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Can a Christmas movie for kids communicate spiritual truth to our culture?
You bet. The recently released film, “The Polar Express,” with its breakthrough animation technology and its beautiful, magical feel, is almost a parable of the Christian experience.
Based on the popular children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, this cinematic piece tells the story of a pre-adolescent boy on a Christmas Eve who is just about to jettison his belief in Santa Claus. But a fantasy dream in the middle of the night has him boarding a mystery train in a snowstorm and joining several other youngsters in a thrill-a-minute excursion to the North Pole.
There, his faltering faith in the reality of the jolly old elf and his myriad helpers is strengthened and confirmed. He ends up awash in the joys of the season.
Plenty of warm holiday sentimentality to go around here, to be sure, though there are some troublesome issues in the flick from a Christian perspective.
Obviously, the plot’s basic premise that the Christmas spirit is all wrapped up in Santa Claus or in human kindness is a concern. Yes, I know it’s just entertainment, but no hint is given in the film of the real story behind this special time: the birth of Jesus.
If God had not sent his only son to earth to live and die for us, our world would still lie in complete spiritual darkness. The happiness and generosity that we celebrate at Yuletide would be virtually non-existent.
The moviemaker chose to create a space where the glorious good news of the baby in the manger is ignored or even expunged. There’s nothing wrong with St. Nick and Christmas cheer, but when society minimizes or brushes aside the fact that the Christ-child came to grow up and die so that people’s lives could be altered, it undercuts the very source of real joy and peace.
Then there’s that business of the train conductor’s unexpected, ill-fitting statement to the lad as the midnight trip comes to an end: “One thing about trains. It doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.” Now that sounds like good, romantic, pop philosophy, but it’s hogwash. It’s spiritually deadly, too. It’s a very dangerous seed-thought to plant in the minds of impressionable boys and girls.
When it comes to eternal destiny, it makes all the difference in the world which route we choose. Granted, there is a measure of truth in the quote. You have to take that initial step of faith and get on board. But, the specific path chosen is crucial. Christians come in for a lot of criticism because we insist on the exclusiveness of Jesus. But we are only communicating in sincerity and in love what he himself affirmed.
Let’s look on the positive side for a moment. There are some parallels and applications and illustrations in this flick that evangelical believers, ever on the lookout for fresh points of contact for sharing their faith with non-Christians, can use.
For instance, the film’s underlying thesis that “believing is seeing” is very significant. Only when the main character puts aside his doubt about the existence of Santa Claus did he actually see him and get to relate to him. Interestingly, Jesus asserted that only childlike faith would propel one into the kingdom of God.
God cannot be seen visibly or adequately explained or proven intellectually. We first place our trust in him, and then the spiritual light comes on to illuminate the path.
One is captivated by the contagious joy and hope of this movie. All of us intrinsically long for that sense of peace and delight that the children experienced. Perhaps at Christmas more than at any other time we yearn to possess that fulfillment and satisfaction down deep in our souls.
It’s possible. It’s available. It can be found in a personal relationship with Christ, as John 10:10 makes clear and as John 3:16 declares. And just as Santa Claus gave the young boy in the film a beautiful bell as a continual reminder of their meeting, so God places within Christians the precious Holy Spirit as a perpetual foretaste of the fabulous future that awaits us.
Don’t overlook, either, that in this film the story is all about a journey. What an apt metaphor for the Christian life! There are ups and downs, thrills and spills, and lots of different people along the way to surprise us and encourage us and assist us. We stumble and fumble. We learn and are stretched. All the while God guarantees that we will reach the destination.
And that real place to which Christians are headed, like this movie’s imaginary North Pole, is absolutely breathtaking and wonderful. I refer to heaven. On the silver screen, that city at the top of the world had magnificent architecture, music, color, work, activity, play and utter joy.
Everything was focused on a central person. Our eternal home will be all that and more. Infinitely more. Never another fear. Never a boring day. Never a doubt that we are incredibly loved.
There, for the first time, we’ll discover that there is indeed a place where the genuine Christmas spirit lasts forever.
The Rev. Tommy Davidson is pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Newport News.
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