Imagine a missionary coming across an undiscovered people. Once the foreign language is learned, the missionary begins to delve into the religious mythology of the tribe to see if he can uncover some parallels he can use to introduce them to the Gospel of Christ. One of the myths concerns an omnipotent being who keeps track of everyone’s good and evil deeds. This being lives in a far away land in a city beautiful beyond imagining. The only way to get there is if you are sent for, and then you will be conveyed there by magical transportation. The being greatly desires to give good gifts to everyone, and the only obstacle to receiving these gifts is a lack of faith.
If a missionary were to come across such a tribe they would praise God for their good fortune. Like Paul, with just a little explanation, they could say, “What you have worshipped in ignorance, this day I declare to you.” Amazingly, Christians in the West run across this cultural myth every year but the response in many circles is not joy but either scoffing or fear – scoffing at people’s ignorance, or fear that a myth can supplant the truth. If you are wise enough not to scoff, and brave enough not to fear, then you might find The Polar Express to be one of the most spiritually engaging holiday films you see this year.
Applauded by everyone from James Dobson to Roger Ebert, The Polar Express is a certified Christmas classic, taking its place alongside such movies as It’s a Wonderful Life, The Christmas Carol, and Miracle on 34th Street. But The Polar Express is far more than an enchanting tale about a train ride to the North Pole. It is a story about faith – faith lost, faith reawakened, faith renewed.
Through the use of shared cultural myths – the legend of Santa Claus with his elves and flying reindeer at the North Pole preparing to embark on his yearly gift-giving trek around the world – The Polar Express is a parable about the journey of faith. It is a journey from innocence lost to innocence regained, from skepticism to wide-eyed wonder, from doubt to faith.
The Story of the Polar Express
The story begins with the main character – dubbed “Hero Boy” in the credits – lying awake in bed on Christmas Eve. He recounts his experience: “On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets. I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound I was afraid I’d never hear. The ringing bells of Santa’s sleigh.” Hero Boy is at the edge of innocence. He is about to lose the gift of faith that naturally accompanies childlike fascination and wonder. He wants to believe – for this reason he listens ever so carefully for the sleighbells – but he finds it harder and harder to do so.
Lately, he has been uncovering evidence that indicates that Santa does not exist. He possesses a picture of a little girl pulling the fake beard off of a department-store Santa. He has cut out a newspaper clipping that announces, “Santas on Strike!” He owns a copy of The Saturday Evening Post which features a boy on the cover who is shocked to discover a Santa Suit in his parents’ drawers. He has consulted the “North Pole” listing in his World Book Encyclopedia which clearly states that it is “stark, barren, and devoid of life.”
Hero Boy pretends to be asleep when the parents enter his room. He overhears his parents’ discussion. His mother whispers, “He used to stay awake all night waiting for Santa.” His dad responds, “Think those days are just about over.” His mother sighs, “That would be sad if that were true.” His dad responds, “Yeah, an end of the magic.”
Hero Boy falls asleep and is awakened by the rumblings of a train in the street. It is the Polar Express. He hears the faraway cry, “All aboard!” Dumbfounded, he slowly approaches the inviting figure. The conductor blurts out, “Well? You coming?” “Where?” asks Hero Boy. The conductor replies, “Why, to the North Pole, of course. This is the Polar Express.” The conductor shows him a paper with his picture and consults the description. “Well, it says here no photo with a department-store Santa this year, no letter to Santa. And you made your sister put out the milk and cookies. Sounds to me like this is your crucial year.” Drawing close, he soberly urges, “If I were you, I would think about climbing onboard.”
