Theology of the Lego Movie (Part 2)–spoiler alert

It’s 7:30 p.m.–teeth-brushing time. This is one of the best times for important father-son conversations, especially if you’ve just returned home from the Lego Movie.

While applying our spicy-mint toothpaste to his toothbrush, my oldest son (7 yrs) is reminded of the “Kragle,” and asks me, “Papa, was Lord Business really the Dad?”

Not wanting to miss a pedagogical heartbeat, I put the question back to him, “What do you think?” He replies, “I think Lord Business is the dad. I mean, he had the same tie, the same hair, and the same voice.”

Continuing, my son asks, “Papa, do you think there’s a moral to the Lego Movie?” (Before you think this strange, you should know we read and discuss moral tales and fables daily.) Again, I put the question back to him, “I’d love to hear what you think about that. Do you think there was a moral?”

At this point my head was spinning…what’s he going to say? Rules are bad because they stifle creativity? Following directions is tyranny? Would he get something edifying from the film? My son’s reply, though, put a smile on my face: “Oh, yeah. I think it’s saying you can’t just make everyone do exactly what you want all the time. You have to let other people have a say in the game. Otherwise, no one’s going to want to play with you.”

This statement was a profound personal application by my son, who has a sacrosanct lego table of his own in the basement, which he had zealously protected from the creative/destructive impulses of younger siblings. Let’s put in perspective just how big a deal this moral lesson is for the child’s mind. From the child’s perspective, the lego world he or she creates is as “real,” as important, and as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, the Mona Lisa, the Pyramids of Giza, you name it. That lego world is as real and important to the child as my dissertation was to me, as each article I write is to me now, as each class I teach is to me now. They represent the real enactment of one’s creativity and identity. So, when I ask my son, “could you please let your brother play with those?” It’s as if someone had asked me, “Could you let another grad student have a shot at writing that chapter of your dissertation?”  Consider the trust and vulnerability required to comply with that request.

Now, you could respond, “it’s just legos, and we need to teach children that certain things are more important than others.” Of course this is true, but in the child’s world, play is possibly the most serious and important activity imaginable. We do violence to the child’s moral psyche if we unfairly trivialize their real contribution to the beauty of the world around them through their play.

Let’s return, though, to the question of the father, the son, and the moral of the movie. With toothpaste tube in hand, I stood confronted face-to-face with my main concern about this film–the father is the villain. My son and I continued with a great conversation about what the father really needed to learn and how that applies to our own life. In the course of that conversation I discovered what is really at stake in the moral formation of the Lego Movie. The Father-son relationship in the film operates at two levels: (1) the concrete level of a real dad and a real son; and (2) the metaphorical level of God and humanity. Let’s look at both.

At the concrete level, the film’s narrative plays out Finn’s (the son’s) conflict with his own father. Finn wants to make a creative contribution to the imagined space of the lego worlds that his father scrupulously builds, protects, and crazy-glues together. Finn deeply appreciates his father’s creativity, in fact, at the film’s climax he calls his father “the Special,” that is, the most awesome, creative, inspiring person ever. The Father, for his part, lives in fear that his son will destroy the order of the lego universe he has created. So set upon its order is the Father that he locks into place toys that were made to be built and taken apart again. His use of crazy glue is made to appear neurotic. (Maybe it is.) This father, in his micromanaging need for control and order, combined with his fear and distrust of his son, is in need of conversion. Conversion finds him, however, when, in the process of taking apart his son’s work, he realizes the intricate beauty of his son’s creations, the great skill his son must possess to make the the models and integrate them into the lego worlds as he has. The father finally discovers “himself,” the Lord Business minifigure. This moment in the mirror reveals the nature of the game his son has been playing. Humbled, the father asks, “Son, if the construction guy were to say something to Lord Business, what would he say?” Finn tells his father that it’s the father’s creativity that has inspired the son to create. Furthermore, he begs the father to put away the Kragle and allow his son to participate in the creative endeavor with him. Deeply moved, the father changes his ways and makes his son a partner in the project of lego world-building and play.

