Avatar: The Last Airbender and Spiritual Gifts

Sarah Welch-Larson

Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired on Nickelodeon 15 years ago, but it found new life when it was recently made available to stream on Netflix. A rewatch reveals that the animated series remains as fresh and exciting as ever. It also beautifully illustrates Paul’s teachings about the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, as each character uses the unique gifts that have been given to them.

The show is set in a fantastical world populated by four nations: the Fire Nation, Air Nomads, Earth Kingdom, and Water Tribes. Each nation’s members can control the elements by “bending” them: earthbenders can shape rocks, airbenders can change air currents, and so on. Only one person, the Avatar, is capable of bending all four elements. Their job is to maintain peace between all four nations and to be a “bridge” between the physical and spirit worlds. When the Avatar dies, they are reincarnated into a new body from a different nation, and their job continues.

This cycle was broken when the Fire Nation attacked, wiping out the Air Nomads and embarking on a conquest of the other nations. Only one airbender, a 12-year-old boy named Aang, survived. Aang is the newest incarnation of the Avatar, and it is his job to master all four elements and to restore balance to the world—a job made more difficult by his lack of teachers and by the Fire Nation pursuing him.

Fortunately, Aang is not alone in his quest. The show follows him as he travels across the world, searching for teachers who can show him how to bend water, earth, and fire. He’s accompanied by a waterbender, Katara, and her non-bending brother Sokka. Later they’re joined by a blind earthbender girl named Toph on their journey to stop the Fire Nation’s conquest.

Despite its fantastical, epic setting and momentous narrative, Avatar is a genuinely fun—and funny—show. Grace notes give the story room to breathe, like a shot that focuses on wind chimes jangling as Aang walks through a village. Most scenes end on a well-timed joke: Sokka’s pride being deflated by splashing water, or even Toph making fun of her own blindness by pointing out things that her companions can’t see. The result is a show that, like Aang himself, feels more mature than its years, without sacrificing its sense of playfulness.

Also, unlike most American cartoons aimed at children, Avatar draws its influences from a wealth of Asian cultures, from India to China to Japan to the Inuit people. These influences are part of the bones of the show, from the character and location design to the influence of different styles of martial arts. Waterbenders use the smooth, flowing motions of Tai Chi, bending and bowing like the water they control, while earthbenders move like Northern Shaolin boxers, stamping their feet on the ground in precise, quick movements. The animation style lends itself well to these movements: detailed enough to show the placement of a foot as a character prepares for battle, and simple enough to keep the action exciting without being overwhelming.

Unlike most American cartoons aimed at children, Avatar draws its influences from a wealth of Asian cultures.

Eastern philosophy also permeates the show. Aang was raised by monks in a kind of Buddhist monastery, and he is a reincarnation of all the other Avatars who came before him. Taoist ideas about balance and Shinto concepts of pantheistic nature spirits underline the show’s universe. These influences cannot be divorced from the story; without its immersion in Eastern philosophy, the show’s aesthetics would be disingenuous and appropriative. And yet, Avatar still benefits from a reading from an explicitly Christian perspective.

Through its themes of balance and its demonstrations of different benders working together as a force for good, the show illustrates Paul’s teachings about spiritual gifts. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 12. Here he is talking about spiritual gifts like wisdom, prophecy, healing, and the ability to distinguish between spirits. They are not learned skills, but gifts, given by the Holy Spirit to enable God’s people to do God’s work. Some people are called to preach and teach and prophesy, while others are called to heal and guide the church.

Avatar treats bending as a kind of spiritual gift: an ability bestowed on humanity as a way to maintain balance between people and nature. No one form of bending is more important or valuable than another. In line with Paul’s teaching, the show understands that different forms of bending are gifts, intended to promote harmony instead of division. When the Fire Nation attacks the others, they misuse their gift and throw the world off balance.

The show takes the idea of gifts one step further than Paul’s teaching, demonstrating that despite their bending gifts (or lack of them), different characters have different strengths. Katara is an empathetic healer with an iron will, challenging injustice when she sees it, even when it manifests as sexism expressed by her own brother. Sokka is an intelligent tactician with a strong sense of humor. He keeps the show grounded, reminding the rest of the main cast that they aren’t just fighting for themselves, but also for the civilians around them who aren’t able to defend themselves from Fire Nation soldiers. Toph, who is blind, can still hold her own with her sighted companions; as an earthbender, she’s stronger than they are, even though she can’t see her world in the same way they do.

Aang, the series central figure, might be a child, but his own sense of compassion is already well-developed. And despite his ability to bend all four elements, he still needs his friends to teach, guide, and support him on his quest to end the war and bring balance to all four nations. Each character’s strengths cover the other characters’ weaknesses; each one brings something valuable to the table. And ultimately, to quote Paul, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

Topics: TV