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« on: November 20, 2004, 11:44:19 PM »

From Santa to Salvation -- Jump Aboard The Polar Express

by Dr. Marc T. Newman
November 19, 2004

(AgapePress) - Imagine a missionary coming across an undiscovered people. Once the foreign language is learned, the missionary begins to delve into the religious mythology of the tribe to see if he can uncover some parallels he can use to introduce them to the Gospel of Christ. One of the myths concerns an omnipotent being who keeps track of everyone's good and evil deeds. This being lives in a far away land in a city beautiful beyond imagining. The only way to get there is if you are sent for, and then you will be conveyed there by magical transportation. The being greatly desires to give good gifts to everyone, and the only obstacle to receiving these gifts is a lack of faith.

If a missionary were to come across such a tribe they would praise God for their good fortune. Like Paul, with just a little explanation, they could say, "What you have worshipped in ignorance, this day I declare to you." Amazingly, Christians in the West run across this cultural myth every year but the response in many circles is not joy but either scoffing or fear -- scoffing at people's ignorance, or fear that a myth can supplant the truth. If you are wise enough not to scoff, and brave enough not to fear, then you might find The Polar Express to be one of the most spiritually engaging films you see (or better yet, take someone to) this year.

Santa Claus, and the commercialism that accompanies the jolly old elf, understandably turns the stomachs of those who see Christmas as a time to reflect on the Incarnation and the free gift Christ represents. But we ignore, to others' peril, the pull of the Santa Claus myth in the hearts of those who do not believe (and many believers, too, who see in better done versions a kind of transcendence for which they long). Films like The Polar Express speak to a tremendous desire -- a desire for transcendence, for truth, and for faith.

Desire for Transcendence
If you were to take a poll, asking people if they wish that Santa Claus were real, that the magical North Pole existed -- complete with elves -- that flying reindeer mounted the sky once a year, and that miraculous gift-giving deliveries could occur at faster-than-the-speed of light, only the Grinchiest among us would say no. Were we able, we would wish it into existence. Even though we doubt, we still desire.

Such is the case with a character named only in the credits as Hero Boy in The Polar Express. He wishes that Santa Claus were real, but he fears that Santa is not. There is also a kind of smug self-satisfaction that accompanies being "in the know." He has collected pieces of "evidence" that point to Santa being a myth, and yet, when his parents come to tuck him in and find him apparently asleep, and when they lament that his growing up means "an end to the magic," the young boy panics. Deep in his heart, he does not want the magic to end -- and neither do we.

Hero Boy soon discovers that he is faced with a choice. Outside his room, roaring down the street, comes an enormous train -- shrouded in steam. The boy leaps from his bed and out into his front yard to marvel. When the conductor offers passage on the train to go to the North Pole, the boy hesitates. The conductor nods, he knows that the boy's faith has been faltering, and so he tells the boy that this is the crucial year, the moment of decision. His desire overcoming his reluctance, Hero Boy leaps aboard. He would rather take the ride than miss the magic. On the way, he discovers different ways of encountering the truth.

Two Kinds of Truth
All of us long for proof. All of our lives we have been told that "Seeing is believing." We seek for evidence. God has not left us bankrupt in this department. Romans 1 tells us that God makes Himself evident in His works. Hebrews chronicles the history of the heroes of the faith. The Gospels are eye-witness accounts of the miraculous birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. While knowing such things is insufficient to transform the life of a doubter, it is a great place to start. Knowing some things to be true exposes the difference between a step of faith and a completely blind leap.

[Image compliments of PolarExpressMovie.warnerbros.com] Being on the train is not enough for Hero Boy. Seeing has already caused him to doubt. While others gape at beautiful department store displays that they see from the train, Hero Boy focuses solely on the gears driving the animated Santa in the store window, and he knowingly smirks. Evidence plays against evidence -- warring in his mind. What he needs is revelation, and that requires faith.

Hero Boy climbs atop the train to find a hobo playing "Good King Wenceslas" on an instrument. He tells the boy to sit down, and then, like the Holy Spirit, he confronts the boy's beliefs. Declaring himself King of the North Pole, the hobo draws a question from the boy: "But isn't Santa king of the North Pole?" Intrigued, the hobo wants to know what the boy believes about "the big man." Hero Boy says, "I want to believe, but ... " and it is the hesitation that invites the hobo's incisive reply. The hobo finishes the boy's sentence, remarking on how one does not want to be taken in, "hoodwinked." By pushing the boy into recognition of his own cynicism, the hobo evokes the boy's first tentative faith response: "But what about the train?" The hobo never confirms, he just asks more questions. When the boy asks if this is all a dream, the hobo only says, "You said it, not me!" The hobo ends the dialogue by asking "Do you believe in ghosts?" When the boy shakes his head, the hobo says, "Interesting." It is interesting because the boy is willing to admit the train as evidence, but, without knowing it, he excludes the hobo with whom he has been speaking.

From that point forward, the hobo teases the boy. He appears and disappears. He empowers the boy to save others. The boy hears the conductor tell of his own, similar experience with the now mysterious stranger. The boy cannot produce the hobo, but the hobo can reveal himself to the boy. As the boy learns more and more, without direct physical proof, his ability to believe grows.

Faith is a Choice
Ultimately, belief demands response. Knowing about something is not the same as trusting in it. For every human living there comes a day when everything needful for faith is present, and one has to make a decision. Many opportunities for faith may have come and gone over time, but there will always be that final chance -- and if you are not persuaded by then, nothing in your experience will ever lead you to Christ afterward. You can make no further progress. But if you choose faith, suddenly it is as if the world opens itself to you.

In the center of the square at the North Pole, Santa comes into view for everyone, it seems, except Hero Boy. He catches glimpses of Santa, but never a full view. He can see the flying reindeer, but he cannot make out the sound of the sleigh bells on their harness. When a bell comes loose, is thrown from the harness, and bounces toward his feet, he picks it up and shakes it next to his ear. He hears nothing. But he knows that others can see. He knows that others hear. He has to make a terrible decision -- to stubbornly hold on to his prideful skepticism or to believe in the things he cannot test on the basis of the things he can. He picks up the bell, closes his eyes, and makes a declaration, "I believe. I believe." Then he shakes the bell and discovers a beautiful ringing that pierces his heart. The sound stays with him for the rest of his life.

The Persuasive Power of Wonder
The world is often a cruel place. Christians have an explanation for it -- it is called The Curse, and sin, as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, is "a fact as plain as potatoes." Humans long for escape, because we intrinsically recognize that while there is something wrong with this world, somewhere there is something right. It would be ridiculous to long for something that had no chance of ever being real. We enjoy magical stories because we pine for another world. We long for transcendence because we know there is something beyond. We experience wonder, because there is One who is called Wonderful.

The emotions we feel when we view evocative films such as The Polar Express exist for a reason. Of all people, Christians should understand the persuasive power of wonder. Christians need to see themselves in the conductor role -- gently persuading the hopeful skeptics to climb aboard. We can explain the train. We can involve ourselves in their lives so that they can experience the reality of the journey. We can pray that God will reveal Himself to them and that they will make the choice to believe. For when faith comes, assurance of all the truth they hoped for will be theirs; and things unseen will gain weight. Believing, they will see.

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