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The Gospel According to Pixar

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Some of our favorite people in the world are the folks at Mockingbird Ministries. Most of them are the kind of Episcopalians that give us hope for that long-suffering body of believers. We pray often that their tribe increases!  What really draws us to them is their creative, irenic, and fresh ways of connecting the great truths of the Law and Gospel to contemporary culture.

If we had a blog roll, their blog would be high on the list of blogs we frequent and recommend. We've also been privileged to work with them in some of their events: our own "Dad Rod" Rosenbladt was at their 2010 Mockingbird Conference.

Today we want to highlight their newest production, The Gospel According to Pixar.  This short study guide is an accessible and creative pairing of the great Pixar movies (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., etc.) with biblical and redemptive themes. It's perfect for a midweek study or youth group series and we want to see it gain widespread use among the churches and friends that look to White Horse Inn for materials to assist them in their own Reformation journey.

I recently asked the editors, Todd Brewer and David Zahl, a few questions about this book and their other projects.

Introduce our readers to Mockingbird. How does The Gospel According to Pixar reflect your ministry’s purpose?

Mockingbird is a ministry that tries to connect Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in as down-to-earth way as possible. Right now we do this primarily through web resources, conferences and publications. Whether it's the music of Michael Jackson, the work of Alcoholics Anonymous, the mysteries of LOST, the social commentary in the New Yorker, or the poetry of T.S. Eliot, we listen with open ears to anything outside of the church world which might point to the old, old, story of God’s abundant grace and forgiveness for sinners through Christ. In many ways, The Gospel According to Pixar is much of the same. The films tell compelling stories about love, forgiveness, fear, loneliness, identity, etc. that provide vivid illustrations of how the Gospel interacts with real life.

Lots of movies have redemptive themes in them, what makes the Pixar films such a treasure trove of material?

First and perhaps most importantly, not all movies with redemptive themes are all that good. Pixar films are of undeniably high quality, from the scripting and voice-acting, to the art direction and thematic coherency, to the clever humor and emotional depth. They somehow manage to appeal to an incredibly broad audience, cutting across pretty much all demographics, without stooping to lowest-common-denominator gags. So they have already burrowed a deep channel into people’s hearts – our job is simply to connect that “Pixar place” with the Gospel.

Second, among the studios making “family films” these days, Pixar has an almost unique grasp on internal dynamics – their “anthropology” is refreshingly low. That is, the protagonists themselves tend to be their own worst enemies (Woody in Toy Story 2, Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles, Marlin in Finding Nemo, Remy in Ratatouille, the list goes on). In fact, because the primary conflicts tend to be so internal, the films are often criticized for having weak villains. It’s not a matter of a hero reaching deep inside themselves to realize their potential; instead, their adventures almost always humble them in some profound way, forcing them into a position of desperation (or repentance), where redemption, almost always in the form of some intervening event, can occur. In this sense, there’s a powerful death/resurrection thread that runs through their films.

Third and related, Pixar films touch on universal themes and concerns. They are interested in truth, in other words. Each character's struggles and hopes become our own because they are our own. We want Wall-E to get the "girl"; we hope Marlin will lighten-up. We are swept up into the story so much that we see ourselves in the characters. So while Woody may be a pull-string toy cowboy, at its core his story of anxiety and salvation is one that indirectly resonates in a small way with our lives. The films speak on a number of different levels so that they unwittingly coax the heart and imagination of the audience. So while each movie is filled with meaning, they rarely feel like moral fables or didactic parables.

What effect have you seen this particular study have in the way that people understand and live out of the Gospel?

Well, people certainly enjoy having some fun with the Gospel. And Pixar movies are nothing if not fun. On a more serious level, we have noticed that the study has a decompartmentalizing effect. Despite the films’ fantastical elements, they are deeply concerned with the realities of loss, suffering, defeat, death even, and sometimes Christians can be very relieved to be reminded that the Gospel addresses reality, not just Christian reality. In other words, the very heartstrings that Pixar films pull on are the same heartstrings on which the message of the forgiveness of sins needs to be played. As we all know, religious folks, ourselves included, erect all sorts of religious defenses to the Gospel, often subconsciously – and I’ve noticed that they find the approach of this book helpful, that it can be an avenue for the Gospel to reach parts of the heart where the defenses are strongest. Non-believers really appreciate how we clearly love the films, and are not attempting to unfairly instrumentalize them, or assign Christian intent where there is none (which many such teaching series inadvertently do), but instead seeking to understand how the biblical diagnosis and understanding of life might resonate or interact with the Pixar one. The response has been really positive, across the board.

Do you have other “The Gospel According to...” studies available or in the works?

A few years back, we wrote a series called “The Gospel According to The Office” which people really enjoyed. It takes episodes from the first three seasons of the hit NBC TV show and located the frequently hilarious illustrations of human striving and delusion, and drew connections to the Christian message, which of course, addresses deluded and self-justifying people. It can be downloaded for free on our website www.mbird.com. We also recently completed a new series called “Good News for People with Big Problems,” which is our attempt at a heavily-illustrated basic course in Law/Gospel, theology-of-the-cross-leaning Christianity.

There are a bunch of other publications on offer, most recently a little publication called
Grace in Addiction: What the Church Can Learn from Alcoholics Anonymous but that’s not really a series. In the works right now is a series called “God Gave Rock N Roll To You” which should be available sometime next year. A similar series about Seinfeld has also been bandied about, but there are no firm plans as of yet.
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