Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Airbenders and Religious Traditions

avatar the rift 1In just a few short weeks, Avatar: The Legend of Korra will air its final episodes online, and the animated Avatar franchise will come to an end. The fourth season of the show was pulled from television a couple of months ago, but still airs every Friday online. Was it the nasty Friday night time slot, a lack of advertising, or just plain uninterested viewers that caused its failing ratings? I don’t know. But fans of Avatar need not fear, because Dark Horse and Nickelodeon have been steadily churning out some excellent graphic novels following the original Gaang from Avatar: The Last Airbender. The first comic trilogy, The Promise, shows the Gaang struggling to figure out what to do with Fire Nation Colonies in the Earth Kingdom in the new post-war world. The second, The Search, finally answers the question of what really happened to Zuko’s mom. The final installment of The Rift trilogy came out this past November, and deals with whether or not humans and spirits can really coexist, and Smoke and Shadow is due for release beginning in late 2015.

The Rift raises some interesting questions about how religion can and should adapt and evolve to new times and places, questions that are especially relevant to religious people’s lives today. What’s the value in maintaining ancient religious traditions and practices? How can religious traditions be meaningful in a modern world? Can any changes ever be good?

Spoilers for The Rift under the cut.

avatar the rift bowingThe Rift begins during the celebration of a new government in the city of Yu Dao, and Aang is inspired to celebrate Yangchen’s Festival with his friends and students of Airbender culture, the Air Acolytes — young people without bending powers that admire Airbender culture, not unlike a fandom. Yangchen was the previous Airbender Avatar before Aang. When the group arrives at the holy site, we soon discover that while Aang has fond memories of celebrating this important Airbender holy day with his childhood friends, he never paid much attention to the spiritual meanings behind the celebrations. Aang invites his friends to bow before what he thought was a giant statue of Yangchen, but it doesn’t have her characteristic arrow tattoos. He has a hard time explaining the reason for bowing to his friend Toph, who refuses, and has trouble showing Sokka, an avid meat-eater, why bland tofu is traditional Airbender food. It turns out that as a child, Aang always chose to fly air kites instead of listening to the stories about the reasons why the Airbenders celebrate Yangchen’s Festival, because he thought he’d have a lifetime to learn about that stuff.

air acolytesIt’s clear that doing things just for the sake of doing them doesn’t work. Aang wants to celebrate the festival not because he admires Yangchen so much, but because he wants to relive his days in the Air Nation. Katara joins in because she’s Aang’s girlfriend and wants to support him, but Sokka and Toph don’t understand the point of actions that seem strange to them, and so they don’t participate. The Air Acolytes want to learn about Airbender culture, but ultimately are more focused on impressing and pleasing Aang. The same problem happens when people don’t understand why they do what they do in real religions. If people go to their houses of worship and just go through the motions, they aren’t going to keep practicing that religion. It’s like the kid that moves away from home but never achieved a personal spiritual connection to their parent’s religion. When they come home for a holiday, they might go to a mosque or church or temple to make their parents happy, but they sure as heck aren’t going to keep going on their own when the visit is over.

Aang and the Gaang soon discover that a refinery factory has been built on the sacred land where Aang and his people used to celebrate the festival. While Aang’s angry, his friends point out that the factory employs all kinds of benders and non-benders, and represents the new kind of world that Aang is working so hard to establish. Aang agrees to move the celebration to a different location. Here, we see how Aang’s new beliefs force him to make adjustments to his practices. His desire to preserve his traditions exactly as they were nearly causes him to eliminate one of the few places where his new world ideas are thriving. Again, the clear message is that meaning is far more important than actions.

avatar tienhaiIn a spiritual vision, Aang connects with the spirit of Yangchen and learns the real story of the festival. Yangchen’s Festival doesn’t celebrate Yangchen, but a deal she made with the spirit General Old Iron to remember his friend Lady Tienhai. Tienhai loved humans, and Old Iron hated them. Old Iron believes that humans killed Tienhai, so to keep the peace Yangchen establishes a festival to honor Tienhai (hence, the giant statue). The factory has disturbed the sacred ground where Old Iron’s armor is buried, and Aang has a vision of Old Iron coming back to destroy the factory. Aang finally meets Tienhai, who explains that she wasn’t killed, but loved humans so much that she became one, married a man, and lived a full life. Her husband blamed himself for her death, but didn’t understand that Tienhai wasn’t gone forever. She took on a new form, as a crane that lived near her statue. Armed with this new knowledge, Aang and his friends save the factory workers, and establishes a new festival in honor of Tienhai that honors her love of the vivaciousness of humanity.

At the end of The Rift, we see that Aang is able to establish a new tradition in light of his newfound knowledge and meaning. He combines his new ideas of harmony between nations with his deep connection to the spirit world. Traditions are important, but they need to adapt to new cultures and reinterpreted in light of new knowledge. We don’t ever find out if the Airbenders of Aang’s childhood knew the real story of Tienhai, or if they only knew the story of Yangchen defeating General Old Iron. What we do know is that they all were trying to celebrate what Tienhai stood for: peace, harmony, and celebration of human life.

Religions take all kinds of approaches to passing on their traditions and ensuring they have meaning. Some groups happily reinterpret old beliefs in new and creative ways that resonate with their followers. Others change and adapt their practices based on new discoveries about their beliefs, or new developments in theology. Still others work hard to pass on beliefs and meanings that have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years. For these people, as time goes on, it often becomes harder and harder to preserve their traditions in an ever-changing world. But at the same time, it’s even more important for them to pass on the knowledge and understanding that accompanies their traditions, so that the traditions survive. Aang and his Air Acolytes found new ways to preserve the purpose of the ancient holy day. Is it better to preserve the old traditions or adapt them into new ones? The answer is going to depend on the believer. Whichever side you choose, one thing we can agree on is that a proper understanding of why religious people do the strange things that we do is the key to preserving not just the practical traditions, but the religious identity of the people.

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1 thought on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Airbenders and Religious Traditions

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