It is sometimes surprising how fixations in one’s adult intellectual life were sown, often unconsciously, in one’s youth. Netflix’s recent acquisition of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an Asian-inspired fantasy show that first premiered when I was ten, is, I am happy to say, not the first chance I have had at a rewatch: I was able to revisit it in college while watching its sequel, The Legend of Korra; in my second round of graduate school, both shows were streaming on Amazon Prime, so my roommates and I happily waded through them. Now, a few years later, I am around halfway through Korra yet again, having just finished ATLA; so it is fair to say that, with fifteen years and almost three full watch-throughs under my belt, I might have some sense of what these shows are about and what it is that makes them so beloved.
In the world of Avatar, there are four nations, each patterned after one of the four classical elements, Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. Among all of these nations are individuals with the ability to use martial arts to “bend” the element to which their culture is spiritually connected, allowing them to perform amazing, preternatural feats. The main problem of the original show is that for 100 years, the Fire Nation has been waging war on the other three people groups of the world. Sometime before the 100 Year War, the Avatar, a cyclically reincarnated individual who has the power to wield all four elements, disappeared, allowing the Fire Nation (modelled on imperial Japan) to commit genocide on the peaceful Air Nomads (modelled in culture and aesthetics on Tibetan Buddhist monks), all but conquer the Water Tribes (modelled on Native Alaskan peoples), and substantially invade the Earth Kingdom (modelled on imperial China). Two Southern Water Tribe teenagers, a Waterbender named Katara and her brother, Sokka, discover the long-lost Avatar, a 12-year-old Air Nomad named Aang, frozen in an iceberg with his sky-bison, Appa. Katara, Sokka, and Aang travel the world so that Aang can learn the other three elements while on the run from Prince Zuko, an exiled scion of the Fire Nation bent on Aang’s capture to restore his honor, so that he can defeat Fire Lord Ozai before the coming of Sozin’s Comet, a celestial phenomenon that will endow Firebenders with an unstoppable power to win the war. Aang, Katara, and Sokka, together with Toph (a blind but powerful Earthbender girl), and a lately repentant Zuko ultimately band together to defeat the Fire Lord and restore balance to the world.
The sequel to ATLA, The Legend of Korra, follows the Avatar immediately succeeding Aang, a Water Tribe Southerner girl named Korra. The four seasons of TLoK follow Korra on her journey to become a fully-fledged Avatar: in the first, she studies airbending with Aang and Katara’s son, Tenzin, and quells the rebellion of the Equalists (an anti-bending revolutionary group) in Republic City, an international metropolis founded by Aang; in the second, she must face the Avatar’s most ancient foe, the spirit of darkness, who is released by a harmonic convergence of the planets, and reconnects the spiritual and material worlds; in the third, she must navigate the changes the world undergoes in response to this decision, including the resurrection of the Air Nomads as a nation, and the Avatar’s place in the new world; and in the fourth, she must face a new threat of imperialism, not from the Fire Nation but from the Earth Kingdom. TLoK is in many ways a more mature show than ATLA, for better (insofar as it substantially explores the show’s mythology and charts an interesting aftermath for the events of the original show) and for worse (insofar as one of ATLA’s chief charms was its largely light-hearted innocence).
Some of what makes these shows perpetually beloved is surely nostalgia. ATLA, when it came out, was utterly unprecedented in the world of American children’s cartoons, and 2005, for all of its difficulties, was a much simpler world than 2020 is, and those of us who grew up with the original series had (for the most part, or at least comparatively) simpler concerns. This is a fairly low bar, and in truth, the world of 2005 was a fairly heavy world: those of us who knew it had seen 9/11, the beginning of the Iraq War, and a new wave of growing concerns about the environmental crisis. On top of these, in my own little ten-year-old world, my primary Christian influences at the time were charismatic and apocalyptically minded, and deeply fringe: thrilling but also worrying me with tales of imminent apocalyptic destruction and a hero’s journey of survival under the rule of the Beast (perhaps to begin in 2012, giving us just a little time to prepare, anyway).
But ATLA was sensitive to the troubles that faced the world of my generation and was able to communicate, in a way that spoke to the children who watched it, about the heavy topics that we were being asked to deal with then: war, imperialism, and environmentalism, the complexity of good and evil as they exist socially and in every human soul, and the moral ambiguity of using force and violence to solve problems. TLoK followed up on these themes with many of those that afflicted us as we entered our late teens and early twenties: the relationship of culture, self, and technology, the choice between static identities and dynamic traditions, and the ambiguous interconnections of past, present, and future. These were intelligent programs, marketed to their audiences with interesting, relevant, and hard-hitting questions in the form of a captivating world, narrative, and characters.
