Families have December traditions, but so do individuals within those families—perennial routines that need not involve everyone in the house. Last night I engaged in one of those traditions myself. I watched a 90-minute Chritsmas movie that I would try to catch every year growing up. (I say “try to catch” because streaming movies wasn’t a thing back then. We had thirteen channels and a TV Guide, and we had to make our schedule work around whatever it was we wanted to watch at the time it was on.)
Based on a novella by Gail Rock, The House Without a Christmas Tree always resonated with me as a child, not because we didn’t have a tree, but because the relational dynamics in the home seemed all too familiar. A grouchy, emotionally constipated father has a rocky relationship with his young child, who just wants to be loved. Just wants to be accepted. Alas, I could relate.
It’s a sad flick in many respects, but it trudges onward, executing a few subplots along the way and dragging itself toward a satisfying conclusion, though not in a Hallmarky kind of way. No one is happily every-aftering at the end of this no-frills, low-budget production. The characters are simply in a better place to live healthier, more integrated lives in the future. It’s a step forward, not a leap, but things are looking up when the curtain comes down.
Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas) is a feisty, precocious 10-year-old in 1946 living in rural Nebraska. She can’t understand why her prickly father won’t allow them to have a Christmas tree in the home. James Mills (Jason Robards) doesn’t communicate well with his daughter. In fact, he can barely look at her most of the time, only grunting out terse corrections of the chatty child when his annoyance threshold has been crossed. Reading the newspaper always seems more important to him.
Fortunately, Addie’s grandmother, Sarah Mills (Mildred Natwick), bridges the gap between the two combatants. Grandma helps Addie see the situation from her father’s perspective, that of a man who’s stuck in his grief, still lamenting the loss of his wife from ten years ago, shortly after Addie was born. Simultaneously, Sarah counsels her son to see the impasse from his daughter’s point of view, and the importance of loving the ones who are still with us, even if deep down we wish things were different.
As Christmas approaches, it seems Addie will never get her tree, something she believes would bring a modicum of cheer to an otherwise gloomy house. But then an act of generosity touches her father’s heart and teaches him an important lesson about the spirit of Christmas. Indeed, a universal theme in literature makes an appearance in the movie—the loving sacrifice of the weaker party softening the callous pride of the stronger party, prompting a genuine change of heart.
Addie becomes the catalyst for her father’s epiphany. It’s her sacrifice that jolts him out of the selfish rut he’s been stuck in for the past decade. Fortunately, he comes to see that God has blessed him with a truly remarkable child, whom he’s been using as a repository for his pain all these years.
I suppose I always connected with this movie because my own father was much like Addie’s. And I likewise held out hope for relief and resolution someday. Dad was not a widower, but he did carry a lot of personal pain for other reasons. That pain came largely from his being the child of two alcoholic parents who were harsh with everyone around them. Being poor didn’t help, either.
The ensuing strife led other family members to develop ties to the mafia, first as an escape, then as a quest for acceptance, and then as a way of life. For that reason, I never met most of my father’s family. He never talked about his parents or siblings, and I only ever saw his mother one time—when she was in her casket. He was protecting us from his family, which was an act of love on his part that we knew nothing about when we were children.
Despite his pain—or maybe because of it—my father trusted Christ for salvation six months before he passed away. He came to see the kindness of the heavenly Father toward him, and it captured his heart. Genuine transformations began to take place in his life, and he was growing in grace by the time he left us. I’ll take that over a Hallmarky ending any day.
“The show was dazzling and majestic in every way imaginable. The score, the voices, the lights, the scenery, the costumes, the special effects, and the sheer creativity of it all were unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a live performance. Can the stage get any better than this? With the exception of a few secondary cast members, this was as close to theatrical perfection as one can get. Love wins in the end. The curse is lifted from the castle, and happily we’re ever aftering.”
Such was my impression after seeing Broadway’s version of Beauty and the Beast about a decade ago. Superlatives failed to capture the excellence of the production and the inspiration of the moment. But what struck me most—again—was the prominence of biblical themes contained in a secular work, and the resolution of the foundational human dilemma in ways that come close to what the Bible indicates happened in Christ. These kinds of correspondences in literature are never exact, but they often come strikingly close to the biblical narrative.
I see these kinds of correspondences quite often, and sometimes it gets me into trouble. When my kids were young, they laughed at me mercilessly while I sobbed my way through Finding Nemo. But I teared up because that silly cartoon is the compelling story of a loving father who will stop at nothing to find his lost son and return him safely home. Sounds a lot like Luke 15 to me, and if Disney is the one to show it to me better than the preacher, who am I to object? We believers don’t need to get nervous at such an admission, for surely the grace of God cannot be upstaged by a cartoon, even if a preacher’s sermon can be.
