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Avatar: Growing into our salvation

Unless you are simply not into television or movies, it’s been hard to miss the astounding box office success of James Cameron’s Avatar, a sci-fi epic set on a remarkable world called Pandora. Cameron has created an amazing world which by itself is worth the 3D-price of admission. The CGI technology was so powerful that I actually believed mountains float in the air, dragons fly and a whole moon could be sentient—a technological success that opens whole new realms of possibilities for filmmaking and story-telling that makes me downright giddy. But more than that, Avatar also delivers a story replete with themes that invite plenty of God-talk (which many folks have already noted, like fav-blogger Ken Brown), including themes and storylines related to salvation and transformation. But what resonated most with me was the role and connection community has in all that—and what that helps me understand about the way transformation works.

The film has a rather simple plot, following paralyzed Marine Jake Sully who slides into his recently murdered brother’s slot to operate a genetically compatible “avatar” that physically resembles the native population on Pandora, a moon that has a mineral so valuable that the RDA corporation (with ready-and-willing military support) is systematically obliterating everything in its path to get to it. Jake’s job is to operate through his avatar to gain the trust of the native tribal-like Na’vi people in order to get them to move from their homes so the corporation can mine the mineral underneath it. (Spoilers ahead: you've been warned!)

When he takes on his Na’vi body, Jake is completely different physically, but he’s the same person on the inside—in the way he thinks and thus his heart and values. But as he begins to spend time in his new body and among the Na’vi people, he begins to doubt the justness of his original mission. The Na’vi way of approaching life and Pandora is completely different from the world and organization he comes from. He begins to accept the Na’vi worldview and change the way he thinks—and as a result his heart and what he values begins to change as well. Essentially, we could say, Jake grows into his Na’vi avatar body.

And Jake's process of transformation has some connections to our own experiences of transformation. When we decide to trust that Jesus is who he says and can do what he says, we essentially “call into question our previous ways and awaken . . . to new possibilities,” as Mark Scandrette puts it in Soul Graffiti. We are “born again” (John 3:3) as “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17)—but for most of us, that is something we must grow into. Much of walking with Jesus is learning to throw off old ways of thinking (Rom. 12:1-2) and live out of the new creation and life inside of us. We begin to change the way we think and embrace a new way of thinking that is in line with the new creation we have become. Essentially, we learn to live the truth of who we are in Christ. In some ways, we could say that we grow into our new creation as Jake grows into his avatar body.

I love how Dan Stone puts this in The Rest of the Gospel: “All we ever do is catch up with the truth. Through our trust in God’s revelation, His truth becomes our experience.” That process, says Stone, can be confusing to us. Much of the time, we don’t feel like new creations, but the truth is we are:

In the unseen and eternal realm, God has already perfected us. In the seen and temporal realm, God is bringing that perfection, or completion, into view.

That’s why we can say we are complete and a new creation while simultaneously, in the seen and temporal realm, a process is going on. From God’s point of view, in the unseen and eternal realm, we are a finished product. At the same time, in the seen and temporal, He is continuing to work the truth deeper into us and conform us to His image.
Watching Jake grow into his new body gives us a good image to contemplate what it means to be a new creature and God’s continuing transformation of us. God has made us new creations, and much of the journey of our lives is growing into that truth and letting it become our experience.

But what I love most about the salvation and transformation theme in Avatar is how that process is inexorably meshed with and in a community. This is particularly evident in the ceremony in which Jake joins the Na’vi tribe, a ceremony that is pivotal in the tradition of the Na’vi. As Neytiri describes it: “Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn your place among the people forever." Early on in the mission, this ceremony was a means to an end for Jake; it would mean the Na’vi would accept Jake as one of their own and he could manipulate them for the benefit of the corporation and military. But by this point, he’s spent months undergoing the initiation of learning from the Na’vi and their way of life—including their spiritual beliefs and faith. Jake’s already admitted that the reality of his experience in his avatar body with the Na’vi is now more real than his time when he is not connected. Now, for Jake, this ceremony is no longer a means to an end. He wants to belong. It is a new beginning—and one that is now connected to a new community.

As the ceremony progresses, we watch those closest to Jake’s avatar lay their hands on his shoulders—and then the rest move in closer, laying their hands on the shoulders of those in front of them, with Jake at the center. It is a physical and highly symbolic gesture that indicates his connection to the entire clan. He is now one of their group. He is family. Jake’s identity is now inexorably connected to and wound up in this group. His loyalties have shifted and his way of thinking is different; he accepts their worldview as reality. He has been reborn—and that “born again” experience involves being born into a new community.

And I find this a thought-provoking image about how we are meant to experience salvation as presented in Scripture. The modern way many approach and experience Christianity (especially in the West) is an individual faith and relationship with God. But more and more people are drawing our attention to how limiting this approach is to understanding the full range of the gospel and salvation. God is after more than individual salvation: he’s creating a people—a covenanted community through whom, as Dallas Willard puts it in The Divine Conspiracy, he is “tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.” In The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight writes, “God’s idea of redemption is community-shaped.” From Israel to the Spirit-empowered church, says McKnight, God’s covenant community is the context in which redemption takes place—one in which we find reconnection and restored relationship with God, self, others and the world. “Wherever you go in the Bible,” writes McKnight in A Community Called Atonement, “it is the same: the work of God is to form a community in which the will of God is done and through which one finds both union with God and communion with others for the good of others and the world.”

