Stories we tell
The scientists tell us that, ultimately, what separates humans from animals is that we tell stories. We tell each other stories all the time. And from all the large and small stories we hear, throughout our lives, we extract information.
But we also extract meaning. We hear people recounting their stories on buses and trains, on the radio and TV, on the internet and on social media. They can be tiny little everyday stories about getting wet in the rain, or huge ones about bombs or birth. But they are always told by someone who felt them. Bible stories are no different; they are told to us, down the centuries, by people who felt them. And all the stories that humans tell each other follow the same pattern: an event, followed by its meaning.
The obvious story
Two questions need to be asked about any story. The first one is: ‘What happened?’ Let’s look at a simple story about getting caught in the rain, which you might hear anywhere…
‘I was at this freezing-cold, stupid bus-stop, in the middle of nowhere. And then – oh my gosh – so maddening – it bucketed down … no umbrella … no jacket … the sky just opened! (I mean I’m not as young as I was.) And when I finally got to my son’s place I had to change into one of his tracksuits until my clothes dried out!’
The events of that story are obvious: the teller got soaked on a cold day, far from shelter. That is the ‘actual’ part of the story.
What the story means underneath
The second question we need to ask is: What is the story about?
So, what is this rain-story telling us, apart from facts? What is the meaning? Well … that’s not nearly so obvious and it is definitely open for discussion. But if we look for the feeling that prompted the telling of this tiny story, we are very likely to find a meaning – or two, or three. So, is the teller talking about undergoing mild discomfort, or an ordeal? Was the event irritating or alarming? Is there vulnerability in the story, or merely frustration? Is there resignation to the onset of old age? Or celebration of the sanctuary of a good parent-child relationship? To know what any story is ‘about’ takes digging and interpretation.
God in the story
I approach every story believing that God is present in it; whether the story-teller intends it or not. Not usually as a character, not always with agency, but always there…
In our little rain-story, we can see God in the rain, and in the love of the parent-child relationship. In a bomb-story we see Christ, crucified, among those wounded in the explosion; and we see The Spirit, impelling loving souls forward into acts of risk and salvation. In a birth-story, God is in the utter mystery of the mingling of biology,
humanity and divinity.
Skating or digging
With any book, any film, any human story, any Bible story, we have a choice: we can skate on the surface observing events … or we can dig for meaning. Even with Hollywood stories (predominantly crafted to entertain and to make money), there’s a lot more than mere commerce going on. God may not be written in, but God is always present.
Mary Poppins Returns seems, on the surface, merely to be whimsy. You can watch it at that level. But there are substantial themes running through the film. Most, though not all, are intentional. We can watch the great Disney fun-factory as it tries to deal lightly with massive themes of love, money, death, hope, home, displacement, loss, good and evil. It will be up to you to decide what point the film is making, or trying to make. What is the film really about? Where is God present in the film? What significance can we safely attach to a film which seems at first viewing to be a fairy-story? Where is the meaning for us?
The original creator and narrator of the Mary Poppins stories was Miss P. L. Travers. While they remained only in books, she had control of their telling. But once she had allowed them to be re-told by Disney, a host of voices, both creative and commercial, became involved in polishing, embellishing and altering them.
Disney stories are commercial products. However charming they seem, they exist primarily for profit. Disney will always serve up a happy ending. Lighthearted, optimistic ‘dreams’ are Disney’s stock-in-trade.
What have Mary Poppins’ adventures got to do with Lent?
You may be wondering how we can reconcile the dark lead-up to Easter with the dedicated cheeriness of Disney. Are we taking Lent sufficiently seriously, if we approach it through a Disney lens? After all, the events which bring us to Easter are utterly appalling. Every year we watch Christ pursue His lonely, unflinching campaign of Love, as evil elements within his own society (and among his own followers) betray, deny and kill him. It’s not Disney. Disney’s intent, at all times, is to offer a spoonful of sugar; and the Bible’s intent is never ever that. Healing to humankind, offered by the Easter story, can and must never go down ‘in a delightful way’. Good Friday must be borne unsweetened, and Easter arrive un-gilded.
But the film promises much. It hints, even in the opening song, at hope and deliverance through faith. Walt Disney (whose ideals the Disney Corporation aim still to uphold) said two things which may, at least, reassure us of the film’s intentions. He said:
“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.”
“We have created characters and animated them in the dimension of depth, revealing through them, to our perturbed world, that the things we have in common far outnumber and outweigh those that divide us.”
Mary Poppins Returns is a far more complex film than first appears; and hugely more complex than the original Mary Poppins. It does indeed portray a perturbed world. As the author of Where the Lost Things Go, I leave it up to you to decide whether the film says precisely what was intended. But dig here and you will not be disappointed. I hope your excavations give you a rich, meaningful way towards Easter – and the joy and the work beyond.
Where the Lost Things Go, by Lucy Berry, is available here.