I See You: Reflections on “Avatar” and the Importance of People and Place

June 7, 2010


by Steven Garber

Flourish magazine, Spring 2010

Putting on 3-D glasses so that I could “see” the story of Avatar that James Cameron has brought to the screen, twice I joined the millions who made the film millions.

For people who love movies, it is no surprise that it has broken all box-office records.

Technologically astounding, yes—but it is more than that. Turning the lights down, inviting us into comfortable chairs, Cameron has drawn us into a mythic narrative of drama and romance— even as he also offers a window into his own hopes and dreams about the way the world is and ought to be.

“Seeing” is central to the story. The climactic moment of the film is when we hear, “I see you”— metaphysically and morally meaningful words, as they are meant to be. But who sees? Who sees truthfully? And how does one learn to see? The questions in the film are not so far from those that Jesus asked, conversation after conversation, longing that people would have “eyes that see.”

Deep within the Hebrew anthropology is the argument that we see out of our hearts, even as we live out of our hearts—and Jesus’ teaching reflects that. What and why and how we see is always central to human life under the sun—a true truth for everyone everywhere. As the unusually perceptive Oxford moral philosopher, Iris Murdoch, once wrote, “We can only choose within the world we can see.” More than most, she understood the moral dimension of human knowing.

James Cameron as a storyteller
It is that reality that is the heart of the story of “Avatar.” Cameron imagines Pandora, a place that offers earth-dwellers the possibility of yet another world—to conquer or to steward. And it is in the tension between those visions where his story unfolds, as the humans negotiate their present and future with the native population, the Na’vi, a strangely-beautiful, blue-toned people with tails, whose sacred sites sit on top of an incredibly valuable mineral, unobtanium.

Having ruined one world, a version of what Eisenhower in the 1950s presciently called “the military/industrial complex” brings unimaginable fire-power to Pandora for the purpose of removing the Na’vi, who in their cultural naïveté have no appreciation for what lies beneath their trees and mountains. Rather, with innocence they think that a life together in relationship to each other and to the birds and beasts, flowers and trees, is of more value. (And yes, unobtanium almost seems a silly word; Cameron can’t be serious?! But with some research I found that at least since the 1950s engineers have used the term when referring to unusual or costly materials, or when theoretically considering a material perfect for their needs—except that it doesn’t exist. So there.)

There is caricature of course, as life is never, if ever, as black-and-white as Cameron tells the tale. There is a feel of “Dances With Wolves” about the storyline, perhaps even of a cartoonish version of “developed world” against “undeveloped world.” All that is there, and more.

But knowing that doesn’t take away from the richness of his vision, and the excellence of the film. What about it is worthy of our time and money? Do we go, and if we go, what will we see? Learning to be discerning people requires that we have lenses that can sift and sort what is true from what is not true, what matters from what does not matter. But never for the sake of being smarter people; always for the sake of being better people, more holy people, yes, even more human people. I never tire of remembering the novelist and essayist Walker Percy’s far-reaching insight, that we can “get all A’s and still flunk life.” How do we learn to “see” a film, to see the world around us, in ways that lead us to Murdoch’s thesis that there is always a moral dimension to knowing? That we are implicated in our knowing? That our seeing will require something of us, something that is central to us? Good questions for film-viewing every time, but also questions that are central to the film “Avatar.”

Years ago Donald Drew taught me to “never leave your brains at the box-office.” I was an undergraduate, and he was a wonderful, thoughtful, kind, insightful lover of film. A year earlier he had published the first-ever book by a Christian taking movies seriously, Images of Man: A Critique of the Contemporary Cinema, so seeing a film with him was very special. We went into the theater, sat down, and he took out of his pocket a notepad and pencil. I looked inquiringly, and he said—with his British impishness that was also serious –“Dear Steve, I would never leave my brains at the box-office!” We began watching the film—and he took notes! I learned, looking over his shoulder and through his heart, something very important about “seeing” the story of a movie. Not only to wonder about technique and storytelling, but also to ask about meaning. What is being said? And why?

