
Amid such longing and the phenomenal success of "Avatar," Mohler believes the film helps Christians define their mission field.
"If this is the story that millions of people are paying so much to see, those millions of people are looking for a story. And that gives us the opportunity to speak of the story of stories – the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he said.