Tangled Up in Blue

For starters, the 3-D glasses are really cool, not the flimsy paper and celluloid things of the past. These are fashioned on the perennially chic Ray-Ban Wayfarers. However, the neat glasses certainly are not the main reason to go see Avatar.

Director James Cameron’s groundbreaking use of 3-D technology was enough to get me into the theater, but the breadth of his vision in bringing an alien world to life kept me glued to my seat. Many reviewers have praised Cameron’s latest project, and I don’t intend on repeating those praises here. It was a beautiful and thrilling movie.

Several thoughtful people have accurately and justifiably criticized the film’s philosophical underpinnings. (David Brook’s does it better than anyone else!) Even L’Osservatore Romano weighed in, warning about the film’s promotion of paganism. Others have missed the forest for the trees in whining about the smoking habit of Sigourney Weaver’s character. Even though nature worship doesn’t quite square with Christianity and smoking won’t endear you to your doctor, there are many, many more things in Avatar that should give us pause for thoughtful reflection. Plus, a film that sells $1 billion in tickets in just over two weeks should be taken very seriously.

Cameron’s film raises at least five topics for reflection. These are relevant because of their topicality and/or on account of their importance for understanding human existence. In no specific order they are: personal identity, encounters with the other, our relationship with nature, greed and exploitation, and varieties of religious experience.

Personal Identity

The notion of a personal identity that can crafted, modified, tweaked, broken and reformed is a relatively new notion—a notion developed by the psychologist Erik Erikson in the 1940’s and 50’s. Much of Erikson’s research focused on the childhood development in term of identity formation.  In brief, identity is that which gives us a sense of wholeness and a confidence in our capacity to encounter both internal and external crises. Erikson’s concepts—“identity” and “identity crisis”—have been applied to several situations beyond childhood development. Erikson himself used his own theories to make sense of the plight of large groups of refugees in the wake of World War II.

The taxonomy of identity formation and development is now part of the lexicon of institutions such as universities and high schools. Jesuit universities have vice presidents who focus on developing and promoting Ignatian identity. An individual encounters the complexities of the world and of self with a capacity that is called “identity.” Identity is the answer to the question: Who are you?

Jake Sully, in Avatar, is a former Marine hired because of one element of identity—his genetic code. His brother had been trained to operate the body of an alien N’avi that shared his DNA. After his brother’s untimely death, the genetically engineered N’avi body could only be used by Jake since he, too, shared the same DNA. Although the two brothers shared enough genetic matter to use the same N’avi host body, they were very different men. Jake’s brother was a scientist; Jake is a former Marine. The brother had mastered the difficult N’avi language and had studied the culture; Jake new virtually nothing of the world he was entering. Their identities had been formed by what they had done rather than by their genetic code.

Moreover, Avatar reminds us that personal identity is more than exterior, physical elements.  Jake’s avatar looks exactly like the rest of the N’avi, but the N’avi are not fooled; they know immediately is he not “one of them.” They knew he was a “dream walker” sent from the “sky people.” Jake retains something inherent to Jake even when he is using his avatar. The film asks us to reflect on what exactly comprises the essence of our identity. Cameron indicates that it’s more than what happens in our brains—our conscience. Identity is more than our genetic code; identity is formed or, in Jake’s case, reformed through interaction with a community.

Encounter with Others

Jesus’ wish for his disciples to go and make disciples of all means that we will come into contact with people who are very different from ourselves. How do we behave when this happens? Cameron’s film, shallowly and predictably, offers a few options for what to do when one encounters the Other.  Nonetheless, Cameron gets us thinking once again about how we are to behave when we encounter peoples whose values and lifestyles are very different. We have the scientists, Dr. Grace Augustine and companions, who are objectively sympathetic and want to “understand” the Na’vi and are open to learning from them. However, there is something very paternalistic/maternalistic about these scientists. Dr. Augustine admits she doesn’t believe the myths regarding the Na’vi’s deity, but she nonetheless admires them on account of their belief. She permit herself this admiration since she has found the objective scientific evidence for the foundations of their belief. Cameron doesn’t condemn this approach, but neither does he wholeheartedly advocate it. After all, Dr. Augustine dies before the final victory, unable to completely participate in the Na’vi’s vindication.

Of course, we are supposed to condemn the military’s approach and business’s approach to the other. According to Cameron’s broad brushstrokes, the military readily turns the other into the enemy, while big business turns the other into a road bump on the way to a free and flourishing market economy.  Even though Cameron treats these categories with very little, if any, nuance, it should not stop us from reflecting upon the very real circumstance of our encounter with the Other.