Ultimately, I don’t think the film undermines fatherhood. It is okay to present fathers in need of conversion. There are some scenes where husbands/fathers get a bad rap apart from the whole frame of Finn and his father. For example, the one comedy that plays on everyone’s TV is a scene where a buffoon husband/father asks his wife in a dopey voice,”Honey…where are my paaaannnnnnttts?” We see here the emasculation of men, who not only don’t wear the pants, but they don’t even know where they are. They’ve got to ask their wife. Whether the film thinks this is a good thing or not, I can’t tell. But the buffoonery of a husband is the standard of comedy. This strikes me as a hit against fathers. Regardless of this point and one instance,  the film actually reinforces the concrete importance of fathers. Remember, Finn tells his father that it is his father’s amazing creativity that has inspired him to create and play. Finn calls his dad “the Special,” the most awesome person ever. Sons deeply desire to be invited into the creative world and energy of their father. So, for us fathers–whatever we are passionate about, whatever we love, chances are our sons will love it too. The challenge becomes discovering how to trust our sons and initiate them into those loves, those passions, in ways that allow them to make a real, creative contribution. I think the film tells us about how a father leads. A Father leads by passionate commitment to making the world a more beautiful, true, and good place–whether that is through fishing, legos, music, books, one’s job, etc. Children have good aesthetic detection. They will be inspired by the beauty, truth, and goodness we’re passionate about. The awesome, yet dangerous thing is this: once they are inspired, they’ll want to make their own contribution. As fathers we can’t keep them on the sidelines out of fear they’ll mess it up. We have to continue teaching them the virtues and technical skills required to make authentic creative contributions to the world, while all the time inviting their greater participation in the creative endeavor of life.

This concrete struggle between a real father and a real son, however, also carries an extended metaphor, about which I am less hopeful. The metaphorical level pits God (the Father) against the son (Finn). How can I make this claim? Throughout the film, the characters of Vitruvius and Wyldstyle (as well as the other master builders) manifest a kind of religion (or at least a spirituality) around “The Man Upstairs.” From the context in the film, the term clearly refers to the Father, i.e., God, a divine, unseen, omnipotent, omniscient being existing beyond their world. At one point, Vitruvius, Wyldstyle, and Emmet take a trip into Emmet’s mind. Inside they discover cavernous emptiness. During their journey through Emmet’s mind, the image of a human hand appears. Vitruvius and Wyldstyle are shocked, because no one has ever seen “The Man Upstairs.” They hypothesize that Emmet’s mind has been kept so empty for the purpose of making room for the great vision of “The Man Upstairs.” They take it as evidence that he might in fact be, “the Special” after all.

This is all interesting, but the metaphor has troubling consequences. If God is equated with the Father, and if the Father is an over-controlling, micromanaging, fear-motivated tyrant, then we have a serious theological problem. We essentially have the film making a re-presentation of the serpent’s argument to Eve in the garden. The serpent causes Eve to doubt whether God’s rule is worth following. The serpent causes Eve to doubt whether it’s good to live within God’s order or to create her own order/disorder. The serpent causes Eve to doubt that God has her best interest at heart. The serpent causes Eve to consider that God might just be an over-controlling rule-making tyrant who doesn’t want her to “be like God,” that is, doesn’t want her to participate in the creative knowledge of good and evil. Just as the Father in the film is afraid of letting his son actively participate in the creative endeavor of the lego-world, so the serpent suggests that God is afraid of Eve gaining the power of knowing good and evil, of being able to participate in the determining (i.e. deciding) of what is good and what is evil.

The moral implications are large. If God is the Father, then God is so obsessed with order that he crazy-glues our lives into immovable shape (i.e. natural law = crazy-glued, instruction following existence). He creates rules to make us happy, but just as Emmet’s happiness was empty, so will ours be if we follow God’s instructions / rules. Those who follow the divinely created instructions made by the one who (according to the film) always has his eye on you, are blind to what makes us special…rule-breaking creativity! The order created for us is boring and not good enough. To be truly happy we must break free of its order-obsessed shackles. In a certain sense, we could say the film is a statement against natural law ethics and God as natural law giver. Ultimately, God needs a conversion. “The Man Upstairs” needs to realize that we’ll all have a lot more fun if we, his creatures, get a creative say in what’s right, wrong, and what truly fulfills human persons. God should lead us by inspiring us to create rather than by constraining us to his rigid, crazy-glued moral order.

Whoa! Am I being cynical here? Maybe. If so, here’s a more positive reading of the film’s theology.

The eyes of charity would probably see that the film makes a confused, Freudian conflation of the human father and God as a projection of that father. From a charitable Christian standpoint, I think the theological gold that remains when we melt out the admixtures is this: God invites us to participate in his creative act, but as creatures. God is the just and perfect law-maker, the creator of natural law, for example. But he created it for the same reason poets create poetic forms (e.g., the sonnet). The poetic form is not a prison cell but a skeleton that invites the author to fashion flesh, sinew, organ systems, and finally a skin around it. (Thanks for this insight Fr. Gilsdorf.) This is the beauty of God’s natural law. As the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et spes has it (when speaking of marriage), we participate as interpreters of God’s plan of love rather than as authors of that plan. Our gift of reason allows us to see the beauty and goodness of the divine ordering of things and contribute to the beautiful working out of that order in the world. With every act of love we make, every service of sacrifice rendered, every act of openness to life, we are given “a say in the game” as my son put it.God isn’t the one in need of conversion. We are. We need to see that our dignity lies not in breaking the rules but cooperating in the divine wisdom of God’s moral order in ever new, ever ancient ways.

