“Toy Story” Redux: Sparking Joy is the Church’s Sequel

There’s been a resurgence of analysis of religious life in the United States appearing in waves of commentary on recent Pew study findings. In the midst of all this, an observation from United Methodist bishop Kenneth Carter, Jr. captured my attention:

We should also note that the growth of unaffiliated has been shaped by the relentless critique of the church from without (the high culture of academia and the popular culture of film, television, drama and music) and within; in social media I am often taken by the default posture of cynicism and displaced anger within the church (and among the clergy), which takes the form of self-loathing.

Although Carter never detailed exactly what he meant by “self-loathing,” I resonated with something familiar in the description. I believe he named what I experience whenever I hear critiques of the institutions with which I’m closely identified (and to which I’ve devoted huge amounts of time, and money, and the energy of my faith commitments).

It is the shame I feel in being associated, usually so happily and purposefully, with schools, seminaries, and churches. So many of these institutions currently are under fire for their hypocrisy and their systemic elitism. So many are being called out for seeming more committed to self-preservation than to the people and needs they were created to serve.

To be perfectly honest, I am furious with “my” institutions for not being better. Yet even as I am chastened by the truth of the critiques, I also am frustrated with my impotence to articulate what I believe to be other, alternative truths (all the while pretty much hating how defensive I sound in the effort). This all seems to qualify as self-loathing.

To be perfectly honest, I am furious with “my” institutions for not being better. Yet even as I am chastened by the truth of the critiques, I also am frustrated with my impotence to articulate what I believe to be other, alternative truths . . .

It was with some relief, then, that I read Maxwell Grant’s “Bearings” post last week. He didn’t back away one bit from the truth that the church, church people, and all church-related institutions have many things to learn and to change. But his rendering of the movie “Toy Story 3” as a parable for the mainline churches was also benevolent. It reflected a generous regard for church people—for the “beloved, the most sturdy, and the ones who have managed to hang on,” and for the love with which they have devoted themselves to the church. Like any good parable, the movie held space open for the “both-and” of paradox. I appreciated finding my own story in Sheriff Woody’s story. I appreciated seeing myself as similarly misguided and misdirected, but also sharing his same earnestness and devotion . . . and a love that I know to be true.

So I rented the movie on Sunday night, certain that Grant was onto something. At the very least, I thought I would welcome a few extra measures of love to balance the loathing-love scale.

As Grant recounted in his post, the movie begins with seventeen-year-old man-child Andy getting ready to head off to college, while Sheriff Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys are preparing for their relocation to the attic. There they will wait for the day, which Woody reassures them is sure to come, when Andy will return, will want to play with them again, or at least will want to retrieve them for his own children.

In the chaos and confusion that always attends moves and transitions, the toys accidentally end up in the trash and are forced to embark on a long journey of danger and discovery. Woody gets separated from his friends for a while and is found by a new child named Bonnie—a toddler with a vivid imagination and rich interior life. For the first time in years, Woody is played with as the toy he was designed to be . . . but not in the ways he was accustomed to, and not with the old toys that had become his family. You can read the surprise and confusion on his little toy face (and this is the start of Woody’s learning) when he experiences unexpected moments of joy in an unexpected place, and with an unexpected new little person.

Interesting as Woody was, it was Andy who got and held my attention as I watched the full feature. Andy, whose mom is after him to pack up and to make decisions about what he’s going to take to school. Andy, who has to identify what’s going in the trash, what he might donate, and what’s going up to the attic in storage. (In a moment of exasperation with his mom’s nagging, Andy says he’s not going to get his old toys ready for donation, that no kid today would want them, that they were just junk. All the toys are cut to the quick—this, perhaps, being the start of self-loathing).

Andy’s cardboard boxes, labeled in block letters printed with black magic marker, were very familiar to me. Recently I made the same kind of move, piling up the same kind of boxes, with labels written in the same block letters. I mostly hate moving. I hate the sorting, the organizing, the excavating of accumulated piles of life’s detritus and debris. I hate the decision-making, the tension in not wanting to pack something up for one more move, but not having the heart to leave certain things behind. This time around, however, I had a little help in the form of advice from Marie Kondo’s bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

20150611morgan_sessionsI didn’t have time to read the whole book, but I did try out the one step she considers most important: holding each item you own in your hands, looking at it, and asking if it is something that “sparks joy.” The principle is simple, and it shifts one’s perspective away from the chore of getting rid of stuff to figuring out what to keep, and knowing why. Does the object spark joy? If there is no joy, then it is to be released—with honor and with gratitude—to a better life with a more appreciative owner.

At the end of “Toy Story 3” (*spoiler alert*), Andy’s old toys, all except for Woody, are in the box labeled “attic.” Woody is tucked away in the “college” box, where he sees that Andy has packed a photograph of himself as a small boy, sitting on the floor surrounded by all his other favorite toys and holding Sheriff Woody in hand. Woody realizes that while Andy has outgrown playing with the toys, the memory of them still sparks joy. So Woody slips out of the college box, grabs a magic marker, and scribbles some words on a Post-it note that he sticks to the “attic” box.

It’s all a bit mysterious, but it moves Andy to bring his old toys to the house of his mother’s friend, who just happens to be the mother of the very imaginative and creative little Bonnie. Andy introduces Bonnie to each of the toys in the box one by one, telling her each toy’s name and describing its special traits and disposition. Then he and Bonnie play together for a long while before he leaves the toys with her and drives off down the street.

Really, it could have been a page straight out of Marie Kondo’s book. Andy held each one of the toys before Bonnie, almost ceremonially, and gratefully released them to a better life, and to a very appreciative new owner.

And Woody? Well, he decides to slip out of the college box and take his place in a new life with young Bonnie, with new toys, in new playtime scenarios that only Bonnie could imagine—in a new life that he knew would spark joy.

Always we must ask: Do we (and the ways in which we do church) spark joy?

Maxwell Grant got this absolutely right. “Toy Story 3” is a beautiful parable for the church—and for the sturdy church people who have loved it. After watching the movie and thinking about my own life experiences, I re-visited his blog post’s three bullet points with new perspective:

  • “We need to remember our limitations” means, in part, that we have to listen carefully and fearlessly to the critiques and criticisms of our institutions, because they show us where we’ve confused loving the church (or the seminary, or the school, or a way of being, or a memory) with loving God’s people. They show us how fear of lost status and privilege, and insistence on conformity and maintaining our place, have made the church largely irrelevant to those outside—and a source of self-loathing within. We are committing ourselves to the attic or to the trash heap either way.
  • “We need to celebrate the places where God’s Spirit is at work” because there are creative possibilities waiting in the wild and vivid imaginations of the “Bonnies” we have all too often disregarded in favor of the “Andys” we have known and loved for so long. Always we must ask: Do we (and the ways in which we do church) spark joy? This is a valuable question, in that it cultivates a practice of discerning the spirit and serves as an important corrective to our fears of letting go, of forgetting and being forgotten.
  • “We need to love the world” because human beings are “valuable, broken, and in need of grace.” We need to love the world, and ourselves in it, because any slippage into self-loathing is contrary to sparking joy.

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.

Photo credits:

Cover photo: “Boxed,” by Craig Sunter, November 2013. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0.

Inside photo: Untitled, by Morgan Sessions, n.d. Via Unsplash. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0.