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Culture is a part of everyday life, and everyone, whether a person knows it or not, is a contributor in one way, shape, or form. For example, a newborn will change a family culture’s dynamics the first night she comes home – guaranteed. That is an example of an abrupt cultural shift, and the tragic events of 9/11, which changed the culture of a nation overnight, is another. However, cultural changes can be, and most often are subtle and occur over time.
The slow yet persistent cultural shift away from God in favor of secular beliefs in the United States is an ideal example. Andy Crouch (2008) shares that culture is both created and cultivated through the use of “artifacts” that people create (p. 28). The artifacts that Hollywood creates, i.e., television shows and movies, can be powerful tools to bring about subtle cultural changes. The television series Will and Grace is a good example. That show, and others like it, served to soften or change the cultural view about the gay and lesbian lifestyle through comedy over time.
The culture seen in America today continues to pull away from God at an alarming rate. To shift the cultural pendulum back towards God over time, Christians must infuse the gospel’s message in the artifacts they create. This article explores the family cultural aspects seen in the move, The Polar Express by Starkey, Zemeckis, Goetz, and Teitler’s (2004) and the subtle tidbits in the story that point to God.
The Plot and Characters
Starkey et al. (2004) instill five attributes in the movie that qualify it as an adventure comedy. It has a predominant narrative with a particular goal and obstacles. It also develops a concern among viewers for the characters and concludes with a happy ending (Lindvall, Bounds, & Lindvall, 2016, p. 32). The plot centers on a single question that most children will one day ponder and seek to answer. That question is: “Is Santa Clause real?”
The notion of Santa Clause has been a part of the American cultural landscape for centuries, and legend tells that he is a jolly old fellow who lives at the North Pole and brings toys to good boys and girls every year for Christmas. It is a fairy tale that parents tell their children, who then pass it on to their children and so on from one generation to the next. Parents have done that for centuries because, as Frederick Buechner (1977) points out, dreams and fairy tales “have become part of who we are” (p. 76). In other words, the fairy tale of Santa Clause is ingrained in the culture and expressed through the artifacts it creates. However, when such artifacts no longer seem plausible to a young inquisitive mind, the question, “Is Santa Clause real?” arises.
The movie features four children who seek to answer that question through adventure while they learn about each other’s family culture. Brevy Cannon (2012) identifies four types of family cultures—the faithful, the engaged progressive, the detached, and the American Dreamer–that are used to describe the nature of those characters.
The Hero Boy. The protagonist of the story is a young boy who has reached the point in his life when he questions his cultural belief about the existence of Santa Clause. In the movie’s opening scenes, the boy seemingly wants to believe, but as he gathers evidence through observation, he turns to science to affirm his suspicion. His family culture is what Brevy Cannon (2012) describes as “Engaged Progressives,” i.e., those who are skeptical about religion and are often guided morally by their personal experience of what ‘feels right’ to them” (par. 11).
The Hero Girl. The hero girl is the second protagonist who has also questioned whether Santa exists; however, unlike the boy hero in the story, she has renewed her belief in the affirmative. Her decision to believe so early in the movie suggests she comes from a family culture built on faith or “The Faithful” (Cannon, 2012, p. 10). She does not hesitate to display bravery and heroism when faced with obstacles; however, she struggles with self-assurance, which she later overcomes in the movie.
Know-It-All. The Know-It-All tends to speak to everyone in a condescending tone to imply that he is enormously superior to those around him. He uses a “matter-of-fact” tone in his voice to project his comments to be absolute, and though he appears smart and socially outgoing, he is not always socially accepted. That observation implies that his family culture centers around the American Dreamer ideology, where the parents, despite their low-income level, use every resource they have to give their children every possible advantage in life (Cannon, 2012, p. 13).
Lonely Boy. The lonely boy is the most humble of all four children, yet he is hugely recluse and timid, though seemingly curious. His question of whether Santa Clause is real likely stems from a long line of disappointments year after year. The Lonely Boy’s self-detachment from others indicates that he comes from a detached family culture. Brevy Cannon (2012) explains that such families are often low-income with marital unrest and lack of closeness between the parents and their children (p. 12).
Even though each of the characters mentioned above came from differing family cultures, they were each perplexed by the same question that kids ask at some point – “Is there a Santa Clause?” While several other supporting characters such as the conductor, the hobo, the engineers, elves, and Santa, these characters are addressed in the analysis section. What makes The Polar Express such an inviting movie to watch is that it is not only a wondrous Christmas adventure, but it also parallels real life and the question that people ask at some point – “Is there a God?”
The question of whether God exists has become pervasive in a growing secular American culture. However, the question is centuries-old, and even great minds like Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis could not escape seeking its answer. Armand Nicholi (2002) notes that Freud considered the stories of religious faith to be “fairy tales” that could only bring about difficulty. On the other hand, he also notes that C. S. Lewis asserted that the most vital reality concerns our relationship with the One who created us (p. 76). The center of that debate is the cultural battleground in American society today.
