Resurrection is not child's play

A column in yesterday's edition of my local paper raised my hackles before I even read it, because the headline and the pulled quote that adorned it situated the author squarely against depictions of resurrection in movies aimed at children. Now, I happen to believe that a resurrection is the most important thing that ever happened in the whole history of everything, and that it is therefore profoundly important to have our imaginations shaped by the transformative power of that event -- so my default position is to think that resurrection absolutely should be portrayed in the cultural products that inform our imaginations. When a columnist whines about public displays of resurrection with the words "and don't even get me started on Aslan," I get ready to come out swinging.

But then I read the column. And it turns out she's right.

Roshell cites a 2005 paper from Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying* in which researchers traced the depictions of death in classic Disney animated films, finding that the absurdly high frequency with which dead characters fail to stay dead could be a source of confusion for young viewers. She makes clear that it's not the depiction of death to which she objects in kiddie flicks, but the psychological whiplash of a lethal psych-out:

But why put our kids through it all for naught? Herding them through the gut-twisting, hand-wringing exercise of grief, only to retract the sad facts minutes later with a jaunty "just kiddin'," is lazy storytelling that only serves to make the inevitable — and irreversible — expirations of goldfish and, I'll just say it, grandmas that much harder to fathom.
This is exactly right. The inexplicable undoing of death as a plot device/emotional cheat is lazy storytelling, emotionally manipulative, and irresponsibility inattentive to the developmental needs of the target audience. 

The resurrection I care about isn't important because it means (contra certain trends in funeral homiletics) that death is no big deal; it's important because death is a very big deal -- such a big deal that it took the fundamental overthrow of the entire cosmic order to bring it down. Resurrection only matters if it's anomalous.  Resurrection only matters because it subverts the normal order of things, and the normal order of things is that dead people stay dead. 

If more than a quarter of deaths depicted in classic children's movies don't "take," resurrection hardly comes across as the big deal that Christian faith declares it to be. If people can magically come back from the dead for no better reason than the convenience of a lazy film-maker, maybe death isn't such a profound enemy after all.

N.T. Wright is fond of pointing out, against those who contend that the New Testament resurrection accounts were the product of a prescientific worldview that has been thoroughly debunked by modern breakthroughs, that the permanence of death is hardly a modern discovery. If anything, our first-century forebears would have been more aware, not less, of the permanence of death, given their more-frequent personal encounters with it and the inability to outsource funeral arrangements to a professional class. The idea of someone not staying dead would have been just as scandalous in Jesus' day as our own.

Describing the ancient pagan Greek perspective on resurrection, Wright makes the telling observation: "Not even in myth was it permitted" (RSG, p. 33). Homer and his ilk saw clearly that undoable deaths violated the fundamental order of the universe. They wouldn't go there; not even in the world of fiction. Perhaps our modern storytellers could stand to learn something from the narrative discipline of the ancients.

[Are SPOILER ALERTS still necessary when talking about Harry Potter? If so, SPOILER ALERT. And READ THE BOOKS ALREADY.]

J.K. Rowling exhibited a laudable faithfulness to metaphysical verisimilitude when she insisted, amid rampant speculation during the interlibrum between the penultimate and final installments of the Harry Potter series, that Dumbledore definitely would not "do a Gandalf;" that the magical world she had created was still governed by certain unassailable laws, and one of them was that dead people stay dead. (She had already made this perfectly clear within the world of the books themselves through an interview between a bereft Harry and Nearly Headless Nick, the Ghost of Gryffindor Tower, at the end of Book 5. But given the evident willingness of children's writers to bend the rules of nature to the breaking point, one can't blame even careful readers for speculating.) The Harry Potter books are chock full, from stem to stern, with resurrection symbolism, but even in the climactic sequence of the hero laying down his life for others only to take it up again, Rowling does not violate her commitment to be honest about the terrible finality of death. The result is a much richer and more powerful depiction of death and life than a cheap-stunt death reversal could ever offer.

