Review of The Polar Express, Directed by Robert Zemeckis
By PAUL D. MILLER
The Polar Express (2004) is the perfect expression of what I hate about Christmas. And by “Christmas,” I mean, of course, the simpering, saccharine celebration of objectless “faith” in nothing in particular—a collection of groundless and ephemeral good feelings we artificially and briefly conjure up before returning to our cynical lives for the other eleven months of the year.
The Polar Express is, according to its official marketing, the “adventure [of] a doubting boy, who takes an extraordinary train ride to the North Pole; during this ride, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery which shows him that the wonder of life never fades for those who believe.”
Believe in what? Being a Christmas movie, the answer is “Santa,” but here Santa is a Metaphor for Something Else. The boy talks with a Hobo, voiced by Tom Hanks, in which Tom Hanks asks him “What’s your persuasion on the Big Man?” The boy confesses, “I want to believe, but…” “But you don’t want to be bamboozled,” Tom Hanks finishes. Thus is established the central conflict of the film. The boy wants to “believe” but struggles with doubt. Later the boy has an encounter with an evil puppet, voiced by Tom Hanks, in which the puppet accuses him: “I know what you are. You’re a doubter! You don’t believe!” In the film’s climax, the boy clutches his fist, shuts his eyes, and repeats like a mantra “I believe…I believe…I believe!” and Santa, voiced by Tom Hanks, appears. To be an unbeliever is to merit to mockery of a muppet, while belief is rewarded with the instant advent of the object of one’s hopes.
The Polar Express—and much the “Christmas spirit” seeks to embody—preaches a religion of belief: believing is good; disbelief is bad. This is both vapid and banal. Belief is not a virtue like courage or wisdom or love that is simply good by itself. The quality of belief depends entirely on what you believe in. Belief in the goodwill of our friends and family is generally good. Belief in fairies and unicorns is, after the age of seven, an embarrassing sign of immaturity. Belief in the tenets of National Socialism at any age is a monstrous evil (even though it is an ethos). Belief is a good thing only if the person or thing we believe in is good.Even this obvious weakness aside, The Polar Express trivializes the struggle for faith. The boy simply concentrates hard, squints his eyes, chants that he believes, and…Poof! Santa appears like magic. Faith, in this view, is a magical incantation to be uttered; in exchange the Universe delivers our dearest desires. Faith is the currency of karma; have enough of it, and the cosmos starts popping out rewards like a vending machine.
All of which makes it an embarrassment that this movie was apparently marketed directly to evangelicals as a secretly Christian film because it said good things about faith and belief. The opposite is more nearly true.
Part of the problem is the English word “faith” (used to translate the Greek “pisteus” in the New Testament). “Faith” has become a piece of religious jargon. We use it in few other contexts in life, which has drained it of much of its actual meaning. People take it to mean “belief in the existence of” or “having benevolent feelings towards,” something.
In reality, it means “trust.” To have pisteus in someone is to trust him. The essence of trusting a person is not simply believing that the person (Santa, for example) exists; nor that you merely have good feelings (say, towards all mankind). Trusting God means that you believe God will do what he says he will do; that he has a trustworthy character; that his word means something; that God keeps his promises, and that you can and should premise your life, your choices, and your actions on what God says about us and life and himself. Doing so requires faith because we do not (yet) see God face to face. That is why “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). Someday when we see God face to face we will no longer need to have faith in him. We will simply know him.
The Polar Express goes nowhere. Instead, it is a transparent effort to capitalize on (and invest in) the Christmas industry, to feed the “Christmas spirit,” and to exploit a groundless and inarticulate sense of obligation that we are supposed to feel well-disposed towards people and believe in Tom Hanks. Jesus was a bit clearer when he told us to love God and our neighbors, and that we should trust him with our souls. And he, unlike Tom Hanks, actually has something to do with Christmas.