For my money, though, the most interesting thing about the show—and this is wrapped up in each of the things I mention above concerning its staying power—is its spiritual cosmology. It remains anomalous and exciting to have had a children’s show syndicated on a public television network so thoroughly suffused with religion and philosophy. The conceptual and aesthetic imagery that forms the architecture of the Avatarverse is thoroughly Asian and indigenous in character. There is a spirit world connected to but distinct from the material world, home to spirits great and small, some of whom possess cosmic influence and some of whom act as territorial divinities and sprites on the corporeal plane. The spiritual world is closely intertwined in affection, sympathy, and temperament with the natural world, which boasts a vast array of plants and animals, the latter of whom are often somewhat comical hybrids (penguin-otters, polar bear-dogs, lemur-bats, etc.), but has an uneasy relationship with humans, whose natural capacity for selfishness and greed is unimpressive and sometimes offensive to the spirits. Spiritual, natural, and human realms are interconnected by some cosmic principles, like the four elements, with whom some humans have a spiritual connection through bending; but even those who don’t still have the opportunity for communion with spirits and nature, and for enlightenment through meditation and purification (such as Guru Pathik, who teaches Aang about chakras). The Avatar acts as a bridge between and among spirits, nature, and humans: a sort of Nestorian union of Raava, the Spirit of Light, and a human (whose earliest remembered life was as a peasant named Wan), the Avatar’s cyclical rebirth among the four nations guarantees that they have a mediator for their disputes, who is able to call the powers of the world to account, as well as a go-between with the ancient and intelligent forces of nature and the spirits. The Avatar’s job is to lead the world in the maintenance of cosmic balance: true harmony, through peace and love, is constantly lauded in these shows beyond mere toleration or annihilation.
Theologically these shows seem to value most the indigenous religious cultures of First Nations peoples and various phenomena of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have a distinctly felt absence in the show’s conceptual makeup, apart, perhaps, from the quasi-messianic role that the Avatar plays (though, of course, the very word avatar is Sanskrit in origin for a messianic incarnation of a brahmanic divinity, and so requires no familiarity with Christianity to land). And some of the elements here are, at least superficially, incompatible with traditional Christian faith and morals: Christians have not, generally, believed in metempsychosis (though, of course, most Western understandings of reincarnation are fairly crude and the subject deserves fresh articulation); Christianity in its earliest years gradually replaced local pagan cults to anthropomorphized and non-anthropomorphic natural divinities. But I would make the case that Avatar is theologically useful for the Christian imagination, in at least three ways.
First, the modern Christian cosmos is unimaginably dull and lifeless. Most Christians have fully bought into the universe described by modern cosmology but have yet to produce anything like the imaginative synthesis by which the ancient and medieval cosmos of Ptolemy and Dante “lived, moved, and had its being” in God. It is by now old hat to talk about how the cosmos of the ancients was alive and beautiful, while the modern cosmos is dead and chaotic; but as useful as this narrative sometimes is, it has certain limitations in its explanatory power that are worth working through. For one thing, while the Ptolemaic cosmos bore similarities to some other cosmologies alive and at work in the East, it simply was not the case that all Christians everywhere depended on it; the Christian missionaries of the Church of the East who composed the Nestorian Stele in Western China, for instance, certainly had no qualms about using explicitly Buddhist pictures of the universe as their primary conceptual framework. Ptolemy was important to those Christians who valued Greco-Roman classical culture, who have never been all Christians even if they were the earliest generations of Christians and all of their Mediterranean successors. For another, many moderns have reenchanted the cosmos, which is nothing other than saying that they have provided imaginatively fresh interpretations of the contemporary universe through myth, poetry, and philosophy, often fictive. Star Wars and Marvel Comics are probably the dominant examples of this sort of thing in our culture today; Avatar is another, and valuable to Christians insofar as it invites them to that task in the present, all the more so because it does so from outside of the distinctly Western cultural milieu.
Second, building on this, the world and themes of Avatar are a generous helping of what in contemporary Catholic thought is often termed “spiritual ecology.” The concept of cosmic balance is as much necessary to Christian thought as it is central to the spiritual systems of Asian and indigenous societies: insofar as the Christian evangel is that sin and death have lacerated and destroyed cosmic harmony, and Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, has defeated them and their daimonic administrators decisively in his death and resurrection, enabling the restoration of all creation, ours is a religion that is (or at least ought to be) deeply concerned with the health not only of human souls and societies but of all creatures. This is perhaps best exemplified by our saints, especially the great ascetics, each of whom have undergone a return to nature, to the Adamic life of the garden, in order to purify the soul, and who have found in this journey that restoration of the heart’s simplicity before its Creator naturally entails its embrace of communion with the rest of God’s creation in intimate knowledge and love. And in this, they have great affinity, or at least great parallel, with precisely those Asian influences manifest in the world of Avatar, such that the concepts of inner peace and cosmic stewardship ought to strike us as among those gems of truth, goodness, and beauty that Christianity has traditionally assumed to be scattered among all world religious traditions in plentiful supply.
Finally, and hopefully in a logical progression, Avatar is useful for Christian theology as a living engagement with Asian and indigenous spiritual cultures and their influence. Christianity has been present in South and East Asia since at least the 7th century AD, if not earlier, and yet, with the exception of a few examples, there has yet to be a fully inculturated form of Christianity in Asia—or, for that matter, among First Nations peoples—that has the full support and appreciation of the apostolic churches headquartered in the Mediterranean. Inculturation is a tricky concept in and of itself, but it must surely mean, if it means anything, a Christianity that finds a way to make its own the fundamental spiritual concerns and aspirations of a particular people, and the form of life they have traditionally found appropriate, by taking seriously their normative religious, philosophical, and communal life. And that means, minimally, Christians willing to take Asian religions, philosophies, practices, ethnic identities, and assumptions seriously, as potential seedbeds of the gospel, primely fertilized by their long and venerable histories of longing for the transcendent and fascination with the mysteries of being and non-being. In an increasingly globalized world and Church, it is those Christianities most willing to do this comparative and incarnational theological work, admittedly difficult, which are the most fecund.