The Spirituality of “Avatar”

The Spirituality of “Avatar”

Why has Avatar (2009) (see St. Anthony Messenger magazine’s “Eye on Entertainment“) become the most popular movie ever? I suggest it’s because its themes capture the spirit and yearnings of this age.

Over the holidays I finally saw the film. I usually wait for the buzz to settle down before venturing out for mega-movie events. Even learning of the awards (three Academy Awards, 39 other awards and 59 nominations) it garnered didn’t tempt me earlier. But since Thanksgiving, thanks to HBO, I have watched the movie about 10 times, and learned something new with each viewing.

Few films sum up the Zeitgeist (spirit, mood, cultural climate) of a time. I can think immediately of four others that do: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) about the travails of veterans returning from World War II, On the Beach (1959) about the aftermath of global nuclear war; the first Star Wars movie released (1977) about trusting your instincts rather than technology; and Forrest Gump (1994), a simple man’s role in U.S. current events starting with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

Avatar is that same kind of movie, with messages we need to hear (see

Themes That Echo in the Heart

What exactly is resonating with viewers?

* 1: The movie brings hope. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, is given the chance to fulfill his scientist-brother’s dream on a new planet. Through his new avatar body he walks, runs and leaps. He’s freed.

* 2: It’s a plea for ecological responsibility and reverence for nature. The alien world of Pandora contains a priceless element (unobtainium), which we (the invading Sky People) need. To mine it, we are willing to rape the environment and commit genocide—even as our home planet is quickly becoming uninhabitable.

* 3: Jake meets Kateri, a Na’vi girl (Zoe Saldana), and falls in love. Unlikely love stories are heart-touching. Love between a “warrior of the Jarhead Clan” and a blue girl is as unlikely a love as you’ll ever get.

* 4: It preaches the value of humility in approaching whatever and whoever you don’t understand. Kateri’s parents say they have tried in the past to teach “the Sky People,” but someone too full of himself has no room for new insights. The Na’vi culture borrows much from Native American people. Only too late have the descendants of European immigrants learned how much wisdom the Native people had—and have.

* 5: Respect for the body is evident in the way Sully learns to use his avatar body, especially in flying.

* 6: The invaders put their faith in technology; the Na’vi believe in each other (the People) and the power of connectedness.

* 7: When Jake and Kateri want to express their love, they say, “I see you.” They mean they know the other entirely and accept them as they are. Who does not want this?

* 8: Everything is in the hands of Ewya, the Supreme Being to whom the Na’vi pray in times of attack and who sends help. It is a confirmation that there is a God who cares for us.

What’s Religious About These Themes?

Draw out any of these themes/values and its spiritual base is evident. Our deepest longings are always religious—not in the sense of denominational practice but as part of the search for God and meaning in life.

These themes are universal. This movie plays well in different cultures (China is wild about it), confirmation that these themes go beyond American hearts.

The heroine’s name reminds me of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. The Lily of the Mohawks was a bridge between the French invaders into upper New York State and Canada and her own people. And Avatar’s Kateri is a bridge as well.

Satisfying Visionary Movie

There is an irony here: The movie is a rant against technology, but was only accomplished through the most sophisticated technology in movie-making. But the result is a satisfying, visionary movie.

Now if we could just take some of Avatar’s messages to heart!

What more could be done to care for our environment?


About the Author

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of "St. Anthony Messenger" magazine. A graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism, she is a former president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and former vice president of the International Catholic Union of the Press.