Grace and the Goddess: AVATAR as a Christian/Pagan Parable

James Cameron’s new film, Avatar, tells a story we’ve all heard before; as I commented on Twitter last night, it is Dances with Wolves meets Star Trek: Insurrection, with elements of The Matrix and Whale Rider thrown in. But Avatar is grander and more epic than any of these films, and of course, it’s a stunning achievement of CGI artistry. For its sheer beauty, go see it. But critics are whining that the story is “weak” or “boring” and I think they’re rather justified in their gripes. Nevertheless, I think it raises enough questions for someone like me, interested as I am in the interface between Christianity and indigenous culture, that it’s worth commenting on.

Warning: plot spoilers abound in the rest of this review. Read at your own risk.

On the surface, Avatar looks like a Neopagan’s dream. The bad guys are the consumerist, anti-ecological, greedy acquisitive earthlings, who have come to the gorgeously beautiful (but unremittingly hostile to humankind) world called Pandora. If your knowledge of Greek mythology is rusty, let me remind you that Pandora was the “Eve” of the pagan Greeks; the first woman, created by the gods and bestowed with many gifts, including a jar which contained both evil and hope. Of course, Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her, she opened the jar (or box), and that’s why the world is as screwed up as it is… but it’s also why we have hope even in the midst of our suffering.

Living on this idyllic-if-dangerous world are the Na’vi (the “naive visionaries”?), a sexy blue-skinned race of hippie types, who basically play the same role as the Lakota did in Dances with Wolves or the Ba’ku people in Star Trek: Insurrection. In other words, the Na’vi are a peaceful, spiritual, tribal, pre-industrial band of warriors and shamans who live in close psychic harmony with their environment (epitomized by their really cool pony-tails with exposed nerve tendrils that can link up and synch up with animals that they can then bond with and ride). While humans cannot breathe the Pandoran atmosphere, the science team from earth has figured out a way to create hybrid bodies using both Na’vi and human genetics; these bodies are the titular avatars, for they have to be “operated” psychically by an unconscious human being. Our hero, Jake, is one of these avatar-drivers, although for him it is an accidental career: his avatar had been created for use by his identical twin brother, who had been killed; he, meanwhile, is a Marine who suffered a disabling wound and is now confined to a wheelchair. The avatar represents for Jake not only a new career path, but also a new chance to walk and run again, even if only via a form of remote viewing.

Much of the humor (and political correctness) in the first hour of the film revolves around how Jake is a “stupid jarhead,” especially as viewed by the scientists in charge of the avatar project. Sure enough, he refuses to follow orders and gets himself in deep trouble on his first mission out in the Pandoran wild, soon separated from his companions. Alone and endangered, he is discovered by Neytiri, a Na’vi woman who doesn’t kill him because she receives a sign from Eywa — the great mother goddess of Pandora. Jake is one lucky dude, for when his avatar is dragged before a tribal council, the Na’vi, who understand that he is one of “sky people” in a mutant body, nevertheless offer to teach him their ways. Neytiri is assigned to be his mentor, and much action, visual splendor and a budding romance ensues. And Jake, just like Lt. Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, begins to identify more with the indigenous tribe that has adopted him than with his own rapacious race. And this sets us up for the last hour of the film, which basically involves an apocalyptic battle as the humans attempt to force the Na’vi to relocate — and in which spears and bows and arrows (with a little help from our hero and Eywa) manage to seriously kick human butt.

Okay, so there’s the story. If you have any shred of love for nature, or for the plight of indigenous peoples here on earth whose way of life has been destroyed or is being destroyed by the “American Way,” then this film will push all your emotional buttons. It did mine. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. But I think it’s interesting to breathe through the obvious contours of this story and consider it as a parable of the intersection between sky-god and earth-goddess spiritualities.

