Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Biblical Narratives in Avatar (2009)

When one of the main characters of a film is named “Dr. Grace Augustine”, one’s theological ears need to perk up! Augustine of Hippo was called “the Doctor of Grace.” He and a fellow named Pelagius argued over the doctrine of original sin and the meaning of grace. I suggest that James Cameron was not promoting pantheism in this film, but settling in his own way the ancient arguments about grace and awarding Pelagius (judged a heretic by the church) the winner’s prize.

One discussion thread for Avatar is indeed this: the concept of sin and grace as found in the Garden of Eden in the biblical narrative, compared and contrasted with that found in the garden planet of Pandora. While investigating the ancient debate between Augustine and Pelagius, this study thread would also include evaluating questions raised by various critics concerned about more modern concerns about pantheism, neo-paganism, etc. in the film.

Questions to include might be: What is pantheism? How is pantheism different from eco-spirituality? What is panentheism? What is Mother Goddess religion? What is paganism? Are these to be feared? Why or why not? Where might we find examples of this in the film’s story and dialogue? How does this debate get played out in various church and non-church circles. What are the issues at stake e.g. political, social, cultural, economic, moral, and religious?

Another thread related to this is stimulated by the fact that this story takes place on a mythical planet named Pandora. What is the Greek myth of Pandora about? Is Pandora an equivalent of the biblical Eve? Are the curses that emerge from Pandora’s jar (or, as it is mistranslated, box) similar to those God gives Adam and Eve?

Moving on: the people of Pandora are called “Na’vi.” The biblical Hebrew word for prophet is “nav’i” or “mouth of God.” What does the filmmaker intend to tell us with this reference? How do these people in the movie live and function like biblical prophets, then and now?

The female Na’vi character, Neytiri, gives Jacob a pomegranate-like fruit from a tree. His eyes seem to open up at that point to really behold the beauty of where he is. How does this fruit scene compare and contrast with the fruit scene in the story in the Garden of Eden? How do the two sacred trees in Pandora compare to the two in Eden?

The Jacob and Esau Story

Besides parallels in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, there are some comparisons in the film to the Jacob/Esau story. While the comparisons might be weak and stretched too much, they yet invite some imaginative consideration.

In Avatar, Jacob has a twin brother named Tom. Jacob is translated from the Hebrew to mean “supplanter.” In the film, it was Tom, Jacob’s brother, who was to be the avatar. With his untimely and tragic death, Jacob takes his place.

After seeing Avatar, it is interesting to read the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-17. There is a communication between one realm and another, heaven and earth, with many winged creatures (angels) flying around. A blessing is given, that through Jacob all the families of the earth shall be blessed. There is divine assurance of ongoing presence and guidance, and then Jacob awakens, realizing he has been traveling between heaven and earth, the “house of God” and the “gate of heaven.”

Later, in Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with the mysterious angel, gains a limp, and has a name change. His new name is “Israel” or one who struggles or strives with God. As some suggest Avatar advocates reverting to some kind of nature-worshiping “tribal existence,” clearly the parallel with the coming tribal confederacy and covenant community of ancient Israel in Jacob’s story might fit…at least in an imaginative and inspired preaching context! After all, the covenant of “shalom” extends peace to every aspect of creation including the land, the water, the sky, the animals, and people!

John 1

A third connection to a biblical narrative might be found in the Gospel of John and the prologue of the first chapter, with its theological concepts of light and word. Light and Word translate into life, as at the beginning in Genesis 1, and both light and word become flesh, a human being, one who embodies word, light and love. Might it make some sense to briefly and lightly touch on the imaginative correlation of the Hindu “avatar” in reference to this Christian “epiphany” to draw out comparisons and contrasts?

Other snippets of interesting material:

a. There are coffin-like structures shown throughout the film, with juxtaposed scenes from a real coffin holding Jake’s brother to the avatar-pods. There is no getting around the themes these evoke: death, life, rebirth, renewal, and transformation.

b. Noting the worship practices depicted in the film: singing at the sacred tree; honoring ancestors; prayer; laying on of hands; the presence of ritual at sacred place.

c. Treating relationships with nature and living things with respect, honoring a sacred relationship. While some may see this as pantheism, it seems more of an honoring of the sanctity of all things. Note the blessing/saying “grace” before taking the life of an animal, and/or the connection with horses and birds as the Na’vi linked strands of hair with the strands and fibers of another’s life.

d. The clash of different systems of belief: one in “military fact” and power, and another in the sacredness of deity and/or nature. There is a clash of cultures: military, natural, and scientific.

e. The relationship of the term “Avatar” in Hindu mythology/ theology with “Epiphany” in Greco-Roman mythology/political theology and in Christian theology.

f. How does the final scene parallel the final scene of Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and what are we to make of it?

g. Just as one world is shown to be of advanced technology, another world is shown as one of advanced spirituality?

h. The Halleluia Mountains figure beautifully in the film and are the closing images as the credits roll. “Halleluia” is “praise God” in Hebrew.

i. The connection with the themes found in Dali’s “Burning Giraffe” as mentioned in a previous blog.

j. The valuable mineral the corporation seeks, with the aid of its mercenaries, is called “Unobtanium.” The unobtainable has a high price.

k. Lines in the film that invite some discussion (I have not found a script yet; these lines are what I thought I heard while watching the film, and I wrote them down in the darkened theater while wearing 3-D glasses!):

“I was a warrior who dreamed he would bring peace.”

“The Great Mother does not take sides-she protects the balance of life.”

“The wealth of the world is all around us.”

“Grace is hit.”

“I’m a scientist; I don’t believe in fairy tales.”

Did Jake call out “holy snake!” as one of the snake-headed creatures flew out of the Mother Tree?

l. The theme song, “I See You” sings of the film’s joyful embrace of conscientious, intentional, life-honoring relationships and the “colors of love.” Where is love in the film? Is the full complexity of the term “love”there, in the biblical sense? Do we find in the film an implied shallow “pantheism” or is it more of what we find in John’s Gospel and the phrase, “For God so loved the world…” Doesn’t John affirm that the world is embued with love? Isn’t love embedded in each creature, all of life, the animate and inanimate?

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