Updated: Aug 17, 2019
We’re doing something a little different at SBC over the next couple of weeks. Something I am really interested in is story, how the stories we tell and read and hear shape who we are and how we experience the world. Our lives are full of story and so it should be no surprise that stories are at the centre of our faith too. We might think first of stories from scripture and from two thousand years of Christian witness and from our own experience, but our faith doesn’t exist within a holy bubble, and all sorts of stories can shape how we think of God and our own spirituality, including ones we might not expect.
And so over the next couple of weeks, I want us to think about stories from popular culture alongside passages from scripture, asking how one might help us understand the other. I have form here, because the dissertation I wrote for my masters used Doctor Who as a starting point for trying to understand how we might approach and respond to popular culture from a theological perspective. My proposal then was that we should be thoughtful but generous, not taking every message or lesson from the wider culture but willing to listen to it where it seems to say something that is consistent with the heart of God, and that’s the approach I want to take here. The whole of creation is God’s and so there is no part of it that God cannot use to reach us and to teach us. If God could speak to Moses through a burning bush, God can speak to us through a television screen, we just have to be ready to recognise God's voice.
The stories we find on screen and in literature are rich with theology, and so there are plenty of examples I could choose, but I want to start with a a film called Kubo and the Two Strings. It's not terribly well known, but I think that's a shame, because it is a beautiful little film. By the time I reached the end of my first viewing, I was in floods of tears and unable to speak except to say that I had to get it into a service. As we go on, I’ll try to explain why it moved me so much and why I think it says something deeply true and profoundly theological. I can't share a clip of the crucial scene here, so unfortunately you will have to make do with my retelling, but first you might like to get a flavour of the film by watching the trailer.
As the film builds to its climax, Kubo comes face to face with his grandfather the Moon King, who has stolen his eye and is responsible for the loss of his parents and his village, and who now takes on the form of a dragon-like monster. Kubo tells the Moon King that he realises that the reason he wants to steal his other eye is so that he cannot look into the eyes of another and see their soul. He then strikes a chord on his magical instrument, and the spirits of the loved ones that his fellow villagers have lost appear, as Kubo declares that as long as they hold their stories they remain with them. This is a declaration of the enduring power of human connection against all that tried to destroy it.
The Moon King tries to attack but Kubo and the villagers are protected by a magical force, and so Kubo strikes a final chord, and the next thing we know the dragon has gone and an old man kneels in his place. The Moon King has been made human, and in the process he has forgotten his story. Before Kubo can respond, the villagers step in to tell the Moon King his story, only it is not the one we expect. They tell him that he is kind and generous and thoughtful, and that he loves his grandson Kubo. He is remade as a new creation and a new story is made possible.
I do feel slightly guilty about spoiling the end for those of you who haven’t seen the film before, but it really is worth watching even if you know where it’s headed. It may be that different moments would stand out for you, but there are two in particular that stood out for me in the first half of that scene. When he faces down the Moon King, Kubo talks about of the importance of looking into the eyes of another to see their soul, and of the way in which holding people's stories keeps them with us because memory is a powerful magic. They are very emotive lines and carry quite a lot of the meaning of the film, but as I reflected on them I started to have a niggling feeling that they may be problematic for those for whom seeing or remembering is difficult or even impossible. I said earlier that we should be thoughtful as well as generous in our approach to popular culture, so I want to push at those lines a little.
Kubo’s grandfather is trying to render Kubo blind, and so when he speaks about looking into the eyes of another it seems very literal, but we don’t need to understand it that way. Perhaps it is possible in the magical realism of Kubo’s world, but in reality we cannot see a soul as a physical thing, and so seeing the soul of another isn’t a physical seeing. It is more about relating than looking. If we think about it theologically, we might say that it is about seeing others as God sees them, or better still about relating to others as God relates to them.
So what does it mean to relate to others as God relates to them? I think it is about recognising their worth and honouring their dignity, and I also think it is about choosing to focus on all that is good is in them, and above all I think it is about acting with love towards them. The philosopher and theologian Jean Vanier said that to love another is to reveal to them their beauty and value, and I think that captures so much of how God relates to each of us and how we must relate to one another. Imagine how much kinder and more encouraging our interactions would be if we each aimed to reveal to the other their beauty and value. We can do that whether we can look into another’s eyes or not.
The second moment I referred to was Kubo talking about the importance of memory. Many find great comfort in the idea that we keep those we love with us by remembering them, but that comfort becomes thin for those affected by memory loss. Does that mean we lose our loved ones when we lose our memories? Do we lose ourselves when we no longer remember who we are? What happens when a person has been completely forgotten? These are very real and understandable questions and fears, but if we start to think theologically again, I think there is more comfort to be found.
