Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Evidence Masquerading As Faith in The Polar Express

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on January 17, 2009

polarexpressAround Christmastime, I usually end up watching a large number of holiday films with my kids. One of my kids’ favorites is The Polar Express, and my 5-year-old son is an especially big fan. Evidence of this is found in the Lionel version of The Polar Express train that chug-chugs merrily in circles on its track around the Christmas tree in our living room. Another version of this train occupies his wooden train table. Concerning the quality of this film, I stand in agreement with my son. It has everything a good kids’ film should: trains, secret adventures sans parents, a dream sequence, near disaster with daring rescues, magic, and don’t forget Santa, the elves, and the reindeer.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, it centers around a main character (a boy around the age of 10, by my guess) who is beginning to lose his faith in the existence of Santa. In one of the film’s opening scenes, he peeks through the open crack in his bedroom door and into his sister’s room. He overhears this exchange between his sister and parents:

Sister: He said Santa would have to fly faster than light to get to every house in one night. And to hold everyone’s presents his sled would be bigger than an ocean liner.

Parent: Your brother said that? He was just kidding you. He knows there’s a Santa.

Sister: He said he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure if Santa was for real.

Parent: Of course Santa is real. He’s as real as Christmas itself.

This sets up the main theme of this movie: the importance of having faith, believing in something without evidence. This is, of course, one of the main messages in Christianity as well. In fact, without faith one cannot be a Christian; the lesson of Doubting Thomas is just one of many passages in the Bible where this idea is illustrated.

This section of the film is followed by what appears to be a dream sequence, although that is up to interpretation. Nevertheless, some very dream-like events occur. The adventures of this Doubting-Thomas boy begin when he feels his entire room shake and hears the loud arrival of train directly in front of his house. Out of curiosity he walks outside where he meets the conductor. The theme of faith is picked up by the conductor who clucks disapprovingly and reads off a list of the boy’s lack of faith:

…no photo with a department-store Santa this year, no letter to Santa. And you made your sister put out the milk and cookies. Sounds to me like this is your crucial year. If I were you, I would think about climbing onboard.

After some hesitation, the boy gets on The Polar Express train and his adventure to the North Pole begins.

At the climax of the film, the boy stands in the center of the North Pole village as he, his companions, and hundreds of elves await the appearance of Santa. After Santa appears, and as the bell-clad reindeer and the sleigh stand ready, a girl the boy is standing with turns to him and says, “Aren’t those bells the most beautiful sound?” Strangely enough, despite the fact that Santa and the reindeer are clearly visible, the boy cannot hear the bells. The film reveals that this is due to his lack of faith. (Why he would need faith, when he is staring evidence in the face, is a strange discrepancy in the writing.)

When one of the bells falls off the sleigh and lands at his feet, the boy picks it up, shakes it, and, still not hearing, whispers, “Okay. Okay. I believe. I believe!” Upon uttering these words, he shakes the bell again, and, magically, he can now hear it. Due to his preoccupation with the bell, the boy is unaware that Santa has approached him. Looking up, he sees Santa in front of him (with heavenly, halo-like light shining from his body) who says, “What was that you said?” The boy responds, “I… I believe. I believe.”

The boy is subsequently granted the coveted first gift of Christmas. It is implied that the boy receives this as a reward for learning to practice the “virtue” of faith. The fact that he receives the first gift for this lesson is significant. The boy’s co-adventurers also learn lessons, such as leadership, trust and humility. However, by awarding the first gift to the boy who learns faith, the film ends up asserting that faith is the most valuable “virtue” to be learned.

My assumption that some Christians would find the theme of this film appealing was confirmed when I looked up a review from the Christian website Preview Family Movie Review. In their review of the film they write:

The films theme is delivered through statements like these: the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart, sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we cant see, and the wonder of life is found by believing. It cleverly expresses the power of believing beyond the seen world. While this certainly can be taken to mean the power of our unseen faith in Jesus Christ, the object of faith is not made clear in the film although implications point to Santa. Children have an uncanny ability to believe in the unseen, but believing anything in ones heart is not necessarily good. If the distinction between unseen truth and unseen error can be communicated to children, watching this film will make for a great family night.

Take a look at this website’s objections to some popular Disney animated films to understand what a glowing review this is.

What blows my mind the most about this review is that it misses a very obvious fact in the film; namely, the boy does NOT practice faith. This boy has evidence. For God’s sake, he is standing in the middle of a few hundred elves, beside a magic train and in front of Santa!

Upon reflection, I realized that this blindness to the difference between faith (believing in something without evidence, because you were told to–either by a fellow Christian or by reading the Bible) and evidence, is one that exists in many Christians I know. In discussions I have had with these Christians about the difference between my worldview (one based on evidence) and their worldview (one based on belief with no evidence), I have witnessed their internal struggle. For the most part, these Christians respond to being told that “faith equals belief without evidence” one of two ways: 1) They agree that faith is the cornerstone of Christianity, because if evidence existed there would be no need for faith, or 2) They disagree with my definition of faith (despite the fact that it IS the definition of faith), and they claim to have evidence. I have great respect for those Christians who express some form of the first response; they have obviously read and understand the Bible’s passages on faith and its primacy to their religion. I can’t help but feel some pity for those who claim to have what they call “evidence” of the existence of the Judeo-Christian God they worship.

Usually, when I press these Christians for some examples of “evidence,” they will decline and will say something like, “You wouldn’t accept my evidence.” Others will oblige and will usually point to something humans find wondrous, like the existence of the universe or the “miracle” of a precious newborn infant. They seem oblivious to the fact that this “evidence” could also be used by adherents of other religious faiths to “prove” the existence of their deities. In other words, they are very religio-centric (to coin a word). They seem unable to place themselves within the shoes of those who practice other faiths. If they were to do this, they would see that their “evidence” (which does not meet any rigorous standard for true evidence–anecdotal evidence and hearsay only convince those already determined to believe something regardless of what the true evidence shows) would also “support” belief in that other religious faith. As adherents to that other faith, they would notice this new deity’s miracles in their day-to-day lives, and they would still attribute the good things that happen to them as stemming directly from the hand of that deity. Do Christians honestly think that Muslims and Hindus don’t witness their own gods’ “miracles”? I assure you that they do. Are the adherents to these religions delusional? No more so than Christians are.

I have heard Christians attempt to rationalize away this problem by insisting upon how different their religion is from others. They will claim that it is the 1st monotheistic religion (it isn’t) and therefore special (as if being first at something is evidence of its truth). They will claim that their deity is the first one to have returned from the dead (he isn’t). These arguments are nothing more than arguments from ignorance, since it takes very little research to see that they are utterly false.

But let me return to The Polar Express. I write this entry in part to tear this film from the clutches of those Christians who would like to claim it as their own. The main theme of this film is definitely faith, but it is faith in Santa Claus (who, remember, is not real). The film ends with a voice over from the main character as an adult. He says:

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell. But as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah [his sister] found, one Christmas, that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old…the bell still rings for me. As it does for all who truly believe.

It is important to note that only the person who actually encountered Santa and who has a piece of evidence, the bell, to prove Santa’s existence is the one to retain that belief. Thus, in the end, this film is not about faith; it is more about the importance of retaining one’s child-like imagination, wonder, and naivete. This is nothing more than a glorification of childhood which in this film is presented as a time of innocence, adventure, and life lessons.

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