Here’s the key: one of the main characters is named Grace Augustine. Can you get any more heavy-handed than that? Grace is a scientist, and heads the avatar research team. She is one of three key figures among the human colony on Pandora, the others being Col. Miles Quaritch (a caricature of a Marine if there ever were one), and the snivelling “company man” Parker Selfridge, who is in charge of the business end of the operations: mining for a rare mineral that happens to be largely concentrated directly beneath the Na’vi’s ancestral home. With these three characters, you have the three functions of primal Indo-European society: the wisdomkeepers, the warriors, and the wealth-builders. In Irish mythology, for example, society was divided among the farmers and merchants (symbolized by the great god Dagda, who is the creator of abundance), the warriors (symbolized by the solar deity Lugh, who excelled at every skill), and the druids, keepers of the wisdom (symbolized by the goddess Brigid). I remember reading a comment by the Neopagan druid Isaac Bonewits (I can’t remember where I saw this) that, in the ancient world, one of the key challenges for the druid caste was managing to keep the warrior caste in line. If the warriors got too much power, excessive conflict and destruction would ensue. As much as ancient societies struggled to find a way to submit strength to wisdom, it’s a problem that, alas, remains with us today.

So on Pandora’s earth colony, Grace is the “chief druid” while Quaritch is the “chief warrior” and Selfridge the top money-man. We quickly learn that both Quaritch and Selfridge have no respect for Grace. Quaritch secretly instructs Jake to keep him informed, since it will be his job to move the Na’vi by force if they refuse to relocate willingly. And while Selfridge, as the chief executive of the business operation is theoretically in charge, when matters get chaotic Quaritch simply takes control. So on one level, Avatar is a grand metaphor about the danger of unrestrained force and the problems that ensue when wisdom is marginalized.

But back to our wisdom-keeper and her obviously Christian name. Grace is a tough boss in her own domain, even if she is ignored by her peers; she is also a flawed character, as symbolized by her chain-smoking. At first contemptuous of Jake, she grows to admire his boyish enthusiasm and natural charm, which opens doors for him with the Na’vi. Eventually she is felled by a gunshot wound when she and several members of her team decide to help the Na’vi to fight against the earthlings. The Na’vi try to save her by appealing to Eywa to permanently transfer her soul to her avatar. This does not happen, but her last words are filled with wonder as she describes her soul being taken up into the very consciousness of the goddess herself.

Wow.

So is this a metaphor for the best elements of Christianity (“grace”) being subsumed into the best elements of Neopaganism (the all-encompassing goddess)? Perhaps it can be seen that way. But it’s not just a one-way trip, where grace submits to the goddess. For we learn that grace changes the goddess. Before the final battle, Jake prays to Eywa for help in defeating the humans, appealing to Eywa to search Grace’s mind to understand what they were up against. Overhearing him, Neytiri scornfully remarks that Eywa takes no sides, for she is only committed to maintaining the balance of life. She may be the all-encompassing goddess, but the Na’vi do not have any sense of her as the dispenser of justice — only as the maintainer of ultimate harmony and equilibrium.

But then, when the battle seems to be at the most desperate point for the Na’vi, the animals of the jungle stampede and the creatures of the air swarm over the humans. Neytiri, watching it all in wonder, realizes that Eywa has in fact come to the aid of her children. The goddess has become a bestower of grace, at the hour of their greatest need.

So in the end, wisdom proves greater than either might or avarice — and the “Christian” wisdom of grace and justice joins together with the “Pagan” wisdom of the goddess-as-the-web-of-life. And this integrated wisdom proves to be too much for the “sky people.” Quaritch dies at the hand of Neytiri, felled by the very arrows he laughed at throughout the story. Selfridge, meanwhile, is marched ingloriously onto a ship that is sent packing. Only Grace’s team is allowed to remain on Pandora, and the movie ends with Jake finally solving the problem of his paraplegic body.

