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Avatar: An Amazing and Troubling Film

by J. Kameron Carter on March 12, 2010

Sam Worthington as


Sci-Fi buff and ‘amateur’ film critic that I am, two theologians and fellow friends of mine (Brian Bantum of Seattle Pacific University and Willie Jennings, my colleague in arms at Duke University Divinity School) told me that I had to check out the movie Avatar. I finally got around to it, and I’m so glad I did.

The film is food for thought in trying to understand what lay at the heart of some of the deepest questions of identity, the deepest questions regarding what Hannah Arendt called “The Human Condition,” that still confronts us. The film is a cinematic window, an aesthetic tour-de-force, into matters of identity (especially around race and gender), sexuality (particularly, boundary crossing love), ecological concerns and land issues, nationalism (especially regarding militarism and the performance of citizenship), and finally globalization (particularly, the intersection of globalization and capitalism). But perhaps, most interesting of all is the religious aesthetic, and more specifically, the troublesome Christian social imagination that underwrites the film, an imagination that goes back to the dawning moments of New World conquest.

Indeed, the film raises what in Christian theological parlance are questions of soteriology: What does it mean to be saved? What are the social processes and the processes of identity formation and construction linked to Christian rhetorics of salvation, which this film provides a window into? And is their a way to imagine soteriology, or what it means to say “I am saved” and “I am Christian,” beyond what is disclosed in this film?

That Avatar provokes these issues and questions means that it requires serious theological analysis, which I will not pretend to fully offer here. I offer just a few thoughts about the film.

Avatar in 1492

Avatar is a film that in effect tries to renarrate modern colonialism into the ‘New World,’ or in the Americas. The date associated with this is 1492; the figure, Christopher Columbus. (There was also the conquest just preceding the conquest of the Americas in the mid-15th century when the Portuguese first took black bodies as its cargo from Africa into Lisbon, thus beginning modern chattel slavery. But I need not go into this here.) It was during this time that the racial imagination as we now know it in all of its complexities and the very of the human as we know perform and live into it, was first born. Key to this was the Iberian, and more particularly the Spanish, invention of whiteness.

Vitruvian Man, 1487

"America," 1575

We know of the horrors that ensued from this moment of conquest: land taken from native peoples, the genocide of many of the native populations, hierarchies and systems of valuing and evaluation being socially constructed and performed within the human, the dawning of modern capitalism, and finally all of this being enacted in deep connection with Christianity, indeed, as a Christian social performance tied to white masculinity. Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” done in 1487, just on the eve of Columbus’s Iberian adventure across the Atlanta Ocean, and the painting by the Renaissance artist Jan van der Straet in 1575 on the “Discovery of America,” are perfect bookends around this world-changing event conquest that gave rise to the modern world.

These pieces represent a cultural aesthetic of “the good, the true, and beautiful” as bound to the figure of the European (and eventually the Euroamerican), or put in racial-gendered terms, the white masculine. Such a figure is the social space into which all others must enter. Further still, the van der Straet painting portrays this figure as a warrior-Christian, a figure of violence and a man of war, who stands sexually over against the bear-breasted native woman in an edenic scene in which she is connected to the earth, to the land, and he is poised, at her seemingly inviting arm (note her left arm) to take it (see the image in this post). But his militarism is masked (his sword is hidden behind his cloak, invisible to the native woman, but visible to the viewer of the painting). What is displayed are the two sides of the project of Western civilization: science and knowledge in the discoverer’s left hand (the astrolabe; internet technology in the 15th century) and religion (the crucifix staff in his right hand, which imperceptibly merges into the sheath of the sword hidden behind the cloak). Both science and knowledge function are tied to commerce and trade in van der Straet’s painting. They are tied to an emergent capitalism internal to which is a profound hierarchical vision of the human and a system of evaluating and thus valuing the human.

Avatar‘s Basic Storyline

As a film, Avatar is trying to overcome this narrative. In the genre of science-fiction, it’s trying to tell a different story, one that redeems the narrative that I’ve given in rough draft here.

Staged on another “New world” paradise, which is a different planet that humans are colonizing, the film tells the story of Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), a crippled ex-Marine who was wounded, interestingly enough, on a military adventure in Venezuela in South America. As a result of the Venezuelan adventure, Jack finds himself in a wheel chair. With his usefulness exhausted on Earth, Jake enlists in an inter-plantary science/military operation that if all goes well, his legs will be medically treated back on Earth. He will be healed. The wounded one will become the healed one.

But what must he do on the planet?

Jake is caught between two masters, as Daniel Mendelsohn recently put it in a New York Review of Books essay, between two ways of pacifying the planet and its inhabitants, the Na’vi. The one road is the way of science (don’t forget: the van der Straet’s Discoverer carried an astrolabe or the instruments of science and civilization) and the other is the way of violent, military conquest (again, the don’t forget that van der Straet’s Discover was also a warrior, carrying a sword). Jake is caught between these two modes or styles of conquest, between military imperialism and cultural imperialism.

The avenue of science is where the avatar comes in. A team of scientists, lead by a chief scientist and specialist on the Na’vi played by Sigourney Weaver (who conjures all of the Alien movies and who plays the role of the white feminine), have figured out a way to clone creatures using DNA from humans and DNA from the Na’vi. The clones or avatars look just like the Na’vi. Indeed, they are in every way like the Na’vi except that they lack mind and soul. They lack mental faculties and consciousness. Solution to the problem: the scientist have found a way to transfer brain functions from a human being into the avatar, the clone. The human-occupied avatar can now infiltrate Na’vi society and negotiate peacefully—this the wish of the scientists—with the Na’vi to resolve their cultural and political impasse. Jake’s avatar plays this key role. He is to be the cultural infiltrator and negotiator with the Na’vi with a view to avoiding violent, all-out war with them.

