Connections: An Extended Meditation on AVATAR
I’ve been wrestling with thoughts and images ever since I went Thursday to see Avatar. It is a spectacular film: visually stunning, emotionally engaging, philosophically challenging, and most of all? Extremely entertaining science fiction. Sometimes I think God inspires science fiction writers to dream, not only of what can be, but of what could have been and might still be! This is one of those stories. I’ve done my best to avoid too many spoilers, and I don’t believe reading further will give away any dramatic events, but please accept my apologies if I give away too much.
The story hinges on conflict between two groups of people: the Na’vi and the Sky People. The Na’vi, natives of Pandora, share a sort of biological or neurological connection with all the life of their world. The Sky People are humans from a future where Earth has been exhausted of most of its mineral/fossil fuel resources. They have no connection to other life, either on Pandora or (one expects) their own world. In the words of the Na’vi, they’re blind – We’re blind – to the interconnectedness of life. In the story, the Sky People have come to strip-mine Pandora for an ultra-valuable mineral.
Now, to be fair, much of the story of Avatar is a thinly-veiled diatribe against the United States and the rest of the Western world. James Cameron seems to agree with certain conspiracy theories concerning U.S. oil interests and the invasion of Iraq (theories which are not borne out by either pump prices or corporate bottom lines). Further, he creates a world in Pandora according to the Gaia Hypothesis, a worldview that proposes that the entire planet is one living organism, and all lifeforms are simply tissue groups or organs of the one Gaia. Cameron seems to be saying that the Western world has blindly transgressed against Gaia by their disregard for nature. There are several reasons why I find the Gaia Hypothesis wanting, but there’s a greater truth in the story that Cameron tells: a truth about connections.
Marine Lance Corporal Jake Sully, the main human character, arrives on Pandora due to a series of unfortunate events: he becomes a paraplegic and his twin brother (who was supposed to go to Pandora) dies. The brother’s Avatar (a human-Na’vi hybrid body) can only be linked to someone with his unique genetic makeup, and Avatars are hugely expensive to create, so a deal is struck: in return for a six-year tour on Pandora, taking his scientist brother’s place, Jake’s spinal damage will be repaired and he’ll get his legs back. Connections.
Sky People cannot, without Avatars, experience the link between Na’vi and Pandoran life. That’s why the Na’vi call them blind: they are completely cut off from the life around them. Connections.
The Sky People with Avatars are all trained scientists, experienced biologists who are obsessed with observation – examination – dissection – sample-gathering. Their Avatars are biologically capable of experiencing the connection between Na’vi and Pandora, but they don’t seem to want to experience it: they want to quantify and categorize it, while exchanging Sky People knowledge with the Na’vi (a practice Cameron colors as elitist and ignorant). Connections. (here, Sigourney Weaver plays an interesting mix of her two most iconic characters – Ellen Ripley and Jane Goodall)
Jake the Marine is therefore the first non-scientist to work through an Avatar. He gets separated from his unit and encounters the Na’vi, who give him the opportunity to be the first Sky Person to learn from them and experience their connection to Pandoran life. Through this relationship, he learns that the Sky People have absolutely nothing that the Na’vi want. Connections.
Jake Sully, like all archetypal heroes, is in a crisis. Lost brother, lost movement, lost status as a Marine – all this adds up to lost identity. He went to Pandora because he couldn’t think of anything better to do. He is by all accounts an excellent Marine, but helpless as a babe in the Pandoran wilderness – until he begins to see and learn and experience the interdependence of the Na’vi, who should have been portrayed as compassionate stewards of life on Pandora (but were actually portrayed as a 9′-tall blue version of the mythological Native American people who lived in perfect sharing harmony with nature and one another before the corrupting and genocidal influence of European males destroyed their utopian existence – notice that almost all the villains in Avatar are white males, and the white hats, with one exception, are all worn by females and non-white characters. Not an accident). Jake’s lost all his old connections and is thus totally prepared to establish new ones. The story revolves around connections.
Many people will reject this movie as another piece of bunny-kissing, tree-hugging propaganda, a la Wall-E. Some of those people will be Christians who find in their heavenly hope an implicit disconnectedness from the rest of Creation. Wendell Berry dislikes the word “environment” for precisely that reason: it allows me, the human, to move through (and manipulate, and even strip-mine) my “environment” without personal consequence. I am in here, in my body, while my environment remains out there, separate and apart from my real life. Environment is something to be negotiated, handled, consumed without regard for its own inherent worth.
I think the ancient words of Christian Scripture offer a healthier way, a worldview that shares some of the truth about connections that Avatar depicts, while correcting and challenging others. The first human (itself a word linguistically connected to the Latin for ‘earth’) is Adam, named for the ‘adamah’ (earth) out of which God shapes and breathes life into him. God gives to the first people the mission of benevolent partnering stewardship of all Creation (a word that connects all created things, rather than creating a separation where none should exist). They’re to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and ‘tend and guard’ this Creation, reflecting God’s loving image throughout. Creation Care, thus understood, includes both care for other people (our brothers and sisters in Adam) and care for the place where we find ourselves. Genesis 2 is the beginning of a theology of place, as Genesis 1 is the beginning of a theology of time (Eugene Peterson). But where the Mother Tree of Pandora preserves balance, the Creator God bursts and overflows with life, life, and more LIFE! Loving and creating, creating because He loves, is what He does! And in the Christian Scriptures, the resolution to the crisis of chaos and death that came from separation from God is New Creation (Rom 8:19-23; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; 2 Pet 3:13), the renewal of all things (Acts 3:21), when the peace of God’s kingdom will fill the cosmos. Until then, his people (those who were disconnected from God and creation by sin and who have been reconciled, reconnected by the death-and-resurrection victory in Jesus Christ) are expected to inaugurate that peace and beauty and love and wholeness right here, right now.
Right here, right now, though, I confess that I feel a lot more life Jake Sully the disconnected and helpless Sky Person than I experience the deep, fulfilling connectedness and wisdom and strength of the N’avi. I want to get lost (Col 3:3), swallowed up in Life, but I feel inert, like a block of salt that has been exhausted of its catalytic power. Just a lump. Paralyzed. Lifeless.
But I trust Jesus Christ. Because he returned from the grave, defeated death and experienced resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-11), and offers connection to Himself, the source of Life (John 15:1-11), I know that He calls me to His kind of deeply-connected-to-God life. I don’t have to be inert, because His life empowers His people through His Spirit: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, unshakeable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58)