Indeed, I think the fact that Jake is disabled is as central to understanding Avatar as is the symbolism of Grace Augustine (“grace pre-destined”?). Jake comes from a disabled planet. As he mournfully tells Eywa, “our home has no green on it; we’ve killed it all.” Both he and Grace experience a death-and-resurrection; but where hers is more classically Christian in tone: she, the sinner (smoker) is felled by sin (a gunshot wound) and dies, only to find new life in the post-corporeal, beatific vision of Eywa — whose name seems to be a möbius-strip inversion of “Yahweh” suggesting that she encompasses both earth goddess and sky god. Jake, on the other hand, undergoes a more explicitly Pagan death-and-rebirth, reincarnating in the healthy body of his avatar.

So in the end, Avatar is probably the most satisfying integration of Christian and Pagan spirituality since The Lord of the Rings, even if its story is a bit well-worn. Bringing Christian and Pagan values together in a way that respects both is no easy feat: think of the mess that a writer as gifted as Neil Gaiman made of Beowulf a few years back. George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, are the masters here, with C.S. Lewis their charming if somewhat overzealous acolyte. But those three were all Christians who extended hospitality to Pagan imagery in their primarily-Christian writings. Avatar works the other way around. It is special because its home field is the indigenous spirituality of harmony with nature, but it manages to embrace the most hopeful dimension of Christianity within its primarily goddess-centric story. And that makes even an old and familiar story seem fresh and new.

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32 thoughts on “Grace and the Goddess: AVATAR as a Christian/Pagan Parable

  1. Yewtree says:

    What a great review. I haven’t seen the film yet but I will bear in mind these points when I watch it. I think we urgently do need to combine the Pagan value of respect for the Earth and the Divine in everything with the Judaeo-Christian theme of social justice (Tikkun, repair, in Hebrew) if we are to survive as a species and not harm our fellow-inhabitants of this beautiful planet. That’s why I’m a Unitarian (it contains the best of both value-systems).

  2. Christianne says:

    Wow. What a fascinating review. I didn’t expect to read a review that took the interpretations to all these places! (Though perhaps I would have if I’d yet seen the movie.)

    I’ve been reluctant to see this film because the trailer already told me so much about the movie, and I could tell it would be laden with political messages about what happens when a powerful and greedy people enter a new world they want to dominate. I’m sympathetic to the indigenous people’s plight, so I wasn’t sure I could handle watching evil unfold on the screen as I sat passively by.

    I guess I didn’t see religion holding a place in the film at all, much less holding a positive voice. This makes me reconsider seeing the film. Thanks for your review!

  3. Jean says:

    Quite agree that its worth the money though it was quite a dumb film in terms of its narrative.

  4. Green Monk says:

    I am a literacy teacher. One of the things I have learned through reading the research is that a child is often unable make great connections on stories they have only just heard. They need a stale text (stories they have heard several times) to make great connections and really be able to delve into the meaning of the text. I think the same thing is happening here. Many of us are familiar with the story line in Avatar…which then makes it more possible to make connections with the messages it conveys. Fantastic review!

  5. Cheryl Anne says:

    Well now, that explains why I enjoyed it so much! ;-) Fabulous review Carl…somehow I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed!
    Every Blessing,
    Cheryl Anne

  6. Ellen says:

    Excellent essay, and the comments were illuminating too! I’m linking to this in several places.

  7. Mike says:

    Hi carl,
    Your review is the best I’ve read so far.It’s excellent and a pleasure to read.Below is a review I left on another blog and I have pasted it here.
    I took my boys to see Avatar and I liked the movie a well.I saw the 3D version which was really cool but after awhile I got a head ache from the 3D effect.It does have religious undertones that point to a pantheistic/mother earth world view but they are subtle.The story of the exploitative nature of the materialistic world view is an ancient one and is mentioned in the book of Enoch.The Nephilim were condemned not because of their use of magic but the use of it for their own selfish interests.It was the abuse of power that was the sin; the exploitation of women and using knowledge to create weapons of war causing a disruption to the community as a whole.Another aspect I liked about the film was how it portrayed Divine intervention as a limited event which I think reflects how Divine intervention works in our world.Too much Divine intervention negates free will but a limited amount gives life to myths and miracles.Their is a scene that hints at Resurrection and maybe the Tree of Life but that might be a bit of a stretch.The religious nature of the story is presented ambiguous enough that one can weave ones own religious views into it.It’s a good movie…

  8. David says:

    Carl: I enjoyed reading your Avatar review very much.

