A week before Christmas, when Christians celebrate God’s incarnation in Christ, the 3D movie Avatar (warning: spoilers follow) took movie-going to a new level in a similar way that Star Wars did in 1977. Although there has been criticism of Avatar’s story content, and even Vatican panning of its spirituality, it is IMO worth drawing ideas from it for Christian spirituality. It may also help in clarifying our own positions.
In this movie, set in 2154, an avatar is a remotely-controlled body. This avatar is composed of human DNA mixed with Na’vi DNA. Jake becomes one of the Na’vi in order for them to understand him better and he them. He falls in love with the Na’vi and specifically with Neytiri. He is willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to save them. There are clear allegorical parallels with the incarnation. But some significant differences, also, that can help clarify Christian understanding of the incarnation.
This is an avatar of an other sentient race – not of God (called “Eywa” by the Na’vi). Often there is confusion about Christ’s incarnation. Many think in terms of Jesus being “son of God” because of the virgin birth story – imaging Jesus as being half human, half divine. The early church settled that Jesus is fully human. All 46 of Jesus’ chromosomes (using contemporary understanding unknown to the biblical writers) are fully human chromosomes. In the movie’s avatar, Jack’s DNA is mixed – human and Na’vi. (As a result of this mixing, the avatars are certainly not fully Na’vi. Avatars have five fingers and toes on their hands and feet. Na’vi only have four.)
Many think in terms of Jesus being “God dressed up” – they would image the child Jesus pretending to learn Aramaic at home and pretending to learn the skills of the family trade, while actually critiquing mistakes in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The early church settled that Jesus’ full humanity has no “trap door” to his divinity. He learned just like we do – he does not pretend to be human. In the movie the avatar does not have the Na’vi mind, but the human mind. It is here IMO that we need to make the most careful distinction between the Christian concept of incarnation and the movie’s concept of avatar. Jesus has a created human soul and a created human mind, the early church teaches. That the eternal Word replaced the human soul of Jesus (akin to what happens with the avatar) is the heresy of Apollinarianism. Jesus is not God pretending to be human (docetism), not actually Superman pretending to be the mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent.
Even the death and resurrection sequence that ends the movie can be used in Christian reflection.
There is much more that is worth reflecting on:
- Our attitude to, unity with, and responsibility to nature and to all creation
- A lot is clearly intended to be allegorical – eg. the title of the moon “Pandora”
- a holistic spirituality
- attitudes to and limitations of technology
“Every person is born twice. The second time is when you are part of your people forever.”
Jake Sully: “Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.”
Sully tells Mo’at (the mother) that he is “empty”. This alludes to US Marines calling themselves “jarhead” in part to mean that their heads are empty.
“I see you” – looking inside a person, not just outside. Cf the biblical “know”.
The art of René Magritte is mentioned in Sigourney Weaver’s description of Pandora. Unacknowledged, however, is the art of Roger Dean, particularly “Floating Islands” and “Arches”:
Anglicans will recognise the cartwheel image of ordination at one point in the movie typical in Anglicanism.
For fun, you can make an avatar of a photo of yourself here. For better or worse, here is mine:
Allusions and connections with other movies: Surrogates, the Matrix, Dances with Wolves, Existenz, The Wizard of Oz,…
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