A recent article in The Atlantic identifies an increasingly popular message found in children's animated movies. The author uses two of this summer's offerings as examples: Planes and Turbo. Like many of their predecessors, the slick animation gift wraps a message for children that can be summarized as: you can be anything you want to be so long as you believe in yourself.
In Planes, which I haven't seen, a crop duster plane wants to be a racing plane. In Turbo, a snail aspires to race and win the Indianapolis 500. In both instances, according to the article, the only thing standing in their way is (1) their own inhibitions and (2) the naysayers in their communities. In both movies, the protagonists' aspirations are completely irrational and defy their essential and original design: crop dusters aren't built to race; snails designed to win car races at the Brickyard!
The article compares these stories with another children's movie, Charles Schultz's creation, A Boy Named Charlie Brown. This is the debut film for the Peanuts comic strip in 1969. Fans get better acquainted with the melancholy and tortured character that is Charlie Brown, along with his friends. Unlike today's movies made for children, Charles confronts his limitations as boy and what he finds causes him no small amount of sadness. In an effort to alleviate the pain, his constant companion, Linus, explains to Charlie Brown that the world does not revolve around him.
This is very good news namely because it is true, which got me to thinking.
We have watched our fair share of good children's movies over the years with our three kids. We never boycotted Disney or picketed local theaters. While we were protective of what they saw, we were committed to discussing everything. On more than one occasion their mom and I cringed or turned a movie off; but we always tried to talk about what we seen and heard no matter our initial reactions.
As part of our conversations, we discussed the lessons being taught by the storyteller in the movie. Most of these were, as I said earlier, wrapped up in slick animation and with very entertaining plot lines and complex characters. Along the way, either directly or indirectly, we were contrasting the movie's lesson with the lessons from the Bible. The one lesson from Scripture that was essential to learn was exactly what Linus offered his friend, Chuck. Namely, despite how we feel or what we were told, we are not the center of the world. Along with that, we are not our own creators, which means the One who created us has a design for our life and has given us the means to realize that design for His glory. The good life is not defined by being the best you can be while ignoring the naysayers! As the Westminster Catechism says, we are created to glorify God and enjoy Him in all that we do.
For some, the way to avoid the misleading lessons in the world is to disallow anything that is not labeled "Christian." Art, music, and movies that is labeled Christian, however, oftentimes lack the imaginative quality that is compelling for people of all ages. (Veggie Tales was the exception when our kids were growing up!) The other big problem with this boundary is that the lessons being taught in the Christian media were strikingly similar to those being taught in the mainstream media (Again, at times this was true of Veggie Tales). As a parent, I found this much more difficult to address! When a storyteller, say, uses a story from the Bible to teach the lessons of self-actualization, this can be very confusing for a child, not to mention adults!
As parents we found the more compelling the movie, the better we could talk about what lessons were being taught. Moreover, stories that were not trying to be "Christian" provided a contrasting narrative to the Gospel of Jesus Christ found in Scripture. This resulted in countless conversations, that continue to this day, wherein the truth of Scripture can be contrasted and drawn out clearly from the self-centered lessons of the world. Our kids are older now, attend public schools, and play sports. Their life experiences in these different settings now provide the venue for us to have some of the very same conversations.
One way to contrast the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of the Bible is to ask two simple questions: What does the storyteller believe is the problem? What does the storyteller promote as the solution?
THE problem, according to Scripture, is that we have rejected God as our creator and in doing so have become foolish and idolatrous people bent on our own glory (Romans 1:21). As a result, we have "sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). But, God has anointed and appointed Jesus to be our Savior and King, bringing us back into community with Himself (Ephesians 2:4-10). Jesus is our only solution. Jesus gives me confidence, inner strength, and determination by placing my trust in Him and living for the glory of God.
How will your child's favorite cartoon character answer this question? In short: Your struggles are the result of either internal or external pressures that deny you the right to be all that you can be. The solution, then, is to reject the naysayers and stay positive and focused on YOUR dreams no matter the cost.
Unfortunately, it's not uncommon to hear children's Sunday School literature and Vacation Bible School literature (not to mention sermons) use stories from the Bible as a means to human achievement instead God's glory. Jesus, in this context, serves the purpose of a coach, cheerleader, copilot, or counselor. His role as our savior-by-death or Lord is marginalized. Whether labeled Christian or Pixar, the end goal is self-actualization. The Bible, with all of its sharp edges and ambiguous characters, not to mention a call for confession and repentance, loses out to "The Little Engine that Could."
The Gospel of Jesus Christ results not in imitation but in gratitude. Instead of asking "What Would Jesus (or some other Bible character) Do?", the Gospel focuses on "What Has Jesus (alone) Done?" When the answer to that question comes into focus in the Bible by God's grace, then our hearts turn grateful and we, along with our children, become true worshippers of the living God.
At that moment, and throughout our life, like Charlie Brown, realize and confess that we are not the center of the world... which is very good news indeed!