When Hero Boy hesitates, the conductor replies, “Suit yourself.” The Polar Express slowly begins to move. At the last minute Hero Boy decides to step onboard. He enters a brightly colored passenger car filled with children. He sits by a young black child (“Hero Girl” in the credits) who smiles at him. In front of him is a young boy with thick glasses (named “Know-It-All” in the credits). Know-It-All immediately accosts him, “Hey. Hey, you. Yeah, you. Do you know what kind of train this is? Do you?” From across the aisle Hero Girl responds, “It’s a magic train. We’re going to the North Pole.” “I know it’s a magic train,” Know-It-All retorts, “Actually, it’s a Baldwin 2-8-4 S3-class steam locomotive built in 1931 at the Baldwin Locomotive Works.”
The train stops again to pick up a haggard, sad little boy standing in front of a run-down house (“Lonely Boy” in the credits). Just like Hero Boy, he initially refuses to get onboard. As the train speeds away Lonely Boy begins to run after the train. Seeing that there is no possible way he will catch up, Hero Boy hits the emergency break. Lonely Boy enters, but sits alone in the last car of the train.
A mishap occurs and Hero Girl loses her ticket. The conductor immediately takes her away. While recovering the ticket, Hero Boy finds himself on top of the charging train. He encounters a Ghost Hobo. Throughout the story, the Hobo never enters the train. From the train’s exterior, the Hobo constantly haunts Hero Boy with doubts. When Hero Boy asks if Santa is the king of the North Pole, the Hobo asks him, “What exactly is your persuasion on the big man?” Hero Boy responds, “Well, I… I want to believe.” The Hobo quickly spits out, “But you don’t want be bamboozled. You don’t wanna be led down the primrose path. You don’t wanna be conned or duped, have the wool pulled over your eyes. Hoodwinked. You don’t want be taken for a ride, railroaded.” He concludes with the sober announcement, “Seeing is believing. Am I right?” Hero Boy responds, “But what about this train? We’re all really going to the North Pole… aren’t we? Are you saying that this is all just a dream?” The Hobo responds, “You said it, kid. Not me.”
The ticket is returned to Hero Girl. The conductor punches her ticket and tells a story about how he was miraculous saved from falling off the train. When asked who or what did it, he does not offer an answer. Instead, he counters the Hobo’s axiom: “Sometimes seeing is believing. And sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.”
While passing through a car full of “forsaken and abandoned” toys Hero Boy is confronted with his doubts by a marionette played by the hands of the Hobo. The ugly marionette says, “You are just like me, my friend. A scrooge! Ebenezer Scrooge. North Pole, Santa Claus, this train… it’s all a bunch of humbug. A bout of indigestion. Oh, yeah, I know what you are. You’re a doubter. A doubter. You don’t believe! You’re a doubter! You don’t believe!”
When they finally arrive at the North Pole, Lonely Boy does not want to get off the train. In spite of Hero Girl’s encouragement, he says, “Christmas just doesn’t work out for me. Never has.” Hero Girl responds, “Look, I don’t know if Christmas is gonna work out for you or not but this is Christmas Eve. Don’t stay here by yourself. Come with us. We’ll go together.”
At that point the car detaches from the train and begins to slide down a hill. The children find themselves in a train depot deep within the town. Hero Girl is able to guide them out of the depths of the town by following the sound of a sleighbell. At first, she is the only one who can hear the sound. Eventually, Lonely Boy begins to hear it. Hero Boy remains frustrated, “I don’t hear anything.”
They find themselves back at the celebration at the center of the town. Thousands of elves are anxiously awaiting Santa’s arrival while a song plays in the background:
It’s the spirit of the season
Your can feel it in the air
You can hear it if you listen
So much care
Like a prayer
Whatever it is
You need to share it
It’s the spirit of the season
It’s the spirit of the season
You can feel it in the air
The flying reindeer arrive, barely able to remain rooted to the ground. A great chain of sleighbells are placed upon the team of reindeer. Hero Girl exclaims, “Aren’t those bells the most beautiful sound?” But Hero Boy cannot hear them.
