The Lure of the Unmanaged World

So my wife and I finally made it out to see “Avatar” tonight, on the last weekend it’s in the theater here. That being the case, if you haven’t seen it, plan to see it, and don’t want to know anything that happens, consider this your *SPOILER ALERT*. I’ll try to refrain from giving away too many plot details, but there was something about it that struck me during a conversation with Heidi on the ride home.

We both agreed that it was better than expected – many of the reviews we’d read led us to believe that it was a shallow “Dances with Wolves” knock off built only to serve as a vehicle for a new graphic technology.

The graphics, of course, were amazing, but it was more than that. It definitely had its annoying parts – the naturist “theology” was downright preachy, and the message of “your culture is bad, and everybody else’s culture is good” really gets old (incidentally, why can’t anybody give Western Civilization an honest, objective look and say, “It has its good points and its bad points.” Why does there have to be a “better” and “worse” culture . . . isn’t the whole ideal of “diversity” simply to highlight and appreciate differences)

But I digress. The conversation I had with my wife on the way home was this: A number of the articles we’d both read talked of viewers who left the movie disappointed . . . disappointed that now they had to return to the “real world” . . . disappointed that they couldn’t stay on Pandora like the story’s hero. She said that didn’t make any sense to her – after all, the nature portrayed in Pandora was much like the nature here in the real world . . . harsh and unforgiving, and at the same time beautiful and rewarding.

I had to laugh, because in some subconscious part of my brain, it made perfect sense to me. I had to put some thought into it to piece it together, but finally I realized it . . . the appeal of Pandora is the appeal of an *unmanaged world.*

Very little about the actual plot of Avatar is especially original, but this particular piece seems to be an archtype of the epic drama genre into which this movie fits. Others in this vein include Braveheart, Gladiator, and yes, Dances with Wolves. It’s also found in classic literature like the Call of the Wild, the Leatherstocking Tales or any James Michener novel. It even made me think of the “Little House on the Prairie” series I read as a child.

The lure of Pandora is the lure of freedom – and of responsibility. From Avatar’s first scene, we are told that life on Pandora is utterly unforgiving. The humans who live there survive because they follow orders. Failure to stick to known areas, failure to follow accepted conventions and procedures, means death. It is a life that is utterly managed – literally down to when, where and how you breathe.

Contrast that with the life of Pandora’s native Na’vi. They too have conventions and rituals, but those conventions and rituals are theirs by choice . . . not by imposition. They too are subject to the harsh realities of nature, but to them those harsh realities are allies, not adversaries. This is true of the examples I mentioned as well – from William Wallace’s refusal to bow to a king, to Pa Ingalls’ need for “elbow room.”

Isn’t this reminiscent of the world we live in? We have laws now to tell us what we can eat, what we can drink, where we can walk. Just the other day I read that they’re now trying to make it illegal for restaurants in New York to cook with salt! The President and his congressional allies seem determined to push through a health care bill chock full of additional managements – who we can see about our illnesses, where we can go for medicine, when we can die. We truly do live a thoroughly managed life. And I, for one, am sick of it. No wonder people wish they could escape this existence for the one portrayed in Avatar – harsh and dangerous as it is.  But in this world where there are not empty places left to be discovered, and where “management” has permeated everyone, everything and every place, there are no frontiers left to escape to.

You know what’s especially interesting to me? I think that our need for this “wanderlust” is one of the ways we reflect the image of God. I have said repeatedly on this page that I believe God created us to be free, but I don’t just mean that in the sense of not being told what to do. I mean it in the sense of being free from the obligations, expectations and duties that come with a managed life.

I recently started reading the Bible from the beginning, trying to read it chronologically as best I can, to gain a picture of the evolving relationship between God and His creation. What I found kind of shocked me.

I have always felt closest to God . . . closest to myself . . . in the solitude of nature – a mountain, a forest, a park – these are the places I hear God’s voice most clearly. But I don’t think I’m alone in that. In James Michener’s “The Source,” one of his characters has a conversation with God about moving into a big city, and God tells him that he won’t be able to hear His voice as clearly from inside the walls. While the conversation, of course, is fictional, I think it speaks to something true.

Consider the story of Cain and Abel . . . the Bible never tells us exactly what the problem was with Cain’s offering – just that God rejected it. But one of the things I find interesting is the difference between what the two men offered. Abel offered a lamb – the product of a solitary, nomadic life lived as a herder of sheep. Cain offered the produce of a garden – a stationary thing that tied him to a specific spot of land.

Then there was Babel – in his disapproval of such an audacious project, what did God do? He didn’t strike the tower with lightning and leave the project in ruins – he scattered the people who were all gathered in one place . . . and made certain they would never be able to do so again.

Then came Abraham, called from the most populous cities of his day to wander as a bedouin. There was also his nephew, Lot – the scripture speaks with foreboding of his decision to “settle down” in Sodom and Gomorrah, long before the cataclysm that destroys those cities and leaves him hiding in a cave.

And there is God Himself – who told the people of Israel, in exacting detail, to build Him a tent. The opulent temple that followed later was man’s idea, and as He seems to do with so many of our ideas, God’s approach to that one was something along the lines of, “ok, fine, whatever.”

In short, God seems to like visiting us in unmanaged places – in places that are not utopian, but neither are they filled with all the concerns, stresses, obligations, expectations, duties – distractions – that seems so inescapable today.

While the anamistic view in Pandora fails to capture the person that is God . . . a real person with whom we can have a real, fulfilling relationship . . . I think it does, inadvertently, say something about Him that speaks to that empty place in many hearts.

that, I think, is the lure of Pandora.

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