my service on Avatar.

10 Mar

February 28, 2010 Celebration of Life at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY

Lessons from Avatar

“[He] stood up, the strongest and the fiercest spirit that fought in heaven, now fiercer by despair.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost

Call to Worship

By Robert T. Weston

There is a living web that runs through us to all the universe
Linking us each with each and through all life on to the distant stars.
Each knows a little corner of the world, and lives as if this were his all.
We no more see the farther reaches of the threads
Than we see of the future, yet they’re there.
Touch but one thread, no matter which;
The thoughtful eye may trace to distant lands
Its firm continuing strand, yet lose its filaments as they reach out,
But find at last it coming back to him from whom it led.
We move as in a fog, aware of self
But only dimly conscious of the rest
As they are close to us in sight or feeling.
New objects loom up for a time, fade in and out;
Then, sometimes, as we look on unawares, the fog lifts
And then there’s the web in shimmering beauty,
Reaching past all horizons. We catch our breath;
Stretch out our eager hands, and then
In comes the fog again, and we go on,
Feeling a little foolish, doubting what we had seen.
The hands were right. The web is real.
Our folly is that we so soon forget.

This morning, may we remember.

Chalice Lighting

by Elizabeth McMaster

We light our flaming chalice
To illuminate the world we seek.
In the search for truth, may we be just;
In the search for justice, may we be loving;
And, in loving, may we find peace

Hymn #1014 Standing on the Side of Love

Story for All Ages

Old Turtle, By Douglas Wood

Contemplation “Pandora Discovered”

The Movie “Avatar” was released in December. Since then, it has been seen by millions upon millions of people around the world. Directed by James Cameron, Avatar became the first movie to gross over $2 billion, and it has been nominated for 9 academy awards including best picture and best director.

The movie takes place on the world Pandora. The brief piece we are about to watch is narrated by Sigourney Weaver, one of the films stars. This vignette is not in the movie, but it provides helpful background on the world of Pandora, and human earthlings involvement on it.

Sermon “Lessons from Avatar”

The story of the movie’s creation is, itself, the thing of legend. Before Titanic, even before Terminator, Avatar was the movie that James Cameron wanted to make. But the technology didn’t exist for him to share his vision the way he wanted to share it. When people talk about how Avatar will revolutionize film-making, they are talking, in part, about how Cameron brought amazing new techie stuff into being precisely so that he could bring his vision to life. As I hope you were able to see from Pandora Discovered, the effects alone make this movie worth seeing.

But there’s more to the movie than the story of how it’s made. There are lessons to be learned from how people around the world have responded to the content of the movie.

The story takes place in the year 2154 on Pandora, a lush, Earth-like moon. The RDA corporation from Earth is mining a valuable mineral on Pandora called unobtanium. Earth’s resources have all been squandered and so we had to look elsewhere to supply our continued, conspicious consumption. The world is inhabited by the Na’vi, who are ten-foot-tall blue-skinned humanoids. Technologically, the Na’vi have nothing on the humans – their most advanced weapon is a bow and arrow.

Spiritually, they leave our culture in the dust. The Na’vi live in harmony with nature, worshiping Eywa – spirit of the moon itself, which resembles a large nervous system. In fact, the Na’vi can plug into this nervous system and use it to communicate with other life-forms that are part of the planet. There are more than a few similarities between the Na’vi and indigenous people of this planet.

To facilitate relations with the Na’vi and to research Pandora’s biosphere, earthling scientists grow Na’vi-human hybrid bodies called avatars that are operated via mental link by genetically matching humans.

Jake Sully, a paraplegic former Marine, operates an avatar. During an outing, an animal attack separates Jake from the group. Neytiri, a female Na’vi, rescues Jake. Seeing portents from Eywa that she does not understand, she brings him to Hometree, where her clan live. Neytiri’s mother is the clan’s spiritual leader. She shows interest in the “warrior dreamwalker” and instructs her daughter to teach Jake the Na’vi ways. Very convenient!!

Meanwhile, Hometree is on top of massive deposits of unobtainium, and RDA wants the site. They enlist Jake to help them, but ver three months, Jake grows close to Neytiri and her people. He eventually rejects RDA’s destructive agenda, but it is too late and Hometree is destroyed. Many Na’vi are killed.

It does not end there, of course, but I don’t want to give too much away to those of you who have not seen it. It will suffice to say that the good guys win, the earthlings leave, and the Na’vi get their world back – albeit bruised and battered.

Much criticism has been heaped upon Avatar. David Brooks, of the New York Times, called it a White Messiah Fable. And there is some truth to that. Certainly there are similarities between Avatar and movies such as Dances with Wolves, or even with the animated Disney flick Pocahontas. However, dismissing it as a white messiah fable is neither entirely accurate, nor does it tell the whole story (but thats a sermon for another time).

Another criticism has been around the main character, Jake Sully. While James Cameron has wondered why people aren’t commenting on the fact that the main character is a paraplegic – the first for an action movie – people are commenting on how Jake escapes into his Na’vi avatar as a way of rejecting the paraplegia of his human body.

Even institutions that don’t usually lower themselves to the level of popular films are also getting in on the act. The Vatican has come out against the movie. Though Pope Benedict has been nicknamed, by some, as the “Green Pope” for his environmental advocacy, the vatican came down on the side of warning about Avatar. They assert that the film “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.” Similarly, Vatican Radio said Avatar “cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium.” The Vatican’s concern seems to be that in Avatar, “Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship.”

Even more surprising criticism, perhaps, is that the Chinese government recently eliminated all 2-D theaters that can show Avatar. The claim is that they are afraid that the movie will cause political unrest. Some Chinese have pointed out that here is a parallel between the story of Avatar and how Chinese property developers’ routinely evict households and farmers in China to make way for new buildings.