Once again, “Thank you Legos.”

There’s so much more to say about this film–gender roles, violence, anger. Depending on the response I’ll do a third post or move on to greener pastures. Thanks for any comments!

Theology of the Lego Movie: Brick Creation and Moral Formation

I recently took my two oldest sons (see the blog’s background picture) to their first ever movie in a theater. They are 7 and 5 yrs old. As a reward for working real hard on a Saturday in their grandparent’s yard, we went to see The Lego Movie. Having read multiple positive reviews, I remained in trepidation as I took a seat and planted my feet on the sticky theater floor.

Part of my anxiety was rooted in my knowledge that narratives are deeply morally formative, and I wasn’t sure whether this film would offer the kind of formation I wanted my children receiving. This is doubly important because my children so rarely watch film media. I knew this film would stick immediately and almost indelibly in their minds (they love legos). We all know that story-telling is among the best ways to teach a child character. The children learn through narrative what a good character looks like, what a villain is like, what courage is, etc. If I tell my son, “you need to be more generous!” the command falls on deaf ears, unless his mind has a story that has generated an intuitive sense for what generosity looks like.

My anxiety was not immediately eased when the opening scene satirized Emmet. The humor lies in his mindless following of the rules, which are in many ways ordered toward his good and society’s good but result in a kind of hollow, saccharine happiness experienced by the characters, who sing the same song all day and all night—“Everything is awesome!” (We sing this song all day and all night now also. Thanks Legos.) They watch the same TV show every day, etc. They live a life of content, happy order. But the film wants to suggest that this order is ultimately death-dealing and unfulfilling. “Oh, no,” I thought. Is this going to be another facile film about “finding oneself by breaking all the rules?” Is this another spiritual-but-not-religious movie? Is this another film saying rules are constraining efforts to create social conformity while libertinism anarchy is good?

Praying quickly for patience and charity, to see the true, good, and beautiful wherever it might be found in this film, I watched on. As I predicted, the film juxtaposed the happy but shallow rule-follower to the dark but deep rule-breaker and master-builder “Wildstyle.” As time went on, however, the film starts becoming philosophically self-aware and rich. For example, when Emmet, Wildstyle, Batman, and arrive in Cloud Cuckoo Land there is a telling dialogue. Uni-Kitty tells a baffled Emmet about the lack of order in this topsy-turvy land: “Well, we have no rules here. There is no government, no bedtimes, no baby-sitters, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind.” Wildstyle under her breath says, “You just said no like a thousand times.” Uni-kitty, continues, “and there’s no consistency.” Whoa, was that a critique of radical moral relativism I just heard? Wow. At this point the film starts looking up.

I discovered two things about the film: (1) it’s honest ambivalence about the positive and negative elements of the various philosophical worldviews taken by the characters. A rule of order can lead to human flourishing, but a rule of empty, arbitrary order extended at the cost of personal participation in the generation of that order is death-dealing. (2) The film shows us an example of human dignity consonant with Catholic understanding of that term.

Let’s see how both of these play out. The film is honest about the woes that accompany a radically individualist worldview, and in being honest about these woes, the film discovers human dignity. Consider Wildstyle, dark, rule-breaking masterbuilder intent on becoming “the special,” complete with dyed hair matrix-like fighting skills. Vitruvius reveals that Wildstyle has changed her name countless times owing to a lack of self-confidence. She is a masterbuilder, yes, but her masterwork of construction is herself. She thought she could make herself “the Special” if she found the piece of resistance (cap to the Krazy Glue). Her obsession with being different masks her lack of identity and uncertainty in her dignity. Her constant reminders to herself and Emmet that “I have a boyfriend…and it’s super-serious” constitute a psychological pep-talk, a vain effort at self-esteem boosting. This is the cost of radical individualism, the never-ending and often vain quest at identity self-construction without instruction. Being special is all on me! I see this in so many students. They want to be different, but they are so busy looking at how everyone else is being different that they end up following a standard script of what “being different” looks like. With Wildstyle, they struggle with the existential question: Where does identity come from? Is it created or given, built or received? Now, Catholic theology tends toward “both/and” answers, but I think the weight of the both/and lies ultimately on our identity being “given” and “received” rather than selfmade. For one, Mary, the primary non-divine example of Christian virtue, is the one who perfectly receives God’s will in her life with her own perfect fiat, “behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” Even Christ, in John’s Gospel, tells us that he can do nothing except what he sees the father doing. His works are received from the father. His death, too, is received as God’s will. Christ reveals his acceptance of God’s providence for him during his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. Adam and Eve, for their part, bring sin into the world through their own attempt at identity construction. Eve thinks, “heh, I guess I would like to make myself like God.” Whoops! Oh, the woes that have followed since that fateful decision. Adam and Eve’s dignity was that God had made them to be in fellowship with himself, each other, and creation. They rejected that identity when they attempted to be like God.