A great door opens and Santa approaches. But no matter what Hero Boy does he cannot obtain a clear look. In the excitement a single sleighbell detaches and lands at Hero Boy’s feet. He picks it up, places it beside his ear, and shakes it. Nothing. He then closes his eyes, “Okay. Okay. I believe. I believe.” He shakes the bell again and hears a beautiful sound. Immediately, a deep voice captures his attention, “What was that you said?” Hero Boy opens his eyes. Directly in front of him is Santa. Hero Boy is chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas. The gift he chooses is the sleighbell.
When Santa departs, Hero Boy asks himself, “Could all this be nothing but a dream?” Santa answers, “No.”
On the ride back home, Hero Boy realizes that he has lost the sleighbell. At his stop, the conductor escorts him off the train. “One thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.”
The next morning around the tree, he discovers a small package with his name on it. He opens it to find the sleighbell and a note from Santa: “Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Better fix that hole in your pocket. Mr. C.” He shakes the bell and hears the beautiful sound. He parents ask him about the gift. They pick it up and shake it, but hear no sound. “Broken. Sorry about that, sport.”
The movie ends as Hero Boy takes the sleighbell from his parents, shakes it again and hears the beautiful sound. The story closes as he narrates as an adult: “At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell. But, as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah [his sister] found, one Christmas, that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me. As it does for all who truly believe.”
Faith Lessons from The Polar Express
The Polar Express is a great allegory. The train is the church on a shared journey of faith, hope, and love. The conductor represents pastors and parishioners who invite others to “get on board.” The tracks are the Great Tradition of the Christian faith. The Ghost Hobo represents the hubris and doubts that haunt the journey of faith. The North Pole is the Celestial City – the new heavens and earth – where every resident joyously serves Santa, who represents the Messiah.
The story teaches us much about coming to faith. Hero Boy is torn between two truths: “Seeing is believing” and “Believing is seeing.” Both are true. The reality of the train, the invitation of the conductor, and the shared experiences of the children all witness to the reality of Santa. However, this evidence is not enough to convince Hero Boy. Though it is true that seeing is believing – and Hero Boy is able to see some things that encourage him – it is also true that believing is seeing. In order for Hero Boy to fully share in the journey he must have faith. All the evidence in the world is not enough without this. Hero Boy is caught in Pascal’s paradox: There is enough evidence for those who want to believe and never enough evidence for those who do not.
The Polar Express illustrates the importance of the church in the faith journey. The invitation we continually offer is “All aboard!” “Christians need to see themselves in the conductor role – gently persuading the hopeful skeptics to climb aboard.” The biblical language for this is hospitality. We are called to welcome all with the love of God – to accept one another as God in Christ has accepted us. While on our faith journey together, we continually extend invitations to others to share it with us. Our invitation extends to all, whether they believe or not. Indeed, this is one of the precious truths conveyed by The Polar Express. Because we believe that it is the journey itself that births and nurtures faith, we invite others to share the journey even though they might not share our faith. We allow others to “belong” before they “believe.” Unlike the old way of doing church that demanded others believe as we do before they were allowed to belong, we invite others to belong before they believe. Why? Because we believe that it is the shared journey that transforms people! We know, because it has changed – and continues to change – us!
Church, I challenge you to reflect on the significance of The Polar Express as a contemporary model for mission and evangelism – especially in a postmodern society. We must reject the belief that evangelism is primarily a rational encounter between two individuals where the goal is to argue the other person to faith. This is too individualistic and rationalistic; it dishonors the full humanity of all involved. Instead, we should be a community of travelers who invite others to share our journey, even if, at present, they do not share our faith. We invite people to belong before they believe. We invite others to join us – to come along, to taste and see, to experience mystery and beauty with the hope that faith may awaken. We invite them to “see in order to believe” that they might “believe in order to see.”
