Monday, July 5, 2010

Sign of the Times: Airbending Spiritual Peril

This afternoon our family went to see The Last Airbender. Critical reviews raged against the movie for its acting, story sequencing, avoidance of Asian actors (the story's cultural background is Asian), and the general disappointment it caused among fans of the cartoon. What all these "critical" reviews failed to take into account is that The Last Airbender is aimed at kids ages 10 and under. In this context the movie was a huge success. As soon as the film ended a little kid sitting behind us said, "That was so cool!" Both of our kids loved the film. We were able to enjoy the film, too, because we knew this was aimed at a younger audience (and the acting was commensurate with that aim). It didn't try to appeal to all age groups, but instead focused on what was developmentally appropriate for kids (not tweens, teens, or Airbender-cartoon purists). We enjoyed the film and had a lot of fun. If they make the two sequels that are planned we will probably see those, too.

Now, having said all that, there is something that Christian parents should be aware of when exposing their children to The Last Airbender: Eastern spirituality. The movie drove home a worldview where a spiritual realm was in constant contact with the physical realm. Okay so far. But this spiritual realm is said to be populated by numerous "spirits" that watch over mankind, help out, and direct nature. These spirits are depicted as friends of mankind who share their spiritual powers. In the movie they are depicted as a large dragon, as two fish representing Yin and Yang (and these govern the moon and water). The power of these spirits is depicted as natural and not to be feared. Rather, in this spirituality, we are encouraged to trust and be open to these spirits and their particular wisdom. Herein lies the danger.

What Eastern spirituality has observed is the true existence of the spiritual aspect of the Earth. What is more, they have observed the actual existence of numerous spirits. Up to this point this is consistent with Orthodox conceptions of creation. Yet the many spirits that inhabit the "spiritual plane" of the Earth are in fact not friends of mankind but demons, i.e. fallen angels. It is a well established fact that the angels that rebelled and were defeated were cast out of heaven and now abide on earth. These are the demons that have lured men into worshiping them as gods. These are the demons that possess men and women, who tempt and attack all mankind, especially those struggling on the path of virtue and Grace.

It is interesting that one spirit in the film is depicted as a fierce dragon, a serpent with a terrifying face, given the biblical references to the Devil as that ancient serpent, that dragon, who leads the whole world astray. Also of interest is when one character in the film disguises himself in a demon mask, and is feared to be a "blue spirit." These sorts of demon visages are accepted as a normal part of Eastern spiritual culture. Compare a typical demon mask with the visage of the Hindu idols, and with the accounts of demons given by holy Christian men and women in spiritual combat, and you will find a striking similarity. For a long, long time demons have been openly at work in Eastern societies, pretending to be mankind's friends and lords, but in fact have only managed to lead men and women further into spiritual bondage and slavery that leads to complete and everlasting condemnation.

One critical of the traditional Christian belief about the so-called friendly spirits of Eastern spirituality might forcefully point out that such spirituality preaches a philosophy of peace and harmony. This is but a ruse, to lead modern man into relaxing his guard. Once relaxed, and in ignorance of the mercy, love, and power of God for our salvation, modern man then finds enough "truth" in the philosophy of the East to seek more. Then the demons lead modern man into the appearance of a personal relationship with the benevolent forces of the spiritual realm. Then modern man finds himself imprisoned, taken over, and harmed beyond physical comprehension.

In the context of a movie for children parents ought to be aware of the subtle message of Eastern spirituality: the world is full of spiritual mystery and friendly spirit-beings that can help you find inner peace, help your life's struggles, and give you true power. In reply to this message I recommend a book that sheds much light on the terrible danger of that message: "The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios." This book, dealing with Eastern Indian spirituality rather than Chinese spirituality (Shyamalan is Indian, btw), is the chronicle of a man who chose to give Eastern spirituality and Orthodox Christian spirituality equal opportunity, and nearly lost his soul. Another book that should be read in conjunction with the first (and in consultation with a dependable Orthodox friend or priest) is Fr. Seraphim Rose's "The Soul After Death," which gives careful and detailed explanation about the spiritual dimension of creation.

Do I think The Last Airbender ought to be avoided? No. It was a fun movie. I simply think that parents should be aware of the danger that is creeping more and more into our culture, especially when it appears in forms that are appealing to children. We live in a world that is marching forcefully away from Christ and toward whatever else it can put in His place. Atheism is one threat, Oprah Winfrey's celebration of all faiths is another, but making friends with mysterious Eastern spirits and spiritualities is a yet another threat just as real and maybe far more destructive.


123 said...

It's a little 70s, but Fr. Seraphim Rose's "Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future" is also useful on this topic, too, as is Fr. Damascene Christiansen's "Christ the Eternal Tao". Both are available from St. Herman Press, Platina, CA.

For those who might be scared off from Fr. Seraphim exposition of the patristic teaching on the afterlife and the realm of fallen spirits due to critiques of "The Soul After Death" they find online, see Aaron Taylor's two relevant posts collected here:

Unknown said...

I took my son to see it who loves the cartoon and agree that parents should be aware of it's Eastern spiritual wworldview. I also thought that the characters were a little too serious compared to the cartoon. My son enjoyed it and wants to see the next two so it was worth it.

Tim said...

Grrr... you just had to bring THAT movie up, didn't you?


Seriously though, me and my co-workers went and saw it. While I was being an uber-fanboy and complaining, my boss mentioned that what he got out of it was learning how to forgive yourself. So... I suppose that is something good.

Deacon Benjamin Harju said...

Ha ha! We never had an opportunity to follow the kid's show before we saw it. I think the situation is ironic. They made a kid's show, and then made it into a movie for kids (10 and under), but the adults are the ones complaining about inconsistencies. Joking aside, my kids have gotten to watch an episode or two of the cartoon. Having seen the movie first my kids were able to identify with the characters, but also immediately picked up on the inconsistencies (like name pronunciation). My daughter is used to this, though, from reading books. She said, "Yeah, they did the same thing with "How to Train Your Dragon." From what little I saw of the cartoon I was able to easily figure out who was who from seeing the movie.

Tim said...

Well as you could probably tell from my comments, I am an avid follower of the original show. They really weren't that faithful to the source material, which upset me. Alas, I digress. XD