Avatar, Ever-After

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, January 13, 2010

I have given up trying to define religion. I agree with most scholars of religion that attempts at defining it lead to generalizations and undermine the importance of a subject matter in which both internal and external tensions exist. Instead, I challenge my students to look at the ways in which religions struggle for legitimacy and authority. My class focuses on the ways in which religious agents and communities produce narratives as a means of constructing and maintaining their worldviews and identities. This was the topic of my most recent lecture on religious representations of civic space and the Epic of Gilgamesh. I was surprised after my most recent lecture when one of my students declared that I absolutely had to see James Cameron’s futuristic, implicitly anti-war, post-colonial, eco-apocalypse, Avatar.

Originally, my inner Luddite had anticipated that the three-hour long movie’s 3-D, stereoscopic imaging technology would leave me dizzy and nauseous, but the student’s insistence and (perhaps) my general graduate student desire to procrastinate actual thesis writing in the name of “research” convinced me to give the new-fangled technology a try.
The film itself is ripe with obvious religious references. Jake Sully, the Christ-figure (see image) is identified as the “chosen one” for the Na’vi tribe (note the use of the ancient Hebrew word for prophet) who live in harmony with nature on the moon-planet, Pandora. Sully is sent by the Sky People (humans) to take the form of one of the Na’vi peoples in order to bring them a specific message. In doing so he learns the ways of the Na’vi people from Neytiri, the daughter of the tribe’s chief who is herself in training to take over from her mother as the spiritual leader of the Omaticaya Clan.
The Na’vi people claim a spiritual connection to all of nature as well as to their mother-goddess, Eywa. Their religious rituals are a complicated, communal affair and they are able to at times tap into the power of Eywa in a tangible way (so as to retrieve memories from their ancestors at the Tree of Souls, or, as at the end of the movie, to transfer Jake Sully’s mind from his human body to his avatar).
Many have already pointed to the religious representations in the film. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat attacks the films “gospel of pantheism” which he argues has been the “religion of choice” for a generation of Hollywood filmmakers: from the Jedi force in George Lucas’ Star Wars to the eco-worship advocated in Disney’s Lion King and Pocahontas. Douhat, apparently, feels that the pantheistic message of the film lacks the credibility of “traditional theism,” which he argues delves into questions of good and evil in a way that nature worship does not.
Some sites have pointed out the more nuanced Judeo-Christian imagery in the film, such as Kwok Pui-Lan, contributor to Religious Dispatches, who detects parallels between the Book of Joshua’s story about the prostitute Rahab. Pui-Lan also links Avatar to what she suggests is a subversive atonement theology influenced by liberation theology (the oppressed Na’vi “rise up in solidarity to fight against the colonizers”).
Responding to Douthat, John Podhoretz points out that the nature-worship and pagan rituals are not necessarily the promotion of a sustainability gospel. Alternatively, he suggests that the Na’vi pantheism is used to give the “special-effects some resonance”— not because it is controversial, but rather because it is “most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”
And certainly, the majority of the viewers in the audience will (and in my opinion, should) cheer for Eywa, the mother-goddess over the militaristic, shock-and-awe tactics of the human (read: American) Sky People. The Sky People are heartless opportunists whereas the Na’vi possess an authentic, unbiased spiritual concern for the well-being of all.
But the religious narrative of the film takes a crucial turn right before the final battle, when our hero, Jake Sully, goes to the Tree of Souls to pray to Eywa. “I’m probably just talking to a tree” he pronounces, but nevertheless he asks that she watch over them and guide them to victory. The heroine, Neytiri, explains that Jake’s request is theologically untenable, our Great Mother does not take sides, Jake. She protects only the balance of life.”
Sully appears to accept Neytiri’s statement and the two venture off to prepare for battle. The underdog Na’vi put up a valiant effort against the Sky People but are on the verge of losing the battle and all hope until the last moment when Eywa intervenes by summing the wildlife of Pandora to join the fight.
This deus ex machina, or perhaps more appropriately, deus ex natura moment suggests a radical departure from the theological/ontological structure of the Na’vi religious economy. Instantly, Eywa is transformed into a deity who is much more readily aligned with the familiar image and actions of the Judeo-Christian God – a deity who takes sides, judges between good and evil and punishes transgressors and rewards the faithful.
This transformation is most clearly symbolized by Sully’s “re-birth” as an Avatar in which he dies in one life (the human) to be reborn as a new self. It is hard to imagine a more Pauline-derived Evangelical metaphysics.
Thus, the battle is won and the Sky People are sent home to their dying planet, Earth. But as viewers, we are left wondering at what cost? Post-colonial theory tells us that once colonial contact has been made there is no returning to a pre-contact existence. Every aspect of a society and culture necessarily react to this exchange. In the case of the religious narratives of the Na’vi, they now must contend with a deity who turns out to be something different than what they originally thought. What is worse is the only one who truly understood their Na’vi deity and her will is an outsider from a different race and planet, not the Na’vi themselves.
Cameron has hinted that he would like to produce a sequel and possibly create a trilogy out of the film. In this case, one wonders how the religious structures and beliefs of the Na’vi have been altered by their interactions with the Sky People? As an anthropologist of religion, I cannot help but wonder whether the Sky People have left more than Jake Sully (and select others) behind? Did they also leave the relational, interventionist God of Christianity, and if so, what lasting effects will this distinctive representation of a deity have upon the cultural narratives of the Na’vi?
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