Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13:12)
James Cameron’s Avatar? No, this is the plotline for Out of the Silent Planet, a novel published in 1938 by Oxford scholar and prolific Christian author C.S. Lewis. Behind Lewis’ elegant prose, as behind Cameron’s gorgeous and beautiful computer-generated visuals, lie recognizably the same anxiety and the same hope. Anxiety that sees a greedy human society spreading like a stain across the galaxy, and hope that peace and security can be found not in an ample supply of “natural resources”, but in a right relation to the spirit that watches over the universe.
True, Lewis’ (and my) Christianity conceives of that spirit, and that relationship, differently from the pantheism of Avatar. How disappointing it is, for example, that in the last hour of the movie, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is in full swing, as though the "one thing lacking" for the Na’vi is an ex-Marine to show them how to blow shit up. Lewis’ ending, a richly comic yet serious scene in which the invaders are brought to condemn themselves out of their own mouths, has learned from the story of the cross: there is a real battle going on, yes, but victory is achieved not by trumping the violence of the adversary, but by subverting it.
C.S. Lewis’ more rationalistic followers regard him as a producer of “arguments for God”, but I do not think this is his greatest gift. Rather, he is someone who can evoke the desire for God (as Austin Farrar said, “His real power was not proof; it was depiction”) and for relatedness, in God, to all creation. I think that if Avatar is remembered as a great movie it, too, will be remembered for its desire-evoking power. Not for its spectacular effects by themselves, and certainly not for its threadbare plot and cardboard characterization, but for its power to make us long for a connection – with each other, with the creation, with God – that we almost do not dare even to dream of. Lewis would have said that to begin to long for this connection is itself a step on the road to experiencing it.
Artwork: Avatar theatrical poster (lo-res copy). Original at http://www.impawards.com/2009/avatar.html It is believed that this reproduction for the purpose of critical commentary constitutes fair use under US copyright law.