Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
November 24 marks the Blu-ray/DVD release of the reliably superb Aardman Entertainment’s latest movie, the feature-length version of its Shaun the Sheep series. The film opened to near-universal acclaim this summer — it holds a staggering 99% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes — though it performed rather poorly in America, its hopes presumably squashed by the juggernaut that was Minions. Now would thus be an excellent time for families and film aficionados to discover this delightful movie.
The plot of Shaun the Sheep isn’t particularly innovative. The series — a semi-spinoff of Wallace and Gromit’s A Close Shave — follows the misadventures of the eponymous Shaun and his woolen compatriots as they try to avoid the gruff, lovable, clueless farmer who (with the assistance of his rule-abiding hound Bitzer) governs their lives. The episodes, only ten minutes apiece, contain no dialogue, other than the inarticulate vocalizations of the various characters. As other fans may have been, I was slightly apprehensive about whether the movie could sustain the show’s charm while keeping the same narrative rules across an 85-minute span.
I needn’t have worried. Shaun the Sheep Movie compensates for its lack of dialogue with immense kinetic energy and an endless profusion of clever sight gags. As the film begins, Shaun and the other sheep turn out to be a little too successful in their attempts to stage a rural revolution. They lock the farmer into his trailer, which manages to roll all the way to the city several miles away. At first, the sheep revel in their new freedom but they soon find themselves missing the stability and security of the farm’s routines and lamenting the resulting anarchy among their fellow animals. Thus, they embark on their quest and travel to the city in search of the farmer, who has been stricken with amnesia and now holds a successful job as a hair stylist. The sheep must navigate the perilous urban environment and find their farmer amidst Big City’s labyrinthine byways, while avoiding a fanatical animal control agent.Deep down, we are liturgical creatures, designed to live, to learn, to work, and even to play according to guided rhythms.
In many ways a descendant of silent films due to its reliance on visual storytelling, Shaun the Sheep Movie is filled with kid-friendly slapstick. The quality of the old school stop-motion animation is of the highest caliber, as one would expect from an Aardman production. Beneath the fun and games, however, the film also illustrates an important truth about the nature of humans: deep down, we are liturgical creatures, designed to live, to learn, to work, and even to play according to guided rhythms.
The farm life as depicted in Shaun the Sheep is a ritualistic one. The movie opens with a montage that runs through the farm’s operations, as the farmer and Bitzer almost mechanically perform their prescribed tasks, the very tasks that Shaun and his friends seek vehemently to avoid. Some of these tasks occur daily (the basics of feeding and herding and sleeping) while others are seasonal (when the farmer must shear the wool from the increasingly fluffy flock). But either way, these initial scenes suggest that this repetition has degenerated into tedium for everyone, human and animal alike.
Hence the euphoric exuberance of the pasture’s denizens when Shaun and company first successfully escape the farmer’s control. The domesticated beasts run wild, freed from the bondage of their human oppressor. Yet this elation is short-lived. The sheep soon discover that life is chaotic apart from the apparent drudgery of their rituals and the irascible but ultimately benevolent farmer who administers them. Soon they are craving at least a partial return to the lifestyle they formerly regarded as monotonous.
In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith observes that humans are “liturgical animals” who adopt rituals and cultural practices that reflect but also shape our desires and loves. As such, it is embedded in our nature to live in patterns of worship, or liturgies, be they sacred or secular. Even apparently shallow, or “thin,” liturgies are formative and have implications in shaping our loves.
So it is in Shaun the Sheep Movie. The liturgies of the pastoral life may seem to be “thin” ones comprised of repetitive and mundane chores. They certainly are formative, however. So deeply ingrained are these rituals that even after the farmer develops amnesia and forgets all the particulars of his own participation at the farm, he still retains the ability to shear wool with as much skill as he possessed when the action was a conscious one. Though the locus of that action has changed — he becomes a hair stylist in Big City — the habit has survived beneath his conscious thought’s inadequacies.
But the thin liturgies of farm life do have a greater telos, or nobler end, to them. Certainly, they provide a structure for the animals whose absence is quickly and keenly felt. But they also provide a matrix of loving community as well. Despite Shaun’s innumerable attempts at insurrection, he and the other sheep love the farmer, and the farmer loves them back. This love is at least as significant in motivating their journey into Big City as is their sense of the farm’s collapsing authority structure. When they first find the farmer and he fails to recognize them, their dismay is palpable even without a vocabulary with which to articulate it; when in the climax the farmer finally is stirred to recognition and renewal of his love, it represents the restoration of a powerful love that has been cultivated by years of seemingly meaningless and humdrum activity.
