Avatar (I see you)

November 10, 2010

I just got back from a Spiritual Life showing of James Cameron's Avatar, the highest grossing movie (not adjusted for inflation) of all time. The movie was one of a few movies shown here at George Fox as a part of the "Faith and Film" series. It may or may not strike the reader as odd that a Christian university would host a public viewing of this movie. Admittedly, the film has garnered some controversy in some conservative Christian circles for its... alternative values. Seattle shock preacher Mark Driscoll even called the movie the most "pagan" "satanic" and "demonic" movie he has ever seen. Don't get me wrong, I've heard some convicting and righteous messages by Mark Driscoll, but at a certain point such hyperbole tends to de-value the authenticity of the message; furthermore, all this hype about Avatar is absolute hogwash.

If you take Avatar as a movie with a theological point to make, then it is certainly incompatible with the gospel. The only problem with that logic is, while Avatar is certainly a movie with a message, IT IS BY NO MEANS A THEOLOGICAL ONE (not in a pagan propaganda sort of way anyway). In fact, if you see can see past the preconceived notions about Hollywood's pagan agenda, then you may even be able to glean some really interesting notions about life, and even the Christian faith, from this film.

I do not believe Avatar is trying to make converts for Pagan nature worship. This is kind of a ludicrous approach actually. As far as I could gather, the issues the movie attempted to bring to light were more along the lines of environmentalism vs the advancement of industry, war, and most importantly, cultural relations. Do these issues still lean toward the side of the liberal agenda? Probably, but to be honest I couldn't care less. I've always been pretty heavy into environmentalism for a conservative. I actually believe Christians should all be more concerned about being good stewards of the incredible gift God gave us in the form of the planet earth. The war aspect really didn't bother me too much either, as it only really condemned militarism in the context of industrial imperialism. No doubt the creators are across-the-board anti-war, but this particular movie pretty clearly spoke to a specific kind of violence. It also should be noted the soldiers in the movie didn't represent a national government; they were ex-military hired by a private corporation. Was this an attack against the heartless nature of the corporate world? Almost certainly, but honestly I don't care. If I shut out movies with anti-corporation undertones I wouldn't watch movies. Also, this is not a moral issue to me.

The real striking moral in Avatar was how it portrayed the "American" style of cultural relations (though this approach does not exclusively belong to Americans, especially in a historical context). Entering into the turf of a foreign culture with guns blazing, as the humans in Avatar did, doesn't really seem to be the way Jesus would go about things. In fact, the violence committed in the name of spreading the gospel throughout Christendom's history is totally reprehensible and absolutely contrary to the teachings of the scriptures. It stands in the history books as a blot on the face of the Prince of Peace's ministry. Insofar as I represent Christians as a whole I sincerely apologize for this. As I've studied world missions this year at Fox it's encouraging to learn that missionaries in the modern(postmodern) world are attempting to preach the gospel with acts of love and service, no doubt much more in line with the way Christ intended his church to treat the world. Cultural sensitivity and understanding is necessarily essential in functioning as a body of Christ, on both a local and a global scale. Outside the realm of faith even, cultural knowledge is what it will take to build respect across national borders. Notice I don't use the word tolerance. I simply hate it. Is tolerance the most we can strive for? How about we love people? Love is a much better agent for peace than is tolerance.

Another profoundly intriguing and inspiring aspect of Avatar is the Na'vi greeting "I see you." Isn't this something we all need to hear? How often do we wander aimlessly through life waiting for people to reach out and tell us they notice us, know us, see us? It's absolutely beautiful. Next time I want to make someone feel like they're worth something, I'm just gonna tell them I see them. I'll bet they'll cry (added bonus). Giving credit where credit is due, I thank my Young Life class professor Steve Sherwood for bringing this to my attention.

I'd like to address for a moment some tenets of Na'vi spiritualism I noticed in the film, if you'll beg my pardon Mark Driscoll. I swear I'm not a pagan convert. When I saw the unwavering way in which the Na'vi people reverently treated their deity, Eywa, it blew me away to be honest. I can't help but wonder what it would look like if we served our God the way these fictional aliens serve theirs. Don't get me wrong. I believe in one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who came to save his beloved children from the wages of their sin in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe He is real, and I believe He is truth. You may say it was easy for the Na'vi to follow their deity so decisively because they saw and felt proof all around them their beliefs were justified. I challenge you that God may show Himself to us tenfold what these fictional aliens experienced. In this film humans represented vain and destructive self-interest while the Na'vi represented a loving community built on faith in a very visible god. And we have THE see-able God!

The faith of the alien race portrayed in Avatar is shrouded in mystery and mysticism. This mysticism is another topic that surfaced in my cranium while I watched the movie. This word (mysticism) is another taboo in conservative Christian culture, leastways in mainline protestant and evangelical culture. It may interest the reader that in other branches of Christianity, particularly the Eastern Orthodox church, the mystic nature of God is absolutely fundamental. In this respect we in America could certainly learn a thing or two from our Eastern brothers. Donald Miller, in his book "Blue Like Jazz," even says, "you cannot be a Christian without being a mystic." Our God will not be measured or put into a box. He is neither a formula nor a procedure. The trinity itself is one aspect of God that defies logical explanation. The Holy Spirit out-mystifies Na'vi tree worship any day!

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
   He appeared in the flesh,
   was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
   was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
   was taken up in glory.

1 Timothy 3:16

"Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn your place among the people forever." This is a direct quote from the movie. It's interesting how this may apply to this Christian concept of being born again into the family of God for... well, forever. Do I think this movie was made to invite such a Christian reading? I doubt it, but I believe God is so present in His creation that His face can appear in the midst of anything.

One more practice I think Christians could see and borrow from the Na'vi is their treatment of the union between a man and woman (if this is what one would call them). When Jake Sully and Neytiri joined at the sacred tree, they took it very seriously, as if it were something that could not be undone. They were "mated for life" and "joined before Eywa" (which, by the way, sounds strikingly like Yahweh). I believe when a man and women join together it is just as sacred a union. They are joined before the one and only God of the universe who does, believe it or not, care about what his children do, and will try to protect them from harm in any way He can.

My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

1 Corinthians 4:4-5


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