“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
This past weekend I went to see the movie Smallfoot, and I gotta tell ya, it hit me in the feels.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a cinematic masterpiece, and if you’re not much for animated flicks, you’re probably not going to care much for this one, either. But with four daughters I’ve been a parent of small-ish children for most of my adult life, so at this point I’ve become something of a connoisseur of animated films. And while this one isn’t a Pixar movie by any stretch, it’s written around a theme that’s near and dear to my heart:
It’s a movie about questioning everything and following the evidence wherever it leads.
A Controversial Discovery
Set high atop a snow-covered Himalayan mountain surrounded by clouds, this film follows the saga of a happy-go-lucky Yeti (a.k.a. “Bigfoot”) named Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum) who discovers that his tribe is not alone when he encounters a human being, a “Smallfoot” if you will. He then rushes back to his idyllic village to report the exciting news only to find that the Stonekeeper, who maintains and interprets the community’s scriptures, disapproves of his declaration. According to the stones, no such creature exists.
Any expatriate of his or her childhood religion can probably guess where the story leads next. Charged with heresy, Migo is banished from the village and is taken in by a small band of fellow doubters who have similarly found reasons to believe the town scriptures could be in error. To my mind it’s no coincidence that the leader of this motley crew, Meechee (voiced by Zendaya), is the daughter of the Stonekeeper himself. Migo himself is the son of the Yeti tasked with ringing a ceremonial gong every morning in order to make the Sun come up.
Preacher’s kids know exactly what I’m talking about. Nothing endangers a belief system more directly than getting to see how the sausage is made, so to speak.
Migo decides to venture down below the clouds in search of the mythical creature which the stones insist cannot exist, and eventually he finds what he is looking for. I’ll skip over the minor plot details and tell you what hit me in the gut as the rest of the movie unfolds. Spoilers to follow, by the way.
When Migo returns to his village bearing proof that the Smallfoot exists, the priestly Stonekeeper reminds the village that the stones say such creatures cannot exist, and the stones cannot be wrong. Questioning the stones is forbidden, and anyone who impugns their infallibility marks himself an enemy of the Truth. The contradictory evidence is explained away and the community is told what it needs to hear in order to forget about what it has seen so that they can go about the business of changing absolutely nothing about the way they live.
Sound familiar? It’s even got a fantastical creation story that justifies the community’s repetitive busy work, which helps to preserve the literal machinery of the community’s religious order in the center of everything that they do.
As the story continues to unfold, we learn why the stones warn the Yeti not to leave their mountaintop utopia: the Stonekeeper’s secret is that humans do exist beneath the clouds but are a danger to the Yeti’s survival, terrified as they are by the gigantic, hairy beasts who dwell high above them. The Yeti community’s origin story turns out to be “good lies” created to scare the Yeti away from exploring what lurks beneath the clouds encircling the mountain. As long as this epistemic enclosure is maintained, the village is safe.
In time the fathers of both Migo and Meechee decide to set aside their religious commitments in order to save their children from both physical and psychological harm, and by the end of the movie they have completely rewritten the community’s origin story and purpose for existing.
This is where the movie loses me. In fact, it was like a punch in the gut, and I want to explain why. They myriad of fellow deconverts I know who are still unable to be themselves around their families need these things to be understood as well.
Not How Any of This Works
Up until Migo’s father finally discovered the fact that his daily ritual gong ringing was pointless (because the Sun comes up whether you do anything about it or not), all the reactions of the authority figures made sense. Well, except for the fact that the Stonekeeper knew good and well that the stones were just made-up rules in the first place.
In real life, most people who preach inviolable divine decrees sincerely believe what they’re saying is true, and their very livelihoods depend on everyone adhering to those beliefs. Even the ones who have studied enough to realize there are holes in their narrative large enough to drive a bus through still believe that somehow the core features of the story are based in truth. Their occupations render them virtually incapable of being truly honest with themselves. In this movie, however, the priest knows it’s all a lie.
This knowledge makes the Stonekeeper sympathetic to Migo’s existential angst. Instead of judging him a moral failure of some sort, the Stonekeeper calmly and rationally explains why these tall tales were created in order to keep the Yeti community safe from the violent, adversarial humans who live below the clouds. In real life, skeptics rarely encounter such sympathy.
In evangelical and fundamentalist circles, embracing doubt and disbelief is viewed as a moral failure. Evangelical leaders pay lipservice to the value of questions, but the reality is they only value questions as long as they lead inquisitors back into affirming the community’s authorized framework. The moment a question leads you outside “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” however, you are in error and are now in danger of burning in Hell for eternity.
That escalated quickly, didn’t it?
Beyond Here There Be Dragons
In the movie, the Stonekeeper knew the clouds below didn’t conceal a deadly fall into nothingness, but in real life people genuinely believe that leaving the faith will cause you to be raised from the dead only to suffer a fate much worse than death as a punishment for leaving. They are completely unaware that this fictitious doom exists primarily as a way of scaring people into staying.
In The Truman Show, it was an artificial fear of the sea that kept the protagonist trapped on the island under the control of the show’s creator. In The Village, it was the nightmarish beasts who prowled around at night looking for wayward children. The forms these manufactured threats take vary from scenario to scenario, but their function is always the same.