Not that I'm saying I agree with Roshell that depictions of resurrection never have a justifiable place in children's entertainment. I must insist that Aslan is a special case. The resurrection of Aslan just is The Resurrection. Go ahead and make whatever arguments you like about the cultural and literary merits of so transparent a Christian allegory and/or the adequacy of a particular cinematic depiction of the event; I'm never going to concede that Aslan belongs in the same category as the now-they're-dead-now-they're-not switcheroos Roshell complains about. The magic that brings Aslan back from the dead is not ordinary magic, it's "deep magic from before the dawn of time."

If you're going to depict a resurrection, it's got to go that deep. It has to be the climax of whatever story it's a part of, not a bit of storyteller's sleight of hand. It has to do more than unbreak a few broken hearts; it has to turn the whole world upside down.

Because Roshell is absolutely correct: "Dramatic devices are one thing. Resurrection is another entirely."

Amen. Preach it, sister.

*Cox, Meredith, Erin Garrett, and James A. Graham. "Death in Disney Films: Implications for Children's Understanding of Death." OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying 50.4 (2005): 267-280. 


Matthew Roy said...

I like! Very good post. I'm very interested in folklore and find an interesting correlation in this example: 1) German folk tales told by generations of Germans, 2) collected and somewhat smoothed over by the Grimm Brothers, 3) smoothed over even more with pithy morals by Victorians. From here I see two roads, the one leading straight to Disney where "follow your heart" saves the day, the other which takes George MacDonald's theological reworkings of the stories which feeds directly into Lewis, Tolkien, L'Engle, and maybe even Rowling.

All that to say I wonder how the instances of resurrection functioned in the original Grimm tales. I've only read about 30 out of 200 of them, but I'll let you know what I find. So far people do sometimes come back from the dead, but other times everyone dies.

I'm just writing a post about The Last Battle, the last installment of a reading-out-loud time with Jessica. The depressing flavor of the plot turns to world-annihilation-and-resurrection in a wonderfully magic-before-the-dawn-of-time sorta way.

My new blog is at

Talk to you later!

Poe said...

This is a really interesting topic. While death and dying are usually issues which accompany a mature audience, I daresay children are "smarter than we think," as my English Lit. prof. was wont to say.

Regarding Roshell's point, it seems she is talking about a certain kind of resurrection, one which either satirizes it, or is just lazily done, creating a "psychological whiplash." I agree with her on this score: absurdism and/or the grotesque arts requires a level of cognition and abstract thinking that maybe a 5 or 6 year old can't handle just yet. This said, the Christian story tells of a resurrection only after three long days of death and mourning. The interim is handled with care and precision. Death must have its say for time, settling in some, so that it resonates with the current state of death. The timing is crucial. This part in the Christian narrative serves as a great theological point: mourning needs a time of no answers and utter darkness in order to even think about eventually making space for healing. Nowadays, we like fast and easy answers, but the resurrection story of Jesus does not offer this kind of salve.

In other words, rendering the concept of resurrection requires good pacing of events of the plot, which I think can be presented to kids without disillusioning them. As you point out, Aslan is a great example of this (I think C.S. Lewis pulled it off).

Secondly, resurrection is anomalous, as you say, but I would argue only to sin, not to the original intention of things at creations onset. Resurrection, then, is a reaffirmation of creation as it was prior to sin. In this way, it subverts the empire, it subverts history, but the idea that death and sin are defeated, as Paul intimates, suggests a recapturing of creation when it was blessed as "very good" in Genesis 1. As Donne said, "DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so...One short sleep past, we wake eternally,/And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!"

Crimson Rambler said...

I wish I had been able to read your post BEFORE I taught the senior course in children's literature ("Classics of")...the one in which, midway through the first class hour, the student in the back row stood up, said, "Oh" and...died.
Because, of course, when I looked at the brand-new carefully assembled syllabus -- every single text included either dying or great fear of dying.
Which, among many other more urgent concerns, posed a very interesting paedagogical problem.

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