Ali at Meadowsweet & Myrrh has written a thoughtful and perceptive post in response to my review of Avatar that unfolds out into her own nuanced review of the movie. I would commend this to anyone who reads my blog. Here are my admittedly rambling and random thoughts in response to her articulate writing. Hopefully these thoughts, disjointed as they might be, can stimulate even further reflection and conversation for those who choose to read them.
Ali accuses me of “overstating” the Christian elements of the movie. To the extent that Avatar is not an explicitly Christian story, like The Chronicles of Narnia or the Harry Potter books, she is right. While I think Jake Sully can be seen as an “everyman” figure, it would be quite a reach to see him as a Christ figure. Even though one could conceivably argue that he is a “savior” or a “messiah,” he is not a suffering servant, undergoes no crucifixion/resurrection, and brings his “salvation” through military victory rather than through sacrificial love. On the other hand, he does undergo a “baptism” of sorts (when running away from the pursuing beast on his first day in the Pandoran wilderness) and, at the culmination of his training with Neytiri, performs a eucharistic act of thanksgiving when making his first “clean” kill. But back to my first point: this is not an explicitly Christian allegory; I would be quite surprised if James Cameron came out and said he was trying to unpack Christian symbolism in Avatar. I think “reading” Avatar in a Christian sense works only to the extent that the movie explores universal themes that can be understood in a Christian context. Thus, for example, the “baptism” in the river is simply a ritual ablution, that Wiccans could see in terms of a ceremonial bath.
So perhaps I need to back-pedal a bit and say that Avatar tells a tale in which Christians can find meaning that resonate with the Christian story. My review from Sunday is an example of that kind of “reading.” Does this make Avatar a “Christian movie”? Not at all. Reflecting on this, I am reminded that my experience and perception of Christianity is so steeped in the writings of the mystics and the practice of contemplation that my entire approach to the question of Christianity in literature is probably off the scale, especially in relation to most mainstream Christians. Heaven knows, most mainstream Christians can’t even accept Harry Potter, so I doubt that my reading of Avatar in a Christian sense will have too many defenders among garden-variety churchgoers.
Christian mysticism represents a marginal voice within Christianity and has, at least since the High Middle Ages, arguably represented an alternative theology within the faith (even for those mystics like Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila who insist on their own orthodoxy and assent to church authority). I believe a key to understanding this “alternative voice” of mysticism is that mysticism tends toward universal values, in contrast to ordinary religion which tends toward tribal thinking. Thus, Christian mysticism tends to be comfortable with non-Christian art, literature, philosophy, or even religion, because the mystically-oriented Christian is able to recognize universal patterns of truth and wisdom in any context and relate them to his or her “home” wisdom tradition. This is why Christian contemplatives like Thomas Merton or Bede Griffiths tend to be so engaged with other religious traditions (such as Buddhism or Hinduism), while their more tribally-minded counterparts within the church see their exploration as heretical and dangerous. It’s a matter of consciousness.
Back to Ali. She critiques the movie for its “monotheistic assumptions.” As a Christian, I have to respond, “you say that like it’s a bad thing.” I am not persuaded that Cameron had any more of an investment in Paganism or pantheism than he did in Christianity. I believe he was just trying to tell the story of one man’s inner transformation (repentance? salvation?) from militarist to ecological consciousness. Such a story does not require a pantheistic cosmology; as a contemplative Christian, I believe Jake Sully’s transformation works just as well within a panentheistic cosmology.
In fact, I wonder if Ali is overstating the movie’s “real representations of pantheism” just as surely as I overstated the movie’s “Christian” symbolism. She points to the hyena-like creatures as evidence of Eywa’s “white blood cells” at work, but how does this square with the seeds from the sacred tree which cluster around Jake (thus preventing Neytiri from killing him and inspiring her to take him to her village)? Is pantheism ultimately reducible to random chance, or even chaos?
Ali complains that “the ‘connection’ between Na’vi and animal is not one of mutual communion (as you might expect in a truly pantheistic spiritual tradition), but of domination, so that the beast itself (whose eyes dilate as though drugged) becomes an avatar for the thinking, self-aware and (implicitly) superior humanoid beings.” Her assumption that “true” pantheism requires “mutual communion” between humanoid and non-humanoid seems to me to be unfounded, based more on western liberal wishful thinking than anything else. As Ken Wilber points out in his integral theory, we have a widespread assumption in our culture that all hierarchy is “evil” or “patriarchal” or some other such unacceptable thing. Yet the plain truth is that different levels of consciousness do exist. I don’t see that the less-conscious animals submitting to the higher-conscious Na’vi necessarily means “domination” — I think Ali is projecting her own bias here.