The Lego Movie shows the audience the same truth. Humanity cannot bear the weight of having to create its own identity. The prideful Wildstyle only comes to confidence and fulfillment in the movie when she trusts Emmet enough to return to and accept her given name, Lucy. (I hope this name choice was intentional, as Lucy come from Lux/Lucis, which means “light.”) The humble Emmet, on the other hand, having no ability to make himself special, is made special by circumstances (falling down a hole and getting stuck on the “piece of resistance) and the care of persons (Lucy telling him he is special). Wildstyle discovers that Emmet actually desires to know the truth about her rather than one of the many identities she’s constructed for herself to make herself feel special. Emmet shows Lucy she’s special because he wants to know what’s ordinary about her. This gives Lucy the confidence to own the truth about herself and flourish in joy as the film climaxes and resolves.

Through this interaction between Wildstyle and Emmet, the film introduces the audience to the Catholic social principle of the dignity of the human person, a classic both/and doctrine. The dignity of the person is at once a status given by God (in light of our having been created in God’s image, destined for fellowship with him, and redeemed by his blood) and a goal to be reached (in light of the fact that we so often act below our own dignity and treat others in ways that countermand their own dignity). Status–Emmet realizes he HAS dignity (given to him extrinsically by Wildstyle and Vitruvius’s confidence in him). Goal–Emmet must LIVE UP TO that dignity. When he finally owns the dignity given to him, his eyes are opened. He can “see everything,” become truly creative, and make the gift of his own life for the sake of his friends. What’s neat about the film is that it accomplishes this pedagogical end without my two sons realizing that it ever happened. Kudos to Legos.

The next installment of this series will consider “conversion” in the film, violence in the film, Emmet as Christological??, and the true center of my anxiety about the film…..the father is the bad guy!!! Perhaps there’s something here. We’ll see next time.

 

 

Relevance – Stepping into Student Culture

One thing I’ve noticed is that my cultural references and illustrations increasingly fall on deaf ears (and I’m only 31 years old!). A reference to Seinfeld or Friends might get a couple chuckles (or a full out laugh from that one 35 year-old college student), but for the most part my early millenial, 90s, and 80s culture occupies limited space in students’ working memory. What’s an out-of-touch professor to do?

Two words– “cultural artifacts.” I’m talking about youtube clips, popular songs, facebook posts, tweets, comic strips, or any pieces of popular media that contains insights and/or anti-insights related to the topic of the day. These are worth their weight in platinum. I like to start every class with 5-10 minutes on a cultural artifact. But where do I get them? Students, students, students. Early in the semester I ask students to send me anything they think is relevant to the class topic. Not every student sends them to me, but given how much of their culture “goes viral,” if one has seen the artifact, doubtless most others have also.

Asking students for cultural artifacts is a win-win. It’s a win for me because I am virtually guaranteed that whatever I show will actually connect with the lives the students are living right now. Because the students are the ones finding the artifacts, I know the vocabulary and images are the ones they actually encounter and will be attempting to navigate in terms of the theological categories we’re using in class (hopefully). It’s a win for the students because their contribution to class is affirmed and respected. Finally, its a win for everyone because my leading with the artifacts sets a tone of “engagement” rather than simply “ivory tower” irrelevance. They know from the start that we’re going to be doing theory, but that ultimately ideas have consequences. Our theories about the good life show up either explicitly or implicitly in each artifact presented. Part of what they are learning is how to excavate the detritus at the surface of these artifacts to unearth the ethical assumptions upon which they rely, and finally to assess the value of appropriating or dismissing those assumptions for their own lives.

In one class, a pair of cultural artifacts given to me by a student has become a staple. The pair is Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Love Jesus but Hate Religious” and Fr. Burns’ response, “Why I love Jesus and Love Religion.” These two videos have born great fruit in discussions early in the semester on the question of being “spiritual” or “religious.” Does being “religious” actually help us attain the good life? Or do we simply need to be “spiritual?” These two artifacts help point out the false choice built into the assumed dichotomy between those words.

I can’t be the only person using cultural artifacts…I’d love to hear about your own best “cultural artifacts” and what topics they help introduce. Let us teach the way of Christ!