Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thoughts on Avatar

It's sort of surprising that a movie prompts my first non-sermon blog entry in a long time. But Avatar was just that compelling - to me, at least.

Here are three things I loved about this movie.

1. It's all about baptism. From the ending to the opening premise of being "reborn" as a new creation, this entire film was about rebirth. The fact that the protagonist, Jake Sully, was reborn as a seven-foot-tall blue humanoid with a tail makes things more colorful, yes, but what was more interesting was that Jake had a complete change, a turning around - a metanoia - of his worldview. Previous worldview: Follow the rules of your society, which just so happen to be Militarism and Capitalism. New worldview: The Divine is in everything, and the needs of all creation are more worthy of your life - and death - than a quarterly report. Most gratifying to the catechumenate crowd: Before being reborn Jake must undergo training and completely subsume his own life into that of the community.

2. It's anticapitalist and antimilitary. Does that mean it's oversimplistic? A bit, yeah. Maybe it should have acknowledged that capitalism has its uses, especially on a very small scale, and many good people have served their fellow citizens through service in the military. (Maybe in the sequel? I smell a trilogy...) But the human propensity to destroy things through the unbridled pursuit of profit above all else is a fact of our world, and the use of the military to serve the pursuit of capital is a tradition that has been repeated again and again through distant and recent history. To have this truth about our world depicted in light and sound and color (in 3D!) was akin to reading apocalyptic literature - creative storytelling that pulls back the curtain to reveal what some already know and some don't want to admit.

3. Spiritually, it emphasizes Eastern panentheism over Western obsessions with kings and kingdoms and kingliness. Some conservative Christians have criticized it as pantheism, but it needn't be construed that way. To say God is present in everything is no heresy - and is probably closer to the truth than the idea that God is present in us humans but not in the trees we cut down. What I really love about Avatar's spirituality is that in some ways it's more interesting than that depicted in The Lord of the Rings. As an immersive film experience, I loved the Lord of the Rings more than Avatar. But as a theological thought piece, I found Avatar more compelling. It leaves the obsession with A King behind. It's true that the protagonist must assume a leadership role, but it's clear that the kind of leadership role he assumes is only temporary, as-needed, and not some kind of permanent king role.

And one response to negative critiques:

While my wife enjoyed the movie as well - more than she thought she would - one of her first critiques was that it was of the white outsider imperialist coming in and saving the day for a bunch of indigenous native peoples. I acknowledge that this is a problematic storyline. Still, I think the movie actually did several important things to offset what could have been far more problematic.

1. The white dude didn't save the people from themselves, he helped lead them to victory over the imperialists.

2. He wasn't a Savior so much as a person who - after learning from the Na'vi - had something of his own to contribute. And why wouldn't he? That's what it meant for him to become a full-fledged member of their community.

3. He didn't lead the people on his own - he joined the Na'vi to co-lead (with the help of the Na'vi leader and Jake's Na'vi girlfriend) them to victory over other imperialists.

4. Jake Sully had lost the use of his legs, leaving him wheelchair bound and a "minority" within his own community/society. These sorts of minority vs. non-minority categories suck because they're so oversimplistic, but it's worth throwing into the mix, especially because no one else seems to be mentioning it as a relevant part of the data set.

Well - that's my visceral, initial reaction, thoughts off the top of my head. Challenge away!

En fin: I remain grateful to have seen the first movie since Up that's had me thinking big thoughts through light and sound and color (in 3D!) on the silver screen.

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