If you cannot rationally convince people your tribe is the best in the world, something needs to scare them into staying anyway. It’s a time-tested maneuver and it has to be taught to us from our youngest years to ensure it’s in place before our critical thinking skills can develop. Once those fears are installed in the core of your emotional memory, you’ll find they still affect you even years after you’ve abandoned all belief in the supernatural.
For most fundamentalists, fear of hell is the last thing to go.
Ultimately it’s tribalism that generates these fake fears. In Smallfoot, Migo learns that below the clouds there really is something dangerous to the Yeti’s survival: adversarial humans who will treat them as enemies because they aren’t any better at understanding their vertical neighbors than the Yeti are about understanding those who live beneath them. Their languages are incompatible as well, leaving them nothing to use besides hand motions and impromptu rounds of pictionary on cave walls in order to understand each other.
The final message of the movie is that if competing groups could only improve their communication, they could better understand each other and no longer fear those who are different from them.
I think that’s nice. I also think it’s terribly naive. It is a kids’ movie, after all.
Thicker Than Blood
Changing minds isn’t as easy as this movie leads you to believe. Especially minds persuaded by articles of faith, because believing them in spite of the questions is kind of the point. This is particularly true in fundamentalist communities which are centered around the belief that they possess writings that cannot be wrong, no matter what.
The missing truth in this story is that communities depend on limited resources that they don’t usually want to share. People in positions of social and economic power have vested interests—personal reasons to maintain the narratives that make their team the good guys and the other team the bad guys, and they will fight to maintain their power even if it means sacrificing the people they love.
They say blood is thicker than water, but it’s not thicker than religion. Not fundamentalism, anyway. In particular, I can tell you from experience that evangelical Christianity is thicker than blood. Much, much thicker.
I once dated a woman whose father wrote her out of his will because he didn’t want any of his resources going to help “the cause of atheism.” She was his only child.
I’ve watched people get kicked out of their homes because ministers counseled the parents (or spouse) that doing so was the only way to save them. I’ve similarly witnessed ministers instructing family members to withhold resources from their loved ones in hopes that making their lives less comfortable would somehow bring them back into the fold.
Growing up in church, I often heard it said that actions speak louder than words, and that love isn’t just a feeling. It’s something you do–it’s a verb. If that’s true, then the way we treat the people we say we love says more than the words themselves do. But the problem is that some people’s model of love normalizes coercion as an expression of care, ignoring the personal agency of the loved ones because we’re all fallen sinners, etc.
In religious circles, shunning and withholding care are standard expressions of love, but they are toxic and do more harm than good. And if the goal is to bring the recipient back into the faith, I can tell you from first-hand experience that it’s a failing strategy. It only drives people further away.
Religious communities who treat doubts and questions like maladies that needs to be remedied must drive away those who won’t stop disturbing the peace. Even our silent presence makes the devout uncomfortable. They will say the exclusionary measures are “for their own good,” but the reality is that it’s a defense mechanism—it’s self-preservation. They expel those who undermine the authority of the leaders in order to keep the whole community from sliding down the slippery slope of the growing mass of questions people have been stuffing down since childhood.
A Generous Picture
Despite the bittersweet reminder that art doesn’t always accurately imitate life, I still enjoyed this movie because I found it a charming and clever celebration of critical thinking skills, curiosity, and learning. I enjoyed the music of the film as well and felt that it consistently helped to reinforce the message of the movie. The song “Wonderful Life” by Zendaya (see video below) might as well be included in a discussion guide for the Cosmos series since it tracks so well with ethos of the show:
This film also deserves credit for painting a sympathetic picture of those who preserve and profess the beliefs and traditions of their communities. It would have been easy to leave the Stonekeeper an inflexible authoritarian to the bitter end, but the film deliberately “humanizes” him, for the lack of a better word, making him the kind of father who would put nothing above the welfare of his daughter—not even religion.
People from my tradition would sooner follow the biblical example of Abraham, who demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice his own child on an altar if his faith demanded it. But there are other, kinder religious traditions which never put piety over people, and there are ministers out there who would sacrifice their own reputations in order to care for their loved ones.
An excellent example of this kind of love was recently featured in the documentary Leaving My Father’s Faith, which follows the diverging faith trajectories of Tony and Bart Campolo after it was made known that Bart no longer subscribes to the beliefs his father professes.
The Campolos show what it looks like in real life for a minister to wrestle with apostasy within his own family without cutting off the conversation or shunning the ones who have left the faith.
Granted, Tony Campolo is no fundamentalist preacher. In fact, I distinctly remember how routinely he would swear in front of conservative church audiences, telling subversive stories about befriending prostitutes in order to challenge their rigid worldviews. But it still demonstrates a great deal of willingness to be vulnerable before the rest of the world, honestly opening up about their struggles for the benefit of the rest of us who will walk through something like what they have had to endure.
Relationships can survive this divergence. But it takes a great deal of humility, of vulnerability, and it takes a willingness from both parties to put forth the effort it takes to communicate openly and honestly with each other. Given how deeply insecure and emotionally sensitive our species is, this is no small task. But it can be done.
I’m waiting to see what it looks like for a fundamentalist family to do the same. If you’ve seen that happen, please comment below or message me to share that story, because I would love to hear about it. Maybe we could all learn something from it which would help the rest of us do this better.
[Image Source: Warner Animation Group]
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