As I watched “Avatar,” I found myself responding on many different levels. I love a good story, and require that of a good film. This story is well-told, so the almost three hours did not seem too long at all. And there is a coherent, compelling plot. But in my musing over the movie, I also thought of the Francis Bacons, of Michael Polanyi, and of Wendell Berry—with perhaps a little bit of Peter Gabriel too.

The Francis Bacons: From instauration to alienation
The Francis Bacons? There were two, the 16th-century philosopher-statesman-scientist, and the 20th century painter. As an undergraduate, beginning to understand the importance of ideas, of history, of cultural development and analysis, I spent most of my senior year working on an honors thesis, “From Instauration to Alienation: A Study of Two Francis Bacons.”

Influenced by Schaeffer, Rookmaaker, Dooyeweerd, and Roszak, I offered an analysis of the cultural history from the one Bacon to the other, arguing that the encyclopediast’s vision of human enlightenment through the scientific method, echoing across the centuries as it did— the Great Instauration, as he called it—was in large part what his ancestor was screaming out against in his well-known paintings, e.g. the “Heads” of Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (made famous to me as the cover art of Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture). It was pretty heady stuff, I will admit—but it did seem to matter, to me and to some of my fellow students.

As I read the Bacons, it seemed fair to argue for a connection between the thinking of the first and the artistry of the second. One image I drew on was from the sociologist Theodore Roszak, who in his book, The Monster and the Titan: Science, Knowledge and Gnosis, argued for understanding that the Enlightenment paradigm—the Cartesian objective/subjective dualism—hhad mandated a way of knowing, a gnosis, that was as if we saw—drawing on the poet William Blake’s image—“through a dead man’s eyes.” Yes, dispassionate, detached, and disconnected from any honest human being or feeling—pure objectivity, and therefore the most trusted knowledge we have, as the story is told.

Michael Polanyi and Wendell Berry on “seeing”
If painters and artists of all sorts are “feeling” the world first, touching and sensing where we are all going culturally, then Bacon the painter was “seeing” something of the inhumanity of man in the modern world, perhaps earlier and more starkly than the rest of us. His anguished canvases are painfully painted, even painful to ponder as the “screaming” is so metaphysical and ontological. It is our humanity that is on trial, in some sense.

In fact he was artfully describing what the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi was also seeing about the Enlightenment, academically and angrily arguing that it was arrogance to call ourselves “enlightened,” after the Holocaust. His work focused upon “knowing” too, with his magnum opus titled, Personal Knowledge. Never another way of speaking of subjective knowing, “personal” for him meant something more truthful, more human. He made a fundamental critique of the Cartesian split between objectivity and subjectivity, and, as a world-class chemist, argued that “the viewer is always viewing”—we never leave ourselves behind at the door of the laboratory, as scientific “objectivity” promises.

For Polanyi, there had to be a way of knowing that was more truthful to the knowing he had experienced as a scientist; but also that was more attentive to human responsibility, to the responsibility of knowledge, than the facts/values dualism of the modern world, which he saw as substantially responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust. How could we be brilliant and bad at the same time, he wondered?

Polanyi’s vision relied upon what he called “indwelling,” viz. it is not until we indwell our knowing that we come to truly know. To put it another way: It is not until we live into our ideas about the world that we responsibly live in the world; we never truly “know” in the abstract, so for him the idea of an objectivity that promised absolute certainty was fundamentally flawed. The viewer is always viewing; it is a basic human act, and one that is always through-a-glass-darkly. We know in part—but being finite is not a moral problem.

The deeper truth is that one has to step in, to “indwell” one’s convictions and beliefs before they can be truly understood. Yes, a person can “get all A’s and still flunk life.” Polanyi was saying something profoundly Hebrew and Christian in all of this. Ideas must have legs. Theories must be practiced. Belief must become behavior. Doctrine must develop into discipleship. And words have to be made flesh—for us to understand them, at least.

