How did you spend Thanksgiving this year? I spent mine with a small group of people I love very much. We had lunch, did the dishes, and then my mother gave me a sound thrashing at Monopoly. I stared at the board so hard and for so long that my eyes were tired by the time I went home. (My parents live next door, and yes, that is awesome.) For some reason or another, I had been thinking about Avatar for the last few days, so I decided to settle in with my bowl of leftover apple turnovers and watch it. Granted, it is one of the most overrated movies of all time (which isn’t surprising considering many of James Cameron’s films are that way), but I enjoy it – for reasons that are probably different from the average moviegoer.
Much has been said about Avatar in some form or another since its release, ranging from dismissing it as greenie propaganda to implying that it is anti-military, anti-big business, and so forth. Many of these claims have merit, along with the shaky spirituality that is threaded throughout. It is in a sense, the Disney version of Pocahontas only with enormous, skinny blue cats in the lead on a distant planet. We have the Grandmother Willow and all life is connected subplot that pervaded the Disney film, as well as an environmentalist slant that depicts just how horrific it is to knock down trees and bulldoze beautiful forests to harvest mineral deposits. That is what lies on the surface of the film, but underneath I can see spiritual and moral truths that are much deeper and more inspiring than anything Cameron intended.
Our Young Adult Sunday School class has been studying Focus on the Family’s The Truth Project of late, and today we went through the first half of the session on “Who is God?” One of the ultimate conclusions is that all truth comes from God; it is a universal statement, because Truth cannot exist outside of God if you believe He is a God of Truth, and the Devil is the Father of Lies. Truth therefore is the opposite of Lies, which means that any Truth, however seemingly insignificant, can and should direct our focus toward God. Now, in Avatar there are some lies and some half-truths, and there are deeper, fundamental truths. It is these that make me fond of the film, more than simply its visual beauty or the novelty of watching graceful blue cats exist in a luxurious world that with each step reminds us of the beauty of an untouched civilization.
So what is Avatar really about? In my opinion, it is about the conflict between spirituality and science, and in a way illustrates profoundly the journey of a Christian life. It does so with pagan ideology, but Truth is there regardless, waiting to be found. There are two facets to this and both of them revolve in some way around Jake, the main character who goes to Pandora to take the place of his dead twin brother in a scientific expedition that hopes to make contact with an alien race known as the Na’vi. As a former marine (until he lost the use of his legs), Jake is asked to gather intelligence that will assist the private benefactor of the mission in gaining access to the large mineral deposits that are under the Na’vi’s home tree. But as Jake becomes more and more involved in the world of the Na’vi, and falls in love with the beautiful Neytiri, he “goes native,” in a sense, accepting and embracing the deeper understanding of the Na’vi culture, until he fulfills a role in their midst as a savior and leader and fights with them against the human invaders. The film ends when Jake is literally born again, this time as a Na’vi rather than a human.
The underlining thread of the film is a message of pantheism, in which “every rock and tree and creature, has a life, has a spirit, has a name” (a lyric from Pocahontas), and is all connected to the Na’vi deity or goddess, BUT we can still glean Truth from its symbolism. The humans think themselves above such common beliefs and sneer at this deity, going so far as to knock down some of the sacred trees that the Na’vi hold in high regard, under the assumption that they are invincible against such a provincial race. But it becomes evident when the battle is nearly won in their favor that this deity does intervene in the lives of the Na’vi, when the creatures of Pandora turn against them. It is a classic pitting of intellectual secular ideals against a spiritual culture, in which whether or not the humans believe in the deity, it nevertheless turns the tide against them in favor of its people. Because of their devotion and faith, the Na’vi triumph over their “more advanced” adversaries whose science cannot protect them from the wrath of God. Science dismisses Deity in this story and is defeated by it, because of its “intellectual” arrogance (stupidity).
Jake goes from being a skeptic to a believer in a classic envisioning of a transforming Christian life: he is willing to listen and observe, he is touched by their devotion and simple ways, and when he has felt the spiritual power of their most holy place, he acknowledges that there is a deity and is willing to follow her, forsaking his former life and associations in order to preserve the innocent beauty he has found among the race on Pandora. His transcending moment is a choice to risk all for True Life, in which his former crippled, broken, and battered human body is forsaken in favor of a strong, beautiful, healed form of the Na’vi. In a sense, it is symbolic of us forsaking our pitiful human limitations and lives in exchange for eternal life, for something far more powerful and precious, a literal and figurative rebirth that hints of further changes to come.
Lastly, we have Pandora itself, a place of such infinite beauty and wonder that any of us would trade all our worldly possessions and the trappings of this world to go live in it, to experience nature and the magnificence of such splendor. Our craving to go there, our innermost desire to be one with Creation, our deeper yearning to live a simple and uncomplicated life away from noise and distraction, all speak of a much more powerful instinct, of an inner craving for the presence of God and His beauty untarnished through sin. Pandora reminds us of Heaven, and our collective spiritual desire to be there.
The success of Avatar is understandable not merely for its advancement in computer technology, but because it appeals to so many people on different levels, some of it beyond their comprehension; for some it fulfills their wish to be at one with nature, to crave a world much different and purer than our own; for others, it speaks to them of idealism and courage, or perhaps taps into their yearning for heaven. For me, it stands not only as a reminder of what wonders are to come in eternity but as a visual interpretation of the journey we must all take from doubt to curiosity and then to true understanding. To many, Christians appear naive and provincial, like the Na’vi, to be inferior to secular intellectuals because we choose a more spiritual path, but our understanding comes from obedience and we may rest secure in the knowledge that while others may scorn at our God, in the end He will not be defeated.