For Francis Xavier, the Japanese might as well have been the Na’vi. In our increasingly globalized world we forget how foreign and alien Xavier must has seemed to the Japanese in the 1540’s. Likewise, Xavier was struck profoundly by the differences. Not unlike Jake, Xavier arrives in Japan and other foreign lands on account of the commercial interests of Portugal.  Moreover, just as in the movie, these commercial interests are protected by the military might of a superpower. In India, Xavier made it very clear to the Indians that he was neither an invading political force nor a commercial profiteer. He did this in Goa by refusing to live in the governmental/ecclesial residences and instead he lived in the local hospital where he cared for and ministered to the most vulnerable of the Indians.

In Japan, he endeavored to learn the Japanese categories—he even used their own word for God—in a way very different from the scientists of Avatar. He didn’t learn the Japanese way of life for some cynical and ulterior motive. He learned their way of life because he knew that God loved these people and was offering an invitation to life with God. Jesuit missionary work—Xavier, Ricci, and many others—offer wonderful examples of what to do in a “strange” land.

–to be continued–

7 Responses to Tangled Up in Blue

  1. Fantastic! This gives me more confidence for
    eventually viewing this sci-fi attempt at
    philosophizing about reality, even though through
    the formed mind plus experience of said screen
    writers: limited to their vision of things!

    Your Jesuitical analogies are highly appropriate,
    and needed, in these knowledge explosion
    intellectually fragmented times! I find my own mind
    taking Jesus into such equations also, as I’ve gotten
    older: there’s much unmined pure unadulterated
    psychology in Jesus -as God- transition into human
    clothing, doing rather and very, human things,
    a new identity by a Prior Identity….and then some!
    Your further reflections on this added layer of
    meaning would be interesting to read?!

    And I personally bring Jungian Psychology, which
    moves the definition way beyond Erickson, into adult
    life application, via the “MBTI” to explain the
    individualized “identity” an adult has:
    in their respective DNA!

    No other avenue out there as yet does so! Or,
    as accurately! But takes 3 stages of life to move
    through in the self-discovery process! A whole
    subject in itself: suffice its mere reference here!

    Trust, but take care in whom! (Latin saying)

  2. Qualis Rex says:

    I saw the movie several weeks ago now and I can honestly say the only thing that impressed me was the FX. There was no acting to speak of; the characters were simply playing themselves, especially Sigourney. Some quick counters to your review:
    1. Personal Identity – While I would agree that one’s identity is not exclusively tied to one’s DNA, we cannot divorce the two either. The movie sends absolutely the wrong message here, in that (*spoiler*) in the end, the fellow who feels he’s more Na’vi than human is validated by the “earth mother” who puts his soul into the Na’vi body/avatar– because that’s Really who he was all along. Tripe. If I were a blond white kid from Nebraska drawn to African culture, I could dye my hair, change my mode of speech, wear a Darshiki even change the tone of my skin. But this would not erase my previous personal identity. I would still be a white kid from Nebraska (from white parents) who finds familiarity, and even acceptance within my chosen culture, unlike the moral in Avatar.
    2. Encounters with Others – with regard to the portrayals of the military, you mention “…Cameron treats these categories with very little, if any, nuance…”, my statement is that we can hardly expect anything less from him. This is a very blatant and heavy-handed condemnation of “Western Civilization”, specifically with our interractions with any “Others” throughout history. Notice the Na’vi are completely self-sufficient and “perfect”, having absolutely nothing to learn or gain from the humans–except the knowledge of how to eventually defeat them. The portrayal of the military is simply repugnant; Cameron does little to mask his contempt, having them shout “hurrah!” “Get some!” and other catch-phrases of the marines; even going so far as dressing them similar to the current camouflage used today. He shows them as non-people; basically automotons who are singular in focus–kill whoever the corporation (see: government) tells you to. The only exceptions are the ones who decide to change sides and fight with “the other”.

    In sum, this movie is hardly a place to find any profound theological lessons; least of all anything having to do with Jesus or the Saints. Let us not forget that this is the same Cameron who “discovered” the “tomb of Jesus” some 3 years back. He is on a personal quest to discredit, disrupt and eventually dismantle Christian history and values. Be sure to watch for his sequel: “Avatar- the religion!”

  3. Jeff Johnson SJ says:

    Qualis Rex,
    I’m afraid you’ve missed my point if you think I was saying Avatar is filled with profound theological lessons. My point is that Cameron raises some of the same questions raised by theology, and, moreover, millions of people are going to see it. The Christians have at least two potential reactions: 1) we can dismiss it out of hand as having nothing important to say 2) we can demonize Cameron and all that he stands for so that we can more easily discredit him 3) we can take seriously the questions raised by the film and join in a dialogue with the many millions of people who have seen the movie. I would advocate the third response. Perhaps Cameron is on a mission to discredit Christianity, but I’m not on a mission to discredit Cameron by using the same tactics, or worse, that he chooses to use.