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray,” writes Isaiah, “each of us has turned to our own way.” What is true of Shaun and the animated sheep is equally true of metaphorical sheep. We are “prone to wander,” as the famous hymn reminds us, and only our Good Shepherd’s salvation can restore us. But while that salvation may have a beginning moment or experience, it is lived out in the daily, weekly, and annual rhythms of life within the fold, i.e., the Church.
When we think of liturgical worship, our minds probably jump to its verbal components. If we do, drawing analogies between Shaun the Sheep Movie and church life might appear odd, given the film’s complete lack of comprehensible dialogue. Yet as Smith points out, liturgies are deeper than mere rational exercises, and they are meant to embody loves through habit. God’s Word itself reflects this fact. When the nation of Israel was organized, God commanded for them a highly elaborate set of liturgies — both daily and seasonal — to transform them into a people who might love him. These worship practices — songs, sacrifices, festivals, and laws — appealed to every sense, going well beyond the written and spoken word. When David and Solomon established the temple to succeed the tabernacle, some of these were retained, others adapted; but always, the telos of shaping love for God was the same.
Jesus fulfilled the law and in doing so transformed worship in some senses for the Church through whom he now manifests himself. The full prescription of Old Testament liturgies are no longer in effect. Yet the glimpses we have of New Testament worship suggest that practices of liturgy, likely adapted from Jewish antecedents, were already in place. These would eventually evolve into the worship forms found in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic Churches, evident too in more high church Protestantism, and often evoked as a more distant echo even in less self-consciously liturgical corners of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. They exist in sound, through singing and chanting, and through the reading of scripture and its proclamation in the sermon or homily. They exists through taste, in the partaking of Communion — the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. They are tactile, in the chill waters of baptism. They are visual, whether in austere underground house churches or the vibrant, celestial iconostases of Eastern Orthodoxy. They are redolent with aromas where incense is wafted down church aisles.
And, like Shaun’s shearing, they are seasonal. Few churches fail to keep Christmas and Easter, in commemoration of Christ’s incarnation and his death and resurrection. And most worldwide celebrate the greater rhythms of church life: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Pentecost. Indeed, there is perhaps an intimate connection between farm liturgy and church liturgy. Whether Jesus was actually born in December or rose from the grave in spring, these dates symbolically captured the heart of the events with which we now associate them. What better time to remember the striving and longing of Advent than at a time when days grow shorter and nights grow colder, so that the celebration of Incarnation at Christmas comes as the light in darkness it was meant to be? And surely Christ’s new life of resurrection in Easter should be coincident with the new life of the land as winter (and Lent) end and make room for the blooming of spring.
It is easy for our processed and pre-packaged culture to forget how integral the seasons were to even the most urbanized dwellers of the ancient world. Even those who did not live on the farm were subject to the seasons that dominated a farmer’s existence. The Old Testament festivals that formed the spine of early Christian liturgy were inextricably tied to the cyclical patterns of climate in the “land of milk and honey” God had promised to his people. In his recent book The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks discusses his life returning to his family’s farm in England’s Lake District. He structures his book around the four seasons. It is a way of life rooted in these cycles, millennia old and little different now from the way it was when Jesus walked the earth two thousand miles away. As Rebanks points out, “We are all influenced, directly or indirectly, whether we are aware of it or not, by ideas and attitudes to the environment from cultural sources. My idea of this landscape is not from books but from another source: it is an older idea, inherited from the people who came before me here” (10-11).
Rebanks’s own ideas and cultural sources, his own liturgies, are shaped by the land — even as those of the Bible and the Church have been. Seeing our need for the shape and order of liturgy in Shaun the Sheep Movie is thus quite natural. Like Shaun, we might sometimes balk at this order, though it is ultimately an order that provides freedom. The farmer himself knows this; though his restoration to the farm promises a renewal of the pastoral rituals in the long run, the movie ends with a festival, a jubilee declared by the farmer himself. In allowing our Lord to shape our loves to match his own, we must always remember that this shaping is for our own delight; for he himself tells us, “[M]y yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
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