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Avatar & the Longing for “Home”

January 29, 2010

It’s the biggest grossing movie of all time. It’s dazzled people with special effects, and left in them a longing so deep that quite a few viewers have left depressed. It’s garnered many admirers, but also some critics for its rather worn-out plot devices. But like Titanic, that doesn’t seem to stop it.

So what’s the secret to Avatar’s success? Is the plot just a prop for some 3D, HD thrills? Or is it worth going under the hood to ask what exactly Avatar is about?

Last night at the Sojourn Forum, a faith-and-doubt discussion group I host, about 30 Christians, atheists (from Penn State Atheists/Agnostics Association) and pagans (from Penn State’s Silver Circle group) gathered to discuss Avatar.

We discussed the various labels people have put on Avatar.  From our discussion and media coverage, people gravitate to one of the 4 following options:

1. A tract for pantheism
2. An anti-American military, anti-capitalist rant
3. A spiritually environmentalist call to arms
4. It’s not about anything–just shut up and enjoy the movie!

On the surface, Avatar is all of these. This partly explains its success, as it perfectly captures the zeitgeist. If James Cameron is a master of anything, it is that. Avatar meets our culture where it is at: Its pantheism is amenable to the Oprah-fied masses of people who are “spiritual but not religious,” people who are more open to eastern spiritual ideas than ever.

Its perceived anti-American, anti-military, anti-capitalist elements resonate with those in the West who are exceedingly uncomfortable with two foreign wars and the legacy of American international involvement.

Its battles to preserve Pandora’s beautiful landscape allow people to work out their anxiety–and guilt–about the state of the environment. We generally feel helpless and know our recycling doesn’t do heck of a lot. This battle is satisfying. It offers a resolution that “An Inconvenient Truth” never could.

Avatar even allows a glimpse of spirituality and the environment merging together–which commentators have noticed is a phenomenon here. Environmentalism, some say, is a new kind of civil religion, complete with priests, rituals, penance, and sacred texts.

And for those who don’t care for any of the big ideas & trends listed above, Avatar is great entertainment. We love our gadgets and special effects and we love to be wowed.

Given all of these factors, Avatar’s success is not surprising in the least. It has skillfully and attractively given people exactly what they wanted.

Still, seeing ingredients for its success does not entirely explain its allure. Those factors fall short, in part because each of them has serious holes.

Though the Pope has come out strong against the pantheistic elements of Avatar, (while also calling it “bland”), Avatar as a tract for pantheism is woefully deficient, to a true pantheist. It’s an open question whether the religion/spirituality on display is pantheism, panentheism, or a more generic Hollywood paganism.

Some have argued that Cameron has–perhaps inadvertently–allowed monotheism to creep in. Jake Sully doesn’t pray TO a tree, he prays THROUGH it, to a personal deity named Eywa (strikingly similar to the Hebrew Yahweh). Unlike depersonalized nature, Eywa intervenes specifically and directly in the affairs of Na’Vi (& humans). True pantheism (or Mother Nature) is blind and uncaring to the fates of particular creatures. And then there’s this: central to the story, and the salvation of Pandora, is that Sully incarnates himself–becomes a Na’Vi–in order to save them. How Christ-like is that?

As far as the anti-militaristic, anti-capitalist, anti-technological view–If that was Cameron’s goal, he failed miserably. I don’t think that was his goal, because he undercuts himself too obviously. Can we really take an anti-capitalist rant seriously from the movie that is now the highest grossing film in history, and which also cost more than any other movie to make in history?  Can we take an anti-militaristic rant seriously when the “Savior” is also a former soldier–a white, male, American soldier, and that the resolution comes violently? Can we take an anti-technology rant seriously from the movie that is being hailed as a technological marvel, a groundbreaking, bar-setting feat that will surely win every technical Oscar?

But I would argue that Avatar’s success is due in part to another reason, one which I haven’t seen addressed. Avatar succeeds most admirably as an evoking of a deep, barely conscious longing for “home.” What do I mean?

The phenomenon of post-Avatar depression is telling. As one fan posted on a fan website, “When I woke up this morning after watching ‘Avatar’ for the first time yesterday, the world seemed gray. It just seems so meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”

Avatar has caused, for many of its viewers, a deeply felt desire to live in a world that doesn’t exist.  It has awakened a longing for a world where humanity is not in conflict with nature, but preserving it.  Where people are deeply connected to nature, yet still in dominion over it.  A longing for a pristine world not defamed and destroyed by violence, greed, & technology.  Where life and vitality is winning over death and decay.  A longing for a place that feels more truly like “home” than our current planet.

This world doesn’t exist. It never has, except in one place, according to the Christian tradition: Eden. The “Avatar Blues” are more than a response to amazing special effects and contemporary anxieties. They evoke the longing for paradise, for the return to the Garden. They remind us that this is not all there is, and that things are not meant to stay like this.