    As for the points you raise, I don’t understand your first point. I don’t think the movie supports your interpretation. Jake does more than feel Na’vi. He inhabits a Na’vi body. Rather than saying Jake was a Na’vi all along, the movie claims that he changed something about his identity. If you remember, he was not exactly pro-Na’vi in the beginning. If you, as a white Nebraskan youth, were change all of the exteriors that you mention (hair, speech, skin, etc), then you would have already changed your identity, albeit not drastically.

    As for your second point, in the movie I saw I didn’t see Cameron treat the whole history of Western Civilization. The Na’vi are not perfect. They are prone to jealously, anger, division, etc. However, it’s pretty clear that Cameron does not view the military as an agent for good. Our military is currently helping people in Haiti because they are good at organizing and mobilizing quickly.

    Thanks for reading.

  4. Qualis Rex says:

    Jeff – Let’s take a step back. I wasn’t saying YOU were pointing to any profound theological lessons. I’m saying there simply aren’t any there. This was more directed to people I’ve since spoken to who have had a mystical out-of-body experience after seeing it (i.e. ungrounded). I apologize if you felt this was directed towards you or your post.

    Back to your response, I wrote “because that’s Really who he is all along very tongue-in-cheek. We hear this in our society over and over; “I’m a woman living in a man’s body”, “I’m a 20-year-old kid living in a 50 year-old’s body” or “I’m an A-cup when I should be a D-cup” etc. We are being conditioned to believe that biology has little to do with who we are, but after a quick visit to Dr Snippenklip (or in Avatar’s case, a trip to “mother-earth tree goddess”) we will look like who we Really were all along. And I don’t know if you caught it or not, but there was all the prophecy subtext (i.e. the one who rides the big dragon, the tree spores gravitating to him etc) which foreshadowed the fact that Jake really was supposed to be Na’vi all along, whether he knew it at the begining of the movie or not. Aaaaaanyway…

    As for my second point, I put “perfect” deliberately in quotes. Ever since the discovery of the Americas, there has always been the concept of the “noble savage”; a people who were “perfect” in a state of nature. They didn’t “need” anything from anyone in their utopia, and we came and spoiled it all for them. None of them are quite as smart or emotionally mature as us, but that just adds to their charm.

    This was the portrayal I saw of the Na’vi. Perfect in the sense that they lived in a Utopia and had absolutely no need for any outside interaction, except at the end to help defeat the humans at their own game. Did they practice infanticide, patricide, inter-tribal warfare, female circumcision, ritualized child-abuse? No matter. They were at one with nature and had their own code of conduct, and that’s the lithmus test in this film. Once again, aside from the end-game military strategy, I would ask if the Na’vi were given or accepted anything that benefited them from humans. Maybe I missed it.

    Finally, you brought up a good point about the military currently deployed in Haiti. I am not a war-hawk by any stretch. I just abhor propaganda in all its forms (pro or anti-military, and this was blatantly the latter).

    Pax et Dominus te cum!!!

  5. Peter W. says:

    After watching the movie Avatar, I really didn’t think much about things like identity, or encounter with others. I simply watched it, and thought only towards plot and special effects. This all comes to me pretty fast thinking about the different areas of my life. Focusing first in the identity aspect, by coincidence we are learning about following Jesus in a consumerist society in my Christian Discipleship class. So when our entire society sees us as objects, it’s hard to escape our physical and exterior attributes, when to most people, some of us are just something to sell to, or in some cases, a sexual object. We can all easily reflect on really what it means to be a human being and have more to our identity. Examples might be what we can do to flourish, what it makes you unique, or overall what we can do to change ours or someone else’s life.
    I like how you started the section about encountering others with how Jesus said to. How do we behave when this happens? A true question to ponder. I myself could face this head on soon. I could be selected to take a trip to Germany for my German class. From what I learned in class Germany can be very different. If I was picked I would probably end up hosting a student in my home and vice versa when I went to Germany. How would I react to our differences? Patience is a virtue, and without it, my future looks like it would be in trouble. Overall you can never take reflecting for granted. I’m glad you were able to show me about a topic like this.

  6. Renself says:

    I think this was a great article. I couldn’t agree more with “Avatar reminds us that personal identity is more than exterior, physical elements.” I have of course seen the movie and that line speak on a variety of levels. The section on “encounter with others” gave me some food for thought. I think we adapt when we meet others who are much different than we are. When Christopher Columbus sailed over to the new world, he adapted to the Native American culture (to a point). Hospitality is key when excepting different people. Accepting different people is one thing, while greeting different people with open arms is another. Jesus would greet almost anyone with hospitality and this is a practice everyone can learn from. Lastly, would the “military” approach be applicable to some situations today? Thanks and I hope this article is continued.

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