The Persuasive Power of Wonder
The Polar Express challenges us all – both young and old alike – to never lose our sense of awe, wonder, and fascination. For children, these things come naturally. However, these wonderful gifts are lost unless we nurture and develop them. Children are not born secularists, nihilists, or atheists. These perspectives are hammered in through the loss of innocence, the influences of others, and the circumstances of life. In spite of these things, we do not have to lose our faith. We can recapture and renew our sense of wonder and awe.
In our world it is easy to become cynical, jaded, hopeless, and despairing. The loss of awe and wonder is tragic. One important function of liturgy, praise and worship – the rituals of celebration which are at the heart of our corporate expression of faith – is to continually remind and renew our sense of mystery, transcendence, and wonder. We must never forget the persuasive power of wonder.
Ronald Rolheiser offers the following self-examination reflection in order to discern our spiritual state and nurture childlike faith:
Every so often we spend time in front of a mirror checking for signs of aging. We turn all the lights on and study ourselves. Are there wrinkles in our skin? Bags under our eyes? More grey hair? We scrutinize, examine. It's a proper enough exercise.
But we should be looking ourselves dead straight in the eyes when we do this exercise. In them we will see whether we are aging and whether or not there are any signs of senility.
Scrutinize and examine, look for signs of aging, but spend that time looking into your eyes. What do they reveal? Are they tired, unenthusiastic, cynical, lifeless, lacking in sparkle, hardened? Is the jealousy of Cain there?
Is there any fire there? Does passion still burn? Are they weary of experiencing, incapable of being surprised? Have they lost their virginity? Are they fatigued or excited? Is there still a young child buried somewhere behind them?
The real signs of senility are betrayed by the eyes, not the flesh. Drooping flesh means that we are aging physically, nothing more. Bodies age and die in a process as inevitable and natural as the law of gravity, but drooping eyes signify an aging spirit, a more deadly senility. That is less natural.
Spirits are meant to be forever young, forever childlike, forever virgin. They are not meant to droop or die.
But they can die through boredom and its child – cynicism. They can die through a lack of passion, through the illusion of familiarity, through a loss of childlikeness and virginity, and through a fatigue of the spirit we commonly call despair.
Despair is a curious thing. We despair not because we grow weary of the shortcomings and sufferings of life and, at last, find life too much to take. No. We despair for the opposite reason, namely, we grow weary of joy.
Joy lies in experiencing life as fresh, novel and primal, as a child does, with a certain purity of spirit. This type of joy is not pleasure, though there is pleasure in it.
Rolheiser urges us to make “a deliberate and conscious effort at assuming the posture of a child before reality. We must work at regaining the primal spirit, a sense of wonder, the sense that reality is rich and full of mystery.” We are not fooling ourselves by recapturing this perspective. We long for mystery and transcendence because these things are real. “It would be ridiculous to long for something that had no chance of ever being real. We enjoy magical stories because we pine for another world. We long for transcendence because we know there is something beyond. We experience wonder, because there is One who is called Wonderful.”
The music is real. The beautiful sound of the sleighbell is always ringing for those with ears to hear. Growing old does not have to result in losing faith. Instead, like Hero Boy, may we be able to say, “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me. As it does for all who truly believe.”
 Marc T. Newman, From Santa to Salvation: Jump Aboard the Polar Express.
 Screenwriter Bill Broyles admits this: “We did not want to make this movie theologically heavy-handed. The idea was that it would be a kind of non-sectarian journey of belief-but if anyone wishes to see it as a parable of a journey to belief in a religious way, all the elements are there. The classic parables in the Bible are stories that don't have an obvious religious import until Jesus explains them. In that way, we feel it's a very deeply spiritual movie.” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/interviews/billbroyles.html)
 Marc T. Newman, From Santa to Salvation.
 Ronald Rolheiser, Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Love Beyond Our Fears (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 85-86.
 Rolheiser, Forgotten Among the Lilies, 91.
 Marc T. Newman, From Santa to Salvation.
 Marc T. Newman
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© Richard J. Vincent, 2005