God holds all of our stories and can hold them for us when we no longer can. Isaiah 49:15-16 says “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast...? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” The theologian John Swinton has written powerfully about dementia. He holds that we are sustained not by our own memories or the memories of those who hold our stories but by the memories of God, and God does not forget so nothing is forgotten. Memory is a precious thing, and of course there is a great sadness attached to its loss, but if we can trust that we live in the memories of God, we can trust that neither us nor those we love are ever truly lost.
I hope touching on those couple of points shows how rich even a few minutes of film can be, and how much richer they can become if we spend time with them once the credits have rolled, and even dare to bring our faith and our theology to them. But I want to focus now on what happens after Kubo strikes that final chord, and start to explore a little more of the connection between this scene and the passage we heard on Sunday morning from 2 Corinthians 5.
The screen goes white and perhaps we expect to see that the Moon King has disappeared or been destroyed, but instead we find him transformed and newly vulnerable. In a crueler film this is where Kubo would finish him, but instead something extraordinary happens. The villagers choose not to seek vengeance for the damage he has done to their homes and their lives, but to set his story and theirs on a more hopeful path. They recreate him with their words, imagining what he could be - and in doing so, forgiving what he was.
That is what I love so much about this film, that there is redemption not just for the hero but for the villain. That is so rare in the narratives of popular culture, where almost invariably good triumphs by defeating evil with violence. Earlier in the film, Kubo is telling stories in the village square, using animated origami figures, and when his hero comes face to face with a fire breathing chicken, one of the villagers cries "Kill the chicken! Rip it to pieces!" Closer to home, my son was telling me the story of The Three Little Pigs the other day, and he was definite that the wolf died because he was naughty.
It is so much the usual pattern that my toddler has already learnt it, but Kubo offers something different. The Moon King isn’t ripped to pieces and he doesn’t die because he’s been naughty. Instead he is given a second chance to be good. This is where I think the film says something deeply true and profoundly theologicial, because it speaks to me of God’s promise of redemption, the hope that all can find forgiveness and second chance after second chance - even the vilest offender, as the words of To God Be The Glory have it. That this moment seems so striking, so out of keeping with the narratives we normally hear, is a reminder of how extraordinary grace is.
The scene could be seen as manipulative, as the villagers are essentially lying to the Moon King, and in a way that will clearly benefit them, but I think it deserves a more generous reading. They are not forcing him into new patterns of behaviour, as he doesn't have to do all the things they say he does, and if he is not truly changed then he won’t. They are simply offering him a new story that he can choose to live into. He was described earlier in the film as “cold and hard and perfect”, but this story opens him up to all of the warmth and softness and mutability of humanity. It gives him freedom and choices that his old story didn’t allow, and that is a beautiful and grace-filled thing.
We may not get the same fresh start as the Moon King, or at least not in as definitive or dramatic a way, but we do sometimes have the same need to let go of old stories and tell new ones. One of the great promises of God is that we can become a new creation - as our reading declared, “Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come.”
Paul uses contrasting language here, but I don’t believe it is really the case that all of the old gets chucked out, as if it all of it needs replacing. We are not really as hopeless as that. We remain the same lump of clay, but instead of being cold and hard and perfect like a finished pot, we become warm and soft and mutable again. Perhaps we keep the same basic shape, but instead of being a vase which is self-contained and isolated, we become a jug which is able to pour itself out. I think there’s more potential in that metaphor, but I’m afraid that’s where my creativity ran out. Perhaps you might have your own images to add.
For me, what Kubo adds to our understanding of what it means to be a new creation is a beautiful picture of the potential we have to help one another become new creations. It was a supernatural power that transformed the Moon King into the old man who has forgotten his story, and in doing so made a new story possible, but it was the words of the villagers that started to fill out the details of that story. In the same way, there is a work that happens deep within our souls that only God can do, but the words we speak over one another do have power, and so we must use them well.
The film also reinforces the link between recreation and reconciliation that is made in our reading, and reminds us that reconciliation is with others as well as with God. As the Moon King is made new, a new relationship with his grandson is made possible, and a new relationship with the villagers too. In the same way, our becoming new changes not only us but our relationships with others.
I think for me, recreation and reconciliation are bound together by a sense of restoration or of things being put right, whether that is back to how they were before or ahead to how they were meant to be. We see that in the passage from 2 Corinthians and in the scene from Kubo and the Two Strings. If Paul speaks of us becoming a new creation in Christ and of reconciliation with God, Kubo speaks of us becoming a new creation in community and of reconciliation with others. Those things don’t pull against each other, but can be woven together into a fuller picture of recreation and reconciliation, scripture and culture speaking together with the voice of God, reminding us of the promise of restoration. May we see that promise fulfilled in our own lives, and help fulfil it in the lives of others.