As C.S. Lewis so wisely said:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”

Avatar succeeds not so much because of its special effects or because of how it addresses contemporary issues, but because it addresses the oldest issue of all: the longing for another, better world, the desire to “get back to the Garden.”

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2010 11:37 am

    “Avatar has caused, for many of its viewers, a deeply felt desire to live in a world that doesn’t exist. It has awakened a longing for a world where humanity is not in conflict with nature, but preserving it. Where people are deeply connected to nature, yet still in dominion over it. A longing for a pristine world not defamed and destroyed by violence, greed, & technology. Where life and vitality is winning over death and decay. A longing for a place that feels more truly like “home” than our current planet.”

    In my opinion, this “longing” is exactly the result of how most of us are just “giving up” on this planet. We think we’re living in a cruel world without any real morality left and with a bleak future ahead. We think we, as individuals, don’t have any power whatsoever to do anything about that. This is a big mistake I think..

    We have the tendency to run away from problems or to constantly shift mirrors without truly, deeply changing the subject, namely ourselves, whose inner world is the very core of most problems, and who, thus, holds the true key to change. The “longing” is merely an unconscious projection of running away from the obstacles we’ve created ourselves in this world. It’s a compensation for our own failure to take up our responsibility and acknowledge the relativity of our egotistical strivings in the light of a Life which is far greater and deeper than our egos can ever realize. We strive after perfection by creating this abyss between good and evil, feeling strengthened when evil is once more defeated, but we fail to realize that, behind its veil, this victory is more often than not a frantic attempt to escape from the inevitability facing us inwardly, namely that the greatest evil comes from within each of us, from the dark regions of our psyche where we rather don’t like to dwell. We fail to recognize that we, human beings, are imperfect, flawed creatures within our core. We are vessels of human contradictions. We háve to be so, because it is only through tensions that one can grow inwardly.

    However, due to historical, social and cultural developments (the Christian dogma of the privatio boni has played a huge part here), we have learned to ignore the shadow part of ourselves, so its darkness (containing a load of maladjusted, “evil” features) becomes projected onto the world at large. Because we deny our own inner polarities, the outer world becomes polarized instead, resulting in ever more outer tensions and problems, spinning totally out of control. The huge problems in the world are mainly the result of the denial of our inner contradictions. We are constantly living in fear, trying to fight shadows and evils coming from outside, yet it is basically our own individual shadows we are being afraid of. Instead of attaining a state of natural wholeness, acknowledging the contradictions living within man’s soul, we want to reach the unnatural state of perfection, in which the inner denial of one’s duality becomes so extremely projected onto the world, that one day we might effectively annihilate each other in some planetary catastrophe. Not environmental disasters, nuclear wars, pollution or overpopulation will kill us; it will be our psyche which we have largely failed to cultivate properly; it will be because of our inflated egos, perfected only by drying up its very roots, lying near the unknown waters of the soul and Life itself.

    Instead of “longing” for some lost Eden, we’d better learn to stop running away from our responsibilities. Instead of “longing” to be instantly freed from all misery, we’d better learn to critically assess our current situation and to teach our children that genuine change doesn’t come as the result of some political decision, but comes from within the heart of each man, woman and child on this planet. If someone learns to befriend his shadow and integrate it in the larger soul he truly is, thus becoming aware of his inner contradictions, then the world will finally be seen again as a whole, in which other people doesn’t deserve our usual disdain and cynicism, but our respect, gratitude, empathy and humility. This person might change more in this world than any political decision might achieve. Not through some egocentric inflation.. no, it’s because he has reached its exact opposite. The world would be included and embraced from a deeper point of view, not excluded and arrogantly looked upon from some imaginary throne (as would be the case in inflated egocentricity).

    Only through darkness lies the healing way of redemption, not past it. When darkness is ignored and rejected, it only deepens and becomes more threatening; if it is acknowledged as a part of us, and is thus to be integrated and given its proper place in the soul, it becomes no more threatening than the natural shadow of a tree, illuminated by the warm light of the sun.

    But the choice will always be up to us. Will we continue to flee in outer projections (e.g. in movies like Avatar), or do we choose to dig up our deepest shadows so we might change the world by changing ourselves from the inside out?

    • John-Paul Harper permalink
      March 8, 2010 8:00 am

      Very interesting commentary and an apt warning against using our desire for a better world as a type of escapism. But does not the solution you propose lead to bare activism? Where are we to get the power to be willing to sacrifice for a better world, if not from a desire, indeed from an assured hope, that a better world will exist in the future. I don’t believe this better world can be brought about merely by human effort as history has shown. All who understand God’s work in the resurrection of Christ, however, will necessarily be engaged in seeing this renewal become a reality in our world.