    You write: “Living on this idyllic-if-dangerous world are the Na’vi (the “naive visionaries”?), a sexy blue-skinned race of hippie types, who basically play the same role as the Lakota did in Dances with Wolves or the Ba’ku people in Star Trek: Insurrection.”

    I refer to Star Trek: Insurrection in my Star Trek quiz:

    http://www.assistnews.net/Stories/2009/s09050064.htm

    and hope to have my Avatar quiz completed in the near future.

    Ayftozä lefpom ayngaru nìwotx!

  9. carbonpenguin says:

    Thank you for your review; it was a true pleasure to read…

  10. as someone who also abandoned Christianity, (which I was attracted to initially for its mysticism, like you) for Paganism, but didn’t look back, I appreciate your very eloquent and deep understanding of a possible Christian connection to the Earth based message in this movie.
    But I do have to say that Grace’s enlightenment at the end had to do with her perfect union to the Oneness of the Spirit of Pandora – I didn’t see the Mary connection at all.
    In fact for me, the way the movie needed to end with a “justice” message using war and violence to win the battle was a sad nod to Hollywood blockbuster action, and not in keeping with the more mystical truth in the movie — that deep connection with life is the answer, not violence used to overpower life.
    If justice means the guns win the war, then you can keep your justice; I’ll go with a totally Earth-based, Goddess message.

  11. Thanks for your comment, Emily. I don’t recall mentioning Mary in my review at all, so I’m not sure what you’re saying as far as Grace is concerned. And as far as Eywa’s justice, that clearly did not involve guns, but did involve the animals rallying to help the Na’vi at the hour of their deepest need.
    Whether we like it or not, guns are real, and people who take things from others by force are real. Wishing that they will go away because we don’t approve of them is no answer.

  12. Ali says:

    Emily, Your comment is very much in line with my own response to this review, and the movie as well. Carl, I find your insights thought-provoking, and it’s refreshing to see a Catholic diving into the spiritual implications of the movie without immediately putting up defenses against pantheism. But I think I agree with Emily that, if there is any Christianity in the film at all, it’s incredibly understated and I don’t think it holds as prominent a place as you give it. In fact, what struck me about Grace Augustine as the “wisdom-holder” of the humans was just how secular and scientific she was. She was the kind of character that, despite her name, I could easily imagine laughing off the idea of any sort of God (she “doesn’t believe in fairy tales,” either), and indeed when studying the biological interconnection among the trees and animals, she dismisses the idea that it is anything other than materialist in nature (rather than some nonmaterial “Pagan voodoo”). Seeing this materialism, along with her chain-smoking, as just a way in which she’s a “sinner” needing to be redeemed is reading a very Christian interpretation of the movie. The idea of grace as spiritual relationship is not a uniquely Christian concept; and for all we know, the reference to Augustine may be intended to invoke not inherent Christianity, but the sense of determinism or lack of free will, something found often in materialism and, perhaps, an appropriate philosophical point to contemplate when we consider the nature of avatars as empty bodies to be used by some outside controlling force. All in all, I was more surprised by the lack of Christianity, and so I feel your review overstates its importance.

    …Well, this comment kept getting longer and longer, and I don’t want to clutter up your comments like some domineering houseguest, so I hope it’s okay to just put a link here to a post of my own, where the rest of what I wanted to post here can be found. I know the likelihood of people actually following the link over, but I hope you and a few of your readers wouldn’t mind the diversion. :) The post is “Avatar & Eywa: Looking at Deity, Pantheism and Justice.”

  13. Claire Streb says:

    A wise minister once told me that the only story that was ever written was His Story (history).

  14. [...] Ali at Meadowsweet & Myrrh has written a thoughtful and perceptive response/critique to my review of Avatar that unfolds out into her own nuanced review of the movie. I would commend this to anyone who reads [...]

