Learning to Have a Childlike Faith With ‘Elf’

As far as movie genres go, the holiday classics perhaps more than any other have much to say about life, especially when it pertains to spiritual matters. It’s a Wonderful Life, for instance, sets out to show us just how intricately interlaced and important our lives are in relation to one another. Through Ralphie, A Christmas Story encourages us to pursue our hopes and dreams despite circumstances or the discouragement of others. The numerous versions of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol warn us against cold-heartedness, greed and misplaced priorities. And finally, A Charlie Brown Christmas puts the whole materialistic and consumer crazy season into the proper perspective.

Another movie that looks to creep onto the holiday classic list is Elf. It is the story of Buddy (Will Farrell) who, upon finding out as an adult that he is not an elf but a human (despite the rather obvious clues), decides to return to New York City in search of his true identity.

Early in the movie the elf who raised Buddy informs him that Christmas spirit is waning because less and less people believe in Santa. Buddy responds quite befuddled, “What? Who do they think puts all the toys under the tree? The elf replies, “There are rumors floating around that the parents do it”. To which buddy retorts with certainty, “That’s ridiculous! I mean parents couldn’t do ALL that in one night. What about Santa’s cookies? I suppose the parents eat them too!?” Here Buddy has turned the age-old arguments against the existence of Santa against itself, while wonderfully exemplifying the childlike faith, wonder and innocence it takes to believe in jolly old Saint Nick.

Countless theologians, writers and preachers over thousands of years have undertaken the task of explaining what it might look like to obey Jesus’ instruction to have faith like a child. Although I find myself a bit hesitant to apply the sacred to a Will Ferrell character, this is kind of what I imagine childlike faith to resemble.

Jesus used children to illustrate to us what genuine trust, faith and hope can look like without all of the hang-ups and hurts that plague adults. Jesus command to have a childlike faith wasn’t a trivial or a simple request. Like all of Christ’s commands, it requires a great amount of faith, deliberation, sacrifice, devotion and obedience. Nevertheless, child-like expectancy, excitement, wonder, dependence and freshness are imperative to our spiritual lives.

Sure, we might have faith—but the faith we have comes with stipulations. We know how to work the “religious systems” to fit our needs and you can be certain that we will walk away if we aren’t satisfied with the results. And our version of faith can be very rude, inconsiderate, hurtful, demanding, competitive, and angry; in short, it can be very adult.

In a sense, all of our life experience and, as the lyricist Aaron Weiss put it in song, “the things we think we know”, handicaps our faith in God. Slowly the sense of amazement at those Sunday school stories of our youth is replaced with skepticism and doubt as we simply rationalize them into being something more symbolic than anything else.

So here we have the example of eager to please Buddy, with his childlike innocence and wide-eyed with wonder enthusiasm and passion for life. He faithfully believes in Santa, adamantly defends Christmas and makes a point to expose any imposters. He believes in Santa because he has seen him, spent time with him and he knows him personally. In Buddy’s world no other reality exists besides the Santa reality. How nice it would be to somehow operate this way within my own life, where the God reality is the only reality. However, it is only possible if we are willing to go through the painful process of shedding all the extra weight associated with our “mature” faith and humbly become like a child.

Buddy’s character challenges my oftentimes uninspired and lifeless faith with how unnaturally joyous and happy he is all the time even in the face of hardened New Yorkers. The truth is that we are missing a substantial ingredient to our spiritual lives if we don’t have a childlike joy. I’m not talking about a naïve, “ignorance is bliss” happiness, but a true joy at the knowledge of who God is and what he has done for us. Our faith may give us hope, strength and aid us through this life, but do we delight in it?

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In scripture, King David has a moment of childlike joy and excitement as he casts his inhibitions (and most of his clothing) aside to dance before the ark as it was returned to Israel. When his wife Michal sees him making a fool of himself she becomes furious with embarrassment and ridicules him when he returns from his joyous rumpus. I humbly admit that my actions in this scenario are more likely to resemble that of Michal’s than that of David’s.

In fact, when it comes to my spiritual life, I find that I relate to Buddy’s skeptical father who is horrified that he is going to be embarrassed by his high-spirited, long lost son. In the opinion of many, faith of any kind is as outlandish as an adult who still believes in Santa Claus. Eventually we’re expected to grow older, experience the cold, harsh realities of this world and put to bed such ridiculous ideas as flying reindeer, Easter Bunnies and Jesus.

When considering the significance that Jesus placed upon having a childlike faith, I find it interesting that we demean certain actions or characteristics in other people as childish. Perhaps it is out of our own envy that we make such brash judgments. The truth is we live in a world that demands us to “grow-up”, “be a man” and “stop kidding around” when in reality we might just be touching the surface of truly understanding our faith.

The greatest tragedy of all is if we allow ourselves to lose that spirit of wonder and awe at the incredible works of God. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson to be learned from the film. Despite all of the ridicule, discouragement and negativity cast at Buddy, he still manages to maintain his faith in not only people, but also the spirit of Christmas itself.

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