      • March 10, 2010 12:40 pm

        The power lies within each of us. But the full acceptance of what that means goes against some of the fundamental ideas on which Western society is built. There are at least two obstacles I should mention:

        1) Western society teaches us almost nothing about the soul, and if it ís mentioned, it’s often seen as a poorly understood by-product of ego-related dynamisms. Because the very essence of soul might very well only be understood from an intuitive, irrational sense, it is only logical that its existence is largely denied by the scientific community. If there would be a soul, the scientist would only see it as OUTER synaptic activity in some part of the brain, thereby ignoring, thus eradicating the immense INNER depth of the experience of soul itself. Experience leads to inner meaning, even though it’s not understood; analysis of its physical parameters only leads to the meaning of its visible, outer shell which not a true meaning in the sense that its meaning cannot be LIVED, only read in some scientific journal.

        2) In short, Western society tends to look at things from the perspective of the ego, which itself is thought to be born as a complete structure. Yes, talents can be cultivated, horizons can be crossed, but it is rarely considered as an agent of radical change, which would turn the world upside down.

        In my opinion, that radical change can only come when one acknowledges the existence of the soul, because it is the soul on which the ego rests, and not the way round. The ego is like a planet, orbiting a much larger sun, which would be the center of the soul. Ego has one big advantage which the soul lacks: self-reflective consciousness. The disadvantage however is its natural tendency to inflation. Western society immensely promotes the horizontal inflation of ego, and it is happening in such an alarming way that we think we literally own the world. We see the sun and we think we own it, not realizing we should step down from our thrones and start treating the sun (soul) as another inhabitant of the house we are as a human being.

        So to answer your question: if it would lead to activism, it would mean that ego is still heavily in charge. Balance ego with soul and other opinions loose their seemingly offensive nature. An opposite opinion only seems offensive when people don’t acknowledge their own unnatural one-sidedness, when they don’t acknowledge the fact that they are running away from their own inner contradictions, which are now played out in these opposite opinions in the outer world. That’s why I talked about taking back our shadow projections: this painful process makes us more naturally human again because it’s a process of acknowledging our own inner polarities, thus bringing the world at large back to the oneness it truly is.

        This better world can only come from human effort, but it must be a balanced human effort, in which the ego is much more humble and down-to-earth than it is often nowadays. People often expect help from God, but I think God (or Life, or the Great Mystery, or whatever you want to call it) might perhaps expect more help from us! If we don’t dare to face our inner world and keep running away to all kind of escapism and technological trivialities, why should we expect a gesture from that Mystery? But if we try to open up and face the living soul within ourselves, help might well be underway to overcome the necessary hurdles on our paths.

        The power to do this cannot come from the ego alone, but needs to come from within the soul. By working with the soul, the ego can be the mediator for change. This is not an easy task, because you become so painfully aware of the contradictions living within you. But in my opinion it’s a necessary task. If we don’t stop running away towards the outer fixations which do nothing good other than tearing the world apart by the tensions between the opposites (good-evil), we can never learn to trust the Unknown. And if we cannot trust the Unknown, we can never take back the outer tensions between the opposites and keep them within the confines of our inner world, which is a much better environment to cultivate their tensions for the purpose of meaningful growth.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy permalink
      March 9, 2010 4:45 pm

      “In my opinion, this “longing” is exactly the result of how most of us are just “giving up” on this planet.”

      And Christians have given up on it, too.
      “It’s All Gonna Burn.”

      Just look at the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay, Left Behind, et al, the recurring mania for End Time Prophecy, the churches that are nothing more than Rapture Fire Escapes, the “Beam Me Up, Jesus!” attitude. If that isn’t “giving up”, you tell me what is.

      • March 10, 2010 9:12 am

        Your description of Lindsay, Tim LaHaye, et al is unfortunately accurate. But this is not representative of all Christians. The crowd you mention are not representative of Christianity, and I would argue profoundly out of line with Scripture and what Christians have believed for 2000 years. They represent a strain of Christianity called dispensationalism that is aberrant when compared to the larger Christian tradition.

        They are being rebuked, and care for the creation is being restored to its proper emphasis.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy permalink
        March 15, 2010 4:34 pm

        They may be “profoundly out of line”, but they have DEFINED what IS Real True Christian (TM) for 30-40 years. Their influence (and what’s effectively Christian Nihilism) is felt all over American Evangelical Protestantism. And its side effects are building up — It’s-All-Over-But-The-Screaming Nihilism with a Christian coat of paint; the Gospel reduced to Say the Magic Words then hide in the basement keeping your nose squeeky-clean so you can pass God’s Litmus Test and get beamed up.

        When The World Ends Tomorrow and It’s All Gonna Burn, don’t expect anyone to think ahead or dare great things.

  2. February 9, 2010 11:22 am

    Good thoughts here, Steve…I appreciate the broad range of perspectives. The whole “longing for home” theme is rather interesting. And that can either result in an un-plugging sort of response or the preferred “partnership in the restoration” of our big blue marble. ;-)


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