But twined together with his insight about indwelling is his understanding that there is a responsibility built into knowledge; a moral dimension to human knowing. As a Hungarian Jew, he lived through the first half of the 20th century, for most of 50 years working as a scientist within the Baconian vision of “the great instauration” that would be ours once we mastered the universe.

But the Holocaust, and the cultural ruins of Europe post-World War II, brought that optimism crashing down on him and Europe at large. After the war, Polanyi walked away from his Nobel Prize-level of work and spent the rest of his life asking, “What does it mean to know? And how do we learn to become responsible for what we know?”

But there is another visionary to draw upon too. Called “the most serious essayist in America,” or “the most prophetic writer in America,” Wendell Berry has become a great friend to me, and to many, giving the grace of learning to see what he sees. A novelist, a poet, and an essayist—as well as a husband and father and farmer and neighbor—he writes of the responsibility of knowledge in all of his work. He is always exploring the connection of relationship to responsibility, of knowledge to love, viz. now that we know, can we still love? Now that we know, we must still love.

While I could offer many windows into his work, take A Timbered Choir. A collection of 20 years of “Sabbath Poems,” week after week exploring the dynamic rhythm of worship and work, the title is both important and instructive. While musing over a stand of oaks, he wonders why we do not see “the timbered choir” before our eyes? Yes, trees singing to us of the glory of God; like the heavens that declare that same glory. Why don’t we have eyes that see, he wonders. We all should wonder. (And maybe we should all read Lewis and Tolkien again too.)

There is something profoundly sacramental in this kind of seeing, wonderfully and deeply so. Heaven and earth meet here, as sacraments always do. While my ecclesiology keeps me wary of everything become a sacrament, it is also true that I ache for the holiness of vision that sees timbered choirs… don’t we all? I do want to see the world as God sees it, to hear it as he hears it, to feel it as he feels it.

And Peter Gabriel too
But what was it about “Avatar” that made me think of Peter Gabriel? I have read some of the critiques of the film, and am as bothered by Cameron’s open-hearted apologia for pantheism as anyone else. While it is “a universe next door” for all of us, and therefore a way of seeing with its own internal logic and aesthetic, pantheism is its own dead end. As one critic put it years ago, after visiting the East, “Like arsenic. In small doses a stimulant, in large a poison.”

Yes, it is a promise to “see” more completely, pushing back away from the materialism of the West as it offers a way to see in and through the illusions of our consciousness; the mayas of your life and mine that limit our ability to see the world as it ought to be seen. But it cannot finally deliver, as it is its own idolatry, exchanging one flawed story of reality for another, offering “we are inexplicably connected to all that is around us” for “we are completely disconnected from all that is around us,” which was the honest if very sad protest of Bacon the painter.

Several years ago I spent an evening with Gabriel, before a concert here in Washington. A few of us who care about the intersection of politics and culture had dinner with him, asking if we could help with his project to address human rights abuses. By buying video cameras for development workers all over the world, he wanted to record the wrongs of this life and world—and he was passionate about it.

We talked about many things, and he was thoughtful and engaging and kind. Along the way he talked to us about his Buddhism. I have read enough over the years to understand its appeal to worn-out Westerners, human beings as we are longing for something more than “a dead man’s eyes”—with the alienation from each other and the world around us that is part-and-parcel of that judgment. So I was more sympathetic than most might be—even as I was listening carefully, wondering if there would be a way to engage him more fully in what he believed and why.

At a certain point in the conversation I asked him, “But how do you account for the yearning to believe that some things are right and wrong, good and evil, a human right as against a human wrong—within the framework of your Buddhism? If at the end of the day, there are no final distinctions between anything, that all differences and distinctions are maya and illusory, why is the suffering and torture in Cambodia last year so important to you? Why does it matter if anyone records it? Why should we protest it? Why not admit our illusions about reality, about life, and get on with it? Why right and wrong, Peter?”

He is a rock star, the world over, but he is also a good man, an honorable man, and it was a good conversation between people who took each other seriously. His work is commendable, and worthy of his time and labor and money—we honored that.

