Thursday, January 07, 2010


I'm back after a bit of a blogging hiatus! So . . . Avatar then. I'm not sure what I expected. I had seen some of the hype but we haven't been to the cinema in months so partly went to experience the 3D. And visually, director James Cameron's $300million 3D graphics were impressive, despite the annoying glasses. Although I think 3D is a gimmick to get people going to the cinema again and not something which will really catch on.

Spoiler Warning (ie don't read on if you haven't seen the movie)
The plot however was relatively unsubtle. We've seen this basic story before but it was retold well and the graphics don't distract from the narrative. It's basically a sci-fi mixup of Dances with Wolves and The Matrix! Avatar is set in the year 2154 on the planet Pandora. The natives perfect existance is under threat from humans in search of a rare mineral which could save planet earth from extinction. Its hard to miss the lesson of the greedy humans who have turned their attention from destroying earth to plundering and exploiting another planet paradise instead. The key to most good sci-fi movies is that they're actually movies about us disguised as movies about other planets. The Na'vi aliens are essentially another race of humans and the film touches on love, war, injustice and culture clashes, with plenty of politics and eco-politics thrown in.

But I want to focus on some of the theology. On one level this story can be dismissed as pantheism, a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. There are definitely elements of gaia worship but I do think there is a deeper spiritual story here and some Biblical parallels. Pandora is a perfect world where the people commune with God and with nature - like when Adam and Eve walked with God on our planet before the fall. And like the garden of Eden, there are two sacred trees - the 'home tree' and the 'tree of souls (or voices)'. After the fall, God banished Adam and Eve from the garden so they would not eat from the tree of life (Genesis 1:21). The humans in Avatar are trying to get back to the tree of life for the one mineral they need: unobtainium (I told you it was unsubtle - a bit like Asterix!). So Cameron puts mankind back in the garden and again we fall: sin, greed, exploitation and murder.

While the humans of the future seem to be completely secular, the Na'vi people are defined by their worship. But this is not true pantheism. These people, I mean aliens, do not worship everything, but only one god: Eywa (nearly Yahweh). Nor is this god just a cosmic energy force, but one who communes with her people and actively answers prayer and intervenes in their battles.

Ironically salvation for the Na'vi from the humans comes through another human, Grace Augustine (surely a reference to St Augustine's doctrine of grace) and her avatar program. The main character, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic ex-marine. He seems to symbolise the human race and like his planet is paralysed and sully-ed. As he spends more time with these new people his old ways seem less and less important to him to the point where he abandons his old life to become part of the tribe. He enters this new paradise through the Na'vi avatar body as a messiah like figure - fully human, yet fully Na'vi - trusted by both sides as the perfect mediator. What a great picture of what Jesus did for us. Avatar actually means 'incarnation' in Sanskrit! He brings them a message of salvation and eventually leads them to victory over the human 'sky people'. He even gets that moment at the beginning when Eywa anointed him like a dove from heaven. Later he goes to the tree of souls as a high priest to ask for divine help on behalf of the people. At the end Jake is fully initiated into Na'vi society by actually transforming his consciousness into his avatar, a process which he describes as being "born again" which allows him to live in his new, perfect body.

Overall I would say that it does live up to the hype and is worth seeing. It's not perfect but it is the next step in computer animation. Often movies contain spiritual symbols which can easily be overlooked. Cameron's theology (as is mine) is far from perfect but it's too blatant to ignore. Avatar is full of opportunites to discuss spirituality, faith, protection of the planet, and how to relate to other cultures. Big movies become part of our culture and are an insight into how many people understand spiritual things. I'm still waiting for Nelly's book on pop culture!

Finally as with many of the other names, I'm sure that the name of the planet, Pandora was not an accident. In the Greek creation myth she is the Eve character created as the first woman by the gods (read it here). She was given a box by Zeus which she was told not to open. Like Eve, Pandora's curiosity leads her to eventually open the box releasing all the evils into the world. The story finishes when she opens the box again to release 'hope' which had been left inside. Despite her actions and the consequences of her disobedience there was still hope for mankind. In Cameron's world this is likely a message that there is still a possiblity of redemption for our planet and the human race if we get our act together. As Christians we know that our Hope is fulfilled in Jesus precisely because we are incapable of getting our act together. Biblical 'hope' is not just a positive feeling but a confident expectation that what God promised will happen. Paul talks about the 'hope of the gospel' (Col 1:23). This is the good news of the hope of forgiveness for the worst of sinners (a weeping prostitute saved by faith), the hope of reconciliation (the prodigal son coming home), the hope of holiness (the leper cleansed by Jesus' touch) and it available to all. "Come!" Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. (Rev 22:17)

And I didn't even mention 'Hell's Gate' or the floating 'Hallelujah Mountains'!


Mike Blyth said...

Thanks for the great review, Peter! I was telling people about the pantheistic theology, but you're correct that it's not really simple pantheism. It definitely has a lot of points to discuss!

nelly said...

the book is still in the pipeline for now...