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The 2009 motion picture Avatar is the clear box office winner in the United States and elsewhere this past week. Set on the mysterious moon Pandora in the year 2154, the film chronicles the story of marine Jake Sully and his interactions with the native inhabitants of Pandora, the Na’vi, through his avatar body.
The film is getting the most attention for its fantastic special effects. Yet the symbolism behind the story is also worth paying some attention to.
Avatar borrows from the symbols and ideas of many spiritual traditions. The name Pandora, for example, comes right from an ancient Greek goddess. I’ll focus here on a few of the symbols that I found notable.
Harsh Disorientation. When Jake arrives on Pandora in his wheelchair, he is told more than once, and somewhat harshly, to watch where he is going. Colonial Pandora is place where the weak and broken must make way for the large and robotic. Other marines unkindly refer to him as “meals on wheels”, insulting him for his disability. (This is also an insult to the elderly: Many poor, elderly people in the United States depend upon the meals on wheels program to provide them with food.) They see Jake only as a liability and not as a asset.
Home Tree. The Home Tree is the home for an entire clan of the Na’vi. Symbolic of the Tree of Life from, the Garden of Eden which in turn may have represented the unity of all humankind in connection to God. This tree represents Edenic humankind: The way that the world should have been before things went terribly wrong. Yet the knowledge of good and evil lies beneath the Home Tree, the valuable ore Unobtanium. The symbolism of Unobtainium is obvious (“unobtainable”). Yet the promise of the serpent of the garden, that Adam and Eve would become fully like God was also ultimately unobtainable. The Home Tree represents earth and the temporal, whereas …
Tree of Souls. … the Tree of Souls represents the eternal. Once their earthly home was destroyed, the Na’vi can only retreat to the only place that they know where to go: to the Tree of Souls. This sacred place, where outsiders are prohibited, allows the Na’vi to reach out and touch their mother goddess and their ancestors souls via iridescent strands, which may symbolically be prayers (the natural touching the divine). The Tree of Souls is the place of finality.
Diplomatic Solution? The corporate leadership on Pandora has charged Dr. Grace Augustine with finding a “diplomatic solution” re: the conflict between the colonists and the Na’vi. Grace is a spiritual word and that spiritual emphasis is given more weight with the name Augustine, the great Christian theologian of grace. The word grace means a gift and, even more specifically, a gift that enables someone to do something. At first, it seems as though that gift is Dr. Augustine’s avatars, which might enable a peaceful, diplomatic solution to be found. But a diplomatic solution is not seen in the film as something good or as something that is merely better than war. Rather, it is viewed as an evil in itself: An unwanted displacement of a native people from their home. It is, to put it somewhat theologically, a cheap form of grace. It is not the real thing (the real enabling gift, “grace,” of the colonists to the Na’vi), but it only poses as the real thing. And notice how Grace cannot make the transition into her avatar body: She symbolizes a grace that is not able to bring about salvation. Victory and salvation are the ultimate grace, enabling gift, for the Na’vi.
Humankind Expelled from the Garden … Again. Like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden (the eviction of humanity from the Garden of Eden), most of the humans are expelled from Pandora (a new Eden) at the end of the movie. The immediate cause of this expulsion was the loss of the battle to the Na’vi. Yet the deeper cause was the people’s failure to learn the ways of Na’vi on Pandora. This was because the colonists were more concerned with their provision and protection than with having genuine openness to others. This ending scene in Avatar symbolically confirms why Adam and Eve had to be expelled from the garden: They were spiritually out-of-touch with their Eden.
Adam and Adam. Jake Sully is only able to access an avatar because his identical twin brother had died a violent death. The first man (“Adam” in Hebrew) was shot just a few days before embarking on his mission to Pandora, his brother Jake, another man (in this case, the last Adam), who is of the same image and likeness of his deceased brother, inherited the job. (Notice how another character in the beginning of the movie says that the avatar body looks like Jake, yet Jake says that it looks like his brother. Also, remember how someone points out to Jake that he and his brother have the same genome, the same biological likeness.) The second man becomes the replacement savior and lord for Pandora after the first cannot complete that mission.
