Last week I saw a delightful little cartoon, “Smallfoot” in the theater. I expected a silly kid’s cartoon but was surprised at the postmodern message. I found it had a much deeper message than I expected. And of course, was curious to see the evangelical response as the movie’s agenda was to reassure kids that it was ok to question dogma, that it was not bad to question authority.
I won’t go into the details of the storyline but it involved a society of yetis whose culture revolved around the sayings/rules written on small stones and worn as a robe by the spiritual leader of the yeti clan. The stones were unquestionably excepted as propositional truth. Sound familiar? In short, the stones were devised by the “stonekeepers” to protect the yeti clan from the dangers “out there” beneath the clouds, i.e., humans.
The parallels to modern evangelicalism were not lost on the evangelical gatekeepers: the Gospel Coalition. The response was, swift and negative. First off, the author, Bret McCracken uses a typical evangelical response by reversing a fundamentalist principal and applying it as a negative to liberals:
“If one stone is wrong, then others could be as well,” one yeti says, voicing an argument that is suspiciously similar to liberal claims that any seeming inconsistency or scientifically implausible thing in the Bible means the whole thing is up for grabs.”
This is odd, because it is not actually a liberal statement, but one fundamentalists use constantly as a reason for the inerrancy of scripture. The Bible as a whole must be entirely inerrant or it cannot be trusted at all. It is the “house of cards” analogy that fundamentalist like James Orr (1844-1913) rejected outright as “a most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up.” I had a rather lengthy and unproductive dialogue with an inerrantist on my blog last year, Inerrancy At any rate, this is an entirely misleading and dishonest assessment of progressive thought on the inspiration of scripture.
McCracken goes on to state “Smallfoot joins films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (among many others) in showing how seeking truth can be disruptive and dangerous, but ultimately freeing. These films also show how safe, utopian communities, insulated from the dangers outside (whether in different people or different ideas), never work if they are sustained by deception and fear-based control.”
I wonder if Mr. McCracken actually understands how evangelicalism works? He goes on to declare that the above is not the problem but seeing knowledge as “power” is: “This sort of faith is about fear and control, suppressing knowledge in order to preserve power. And thus the flipside is also about power. Knowledge, curiosity, facts, discovery—these are framed in the film as tools of empowerment. Taking down the man. Breaking free from systems of control. Putting power in new hands. Getting woke.”
If only the religious right was not about power, but it is naive to think otherwise and this is where The Gospel Coalition’s blindside resides: the inability to see that the Religious Right is ALL about power. By nature, authoritarian structures are not question based, but based on the few in power who establish the rules of governance. I will address whether or not evangelicalism is a threat to a free democratic society in a future post.
”Taking down the man,” is the real fear here. Who is the “man?” Well, white evangelical men is the obvious answer. The framers of the Democratic experiment known as the United States…all white men. In American fundamentalist Protestant circles, yep, all white men. And what else is the doctrine of eternal torment and hell for unbelievers about if it isn’t about “fear-based control?” American culture has been framed almost exclusively from the perspective of white male privilege, including conservative Christianity.
Evangelicalism as a whole is based on “if-then” propositions. Only, the ifs are not really ifs but self-evident “truths” that are excepted unquestionably, and that my friend is what the movie is getting at. Roger E Moore is one evangelical who “gets” this and has written why this propositional approach among evangelicals prevents true reforms within the movement. The stones in the movie are accepted as “facts,” even though they are not. This is a problem when we approach religions based on doctrinal “facts,” especially when the truths are not self-evident and at times contradictory.
McCracken goes on to say, “The film’s obsession with power is certainly of a piece with the 2018 zeitgeist, where gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL, are partisan, bitter battlefields over power. To our shame, many evangelicals have indeed become more known for our desperate grip on power than our Christ-like, gospel-shaped lives. And grievously, science, knowledge, and “facts” have also become pawns in the great power battles of our time.
Smallfoot mirrors this dysfunctional world and sadly encourages the next generation to follow suit. It shrinks knowledge into a power play wherein we get woke and the old order gets gets exposed.”
In this McCracken unwittingly betrays the problem with evangelicalism and its interaction with the non-evangelical: it views itself in a cosmic power struggle with society, “gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL.” Rather than seeking ways to work WITH society to achieve a better world, the world’s attempts are suspect and to be avoided. Unfortunately, this puts most evangelicals and certainly their leadership actually working against a better, more loving and exclusive society.
The movie ends on a happy note with the barrier between humans and yetis torn down and the beginnings of a diverse cooperative society. But this does not fit the evangelical narrative at all. First of all, it removes the “us vs them” mentality that shapes much of evangelicalism. Authoritarian structures need inferiors in order to maintain their superior status. The Romans had the Christians, Hitler had the Jews. Fundamentalism has had numerous inferior people groups in the past: Jews, Catholics, Liberals and black athletes who dare suggest there is a race problem in America.
Secondly, authoritarian structures like evangelicalism and fundamentalism function on the premise that there is unity in conformity. Conformity plays a big part in the movie. The yeti clan moves along smoothly because no one is allowed to rock the boat. Let me be very clear about this, evangelicalism does not entertain much diversity. Authoritarian structures are not set up for diversity. They crumble under non conformity. Conformity was the strength of the Roman Catholic Church for a millennia. Because Protestants could not agree on the “stones” to follow, but still had to have absolute conformity, they split into numerous denominations, and at numerous times actually killed each other. So it is not the search for answers that is the danger here, but denial of that search in favor of a “hive mentality.” In fact, those in yeti society that are nonconformists are forced to meet in secret to avoid being astracized. Christians should do well to remember that once they had to meet secretly in the catacombs because they did not fit into an authoritarian society.
Perhaps a more balanced assessment can be found Here
“One of the characters in “Smallfoot” says something like this: “Truth is complicated and can be scary, but it’s better than believing a lie.” Truth is what we should always seek. We should blindly accept nothing, and our Lord does not ask us to do so. He has given us a world which showcases His creativity and declares His glory. He has given us His Word which resounds with truth and reason. Its claims can be answered. Its Author can be trusted. Its Savior can be called upon. Faith is not blindly accepting the flawed traditions of men… it is trusting completely in the One who made us and sustains us. And when we do so, we see that empty traditions, the world’s lies and the secular teachings of mere man that we may have once believed now ring false.”
“Much of the allegory will be far above the heads of very young children but should provide lots to think about for preteens through adults. Can a lie be a “good” lie? Should we ever be willing to deny the truth in order to protect others? Is it okay to question what we have always been taught? I am actually thankful for a film which presents a platform for such thought… or better yet, discussion. Even if this film may have been intended to cause viewers to doubt religious teachings, it is always good to examine why we believe what we believe.”
And with that I agree. It is always good to examine what we believe.