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Avatar Sets One to Thinking: What Body This? By The Reverend Barkley Thompson

It was an almost foregone conclusion.  There James Cameron sat several Sunday evenings ago, his hair more silver than it was thirteen years ago when he won the Oscar for Titanic, a smug smile on his face as the Golden Globe winner was announced.  His film Avatar won Best Picture, and he won the Best Director Award.  No one was surprised.

Avatar is the futuristic story of a marine, Jake Sully, whose spine has been shattered in combat.  By the film’s opening frame, Jake’s legs have withered, and with them his spirit.  He accepts an assignment to travel through outer space to the world of Pandora, where humans have discovered a wildly valuable mineral deposit underground.  The problem is, Pandora happens to be inhabited by humanoid, if primitive and savage, creatures called the Na’vi.  In order for the humans to access and mine the mineral deposit, the Na’vi must relocate en masse from their land.

The humans hope to convince the Na’vi to move peacefully, and toward this end human scientists grow the bodies of Na’vi mixed with human DNA in what are essentially giant Petri dishes.  Human minds can be linked to these bodies, so that men and women can walk and talk as Na’vi.  The crippled marine, Jake Sully, is chosen for this assignment, and the film—between Hollywood action sequences—charts his growing embrace of his Na’vi body, his avatar.

The worldwide box office receipts for Avatar have reached $2 billion.  If you haven’t seen Avatar, at this point you’re one of only about twelve people on the planet who’ve skipped it.  Critical interpretations of Avatar vary.  The most common suggests that the popularity of the film derives from the solidarity the audience gains with the Na’vi against the brutal and unthinking domination of the human beings.  It’s a sympathetic reversal of the role European Americans played against Native Americans in our own conflicted, real-world history, the critics say.  We find it cathartic to cheer for nature-honoring indigenous people in the movie because in real life we were the ones who drove them off their land and depleted their natural resources with no thought of their intrinsic worth.

If that’s why audiences love Avatar, then I’m all for it.  But I’m skeptical.  I think there’s another reason audiences flock to this film.  The Na’vi are striking figures.  Their coloring is a heavenly blue.  They are three feet taller than human beings.  Their muscles are lean and fluid.  The command they have over their movements is intuitive, and they are graceful.  Though the Na’vi live barely clothed in nature, they don’t look like the images we’ve seen of primitive, earthly humans.  Among the Na’vi, no one is slow or unsure of foot.  No one is ugly.  Even the elderly Na’vi we meet in the movie are godlike in their bearing.

And the film’s main character—Jake the marine—is broken.  His frail and brittle body has failed him, and he is given the opportunity to leave it behind in favor of a Na’vi body.  No wonder (this is a spoiler alert) at the movie’s end he chooses to give up his human body altogether and be a Na’vi permanently.

I believe this is what tantalizes filmgoers about Avatar.  The movie taps into what may be for many a deeply sublimated desire to escape who and what we are in favor of someone or something different.  We are all only too aware of our brokenness.  Sometimes it comes in the form of our strained relationships, sometimes we experience it in our inability to relate to God.  But our brokenness is most overtly evident in our bodies.  We are not tall, blue, graceful, or immune to the ravages of the world around us.  We do stoop, get fat, lose our footing, lack hair where we want it and grow hair where we don’t.  We use our bodies to hurt one another, and then we abuse our bodies in all manner of ways, with all manner of activities and substances, in the attempt to assuage our guilt.  Like Jake Sully the marine, we might jump at the chance to give up these brittle shells in favor of the visage of a god.

But we must not forget that God chose to enter into our world and reveal God’s nature by taking on a human body.  Despite what artists’ gauzy renderings of Jesus may suggest, his was doubtless a body with all the same frailties and flaws as mine and yours.  Jesus sweated in the sun.  His road-weary feet blistered and cracked.  On the cross, he broke.  You see, rather than inviting us give up our bodies in favor of a god, God took on our bodies in order to express the depth at which they, and therefore we, are loved.    What’s more, God declares now that Jesus has ascended, we are his body on earth.  Through us God is revealed.  Our hands are the hands of Jesus.  Our eyes are the eyes of the savior.  Our gurgling stomachs, sleep-addled Monday morning brains, and high blood pressure make up the body of the Lord.

Paul says we are each a constituent part of the Body of Christ.  Each of our bodies is part of the Body, and as such our bodies are not things to shun or seek to change.  Of course, they are to be honored and well-tended as we would honor and tend the historical Jesus were he standing in front of us, but that is different from being ashamed of those God-given, God-redeemed, and God-loved bumps, lumps, and crooked parts of who we are.

So you see we don’t need wistfully to look to the lithe body of Avatar or anywhere else.  We already enjoy the body of God.  So celebrate your bodies!  Look in the mirror and say to God, with the Psalmist, “It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!”  Uplift the bodies of your brothers and sisters when they are hurting as you would uplift the body of Jesus.  And go into the world using your body to make Christ known.

St. John’s is located in downtown Roanoke at Jefferson Street & Elm Avenue.  Visit them on the web at www.stjohnsroanoke.org.


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