Fully Incarnated. The story of Avatar is, in reality, the story of a man, Jake Sully in this case, becoming fully mature. Jake (“Jacob”) Sully’s name may mean sullied trickster. Unlike the corporation’s leader, Parker Selfridge (“the selfish”), who is greedy and never matures, Jake changes from an immature young man (someone with a pure heart but acts like a small child; someone who is just a “poser” for his dead brother) into a mature man and then into a leader. He goes through ritual stages of rites of passage. Jake gets to the point in the middle of the movie where he cannot tell what’s the dream and what’s reality (his human life or his Na’vi avatar life). This is a hint to the movie goers that Jake is undergoing a fundamental change. The story ends with Jake becoming “fully incarnated” into his avatar body, leaving his human body behind forever at the Tree of Souls. He is then no longer an avatar but completely “one of the people”. Notice that this incarnational transformation occurs on Jake’s birthday, thus symbolizing a new birth.
Shadows and Symbols had the privilege of seeing Greg Mortenson, co-author of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, and author of Stones into Schools, speak in Washington, D.C., USA, on December 3, 2009. Mr. Mortenson, who is the founder and leader of the Central Asian Institute (CAI), has been instrumental in building dozens of schools in remote areas of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. These secular schools especially promote education for girls in very poor rural areas where educational opportunities are usually non-existent. For his humanitarian efforts, Greg Mortenson is the recipient of the Star of Pakistan and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Mr. Mortenson was introduced by New York Times reporter Tom Friedman. Mr. Friedman’s gracious introduction described how he had recently flown by military helicopter into a remote area of Afghanistan with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) of the U.S. military, Admiral Michael Mullen, in order to be present at the dedication of one of CAI’s new schools. Tom Friedman then described how one of the most powerful men in the world, Adm. Mullen, proceeded to distribute the notebooks that the admiral’s wife and other military wives had given to him for each of the girls on their first day of school.
Greg Mortenson, who is suffering from a weakening heart virus which he had contracted while on his latest trip to Afghanistan, then took to the podium and began to describe his very unique life-story, most of which is chronicled in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. The presentation included a short video clip of Mr. Mortenson’s daughter interviewing retired NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw at his Montana ranch. Mr. Brokaw is now somewhat famously known as the only well-known celebrity to send any support money to Greg Mortenson when he was beginning his work in Pakistan back in the mid-90s. (Mr. Mortenson did confess during his talk that his daughter had recently figured out that Mr. Brokaw’s $100 check did not cover the postage cost for her father’s earliest efforts to raise money.)
After the video interview, Mr. Mortenson then explained the societal situation in Afghanistan, and how he works to address that. With a video slide presentation produced by his son shown on a screen behind him, Mr. Mortenson described how various outside forces have broken down traditional relationships between the elders, the spiritual leaders, and the youth in Afghanistan. Rather than working to destroy traditional relationships, Mr. Mortenson specifically seeks to build relationships with local village leaders and show respect and deference towards them.
Mr. Mortenson did not only highlight his own work during his time with us. He specifically praised other charities, particularly ones run by children or young adults. He clearly likes charities like his own that are organic, independent of outside influences, and decentralized in their approach to fundraising and care.
Education is most definitely Greg Mortenson’s focus, and the education of girls is his primary concern. He mentioned an African proverb that says that if you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community. Mr. Mortenson stated how he believes that education is the only long-term answer to terrorism and poverty in the world. It is, in his view, more important than other humanitarian projects in the developing world such as paving roads. He even simplified his efforts towards education in one simple fundraising pitch: one penny buys one pencil.
Mr. Mortenson may be the best combination of gentleness and determination that you will ever meet. His style of speaking was definitely unpolished and even a bit folksy. Yet he also showed the fierce determination that he needs in his work in the one part of the presentation where he specifically addressed his critics: People who dislike his friendship with high-ranking members of the U.S. military. (Mr. Mortenson’s presentation included a three-point summary of the main points of Three Cups of Tea by USCENTCOM commander General David Petraeus.) Yet no matter how you view his relationship with the military, it seems as though Mr. Mortenson is having a lot more influence on them than they may be having with him.
Greg Mortenson’s did not mention his own political views or spiritual beliefs during his presentation. Are they the quiet, motivating force behind his extraordinary charitable acts? That will remain a mystery for the time being. Yet as Mr. Mortenson said during his presentation in the U.S. national capital city on December 3, if anyone can rightly claim that God is own their side, then they need to display acts of kindness and love towards orphans and widows and others in need. And this is a viewpoint that is very hard for anyone to argue with.