  15. Jim P. says:

    “the “Christian” wisdom of grace and justice” ??? I’m sorry, I fail to see how christianity embraces either of these values. Christianity is a virulent sect and like all religions, is man-made and thus susceptible to our corruptions. However, among the many themes addressed in this movie, it seems you missed the more obvious and larger ode to the real goddess: woman. Indeed, Neytiri and her mother seem on equal footing with their male counterparts, both socially and politically. Cameron’s Na’vi women are strong and fearless, and fight right alongside the men. This is a notion that is threatening to christianity, where men are supposed to wield the power, and one that christianity destroyed among many pagan religions.

  16. Jim, I think the argument can be made that Avatar‘s celebration of “woman” is as romanticized (and, therefore, limited/distorted) as is its depiction of “paganism” or “pantheism.” Meanwhile, in Cameron’s world you don’t need Christianity to be misogynist: just ask Quaritch. As for your dismissal of Christianity, here’s a thought to consider: it’s one thing to challenge failures and imperfections (not only in Christianity, but anywhere in life), but if you fail to bring balance to your criticism you’ll always wind up preaching strictly to your own little choir.

  17. Heather says:

    Excellent review, Carl. Thank you. I’m not familiar with Irish myth, so that was especially helpful.
    I would depart in one area: you talk about Grace’s after-life being more Christian because it is post-corporeal. I disagree. I think this is more Platonic. Christianity claims that the ultimate after-life experience is a physical resurrection. I agree that it differs from Jake’s experience, which is more reincarnation (since he awakes in a different body rather than a glorified, perfect version of his body). While I can see numerous Christian elements contributing to Cameron’s myth, I don’t know that I can identify a distinctly Christian resurrection experience.

  18. Heather, you’re right. And as someone who normally is continually on guard against spiritualizing the resurrection, I stand humbly corrected.

  19. Martina says:

    Mr. McColman, I found your review to rather downplay paganism and inflate Christianity. While it is difficult to escape Christian themes in our society-thanks to the fanatics in this country-, your review falls victim to typical Christian patronization, and attempts to appropriate the themes in Avatar as Christian. If anything, Avatar is a celebration of pagan values, and a clear snub at your dying religion.

  20. Frank Hope says:

    Hi Carl. I thoroughly enjoyed your review. I am also a Christian who is profoundly influenced by the religions of native people. There is so much in your review that I could comment on. The Irish aspects were very interesting. Did you notice that the flying creatures that they tame are called Banshees? I’d love to hear your comments on this since Banshee is an Irish spirit.

    I wrote my own review of the movie before reading yours. I actually do compare Dr. Grace Augustine to the Virgin Mary because she “gives birth” to Jake Sully who I compare to Jesus. Just as you pointed out that Eywa is a sort of anagram of Yahweh, so Jake Sully could be a cryptic scrambled reference to Jesus.

    You can read my review at “Avatar – Life vs. Death”. The part you’ll probably be most interested in is the section titled “Jake as Messiah”. Let me know what you think. I’ll check back for your comments.

  21. Thanks, Frank. As you can see from some of the comments I’ve received, I’ve received criticism from readers like Martina who are unhappy that I would dare to read Christian meaning into this movie. I would commend your review to her (and to all my other readers), since you have unpacked a number of Judeo-Christian connections that I missed (such as the Jake – Jacob connection).

  22. Frank Hope says:

    Hi Carl. Thanks for reading my review. After reading some more comments on your site about Avatar and doing some more searching on the web, I’m more convinced than ever that the Christian connection in Avatar is deliberate.

    Isn’t it wonderful to have society debating Christianity in a more mystical context? Perhaps without knowing it Cameron has created the new Middle-Earth or Narnia in Pandora.

    I actually had a wonderful conversation with my 13 year old daughter about Christianity by reading together my review and discussing the Christian aspects. I think it brought home to her that Christian beliefs are relevant and can be seen all around us, if only we are open to them. “Those who have eyes, let them see!”

