There’s an article over on the satirical website The Onion titled “Bedtime Story From F–king Bible Again” which relates a fictional six-year-old’s fruitless demands for “a regular g-dd-mn bedtime story with a talking frog or a modern kid who maybe has some sort of magical adventure.” The story is a year-and-a-half old but my thoughts return to it whenever I’m putting my two-year-old daughter to bed.
Bedtime can be dramatic enough by itself, but attempts by my wife and I to close the day with a bit of religious instruction have so far been met with forceful rejection. Readings from The Jesus Storybook Bible or The New Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes have had to be shouted over Exorcist-caliber screams. When asked what Bible story she would like to hear, she cries and pleads, “Go right to bed!” One imagines she would emphatically agree with Richard Dawkin’s insistence that teaching religion is child abuse.The short is a knowing portrayal of how difficult it can be to teach a child the value of religious belief and practice.
It’s an experience, I think, that has at least a bit of universality to it — a point that was driven home for me by the recent Pixar short Sanjay’s Super Team, which is currently playing before the otherwise disposable feature The Good Dinosaur. Helmed by first-time director Sanjay Patel, who was raised by devoutly Hindu immigrant parents in San Bernadino, the autobiographical short tells the story of a father’s repeated — and failed — attempts to get his son Sanjay, who is perpetually distracted by superhero cartoons, to meditate beside him.
The short takes a somewhat unexpected turn at the midpoint when Sanjay grudgingly kneels beside his father, but instead of opening his mind to the Divine, Sanjay descends into an action-packed daydream. He’s chased by a multi-headed beast only to be rescued by a trio of Hindu gods. He emerges from his pop-culture-y reverie to find a frustrated and disappointed father who sighs and turns him back over to his cartoons and his notebook of superhero doodles. When he picks up his crayons, though, Sanjay very deliberately adds Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman to his “super team.”
It’s admittedly an ambiguous ending. Is Sanjay finally claiming his father’s faith as his own or is he trivializing it? Is he embracing the wisdom of the Hindu faith or merely reducing it to entertaining fiction? Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions but it’s a mildly hopeful ending: even if Sanjay is never as devout as his father then perhaps he’s at least beginning to see the value in faith.
Regardless of how one interprets the ending, though, the short is a knowing portrayal of how difficult it can be to teach a child the value of religious belief and practice. To a mind that has yet to grasp that all flesh is as grass and the world is passing away, seeking the Eternal can seem no more inherently meaningful than a Saturday morning spent on the couch watching glorified toy commercials. To the soul that sees itself as the center of the universe, the idea of being united to Something Larger is an inherently nonsensical one.
Knowing the depth of one’s need for the Divine is something that comes only with experience, of which even I have far too little. That, I think, is the real reason Sanjay’s Super Team has haunted me in the days since I’ve seen it: not that I suspect that I’m the father, but rather, that I suspect I’m Sanjay himself. I will likely never be a titan of the Faith like my own father — a man who rose daily before the sun to seek wisdom in his tattered Bible and vast theology library, whose eloquent prayers would rise like incense to heaven each night, and whose tireless work in his vocation as a campus missionary brought dozens, if not hundreds, of souls to Christ. My dad is an evangelist and a hero; I’m just some guy who writes butt jokes on the Internet.
And yet, as Sanjay’s Super Team shows, even the Fleeting can often be a window into the Eternal. There are those like Sanjay’s father (and, to an extent, my own) who see pop culture and other trivialities as mere distractions from the Divine, but there are also the ones like Sanjay — and like those of us at CaPC — who recognize in pop culture a reflection of universal yearnings that can only be satisfied in the Infinite. And ultimately, to embrace the parent’s faith, the child must learn to make it his or her own — to use whatever stepping stones God has placed in front of him. Those of us who play with toys only do so in the hopes of one day becoming men.
And in the end, He turns the hearts of the fathers to the children.
While reading up on Sanjay’s Super Team, I was struck by Patel’s story of inviting his father — whom, he claims, hadn’t bothered to watch a film or television show since The Sound of Music‘s first theatrical run — to the premiere screening of his directorial debut:
“I didn’t know how he would respond to animation, let alone animation that was inspired by history between you and me,” Patel explained to the Wall Street Journal. “But we flew him up, and he was super emotional,” he told Geeks of Doom. “Breaking down. I’m like ‘Dad, what are you doing, keep it together.’”
Like Patel, I’m not sure my own father really understands my own seemingly trivial pursuits, but I know he reads what I write from time to time, and he tries to be supportive. A couple weeks ago, I was touched to see he had left a heartfelt (but very dad-esque) comment on a Christian-themed humor piece I wrote for BuzzFeed — a comment that itself garnered 22 “likes” and which at least one other reader described as “Absolutely freakin adorable.” So Patel and I have this in common as well, then — our fathers are both devout men of faith and absolutely freakin adorable. Someday perhaps I’ll be at least one of those things.
Lately, I’ve been trying to re-commit to daily Bible reading after a year or so of letting it slide. Like my father, I now begin each day by picking up my New American Standard Version, which I can only hope will one day be as tattered as his. The other day, though, as I grabbed it, my two-year-old approached me.
“Read the Bible?” she asked, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“Yeah,” I said. “You want to read it with me?”
And she climbed into my lap, just as I used to climb into my father’s so many years ago, and I read her a couple of Psalms, and then we opened the day together with the Lord’s Prayer.
I know, as my father must know, and as Patel’s father surely knows as well, that daily rote is not the same thing as personal faith. But, like pop culture, it can be a stepping stone to it. And ultimately, this is all I can do for her. I can teach her that she is mortal, that there is much she will never and can never grasp, and that she should seek out the Divine and humble herself before it. And of course I will teach her the stories, songs, and creeds. In the end, though, she must claim the Path for herself.