Avatar: A Reflection

James Cameron’s epic film Avatar is definitely worth seeing. It is a visual feast that makes Star Wars look like the dollar menu at a fast food chain. Avatar is imagination pushed to new heights. It’s a journey into a strange new world that drips with as much intoxicating beauty as Eden must have before the Fall. This, I believe, is the film’s greatest appeal.

Avatar gives us all a chance to play again; to get lost like kids in the middle of summer, when school seemed like it was light years away. Our seat in the theater becomes our personal “avatar,” plugging us into Pandora, the alien world far, far away. And we drink in the elixir of its created beauty straight from the fountainhead. I don’t remember being given an invitation to imagine like this since C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra .

There’s an innocence and a harmony in the alien race of the Na’vi that we all wish were our own. We hear an echo of what was perhaps our own story in the beginning, before Darkness fell on that First Day.

But certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’ – J.R.R. Tolkien.

This glimpse of Eden, this visual feast and exhilarating exploration, is, again, the film’s greatest attraction. But it may well be its only attraction. The story is nothing new. James Cameron, who reportedly has been brewing this cinematic potion for a dozen years now, has poured someone else’s wine into new wineskins. Swirling the glass of Avatar and sniffing its scent, you catch whiffs of everything from The Mission to Return of the Jedi, Dances with Wolves to the Battle for Terra. Still, Avatar is overwhelmingly original in its unoriginality. As Steven Greydanus has said in his excellent review , “It is like everything and there is nothing like it.”

Avatar is Pocahontas in Space

Now that being said, the theme of civilized man meets savage and gets civilized by the savage is a powerful one, and worth repeating. It’s a chance for introspection and self-examination; a culture clash and conversion opportunity worth reflecting over. There’s also a “green” agenda in Avatar that’s as prolific as weeds. Truth is though, we need to hear it. We’ve had a love/hate relationship with Creation since that Fall in Eden. It’s time to make peace! I was refreshed and inspired by the harmony of the Na’vi with their world, and found it in harmony with what Pope Benedict XVI’s been saying of late. That’s right, even the Pope has “gone green.” (Actually, the Church has called us to be so from the start):

Nature expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior to us, and it has been given to us by God as the setting for our life. Nature speaks to us of the Creator and his love for humanity. It is destined to be “recapitulated” in Christ at the end of time. Thus it too is a “vocation.” Nature is at our disposal not as “a heap of scattered refuse”, but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order…” — Pope Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate , #48).

Did Avatar go a bit too far with this “green” agenda? Did the chanting, swaying to Mother Eywa scene push the envelope a little too forcefully? Yes, I think so. In a certain sense, I haven’t seen that much “religion” in a blockbuster film since The Bells of St. Mary’s . But scratch below the celluloid, and sprinkle a little holy water on the picture, and you see a yearning for communion. At the base of the Tree of Souls, we see a real sacramental expression of the Communion of Saints. The People were in touch with Divinity and with those who had died, their ancestors, through a real physical link. Isn’t that what Catholics call Holy Communion?

[I]t should also be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism – human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense. This having been said, it is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a “grammar” which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation — Pope Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate , #48)

By far the best sacramental expression of a real sacrament in literature has been Tolkien’s concept of the Elven lembas , a kind of bread that sustains and strengthens the hobbits for their journey through Mordor, the Black Land. Tolkien’s mythology is full of such hints and glimmers of the gospel. Although Avatar never reaches the depths of Tolkien’s classic, it at least gets us out to the sand bar. It’s dialogue may be predictable and some of its characters shallow, but its vistas are wide and breathtaking nonetheless. It touches the hem of the garment of Beauty with both hands, and a real healing has taken effect. People can’t stop talking about the riotous splendor and wonder of Pandora.

The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity… If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves — C.S. Lewis, in a review of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Some say the film is controversial because it’s promoting a kind of neo-paganism. Well, I don’t think that kids are going to become Pandorans (although there is a tiny subculture of Jedi devotees, I’ve heard). But what’s provocative is Jonah Goldberg’s question , in his review of Avatar : “What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.” Now that’s controversial!

But Pandora is not the real world, the one Jesus redeemed. There is a Spirit on Pandora, or should I say in it. Yet even here, remembering this is science fiction, how different is Eywa, the All Mother, from C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra? In this well loved Christian apologist’s story, the planets were under the stewardship of the Oyarsa, great guardian spirits (some masculine, some feminine) that held things in motion. Tolkien’s own mythology of Middle-Earth has the Ainur (some masculine, some feminine) as angelic shapers of the world that is called Arda. One distinction is clear though for both of these epic Christian storytellers; these gods and goddesses of Lewis and Tolkien are not God, but servants of the One. And that One is called Father; He sows the seed that is Life, and all creation receives it like a mother. This is the cosmic paradigm of the Great Dance we are invited to step into.

At the end of the day, Avatar is a movie, a trip to Never Never Land with glimmers of some transcendental truths drizzled over it like butter on popcorn. It’s very tasty, but not something you’d have for dinner. Like so many things in this world, it’s an appetizer, with little hints at what’s to come. I think we should enjoy it.

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch —  C.S. Lewis.


Bill is a husband and father who teaches theology at Malvern Preparatory School, Immaculata University, and speaks throughout the country on aspects of the Catholic faith and Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Visit www.missionmoment.org for more information!

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