Gutenberg: ONWARD

Onward (2020) — IMDb


Any views or opinions expressed in “Gutenberg” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.

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I always said I would be the last to buy Disney-Plus, but the Stay-Safe-Stay-Home order has finally cracked me.  And let me say: I didn’t know what I was missing!  If you have the cash, at a $7 per month commitment, it’s completely worth it for times such as these: whether you’re in it for Frozen 2, Marvel, Star Wars, or, like me: Pixar (OK, and the Muppets).  The latest in Pixar’s long run of successes is Onward, a movie that allows us to accompany two brothers, Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland), on their magical quest to bring back their late father, if only for a day. 

Barley and Ian may be somewhat unfamiliar to us because they are elves.  In fact, the entire universe they live in is magical.  But over time, something funny has happened.  In a word, all the magical creatures have become domesticated by technology.  We now see a mermaid in an inflatable pool staring at a cell phone, unicorns congregating around suburban trash cans scrapping for food, pixies not flying but riding in a motorcycle gang, and, perhaps saddest of all, a manticore (a sort of lion, scorpion, dragon hybrid), waiting tables at what’s basically a sit-down White Castle.

But as the movie progresses, we find that pixies really still can terrify, manticores really can…do whatever a manticore does, and, most importantly, with encouragement from his big brother, Ian really does have magical powers.   

As I watched this movie, I couldn’t help but think of the idea of disenchantment.  This is a 20th century concept that focuses on how science has changed the way we view the world.  Where people used to walk through the woods and imagine fairies or sprites, now they see trees and think of how it could be turned into paper.  Where people used to fear krakens and sea monsters in the deep, a modern container ship carries about 100,000 tons of goods to sell and can make it from China to the US in a little over a week. Where people like Francis of Assisi used to see preach to the birds and see the work of God in creation, nature now is something that can be exploited, commodified, and sold. 

Disenchantment is a result of scientific progress—which is a good thing!  Advances in technology, medicine, travel have improved longevity and quality of life for billions of people.  But too often it has come at the cost of looking at this beautiful creation and, instead of being awed, asking what we can get out of it.

Onward is a beautiful call to “reenchant” the world, not as though we are somehow going to be able to build invisible bridges over treacherous canyons or slay a dragon (although they’re both awesome scenes in the movie!).  Rather, it is a call to awaken to the wonder that is already all around us.  As we do, we will discover that even in a world of bad news, crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and green grass are still shooting up, the cackle of sandhill cranes can still be heard in the quieter air, and you can still laugh at the domesticated housecat thinking he’s ever going to chase down that squirrel on the other side of the window.  Perhaps that cat understands something that we don’t: that there is joy and magic to be found in the day-to-day comings-and-goings, buzzings-and-lowings, tillings-and-hoings of this beautiful, singular earth that God has entrusted to us.

Most of all, Onward teaches us that there is magic to be found in each other.  In all the bid to “resurrect” their father, the brothers grow together, laugh and cry with each other, discover in each other the missing pieces that will make them whole.  In this world as it is right now, disenchantment tells us we have less than ever.  But the deeper, more magical, truer reality is that we have each other.  We will get through this not through apps and screens—even ones that show us great movies—but by conversation, by listening, by picking up the phone and calling, by finding the magic in each other. 

A man who was no stranger to God’s enchanted world, J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” 

May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

Table Scraps for Sunday, April 19, 2nd Sunday of Easter

The traditional season of Eastertide is fifty days long (take that, Lent!).  Easter continues on April 19 with John 20:19-31.  This story is about so-called “doubting Thomas.”  You know the one: The resurrected Jesus shows up to his apostles, but Thomas was on a Meijer or beer run and missed out.  Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Well, you can probably guess what happens: a week later, Jesus shows up and shows him the nail-marks and the wound in his side.  And Thomas responds with an acclamation of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

This is a weird year to preach this one because the story is so tactile: one of the points the Gospel is making is Jesus is really, physically resurrected: this isn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi. 

But on the other hand, maybe there is a lot we can relate to.  We know the disciples were scared, in a locked room, and that some of them had doubts.  Well, that’s not too different from a lot of us right now.

And the Good News is Jesus shows up for them: the guys like John who think they’ve got it right, the guys like Peter who are a little embarrassed by what they’ve done lately, and the guys like Thomas who have doubts.  No matter what you or your family’s situation is right now: please hear this, you are not alone.  Jesus is with us through all of this, going through this with all of us, and he promises that on the other side, he will bring us all to resurrection and new life. 

James E. Smith is a pastor serving at Trinity Episcopal and St. John’s Lutheran Churches. For comments, questions, or rebuttals, fire off an e-mail at Prosit!