Bad films always lie
But “Avatar”? If Cameron argues for us to attend to the richness of Na’vi life, and to see the economic and political ambitions of the military/industrial complex now come to Pandora as morally and historically short-sighted, he also wants us to purchase the pantheism of Pandora. It is Mother Earth he offers, his own form of Gaia, and in the way he portrays their habitation of life it is superior to the earthlings in every possible way. Yes, it is cartoonish at times, and we need to be able to sift, taking the good and leaving the not-so-good.

When the drama begins to be seen for what it will be, with crises abounding, we are drawn into the Na’vi worship of Mother Earth, present in a giant sacred tree. The Na’vi princess at one point says very plainly, “She does not take sides, Jake. She only protects the balance of life.” A former

Marine now embodying an avatar himself, Jake wonders whether there will be any assistance from the local deity—the pantheistic deity, and therefore somehow someway everywhere in everything—in addressing the “bad guys” that sent him to befriend the Na’vi for the sake of manipulating them and stealing from them.

Well, Walker Percy is perennially right about bad books, and bad films. They lie most of all about the human condition. As he teases out his point, he wonders if anyone has “read a good Buddhist novel lately?” Pushing away at the philosophical anthropology at the heart of pantheisms of all sorts, he wonders how maya can be the basis of a really interesting story? I wondered that too, hearing Cameron speak through Mother Earth. Will she really take no sides? Will the “bad guys” win? Will it not matter to us, maya as it all is?

Well, there is a dramatic conflict between the earthlings and the Na’vi, between the modern world full of folk who live and breathe—even as they see through a dead man’s eyes. Because of the earth-dwellers’ illusions about what really matters, they cannot “see” that the sacred tree is anything more “just a tree,” and therefore are willing to destroy the wonder and beauty and richness of the Na’vi world. Yes, it is offered to us as a battle royal between good and evil; between those who know and those who don’t know, between those who see and those who don’t see.

And to the gladness of all but the Scrooges among us, the Na’vi win, protecting their way of life against the power and might of the intruders from Earth. And true to all good stories, Mother Earth does take a side! Moral ambiguity does not a good story make. Think most French films. To be drawn in we need a side to be taken; we need resonance with the reality of life as we know it. That is written into our humanness, into the human condition. Nuance is critical, as not all of life is black-and-white, but moral indifference is death to a good story and to a good life. And because Cameron still lives in the world that is really there, creating a story about a world that reflects the reality of the world, with imaginative brilliance he draws us into a battle of good against evil—and we are on the edge of our seats!

Are there criticisms to make? Yes, and I have made some, e.g. the cartoonish caricature of pre-modern vs. modern, of developed vs. non-developed, of Western materialism vs. Eastern pantheism. We must never ever leave our brains at the box-office.

People and place do matter
And yet, granting those critiques and more, I want to argue that there is another sense in which Cameron offers an allusive alternative to the “dead man’s eyes” of modernity. In his criticism of the modern world, he is pushing back at the Enlightenment rationalism that has deadened us to things that matter. At the end of life, things are not the most important things. Relationships with other people, and a relationship to a place that matters is also important; and in fact is more important, over the long years of life. They will nourish us as human beings, truly “enlightening” us as to who we are and ought to be, in ways that the dogged pursuit of becoming “masters of the universe” will not. Tom Wolfe—and many others—was right about that.

As I watched the film, I found myself thinking of Berry. In so many ways, the central theme of his work is this: If we casually walk away from people and place, we lose something crucial to our humanity—so be careful about that. Never a Luddite, not a utopian, he sees something important about the human condition and insists that we “come and see” too, looking over his shoulder and through his heart at the life and times of his home of Port William and its membership, the community over time whose stories he tells. Buried within his pantheistic apologetic, Cameron sees the same thing, and it is a weighty word for us.

Sometimes I wonder why it is that the church seems more in debt to Enlightenment rationalism, and uncritically so? Why is it that we are not so sure about the sacramental songs of the birds of the field… and the timbered choirs all around us, instead allowing cultural histories and ideologies that have diminished our connectedness to the creation to hold sway among us? We are placed on the earth as responsible actors in history, called to love what God has made, to care for what God has made, to steward the earth and all that it is, for God’s sake and our children’s sake, and their children’s sake, and on and on, until the new heavens and new earth come in all their glory.

