Yesterday I went to see Avatar: the way of water. It’s a very similar reworking of the first Avatar film, but I loved the beauty of the underwater scenes in particular. And it struck me how much like a modern day Western it was, although set in an alternative universe on an alien planet somewhere in outer space. The big difference is, we are now very definitely on the side of the indigenous people. The message of the film was colonisation is bad and leads to the destruction of nature, other unique cultures and civilisations.
This has to be a good thing. Hollywood confronting it’s past and owning the damage that was done to ensure the survival of white settlers who stole land that belonged to no-one and upset the delicate balance between humanity and the natural environment, carefully maintained by native American tribes.
There were other values articulated in the film which I could applaud too. A recognition that conflict settled by violence only leads to more violence and how unity, even where there is difference, has greater force in overcoming aggression than lone vigilantism. It is strength that comes from sticking together as a family, as part of a wider community, which is celebrated in this franchise.
I especially enjoy seeing male and female working together as equals and, in Avatar, there was also an appreciation of the spiritual and emotional, over the mechanistic and scientific. Once again there is the recurrent theme of the search for identity and the quest for a parent who loves unconditionally, nurtures, as well as disciplines, and has a character their offspring can be proud of and emulate in their own lives.
I was also intrigued by the worship of the ‘Great Mother’. She seems to be the protective Spirit at the heart of this community, who gives creative energy in birth and takes it back in death. By plugging into her presence, which is represented by a tree, she gives wisdom and prophetic insight. In their most perilous moment, the mother of the family at the centre of the narrative, while desperately trying to rescue her daughters, cries out for help to the ‘Great Mother’.
I was interested in this for a number of reasons. Firstly, in the Western world we tend to refer to ‘Mother’ earth. This makes a clear contrast with Creator God who is described by Jesus as ‘our Father in heaven’. Yet, we must be clear that the divine Spirit is neither male nor female. Or, maybe, it would be more accurate to say God encompasses both male and female. I think we need to rediscover the female attributes of God, who brings newness into being as only women can and is described using the feminine title ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Sophia’ in the ancient Hebrew texts.
Secondly, that help is sought from ‘Great Mother’ at all. Over Christmas I had a conversation with a friend who works with those in recovery from addiction and she was saying that the people she seeks to support are encouraged to find strength and hope from within themselves, rather than look outside to a higher power.
Finally, I liked that Great Mother’s spiritual presence was manifest as a tree. In November last year, I read the book ‘Naked Pilgrim’ by Nick Mayhew-Smith. In it, he says, that while in Northern Europe Christian missionaries in the 7th and 8th centuries cut down trees that were intrinsic to pagan worship, Celtic missionaries to the British Isles incorporated them into Christian worship and built churches nearby. My husband and I visited one such tree last weekend. It’s 1500 years old and adjacent to the church of St Mary and All Saints in Dunsfold, Surrey.
Trees are a rich source of symbolism in the Christian tradition. There’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, at the start of the story of God’s interaction with humanity. And, at the end of the sacred scriptures, in Revelation chapter 22 verse 2, there’s reference to a tree that will have leaves to bring about the healing of the nations. Given our contemporary need to protect and preserve Creation, and how in ancient times being in nature led to worship of the Spirit who brought about it’s beauty, it seems perfectly natural to continue to celebrate and revere our ancient trees. We can allow them to speak to us of the goodness and abundant provision of a God who gives us an identity as His children, loves us and is there when we call to Her for help.
Like you I enjoyed watching Avatar 2: The Way of Water, the special effects are dazzling and beautiful. It also got me thinking about creation care, the central role of trees in scripture – including the tree on which Jesus was killed – and how the beginning and end of things revolve around trees.
I recently planted an oak tree seedling which is currently barely a half a metre tall. I will not be in my earthly body when, hopefully, it will be in its prime giving shade, shelter, food and pleasure to creatures great and small. Just as those who planted three beech trees which tower over my garden and according to a tree surgeon are around 250 years old, planted for another generation to come. Those beech trees are a source of enormous pleasure to me and this summer released a large harvest of nuts.
I sometimes whisper a prayer to God thanking Him for allowing me to temporarily be a steward of a garden blessed with centuries old trees. It reminds me that we are brief custodians of God’s creation and will one day soon return to ashes, while our spirit soars to be in the eternal presence of our creator who made us and loves us and wants to live in communion with us.