But while many criticize the Hollywood behemoth, others are finding it meaningful and even inspirational. Though it’s meta-story is one that has been repeated over and over in different ways, ala Joseph Campbell: it is precisely this mythological concept that makes it so accessible, and so meaningful to some. Many environmental groups have been encouraging their members go and see it, again and again. Writing in the Cumberland, Dave Cooper connects the themes of the movie to strip-mining and mountain-top removal. “For those who live in Appalachia near strip mines, the story is all too familiar. For all of the third world countries around the world who have had to deal with US corporations or other colonial powers, this film speaks loud and clear: corporations, backed by the US government, are destroying the planet.”

Bob Spichen, editor of Sierra Magazine – the publishing arm of The Sierra Club, wrote that he thinks “Avatar–as naive and weirdly misanthropic as it is in places–will bump the discussion of our shared fate to a new level, just as its animation has nudged entertainment technology up a notch.”

Unitarian Universalists, too, have picked up on the theme of the movie. Not long after it came out, people start talking about how the nervous system of Pandora, Eywa, was an amazing example of an interconnected web of existence.
Indeed, when 20th Century Fox executives read the script, they asked James Cameron to take “some of this tree-hugging, FernGully crap out of this movie.” Cameron’s response lends credence to the connections between environmentalism and the film: “No,” he said, “because that’s why I’m making the film.”

The connection between environmentalism and Avatar may have been one reason to make the movie, but I would guess that Cameron had no idea how deeply some people would feel that connection.

Some fans come away wishing that they could live on Pandora – the beauty is so real and intoxicating. Others come away feeling disgust with the human race and our wanton destruction.

A large enough number of people have come away from the film experiencing depression and even suicidal thoughts, that there is a name emerging for the condition: Post-Avatar Ecological Depressive Disorder.

Reports one sufferer: “When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning…. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world” he wrote. When pushed for the source of his depression, he continued: “One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality.”

Many a reasonable person that I have talked to has walked out of the movie feeling a sense of sorrow, or even something deeper. It has awakened something in many of us – a despair and helplessness that we had sucessfully suppressed, but that can suddenly no longer stay dormant. Read this account from Ryan Croken, who knows of what he writes.  (excerpted in sermon)

This is different than depression. This is existential despair. The movie touches a deep yearning in many of us. We know that life as we have it today it is not how it could be, how it, perhaps, should be. We know, intuitively, that we are not in touch with our world, in touch with each other. We look around and see consumerism, radical individuality, hubris, and a sense of entitlement– these characteristics are not what is best in life but are, unfortunately, what is most obvious. These characteristics drive us as a species, and separate us from the force of life.

This despair is a theological condition in that it speaks to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. We know, in our hearts, in our souls, that we could be doing better. We could be better stewards of the environment, doing more to care for our planet for the seventh generation. But as James Cameron aptly points out, human nature is that if we can take it, we will. And we do – over and over and over again: colonialism, mountain-top removal. Its us versus them, over and over but what we yearn for, at our core, is a sense of “we”, of connectedness, of interdependence.

But Cameron does not want to leave us in a state of despair. “If you’re tuned in to what’s happening in ‘Avatar,’”, he says, “you start to feel a sense of moral outrage when you see the tree fall [destroying the Na’vi’s home], and it’s a compassionate response for [the Na’vi].” And he continues: “Then you feel a sense of uplift at the end as good vanquishes evil. If you put those two things together, it actually creates a ripe emotional matrix for people to want to do something about it.”

To do something about it. That seems to be the cure for the despair many feel after watching Avatar. Do something about it. Ryan Croken, who wrote that moving explanation of his own feelings, believes that “The best hope people have for a long-term cure, is to actualize this vision in real life by taking the pathos and reverence they feel for the fictional Pandora and using that energy to actively participate in the restoration of the celestial body that miraculously sustains our existence right here on real, live 3-D Planet Earth.”

All around the world, this is what people are doing. They are following in the wisdom of Gandhi by becoming the change they seek. They are mobilizing – coming out of Avatar and feeling a renewed sense of energy around caring for our environment. And this part was a part of Cameron’s master plan. He intentionally had the humans represent aspects of human nature that are corrupt and aggressive. The Na’vi represent the way we want to be, a better model of ourselves: graceful and connected to our environment.

In this way, perhaps the Vatican’s worries are well-founded, that we will begin to care for our environment as though it were divine. But is that really such a bad thing? Would it be so horrible? What would we lose if we felt ourselves as part and parcel of this great, wonderous, mysterious planet? What might we gain?

I am reminded of a poem by Wendell Berry, called The Peace of Wild Things.

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Beyond its blockbuster status, beyond the legends of its creation, the myth of Avatar, and the response of many of us Earthlings who watch it, has much to teach us: About our capabilities to wantonly destroy, about our hubris as the most worthy species on this planet or any other; and about how, at our core, many of us know how wrong this all is.

How we yearn for a simpler life that is based on relationship rather than consumerism, living in harmony, rather than domination, with our surroundings.

How we yearn for a greater connection to our world and to each other! To rest in the grace of the world.

Do we dare to listen to these important lessons, delivered over an often disrespected media? Do we dare not?

May our longing for more help us as a species begin to make the shift towards being who we want to be.

Hymn #1068 Rising Green

Closing Words

When despair grows in us, and we wake in the middle of the night in fear for our lives, and the lives of our children, may we find comfort in the mystery and wonder of this beloved home planet. And in our despair, may we find strength to do what we know needs to be done.

May our feet carry days of old into new as we reimagine our relationship with the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part.

And may our dreaming, and the dreaming of gifted storytellers, remind and inspire us to be who we long to be.

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