Avatar & the Struggle of Imperial Man

The Militarized White Man

But let’s get back to the cultural and political impasse. What impasse? Why is war even on the table?

Well, as it turns out the place where the Na’vi live sits on a vast reservoir of minerals that the humans want, for it will turn a vast profit and cause the stock prices of the company backing the venture on this planet to sore. We are no longer dealing with global capitalism; this is now inter-planetary capitalism.

On the other side of things is the military, which is clearly working with this unnamed business company. With little patience for diplomacy (because it believes it won’t work), the military is ready to go in and take the land from the Na’vi by force.

The Militarized White Man

The movie chronicles Jake’s vacillation between two masters or loyalties, the military master or the master that is science and civilization. As he continues to be embedded or become more and more “incarnate” (my christological language is intentional here)  in Na’vi society, eventually taking up a love interest with a Na’vi women (you know this had to happen!; it’s a stable of genre; and remember again van der Straet’s Discoverer is sexually positioned in relationship to the native women) and becoming one of them, Jake moves toward a shown down with the military officer, the symbol of the old order of white male, warrior existence.

Jake and his Love Interest

This struggle takes place near the end of the movie, when Jake-the-Avatar or Jake in a Na’vi’s body and the military officer in a robotic or machine body fight to the death. But it is Jake’s love interest who finally saves Jake in the battle and ultimately facilitates his struggle to become permanently one of the natives, one of the Na’vi.

There is much more that could be said about this movie. And heck, I have a feeling I’ll have more to say about it. But this is the point I want to make for now:

When all is said and done, Avatar turns on this motif of the healing (or not) of a white man, of white male existence, and if so, how shall that healing take place.

David Brooks in a New York Times op-ed was not far off the mark in identifying a “Messiah Complex” in the movie, a messianism aimed at “saving” the natives of the planet, who are called the “Na’vi.”He’s absolutely right that

“Avatar” is a racial fantasy par excellence.

And further still, he’s right that

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.

As far as this goes, Brooks has some good points. But what’s troubling about this film works at an even deeper level, for what Brooks totally fails to grasp is that the messianism of James Cameron’s 3-D adventure, which itself (that the movie’s in 3D) is vitally important because it enlists the viewer as participant, is aimed not just at the culturally different, the Na’vi, which surely it is. On this level this is a film about how white male identity functions as the space in relationship to which other identities are constituted. But beyond this, and this is what Brooks altogether misses, the movie’s primary target is whiteness itself and the meaning of white existence for the future. The movie is about the future of whiteness.

This is an epic that has at its heart a basic question: Can white existence be save? Can the white masculine be redeemed? Can it overcome its wounds, it wheel-chaired status? Will it walk, stand erect, again? And if so, what will its redemption look like? The movie, in short, is trying to imagine the next phase of white (male) existence. The movie portrays whiteness in this regard at war with itself regarding its future (see image below).

What answer does it offer to this problem? Avatar proposes what may be called a benevolent imperialism.

Such an imperialism is not unlike that form of imperialism proposed at the dawn of the 19th century by Friedrich Schleiermacher in Germany and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England, and by a host of subsequent intellectuals (like Matthew Arnold and even some contemporary intellectuals). This new mode of empire was being imagined as the next phase in the History of White People, to invoke the title of the brilliant, recently published book by historian Nell Irvin Painter. In this next phase, domination takes place on a global scale through and as difference itself.

As an aside, I’m reading a lot by theologian Karl Barth these days. And it strikes me that his critique of religion and of the “No-God” in Roman II, written in the post-World War I moment, has precisely this phase of domination in the crosshairs of its critique of ideology.

But to return to this film, it seems to me that Avatar answers the question of the redemption of whiteness with a hard-fought, and an aesthetically “beautiful,” Yes. What does this redemption look like? It is represented through the protagonist Jake, who casts his lot with the Na’vi. He makes their existence his own, thus making the avatar or the mask of difference the new form of his being. Now one with the Na’vi, he rides in on the proverbial white horse—in the film, this is the wild bird-like that even the Na’vi had been unable to tame—to save the day against the militaristic form of imperial domination (as embodied in the military colonel).


Avatar is an amazing, aesthetically robust, but profoundly troubling film—both culturally and theologically.Culturally, because the film does not escape the history of imperialism. It reinscribes it precisely in the register of difference, in the register of becoming one with the Na’vi, the natives, those deemed different. Difference becomes the form of conquest. Theologically troubling because, Avatar continues the narration of white male existence as soteriological space, the space of the atonement, or more simply, the space where salvation happens, where what it means to be saved takes place. White existence continues as the space of redemption. However, now the space occupies or is the multiculture itself.

Paul Laurence Dunbar once wrote a poem, We wear the Mask, the second stanza of which says,

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

How right Dunbar was. His poem haunts us in the wake of this film, which I hear director James Cameron is planning fill out into a trilogy. The movie leaves us with continuing questions of representation, what social processes are being performed inside and in relationship to claims of salvation, and the continuing New World saga of identity as extended into our postcolonial moment. This film acknowledges the the ground is shifting around whiteness. However, the film makes the shifts part of the strength of whiteness. It remains the space of salvation even as it incorporates the logic of difference as part of its ongoing saga and history. And through 3D, it incorporates us into the story. We participate, as actresses and actors ourselves, i the story—which raises a whole host of new questions about agency and participation.

I’m not done thinking about this movie. But I am done for now.

My verdict—Avatar: an amazing and profoundly troubling film.

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