The question of whether Santa Clause is real serves as a reflection of the larger question facing the American culture – “Is God real?” The brilliant writing of The Polar Express answers both questions. The first question that asks if Santa is real is answered overtly in keeping with the storyline, while the answer to the second question comes covertly. The writers achieve this through a series of bible-based nuances and a trio of unique characters—the conductor, the hobo, and Santa Clause—that symbolize the triune God.
The story of The Polar Express subtly shares the gospel while it tells the tale of four children who board a train bound for a round trip to the North Pole, and as they trek northward, they encounter various trials along the way. That aspect of the story symbolizes the journey of life. A journey that every person of every culture is a passenger and deals with various trials along the way. All the while, the gospel is shared all around them. For example, as the Hero Boy makes his way up on the train top, he encounters a hobo who symbolizes the Holy Spirit.
The hobo guides the young man safely along the narrow train top to the conductor, just as the Holy Spirit guides or brings the lost to conviction and guides them to Jesus. Another example comes after the train makes a daring escape from the collapsing ice over the river below. Once safe, the conductor, who symbolizes the role of Jesus, shares a parable about the time when he almost slipped off the train though he did not fall. The Hero Girl suggests that it was an angel, and the Hero Boy, seeking evidence, asked, “Did you see him?”
The Hero Boy is seeking reason over faith, and James Smith (2006) describes the postmodern trait as a form of science that only serves as the basis for further legitimization (p. 71). In other words, the Hero Boy’s question would be followed up with added questions to seek further proof. In response, the conductor replied, “Sometimes seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see” (Starkey et al., 2004, scene 9). The conductor’s answer serves as a beautiful parallel to the words of Jesus, who said, “Blessed are they who did not see and yet believed” (John 20:20, New American Standard Bible).
The most pivotal moment for sharing the gospel came in the “First gift of Christmas” scene where Santa picked the Boy Hero to be the one who selects the first gift of Christmas. The Boy Hero asked for one of the bells from Santa’s sleigh, and Santa tells him, “This bell is a wonderful symbol of the spirit of Christmas, as am I. Just remember, the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart” (Starkey et al., 2004, scene 19). That brief yet powerful comment answers the question of whether Santa is real, but more importantly, it answers the question: Does God exist?
In the movie, Santa asserts that he is a symbol of the Christmas spirit, which is Jesus Christ, and that the true spirit of Christmas lies in the heart – He who is the Holy Spirit. Fred Craddock (2002) notes that this covert way of sharing the gospel leaves the viewer “free to regard the entire story as written for someone else without any infringement on personal values or lifestyle [so] the reader does not feel inescapably addressed” (p. 89).
The bell from Santa’s sleigh also carries a biblical nuance in that only believers can hear its sweet sound; however, as people begin to stray away from their belief, the dimmer the bell’s sound gets until one day they can no longer hear it. That is a critical teaching moment for the longer one ignores and walks away from the voice of the Holy Spirit, the dimmer it gets until one day, it can be heard no more.
Perhaps this brief glimpse at the symbolism seen in The Polar Express from a Christian point of view is what Quentin Schultz (2000) would call symbolic ambiguity. Schultz claims that “each Christian tradition has a paradigm for how to interpret the Word of God in the face of ambiguity” (p. 62). However, the message of the gospel is all too clear and forever unchanging. In today’s society, the gospel of Jesus Christ must be shared in love and in a non-threatening and subtle manner to reach the lost and turn the tide on a rising secular American culture.
This subtle shift begins by changing the family’s cultural mindset, which, in turn, affects the mindset of the community, the town or city, the state, the nation, and eventually the world. The Polar Express movie by Starkey et al. (2004) shares the gospel in such a way that it will continue to impact children for generations to come and, most importantly, steer them to Jesus Christ.
Buechner, F. (1977). Telling the truth: The gospel as tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale. New York, NY: HarperOne.
Cannon, B. (2012, November 12). U.VA. study identifies four family cultures in America. UVAToday. Retrieved from https://news.virginia.edu/content/uva-study-identifies-four-family-cultures-america.
Craddock, F. (2002). Overhearing the gospel. Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press.
Crouch, A. (2008). Culture making: Recovering our creative calling. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Lindvall, T., Bounds, D., & Lindvall, C. (2016). Divine film comedies: Biblical narratives, film sub-genres, and the comic spirit. New York, NY: Routledge
Nicholi, A. M. (2002). The question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, love, sex, and the message of life. New York, NY: Free Press.
Schultz, Q. J. (2000). Communicating for life: Christian stewardship in community and media. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Smith, J. K. A. (2006). Who’s afraid of postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Starkey, S., Zemeckis, R., Goetz, G., & Teitler, W. (Producer), & Zemeckis, R. (2004). The polar express. [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Brothers Entertainment Company.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
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