Sunday, June 20, 2010

Toys and Nietzsche - Toy Story 3 and Community

Don't read, if you want absolutely NO spoilers for Toy Story 3. Some are found below.

My wife and I took our boys to see Toy Story 3 this weekend. I was looking to be entertained. I didn't expect two things. The first thing was the sheer emotion that welled up and just gushed forth. It did not help that I was sitting next to my oldest who had just finished first grade, that I had just played the day before with my youngest pretending to chase down the Joker with the Batman playset, AND that my wife and I are expecting our third child, our first daughter, literally any moment now. I cried for the first quarter of the movie, and then for the last quarter of the movie, all because the fleeting moments with my children seemed all too fleeting, and I was sure that my oldest was about to head off to college tomorrow. The second surprise, and more important one for this blog post, was the defense of dependent community over and against the cult of the individual who owns his or her own destiny.

Not to give away too much, but due to a misunderstanding, the remaining toys in Andy's room get separated from Woody, and head for the trash heap. Woody goes after them, even though they avoid the trash without his help. Nonetheless they believe that Andy meant to throw them away and they would rather try their luck at the daycare center. They are hurt to be sure, but they simply will not listen to the words of Woody calling them back to their faithfulness to Andy. The recurrent theme throughout the Toy Story films, the indellible mark placed upon the toys by Andy, returns here as well. And it was impossible for me not to see this continued theme in the light of baptism. As each of us are marked with the sign of the cross in the waters of baptism, that indellible promise, we are showered with grace, claimed as God's own, and placed in a relationship where we can live out a response to that love. The toys having been claimed by Andy, Woody asserts, are called to respond by always being there for him. Granted the image of Andy as God breaks down, but here the toys are certainly called to trust that Andy would not abandon them and would take care of them whether he took them to college or put them in the attic.

But the toys don't trust Andy, which is probably a good thing since the story would have been over really quickly and the special 3-D fee would have been really really painful, and they end up at the day care. At the day care, the toys meet a whole new host of characters, all under the seemingly benevolent leadership of Lotso (Lotso Huggin', a pink stuffed bear, who smells like strawberries). He welcomes the new toys, has Ken lead them on a tour of the facility, and tells them they get to be in the catepillar room. Lotso makes sure to portray the place as a utopia. He plays on their distrust of Andy and claims that there at the daycare, they never have to worry about being lost of rejected again. The toys there are not bound by dependency on others. Each toy is his or her own master. Dependency leads to being cast aside, but since the children constantly rotate through the daycare, there is no dependency.

But we find out that Lotso is not the caring bear he seems to be. He is in fact the ruler of the daycare toys, and rules by sheer will. His word is law. By allowing certain toys into his circle of power, these other toys cooperate in the culture of fear. When Andy's toys, minus Woody who leaves the other toys to return to Andy, find out what the Caterpillar room means, preschoolers who do not so much play with the toys as abuse them, they attempt to get transferred to the Butterfly room. Then they find out the real nature of Lotso and his method of governing.

At the heart of the movie is this debate. Which is better, living in a particular, dependent community, or to be master of one's own fate, a truly independent individual? Actually that is the way Lotso wants to pose the question to Andy's toys, and Lotso is pretty adamant about that being independent is the better station in life. Being taken in by this line, the toys from Andy's room that remain, find a dramatic bait-and-switch. They are not independent at all. Lotso enslaves them with the false image of true independence coming through the exertion of their own wills. Lotso models the Nietzschean will to power. Atomistic individuals struggling for power, who refuse to buck the system seeing how it is stacked in favor of the powerful. And they want nothing more than to be included in that inner circle. So they play the game.

Into this atmosphere though come a particular band of people who know what true community, an enfleshed community rooted in love, is and looks like. The toys discover that it is better to be enslaved to a loving benevolent master who seeks their true best than a power-hungry toy who seeks only their domination. Andy comprehends the true dignity of their selves. Lotso believes the toys are nothing but trash to be used and discarded. And near the climax of the movie, in a scene strongly reminiscent of the book of Daniel, there is a moment when we believe that Lotso might have repented and could save them all from sure destruction. But he stops short and lets the toys go on to their destruction, and he calls out, "Where is your boy now?" I could not help but hear the distinct echo of Psalm 42:10, 'My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, "Where is your God?"'

But there is deliverance and redemption. The lies of Nietzsche are laid bare and the promise of a community dependent upon the truly benevolent master is shown victorious. Andy, the benevolent master, knows the true identity of each toy. He knows what is best about each of them. In the end the true telos of the individual is to live in community dependent on others, not just for basic needs but for our sense of identity as well.

At its best, the church is such a community. We know that we are dependent upon God for our identity, even if there are times we would rather not be so dependent, when we'd rather be 'spiritual not religious' that is, to live in a pseudo-community that says we can be arbiters of our own destiny. Nonetheless we have an external objective reality who has promised to be there for us throughout it all. Some of us are placed in the attic at rest until we are awakened. And some of us continue on with the work to which we have been called. Sure the reality is messier than that, but the truth remains, we simply cannot live on our own, seeking our own goods, and remain the people God intends for us to be.

Even children's toys know that...


Ray J said...

Brilliant. Thank you. I forwarded this to my pastor. He's the type you can't go a conversation with that he doesn't use a movie or TV to illustrate some aspect of faith.

Brian Bennett said...

Thanks Ray. I appreciate the comment. I think movies work well to talk about our understanding of the gospel. I have a few other posts about movies throughout my blog.