But here’s the question that intrigues me: How did the unbelieving author of Finding Nemo—who rejects Luke 15 as being authoritative—wind up writing his own version of it? From our theological perspective, the answer goes something like this: What fallen humanity yearns for most, as reflected in our stories, literature, poetry, and music, God has provided for us in Jesus Christ, his only Son, and it’s only spiritual blindness that prevents us from seeing it. Alas, too often we prefer our own stories to God’s, so we write him out of the script. Or so we think.
The fact is, we may go off and draft our own stories without God, but we still write as people made in the image of God, even if we refuse to acknowledge the fact. But denying God doesn’t erase the image of God inside the denier, which means, of course, that we can’t even be good skeptics without God’s help. The clenched fist we wave in his face is from the hand he gave us in the first place. Ditto the minds he gave us—with which we pen our stories.
Writing through Rebels
The basic plot of Beauty and the Beast is well known. A curse renders the young prince and his whole castle disfigured, jaded, unkind, and less than human. But there’s an intense longing by these distorted people to have the curse reversed and become “normal” again. Significantly, the rules of the game in this fictional world insist that only a true and sacrificial love can serve as the means by which the curse is lifted and restoration can take place. As is the case in all fairy tales, this true and sacrificial love is finally realized, along with the happy resolution to which the whole plot moves. There’s even a song called “Human Again,” which talks about being reborn. Reborn? Where does that language come from?
I see this so often in good literature that I have to recognize something bigger is going on here than meets the eye. Is it possible that God can witness to himself even on Broadway during a musical production based on a fairy tale—or at least prepare people’s hearts for eventually hearing his own version of the Story? Is it possible for a believer like me to actually worship God in the theater during such a play?
Well, I did, right there in Seat J-9 of the center section. And I worshipped because of what I’m convinced is true of the irreligious authors who wrote this show, and is true of me, too: When fallen people reject God’s story and run off to write their own, they wind up writing God’s story anyway, even if they do mangle the script a bit. Image bearers write after their own image. Broken image bearers miss the target, even if they’re firing the right arrows.
Now, that should cause us to ponder the greatness of God. Has the Almighty really made us in such a way that even our rebellion can serve to providentially boomerang us back to himself? Luke 15 would seem to suggest so. Every time that smelly pig rubbed its muddy snout against the prodigal son’s leg, it was actually pushing the boy closer to home, where a gracious father stood ready to throw a feast upon his return.
The Original Storyteller
Such a God would indeed be awesome and worthy of our worship. And such a God would vindicate Qoheleth (the Teacher) who wrote, “God has set eternity in the heart” (Eccl 3:11b). In other words, wherever we go, there we are, imago Dei and all. Surely, we can never find our way back to God’s Narrative without divine assistance, but we can yearn in the right direction for the inconceivably good climax he’s already penned. Indeed, it’s precisely because we’re made in his image that we can write something approximating his script. But because we’re also fallen, we can never get it exactly right. We need a critic or an editor who knows the original storyline to help us get it right. The prophets are God’s critics, and the priests are God’s editors. We need their voices because we tend to botch the story without them. But the underlying truth is that we ashuman beings tell stories because God is the original Storyteller.
Our stories, then, consist of faded glory yearning for Eden, and the implications for outreach are profound. Maybe God is greater than we had ever imagined, and maybe the gospel is far better news than we had ever thought. Should we not be more hopeful, knowing that God is always at work? (Cf. John 5:17.) Should we not love people more, even unbelievers who don’t agree with our theology? They dohave a theology; it’s just not complete yet. The boomerang hasn’t come all the way back yet to the hand that threw it. Patience is required. So is perseverance.
Lost and Found
That’s why we share the gospel in places we think it might not prevail. The Parable of the Sower teaches, among other things, the need for liberality (to the point of carelessness) in spreading the Word. Why? Because good soil—life-sustaining soil—can be found in some pretty surprising places. The cracks in my driveway bear witness to that. Surely the hearts of many in our day have been paved over by the cares of this world, but there are many cracks out there desperately waiting to be seeded.
For the most part, Jesus called people who were far from God “lost,” which invites genuine compassion, not self-righteous condemnation. To be lost implies the possibility of being found, and this dynamic is a universal tug of the heart. Miners trapped in a shaft. Hikers buried beneath an avalanche of snow. Children plunged to the bottom of an uncovered well. Astronauts locked inside a hobbled space craft. We want them back. We want them to be rescued. We want a happy ending to the story. And we want a savior who can make it happen. We want a champion who will set things right again. Such yearnings and resolutions are ubiquitous in literature.
