January 2010

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Part of what defines our culture are the blockbuster movies that “everyone” sees. Talking about them not only communicates what we think, but helps us work it out. So, how do I, with my Christian faith, respond to the science fiction movie Avatar?

Underneath the love story and background of environmental concern, the main message of the film is about gaining a radically new identity. A man without hope gets to play with a false persona that is more intimate with other people, the environment and even to “god.” This pretend identity trades despair for hope and isolation for belonging. Then, through the miracle of science fiction, he actually becomes that new man!

This is a good piece of science fiction, as it touches on our deep sense of personal brokenness and longing to be someone else – someone better than we are. In the real world, such change seems impossible, so science fiction is used to play with the “what if” scenario of radical personal change – what it would feel like to really become a whole person.

As I watched the moving story, my heart ached for non-Christians enjoying it as I did. Because science fiction isn’t real. Real trees aren’t connected like brain neurons, and even if they were, being “remembered” by a living but temporal ecosystem is hardly eternal life. I realized that millions of people will come away from this film teased into acknowledging their ache for harmony, beauty and enduring life, only to leave the theater realizing that such hopes can never be realized.

In other words, the movie raises a desire for reconciliation without any hope of actual redemption. The movie is pantheistic, and pantheism can never offer redemption. Pantheism worships the creation, and the creation is broken. It is a physician who cannot heal himself. The world can only be saved by its Creator.

What I found fascinating is how even such a pantheistic film has to borrow so heavily on Christianity in order to depict the planet’s salvation. Someone from the “outside” takes humanoid form to become one of the afflicted, suffers rejection (even hanging on something like a cross), dies, and is resurrected as a glorious king to bring about a great victory over the forces of evil. Avatar is not Christian storytelling, but it is good storytelling. And like so many good stories, it echoes the gospel.

Most folks are content to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the movie. Others want to argue about Director Cameron’s environmental politics. I think Avatar presents a wonderful opportunity to explain where the inspirational elements of the film come from. In conversation, I would ask, “Do you think such harmony, beauty and enduring life is really possible?” “If such a place existed, do you think you would fit in?” I would discuss our common, deeply held desire to be someone better than we are.

Then, I would surprise them with my amazing hope that such things are more than science fiction! I would reference the beauty of the film while sharing that there actually will come a day when the planet is no longer frustrated – a day when the mountains sing, the rivers clap their hands, and our fellow creatures no longer have reason to fear human dominion. I would share my own experience of “a second birthday,” and how I am even now discovering my new identity in Christ. While the film is fresh on their minds, I would explain how all this is possible because our Creator literally incarnated his personhood in a human body like ours in order to destroy our real foe, and I intend to spend eternity enjoying the society he is creating.

Avatar’s phenomenal success testifies to the deep longing millions have to be reborn. Such an ache is not in itself a readiness to trust the Living God, but it does give us a platform for creative and compassionate discussion.

People think Avatar is over-the-top beautiful? … wait till they hear the real gospel!