There’s a meme going around the internet that goes something like this:
In 1995, an innovative new film studio, Pixar, burst onto the digital animation scene with a movie that asked a simple but profound question: What if toys had feelings? (Toy Story)
The film was wildly successful with children as well as adults, and so in 1998, they followed it up by asking a similar question: What if bugs had feelings? (A Bug’s Life)
In 2001, using the same formula, Pixar asked the question: What if monsters had feelings? (Monsters, Inc.)
In 2003: What if fish had feelings? (Finding Nemo)
2004: What if superheroes had feelings? (The Incredibles)
2006: What if cars had feelings? (Cars)
2007: What if rats had feelings? (Ratatouille)
2008: What if robots had feelings? (WALL-E)
2009: What if old people had feelings? (Up)
2012: What if Scottish people had feelings? (Brave)
And just when you thought there was nowhere else to take this question, in 2015 Pixar finally asked the inevitable: What if FEELINGS had feelings? (Inside Out)
- Film Clip #1: Movie Trailer (2:28)
Inside Out is a film about Riley, an 11 year-old girl, and the five personified emotions inside her head–Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust–who are also the influencers, organizers, and guardians of all her short-term, long-term, and core memories.
Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to San Fransisco, starting a series of events that causes Joy (the predominant emotion in Riley’s life up to this point) to begin to lose control of things, and which also causes sadness to take a more prominent role, much to Joy’s frustration. The struggle between sadness and joy that goes on in Riley’s head eventually causes both of these emotions to be supressed–or rather, as it is depicted in Riley’s head, the characters Joy and Sadness are sucked out of the control room by a giant vacuum tube and deposited somewhere in the deep recesses of Riley’s subconcious mind. At this point, Anger, Fear, and Disgust take over, complicating Riley’s life and her relationship with her family. As Joy and Sadness journey back to “headquarters” they learn to work together and appreciate each other, while outside, Riley is learning to come to terms with her new life and the new emotions it creates within her.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Immigration is a prominent theme in all of our movies this year, and this one is no exception. Riley’s emotional turmoil is caused by her family’s immigration to a new home. Symbolically, two of her core emotions also find themselves far from home in a strange place where all the rules are different and unfamiliar. At one point, her remaining emotions hatch a plot for Riley to run away from her family back to Minnesota, where most of her happy memories were formed.
In our world, it’s worth noting (and remembering) that leaving one’s home and immigrating to a strange new place is an emotionally difficult thing to do. It’s typically not something people do for fun, just on a whim, or without significant heartbreak. I think that’s why God, in the scriptures, consistently takes the side of the immigrant, and reminds his people to always treat them kindly. Wherever you stand in the current debate our country is having about immigration, I hope that as Christians, we let kindness and compassion be the emotions that lead us and inform our thoughts, our words, and our actions.
Bing Bong: Sacrificial Savior
In last year’s Faith & Film series, we had a Christ type in almost every film. This year, as best as I can tell, there’s only one–and it’s Bing Bong, an unlikely Christ type if ever there was one. In case you’ve forgotten, a Christ type is not necessarily a character that resembles Jesus in every way (Jesus was obviously not made out of cotton candy), but does in one or two critical aspects. In the case of Inside Out, Bing Bong mysteriously appears to Joy and Sadness near the beginning of their journey, just as Jesus appears to the two travelers on the road to Emmaus in the gospel of Luke. Bing Bong walks and talks with Joy and Sadness along the way, showing them amazing wonders and teaching them things they would have missed without his guidance. At one point, Joy and Sadness are separated, Joy falls deep into the pit of lost memories, and all seems lost. Watch what Bing Bong does in this next clip:
In John 15, Jesus says there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend. As Christ died to save us, so Bing Bong sacrifices his life to save Joy, and to save Riley.
The Tyranny of Joy
Moments like these help Joy to grow and develop as a character, but early in the film, she is a bit of a micro-manager. In places where it would be natural for sadness to take over, Joy tries to prevent this–as if she, Joy, is the only acceptable emotion for Riley to experience:
I’ve seen this same thing manifest itself in church culture as well: In many churches, there seems to be this idea that if you have faith in God, if you are a “good Christian” then you have to be happy all the time, your life must be picture perfect, and if God isn’t blessing you with health and wealth and happiness everyday, then you must be doing something wrong. There’s even a little song we teach our children: I’ve got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart? Where? Down in my heart to stay! And I’m so happy, so very happy, I have the love of Jesus in my heart… It’s a great song, but the subtle implication here is that if you have the love of Jesus in your heart, then you will be so very happy, and that hapiness is here “to stay.” Always. No matter what.
But even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died. And he was anxious in the garden when the time for his crucifixion was at hand. And he was filled with anger and disgust in the temple, when he threw out the money changers. Jesus experienced the full range of emotions because he was fully human. God created us, and all of our emotions as well, each with a purpose and a usefulness.
Enneagram: The Mind of Christ
For the past several months, I’ve been co-teaching a class with one of our deacons (Helen Edwards) on the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a system for understanding different personality types, and why we do the things we do. It has roots in ancient Christianity (among other traditions) and has been called a “Window to the Soul,” the “Face of God,” and a pathway to understanding the “Mind of Christ.”
One thing I’ve learned from studying this system is that emotions are rarely positive or negative in themselves. They can manifest themselves in different ways depending on the maturity of the individual. For example, while joy is a good and necessary emotion, an immature attachment to joy can manifest itself as a detached shallowness. Likewise, anger in a healthy, balanced mature person can manifest itself as a passion for justice and fairness.
In the movie Inside Out, we see into other heads besides just Riley’s–and inside every head are the same five emotions. However, if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that there’s always one emotion that is primary, the one that spends the most time driving. For Riley, Joy is her primary driver. But watch the first part of this clip again and pay attention to who is driving Riley’s mother, and her father:
- Film Clip #1: Movie Trailer (first few seconds)
Anger is the driving force behind Riley’s father’s personality–and yet he doesn’t come across in the film as a particularly angry guy–just someone who is passionate about things: Sports, rules, boundaries. Riley’s mother is driven by sadness–and yet her “Sadness” is not the same gloomy, melancholy character inside Riley’s head. The sadness that drives her mother is calm, confident, empathetic and understanding. Mature.
Both the Enneagram and Inside Out teach that true growth comes not from supressing certain emotions that we deem negative, but rather in understanding what emotions drive us, and how to develop and channel those emotions for the good of ourselves and others, and not for harm.
Psalms: A Fullness of Emotion
If Inside Out is a window into the mind and emotions of Riley, I think that the Book of Psalms in the Bible is a window into the full range of human emotions. In the Psalms you’ll find joy and sadness, anger, fear, and disgust, but also things like envy and jealousy, courage and love, surpise and pity, hope and shame. In fact, I might be so bold as to say that there isn’t an emotion you can think of that can’t be found somewhere in the Psalms. Test me on that, and if I’m wrong, at least I will have gotten you to read a bit more of the Bible than you might have otherwise!
There is, however, one critical difference between the Psalms and Inside Out. Riley’s emotions, in the film, address themselves to us, the viewers. In some cases, Joy in particular, they even speak to us directly. But the raw emotions of the Psalms are all directed to God, who created us, who created our emotions, and who understands us better than anyone can.
The movie Inside Out attempts to answer the question, “Where do feelings come from?” So does today’s scripture passage, Psalm 139. But much as I really like and admire this film, I think the answer given by the Psalm is by far the more more beautiful, the more poetic, and the more comprehensive answer to our question, and so I have saved it for last, to be our final word. Let it be our closing prayer as well:
Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24
1O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
12even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
23Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
24See if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.