To press the point: Why does evangelical theology allow itself to be identified with a political vision that is so horribly “un-green,” so unresponsive and irresponsible about our place in the world? Clearly there is a generation coming of age now that that refutes the logic that conservative politics represents all that true Christians are “for,” among many other causes and cares insisting that faithfulness to God means a faithful care of the earth. That thoughtlessness ought to stink in our noses, as it does God’s. We are not the earth’s disturbers or destroyers; that is never what the calling to dominion meant. It was to see ourselves as in relationship, and therefore responsible to care.

As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve we are to love the earth, its flora and fauna, its birds and bees—which means that we are to “see” our connection to creation, understanding that our flourishing will be fullest when it flourishes. That can mean and should mean cultural development, so we are not primitivists, just as we are not pantheists. But knowing the world means loving the world, even as we explore its possibilities, creating flutes and guitars, bagels and baguettes, chocolate and wine, steel and microchips, planes, trains, and automobiles—and spaceships too, as well as understanding the potential of unobtanium. But we are always neighbors, first. And when human beings forget that, and mostly we do, we suffer. Our neighborhoods suffer, our cities suffer, our society and world suffer. How could it be otherwise?

Plundering the good from “Avatar”
So for the counter-punch to the (im)moral vision that was born and bred in the Enlightenment, the “through a dead man’s eyes” of evolutionary materialism and the social alienation that came with it—understood by Dickens and Marx coincidentally—and more fully developed a century later by

Polanyi and Percy—for all of that I am intrigued by the story of “Avatar,” impressed by the artfulness of Cameron as a storyteller, and glad for what he tells the truth about, even as I am critical over what he misses.

Like the people of God over the centuries, we are called to “plunder the Egyptians,” living in, but not of, our moment in history, taking in what is valuable and leaving behind what is not. The early church did that, drawing on the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt and “plundering” the good gifts of Egyptian culture to take with them on their journey to the Promised Land. And so, discerning as best they could what could be redeemed in the Greco-Roman world, with its philosophies and technologies born of out of paganism, they also knew that some of the cultural images and icons were useful, even beautiful and important; even as they stood against other ideas and practices, knowing that they represented the death of a culture.

Living as we do in the pluralizing, globalizing 21st century, we have our own images and ideas to sort through, deciding who we are and how we are going to live. Clay-footed as it is, “Avatar” calls us to see with our hearts, to remember to remember that people matter and places matter. Yes, perhaps even that there are “timbered choirs” all about us—if we have eyes that see and ears that hear. May it be so.

For more information and analysis, please see:
A Rocha, an international community of Christians committed to stewarding the earth.

Flourish magazine, especially Denis Haack’s essay on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land.”

“Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing: The Life and Thought of Michael Polanyi,” from Mars Hill Audio.

Steven Garber is a native of the great valleys of Colorado and California, and still sees the world as if places like that matter. For many years he has been a professor, still teaching many people in many places. He directs The Washington Institute, which has its nexus the commitment that faith shapes vocation which shapes culture, one of the truest of truths, for everyone everywhere. And he has read everything that Wendell Berry has written, at least a couple of times.

This article was originally published at Ransom Fellowship.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Scot Martin June 9, 2010 at 9:25 am

Mr. Garber,
Thanks for the interesting essay. I especially liked the analogy of “plundering the Egyptians.” I am surprised that you didn’t address the gnosticism present in the film. The fact that Jake leaves his human body at the end to gain a Na’vi one only helps to garble Cameron’s message about the importance of the natural world. I think gnosticism might be at the heart of Evangelical worldviews when it comes to the creation as well. After all, if it’s all going to burn, if we’re going to spend eternity off world, why not plunder and profit; God will destroy this world, take “stuff” now before the expiration date.
Again, thanks for the words.

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