Sunday, March 30, 2008

Jesus of Whoville

There are currently posters around the Princeton campus for a Faith film festival, and while arduous viewings of arthouse cinema from decades past would I'm sure be somehow rewarded, I've never been the Ingmar Bergman type. On the lower brow, even more tedious are most of Hollywood's self-conscious efforts at the faith film, for which we can be forgiven an exasperated, George Burns-inspired "Oh God." Conspicuous attempts at film faith (think The Truman Show or Bruce Almighty) are so much less satisfying than when, with an uncanny degree of frequency, faith comes as the unexpected surprise.

Horton Hears a Who was another such surprise, but distinguished itself not with hints or flickers of faith, but with an elaborate, extended theological message, by far the best I've encountered in a popular film. With proportions reminiscent of Lewis' The Great Divorce, the central characters (I remind you) are an elephant, and the microscopic world on a speck that the elephant communicates with, battles for, and for which he ultimately seems willing to die.

To recall a 2004 (ancient in blog years) millinerd theological post (my deconstruction of the parable departs a bit from Leslie Newbigin's), the idea of the elephant as God is a venerable tradition which the film brilliantly employs. The mayor of Whoville, who makes contact from his world with the elephant beyond it through a drainpipe of prayer, acts as a Christ figure; the giant hall of the mayor's descendants recall the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. The film's Trinitarian framework is completed with the Holy Spirit, who I would argue, makes an appearance through the film's prominent feature of sound.

Deaf to that sound is the town council, who serve as perfect Sadducees, ridiculing the idea of there being any elephant at all. Apocalyptic signs in Whoville (such as snow in summer) result either from the elephant's assuring Whoville of his presence, or from his battling against those who seek to destroy the speck. But for the Sadducees, such signs are merely an excuse for a kite flying contest. Strange as it may seem, Horton Hears a Who somehow recovers apocalyptic thought from the mists of Seminary sophistication, restoring its patent, palpable directness. In other words, when it comes to apocalypticism, I far prefer the clarity of Dr. Seuss to the resignations of Dr. Schweitzer.

The theological category of mystery is dangerously en vogue, but the scenario laid out by this film suggests that we should never pursue mystery for mystery's sake. Mystery can never mean obfuscation. The category is necessary due to temporary human incapacity for fathoming the contours of God's relation with our world - but mysteries will not always so remain. Horton Hears a Who somehow conveys the sheer physicality of faith: Big God, small world, real contact hindered by real difficulties. We will, one day, comprehend God's relation to our universe with as much intuitive sense as we understand the relation of the elephant to Whoville in this film. Whoville ears, eyes and senses just aren't big enough to discern the elephant (hence the need for mystery when describing him), but the elephant was definitely there; and "there," a Whoville word used to describe chairs, lamps and tables, barely does the pressing presence of such a massive being justice. Likewise, it's a small wonder that Moses only saw God's back.

Another of the film's more interesting feature is its unintentional commentary on religion in general. The elephant makes actual contact with Whoville, but this leads imitators to make up their own stories about tiny little worlds on specks. Imitating Horton, one creature posits "a world full of ponies who eat rainbows and poop butterflies." The difference of course is such worlds don't exist, and only make sense to the extent they are related to the actual world that Horton actually encounters. Likewise, a deluded man in Whoville who thought he was talking to a giant giraffe through a drainpipe would only be deluded. And while exposing this giant giraffe-delusion would fuel skepticism about a giant elephant, it would do nothing to change the fact that the elephant is still there. Faith is not a happy made-up story, but it can be. Faith, properly understood in this movie, is real contact with a real being, despite any vultures who get in the way, and despite the Richard Dawkins kangaroos who insist, "If you can't hear, see or feel something, it does not exist."

Of course the analogy breaks down, as God omnipotent is a good bit more confident than this rhyming pachyderm. Still, the elephant has spoken, and the Christian faith is poignantly summarized in the words, "I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful, one-hundred percent."