    And one last comment. In the original script for Avatar (which you can find a description of here) the Jake Sully character was named Josh Sully. Of course Joshua is the person in the Bible that led the Hebrews into the Promised Land and conquered their enemies. Joshua means “Yahweh is salvation” in Hebrew and the name Jesus is an anglicized version of Joshua.

    So in my opinion Cameron has planted the ultimate “Easter Egg” in Avatar in the form of Jake as Jesus. And even when it is pointed out, many people refuse to see it. Blindness of course is not just a physical malady, but can also be a spiritual one.

  23. Liz W says:

    I missed this when you first published it (probably because of the holidays). It’s certainly a very different take on the movie than I’ve read anywhere else. I do feel a bit uncomfortable with your description of it as a “satisfying integration” of pagan and Christian spirituality, given that you seem to identify Eywa’s becoming a bestower of grace as the Christian contribution. It smacks a bit of saying that indigenous religions need Christianity to perfect them, which strikes me as a dangerous statement in the light of the violence that has so often accompanied real-life attempts at Christianization.

  24. If the Goddess of Pandors has no interest in Justice, then she is a poor analog for the Pagan Goddesses of Earth. They’ve been interested in justice at least since the Egyptians started reciting the Negative Confession to Ma’at.

  25. Well, I think this falls under “No good deed goes unpunished.” My intention was simply to make a positive statement as a Christian who enjoyed Avatar, unlike some other Christian bloggers (like this one) who are attacking the movie. I certainly didn’t see the movie as suggesting that terrestrial Goddesses are not interested in justice, nor as suggesting that Paganism “needs” Christianity to “complete” it. Anyway, if in these or any other ways I’ve unwittingly offended Pagan readers by what I’ve written, I apologize.

  26. [...] “Instead of the American way they want multiculturalism. We plan to fight back—and, when it comes to textbooks, we have the power to do it. Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have.” God, couldn’t they just re-write Pocahontas? Oh, wait. Maybe the problem is that this time the Indians win, huh? Anyways, the Vatican thinks Avatar is stupid. Uhhh. Everyone else disagrees. Maybe they’re just feeling threatened because of its sheer awesomeness as a neopagan parable. [...]

  27. wii console says:

    how do I add this to my blog?

  28. Avatar was a great movie, I just watched it a few day ago. I don’t usually go to the theather because I get nervious around a lot people but I think I’ll give this one a shot because people are saying that it’s even better on the big screen, I think it might be in 3D. Anyway the movie Avatar get two thumbs up from me, I watch all of my movies at voobymovies,com if anyone was wondering and it’s free

  29. Dharmashaiva says:

    Carl,

    Very interesting review. I like the “Pagan-Christian” integration theme. It reminds me of the Zarathustran split from his Indian cousins, with Zarathustra emphasizing godliness as justice (and going on to influence Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and the Indians emphasizing godliness as realization (and going on to influence later Hinduism, and having connections to Buddhism and Jainism). The tragedy is that a split had to happen, but maybe by splitting, both justice and realization could be taken to their logical conclusions, culminating in the understanding that both are needed.

  30. Bria says:

    I disagree that Christianity and Paganism can coexist. Maybe its because I dont have my head so far up my behind that I cant see what is really going on here. After centuries of bloodshed, I honestly believe there is no way to reconcile paganism and christianity, the two should remain bitter enemies for either one to survive. Then agian, as much as I liked the Movie Avatar, it was just a movie, a feel good experience that can never happen outside the big screen.

    A very disgruntled Pagan

  31. Katie says:

    Wow! What great ideas and things to ponder. I’m curious about all the ways that I’ve heard people think about these ideas. As a Pagan, I think there must be hope and excitement about anything that portrays a coming together rather than a “tearing asunder” (to borrow a phrase :). How silly of us to be upset about hearing a STORY that is beautiful and idealistic and putting it down as “unattainable, and therefore moot” Why? Why should idealism be scoffed at? Where is our hope for the future? Why can we not believe that true beauty is possible? I’ll be “earmarking” this blog! Thank you for your insights.

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