On this episode of Finding Christ in Cinema, we pour the hot chocolate and look for Christian themes in The Polar Express. Is seeing really believing? Does something have to be seen in order to be real? All that and more in 3…2…1!
Faith in the Partial Ticket
The tagline of this film is “Seeing Is Believing,” an idiomatic expression dating back to 1639 that means only physical or concrete evidence is convincing. But is this a true statement? Do you have to see something in order to believe that it’s real?
In the film, both sides of the argument are vocalized. First, we get the cynical response from the Hobo on top of the train. From the Hobo’s perspective, if you take that “leap of faith,” you will fall off the train and flat on your face if whatever unseen thing in which you believed wasn’t real. This is a common stumbling block for a lot of people within and without the Church, and sometimes it even causes those who first believed to change into unbelievers.
We perceive this doubt when the Hero Boy is first offered to climb aboard the train. His neglectful and maybe even disrespectful actions of unbelief – not getting a picture with Santa, not writing a letter for Santa, and not even putting out the milk and cookies – exemplify how doubtful the Hero Boy is of Santa. Maybe the reason why the Hero Boy doubts is because he is seeing something incomplete and imperfect, and because of that, he can’t reconcile that with something complete and perfect. He sees the reflections of the real meaning of Christmas – perfectly expressed in the mechanical Santa Claus he sees in the toy shop window – but he is discontent with them and considers hollows and unsubstantial…read: incomplete.
The other side of the argument proposes that some of the truest and realest things in the world are the things we can’t see; this side is affronted by the stirringly stern Conductor. He not only vocalizes this notion, but he exemplifies it in giving out train tickets to the children and then punching incomplete and impartial words. For the Hero Boy, he punches the letter B on one side and the letter E on the opposing side. While he partially punches the first two letters of everyone else’s tickets, it is interesting to note that he (purposefully?) leaves a gap between the letters on Hero Boy’s ticket as if to show that it was indeed incomplete…and that it wouldn’t be completed until after Hero Boy underwent his heart transformation.
The key Scriptural text for this point is found in the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13. We won’t however go to the “love” part; instead, we’ll skip ahead to Paul speaking about this:
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways.
First of all, though, I am not saying that having faith in something that you don’t completely understand is childish – that’s not what neither Paul nor myself are saying about faith. Nor am I suggesting that Christmas is childish and should be done away with. What I’m saying is that we are urged to believe in the things that we can’t see in order to prepare us for the day in which we will see them fully and completely perfect, not lacking in anything. Let this image of the impartial ticket transforming into the complete ticket be your guide to help others (and maybe yourself) realize how important it is to have faith in the things that we may not be able to see.
Ears to Hear the Bells on Christmas Day
Something else that could be considered incomplete in the film is the one jingle bell – even all the jingle bells – that are a part of Santa’s sleigh. At least, from Hero Boy’s vantage point (and the audience’s by default), the bells make no sound at all. It’s a weird and even alienating experience because we as the audience know that the bells should be jingling when they move, and we transitively experience the same confusion that Hero Boy does at this point in the film.
Maybe it’s because the bell is supposed to be another image of something partial that transforms into something perfect…or maybe this is a chance to explore the nature of belief itself. After all, Hero Boy admits that he wants to believe in the mysterious magic of Christmas, but his unbelief keeps him from truly grasping it. You could say that his heart isn’t ready to be transformed in these moments of doubt. It’s almost as if he doesn’t have ears to hear.
Jesus says it best when discussing his parables and teaching methods:
Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given – and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.”
Next time you think about how hard it is to have faith in something you can’t see or hear, just remember that we sometimes have to slow down and actually listen in order to understand.
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Finding Christ In Cinema is the show where we discover Christian themes in movies past and present. Join us and together we’ll dig deeper into the silver-screen classics of yesteryear as well as the box-office hits of today. Brought to you by the Great Commission Transmission Network. View the complete show notes, including links to articles discussed, by clicking here.
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