Now, concerning Grace: Ali’s comments about her being a scientist more than any kind of explicit Christian figure cannot be refuted. Granted, in her own mind and life choices Grace is a scientist, not a theologian. But she is also the only ethical voice among the three leaders of the earth colony. Cameron could have easily given her a more evocative “scientific” name, like “Honor Newton.” So while acknowledging Ali’s rebuttal to my argument, I remain convinced that she represents at least some measure of Christianity, even if hers is a silenced and doubting Christianity. Obviously we do not know her backstory, but with a name like Grace Augustine I like to think that she had been baptized; according to Christian theology, baptism makes you a Christian for life, even if you reject and renounce it (see the Book of Common Prayer, which states “the bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble”). Grace, therefore could be seen as the “unbelieving Christian,” and thus is profoundly archetypal for our age. But her rejection of “Pagan voodoo” and “fairy tales” ultimately is overshadowed by her rapture at being taken up into Eywa at the closing moments of her physical life.
Let’s consider one more bit of Christian imagery in Avatar. At the beginning of the movie, Col. Quaritch tells a gathering of newly arrived earthlings that after their tour of duty on Pandora, they might want to go to hell for a little bit of R & R. I am sure he meant “hell” with not one, but two “l”s — in other words, the Christian, not the Pagan, concept of hell. And yet, Jake Sully finds on Pandora his heaven: his redemption, his salvation, his liberation from the wheelchair (consider Christ, who defined his ministry as including “the lame walk” — cf. Matthew 11:5). Pandora-as-heaven is epitomized by the “hallelujah mountains” where, interestingly enough, the “hellish” machinery of the sky-people is compromised. So is Pandora heaven, or worse than hell? I think it depends on how you look at it. Here I am reminded of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a theme that can be found in at least some of the voices of the Christian mystical tradition: that for true mystics the categories of heaven and hell cease to matter. Mysticism, arguably, is the art of finding heaven in the midst of hell. This is Blake’s message, and it is Jake Sully’s experience as well (Pagans and pantheists might howl at this reading of Avatar, but we need to remember that this is what Sully was told: that Pandora was worse than hell. His learning and discovering otherwise is part of his story).
Much of the power of Avatar lies in at least the promise of integrating oppositions. The humans, at least those friendly to the Na’vi, can find their destiny either in Eywa (as Grace did) or in their avatars (as did Jake). In Jake, we see “the lame walk”, but not by some sort of metaphysical intervention, rather through the science of the avatar and, later, the union with Eywa. So, Avatar suggests, something that had been promised to us by Christ finds fruition in science and in nature. Again, reading this film from the perspective of Christian mysticism, I don’t see any contradiction with Christianity in this message. But I can see where more traditional (read: tribally-minded) Christians might. Likewise, tribally-minded Neopagans probably would reject any attempt to read Christian perspectives into this story. But I can only relate to the story from where I sit, as a Christian striving to be a contemplative with an ongoing love and respect for both ancient and postmodern forms of Paganism. So there you go.
But just as my reading of Avatar is ultimately about me, I believe we need to remember that, ultimately, Avatar is Jake’s story. It’s the story of a white man who learns to walk away from his privilege in search for a more holistic, more authentic, more sustainable life. Granted, it’s an imperfect story, shot through with Hollywood blockbuster-itis, as Ali has so eloquently explored both in her blog post and in various comments. It’s less important that Jake plays savior to the Na’vi than it is that Jake walks away from Quaritch. It’s interesting that Quaritch is felled not by Jake but by Neytiri, who then saves Jake’s life. So as much as Jake is programmed to be the “always-in-control” guy, ultimately he is a vulnerable, broken man, unable to walk, gasping for breath, lovingly cradled by the much stronger (and bigger!) woman who has been his mentor and teacher and advocate all along.
Ali has repeatedly said that, while she disagreed with me on a number of points, she admired the tone of my writing and my willingness to be a non-defensive Christian while engaging with the questions this movie raises. I’d like to respond by saying that I am honored by her perspective and admire her own positive tone. Incidentally, she refers to me as “McColman” in her post, while I’m calling her “Ali” which is how she identifies herself on her blog. I hope my readers won’t see this as any sort of privileged posturing on my part, where I use her given name even though she calls me by my surname. I’m simply identifying her as she has chosen to identify herself on her blog. No lack of respect is intended.