The Little Mermaid
The Wizard of Oz
Phantom of the Opera
Lord of the Rings
The Chronicles of Narnia
Beauty and the Beast
Lifting the Curse
In Beauty and the Beast, all the members of the castle staff are under a spell that renders them less than human. They’ve all become “things”— household objects, dishes, kitchenware, furniture, and the like. They’ve been objectified and dehumanized, and they’re demoralized because of it. But word is out that someone has come to the castle who might be able to break the spell. They long for that moment. And as they see their day of redemption coming, they burst into jubilant song:
Human again! Think of what that means! We’ll be dancing again, we’ll be twirling again We’ll be whirling around with such ease When we’re human again, only human again
We’ll go waltzing those old one-two-threes We’ll be floating again, we’ll be gliding again Stepping, striding as fine as you please Like a real human does, I’ll be all that I was
On the glorious morn, when we’re finally re-born And we’re—all of us—human again
Re-born? That’s our word. A Christian word. A Jesus word (John 3:3). And to that I can only say, God is beautifully sneaky. He’ll give a whole theatre audience an echo of his gospel in a dazzling, captivating production. It’s not the gospel, but it’s a half-decent echo of the gospel. Are we listening? God is always speaking. History (“his story”) is the stage. We might mess up our lines from time to time, but the playwright gets his way in the end. So, the tales are true after all. The God of Scripture is the God who lifts curses, turning beasts into humans, even today.
Tale as old as time Song as old as rhyme Beauty and the Beast
The True Myth
The gospel according to Broadway. They almost get it right, but they’re far enough away from it to be dangerous. That’s why they need a prophet and a priest to connect the dots and finish the story. Christ is the beauty, and I am the beast. The spiritual spell I’m under needs to be broken, and by the sacrificial love of Christ crucified, it is. Moreover, by his resurrection from the dead, the curse is finally lifted, and I can be reborn.
C. S. Lewis was on to something when he considered the possibility that all our stories, myths, and aspirations down through history came to fullest expression in the actual Christ of history. (And for that insight, we have J. R. R. Tolkien to thank; see below.)
If that’s the case, then let the Church continue to sing—on behalf of others as well as herself—“Come, Desire of nations come, fix in us thy humble home.”
VIDEO: “Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies” on Addison’s Walk, a footpath around a small island in the River Cherwell on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, England. I watched this video clip on my phone while walking the same path in the spring of 2019. Knowing the far-reaching impact this conversation has had, I prayed a simple prayer of thanksgiving—through tears, of course—for the lives of these two men.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” – Jorge Luis Borges
The seminary where I teach just converted its entire library to a digital access collection. That’s a wise move for us since so many of our students these days are from out of town, out of state, or even out of the country. Online education has made such diversity possible. Still, I miss the tactile nature of real books, so there’s something to lament here as well as to celebrate.
And what of the real structures that house the real books? Virtual shelves lack a certain je ne sais quoi, do they not? While they’re losing ground to the modern e-book and audio book industries, libraries once were the central hubs of human intellectual progress and achievement. Indeed, there’s something about them that still attracts people today.
Whether it’s their magnificent architecture, the distinct smell of old books, or the charm of intimate spaces that no other kind of building can command, scholars and dreamers alike still enjoy scanning the best of our literary heritage inside traditional libraries.
Because of their cultural importance, libraries often were built to be beautiful and to last. The folks over at boredpanda.com have assembled an impressive gallery for your viewing pleasure. You can check it out here.
Not too long ago I visited the George Peabody Library in Baltimore, Maryland. The atmosphere was mesmerizing, but I inadvertently broke a rule while on site. I started perusing a rather old francophone book on the French Revolution, only to discover several chapters later that it was part of the not-to-be-touched collection. Thankfully, I avoided the guillotine.
In the end, pixels, I suppose, have a longer shelf life than paper, so book fragility may become a thing of the past. That’s an upside to the digital age. Moreover I have a Kindle, and I like it, so I’m quite comfortable in this new world. The only snafu comes when I lick my finger to turn the page. Apparently my screen is averse to human saliva.
From Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperOne, 2005), xxi.
“Lewis’s mind was above all characterized by awillingness to be enchanted. . . . It was this openness to enchantment that held together the various strands of his life–his delight in laughter, his willingness to accept a world made by a good and loving God, and (in some ways above all) his willingness to submit to the charms of a wonderful story, whether written by an Italian poet of the sixteenth century, by Beatrix Potter, or by himself.
“What is ‘secretly present in what he said about anything’ is an openness to delight, to the sense that there’s more to the world than meets the jaundiced eye, to the possibility that anything could happen to someone who is ready to meet that anything. For someone with eyes to see and the courage to explore, even an old wardrobe full of musty coats could be the doorway into another world.”
Image Credits: National Portrait Gallery, London; Wiki Narnia.