Most recently, I found another expression of all this in Joseph Hellerman’s When the Church was a Family, where (among other things) he observes that one’s choice to follow Jesus is “a community-creating event”:

In the New Testament era a person was not saved for the sole purpose of enjoying a personal relationship with God. Indeed, the phrase “personal relationship with God” is found nowhere in the Bible. According to the New Testament, a person is saved to community. Salvation includes membership in God’s group. We are saved “into one body,” as the above passage from 1 Corinthians indicates. Or to draw on the family metaphor that has occupied our attention throughout this book, when we get a new Father we also get a new set of brothers and sisters. In Scripture, salvation is a community-creating event.
This doesn’t mean, says Hellerman, that there isn’t a personal aspect involved:
I must still do business with God as an individual. I must come to terms with Christ’s work on the cross. But note carefully that where salvation is concerned, the cross of Christ is the doorway to the community of faith. God’s goal is not simply to usher me into a personal relationship with Him. God’s goal is to transfer me from one group to another, from “the world” to “the family of God”….

People are saved to community. To be sure, ours sin must be forgiven or we cannot enter a community inhabited by the Spirit of the Living God. But God’s overarching goal since Pentecost (as was the case in the Old Testament) is the creation of His group. And under the new covenant, God’s group is His church—a society of surrogate siblings whose interpersonal relationships are to be characterized by all the family attributes encountered in the previous chapters of this book.
What does “a society of surrogate siblings” look like? When we look at Scripture, says Hellerman, it looks like a family—one characterized by “intimate, healthy, long-lasting relationships with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.” In the Roman world, says Hellerman, Christians “placed the good of the church family above their own personal goals, desires and aspirations” and “could count on support from the community to meet their material and emotional challenges that often came with commitment to Jesus.” Above all, Hellerman notes, Christians became known by what Jesus said they would be known by and even sought after: their love. God’s family becomes a living, breathing message of the good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it.

I can’t help but see this echoed in Avatar. The world Jake comes from has been described often by critics as “soulless.” And those who embrace it base their decisions on the bottom line; a person’s worth was based on their ability to achieve that bottom line. It is a world that brings forth destruction and death. The Na’vi, on the other hand, present Jake with a world based on a much richer and more just and holistic way of life. He is attracted to the way they love, respect and support each other and the world they live on. This echoes the contrast between our world and God's kingdom. As Scot McKnight writes in A Community Called Atonement:

Someone has said that worldliness is living in a committed way to the wrong principles. The people of God--Israel, the church--is a contrast to the world: it is the world organized on right principles. And those right principles involve, as Jesus makes so clear in the Lukan kingdom thread, justice and peace and love of others. A thoroughly biblical understanding of atonement, then, is earthy. It is about restored relations with God and with self, but also with others and with the world--in the here and now.
I find a lot in Avatar that echoes and speaks to our own reality and how God works within and around us—and who we are not only called but enabled to be. Jake’s conversion isn’t simply an individual choice to embrace a new way of thinking, worldview or set of beliefs by which he will live as an individual. His individual choice leads to a whole different way of living within and as a part of a community to whom he is responsible and for which he will risk all, including his life. And that community is defined by far different parameters and values than the one he is leaving.

So, too, when we make an individual choice to follow Jesus, we are made new creations and we are saved or born-again into a community. That community is radically different than the world we come from—and it is defined first and foremost by love.

If you’ve read this blog before, however, you know that I fall in with those who observe that the reality of that kingdom community is the exception rather than the rule, at least in this part of the world. And that breaks my heart. We are not only limiting our experience of the fullness of the salvation and redemption and transformation that God has planned for us from the beginning, but we are failing to live out the lives we were meant to live—to be the people in which God “is tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.” We are so much more than we are living out today.

I find a challenge in Avatar to embrace a fuller vision of the salvation God offers us. In the end, Jake completely relinquishes his ties to his old world. Essentially, he becomes his avatar—fully Na’vi in both body and soul. He is completely transformed. His old life is no more. He is a new creation. And that transformation is inexorably tied to his community—he is a part of a new people, a new way of living with others, a family that will care for him and for whom he will care and with whom he will care for Pandora. And they are a contrast as well as a light to the world he leaves behind.

As believers, we are new creations. Our challenge is to work with God to grow into that truth, to let his truth be our experience—both as individuals and as a people. Perhaps instead of thinking about new ways to “do” or create church community, we should think in terms of growing into who we already are as God’s people by the very nature of God’s redemption and salvation. How do we do that? That is a question many are asking. Regardless of the approach, however, it will definitely take changing the way we think—or, in biblical terms, repentance: calling into question our previous ways and awakening to new possibilities.

While Avatar may diverge from biblical truth and reality more than once (and exhibit more than one weakness as a story and in its execution), it reminds me of God’s truth and challenges me to rethink my thinking. In particular, it stirs the longing I have for the kind of transformation and living-together God not only created us for but also enables us to experience—and that brings a lot of God-talk into these open spaces.

(Images: 20th Century Fox)