James Cameron’s Avatar is the most successful film of all time, despite thoughtful and clear-minded critiques of its imperialist and anti-disability messages (there are also some less-thoughtful critiques out there). The picture Avatar paints of our bodies resounds with our larger cultural ambivalence toward them.
Avatar demonstrates how we devalue our bodies. Avatar denigrates rather than appreciates our bodies.
av·a·tar (n) a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity
Jake Sully is a paraplegic. Thanks to Science, he inhabits an avatar – a giant blue alien body – and successfully becomes part of an alien race. How successfully? Enough so that by the end of the film, he’s married the princess, become head of the tribe and escaped his broken human body forever.
Avatar makes a basic assumption about Jake: namely that he is precisely the same person whichever body he’s inhabiting. Both his human body and the avatar are little more than clothing options. The “real” Jake, so the film would have us believe, is the man inside the body, the soul.
Nowhere is this more clear that in conclusion of the final action sequence, when Neytiri rescues human-Jake. Seeing him for the first time in his real original body, she offers him the traditional Nav’i greeting,
I see you.
(A just-released young adult novel called Every Day explores much this same theme.)
Do our bodies matter, or are they just soul-suits? Would we be the same person no matter what body we’re wearing? Or do they say something important about who we really are?
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the importance of our bodies. The Corinthian culture shared the same low view of bodies we do – that they’re little more than commodities to be used, that our true Selves are the spirit that lives within the bodies.
Since this view pervaded even the Corinthian church, members of the Church were engaging in all kinds of sexual immorality. One man was apparently sleeping with either his mother or step-mother. Several were visiting temple prostitutes. To these people, Paul wrote:
You can’t say that our bodies were made for sexual immorality. They were made for the Lord, and the Lord cares about our bodies… Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! …Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?
— 1 Corinthians 6:13-19 (NLT)
Something we miss in our English translations: in verse 19, the word ‘your’ is plural, but ‘body’ is singular.
Paul isn’t saying that each of our bodies is an individual temple of the Holy Spirit. Rather, he’s saying that our bodies are all part of Christ’s body, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
Paul replaces the low, pagan view of the body with a high Christian view. He claims that God cares about our bodies, that they’re not just disposable soul-suits. Instead of taking your body to a pagan temple to worship a pagan god through the devaluing of your body with a temple prostitute, realize that how you use your body is an act of worship to Jesus. Because your body is part of his body.
Could we imagine the same kind of switch today? Could our bodies be more than avatars?
Our bodies have something to say about who we really are. We can’t ignore them, disregard them as suits our True Selves are wearing. Our bodes are part of our True Selves.
Instead of thinking of our bodies as avatars for our True Selves, what if we imagined that as whole persons (which includes our bodies) we are each avatars of Jesus?
Instead of imagining that our bodies are ugly, fat, limited, etc., what if we celebrated them as gifts from God that enable us to demonstrate God’s love to the world in physical, grounded, concrete actions?
In a culture that teaches us to hate our bodies, a community that loves our bodies, that treats them as opportunities to embody Jesus’ love to the world would be countercultural. We’d be revolutionary.
What will it take for us to imagine ourselves as avatars of Jesus’ love?
You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. — 1 Corinthians 6:20