The Polar Express

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Throughout the season of Advent – which this year encompasses the four weeks leading up to December 25 – we’re looking at classic Christmas movies and how they might connect us to the miracle of God choosing to become a human being.

“Seeing is believing.  But sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.”

Those words, spoken by the conductor of a train that travels exclusively to the North Pole and back on Christmas Eve, echo the core message of a unique film.

This computer-animated movie brought together a pair of Hollywood heavyweights for their third collaboration.  Actor Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis had previously struck gold with Forrest Gump and Cast Away.  In 2004 they teamed up to create a film adaptation of The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg’s beloved 1985 children’s book.

The story centers around a young boy who is gradually losing faith in the reality of Santa Claus.  On Christmas Eve he is startled to see an old-fashioned locomotive and vintage passenger cars stop alongside his Grand Rapids, Michigan house.  He is invited to step aboard and experience a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  He and a few other children will travel at an impossibly high speed to visit Santa’s workshop at the top of the world.

Along the way they will see amazing sights, receive life lessons from the wise conductor, and find out for themselves that the classic stories they’ve been told are all true.

From time to time they will also defy the laws of physics:  The Polar Express – Entering Glacier Gulch and Frozen Lake – YouTube

Hanks and Zemeckis originally imagined a life-action picture.  But it quickly became clear that the only way to preserve the unique feel of Van Allsburg’s book was to opt for animation.

It was a special kind of animation at that.  Live actors were filmed by means of motion-capture technology, then transformed by computers into animated figures.  This was a Hollywood first, and the growing pains are obvious when compared to the seamless beauty of more recent motion-capture films.  Nevertheless, many viewers love the look of The Polar Express because it approximates the artwork in the book.

Critic Roger Ebert liked what he saw.  “There’s a deeper, shivery tone, instead of the mindless jolliness of the usual Christmas movie… It has a haunting, magical quality.”

The movie did not do blockbuster business at the box office.  But it has gradually achieved a kind of cult status, joining a handful of other films that certain people simply have to see or it won’t be Christmas.  A number of communities have created their own real-life versions of the Polar Express, inviting children and their parents to ride for a few miles after dusk on an actual train – with Santa strolling up and down the aisles, of course.

Towards the end of the film, the conductor (played by Hanks) offers what is intended to be deep wisdom: “One thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where they’re going.  What matters is deciding to get on.”

Concerning that particular statement, followers of Jesus need to push back.   

Post-modern culture has popularized the notion that “the journey” is all that matters.  Since there is no fixed meaning or purpose to life, any destination is as good as any other.  If there’s no such thing as Truth with a capital T, you can hop on any train going in any direction.  The meaning of my life comes down to pursuing “my truth,” which has a lower-case T.  That means my journey is no better than yours, nor is yours superior to mine.   

But it does matter where the train is going.  With deepest respect and sorrow, we must acknowledge that those who were crowded into the trains of the Third Reich during the 1940s were not heading towards a neutral destination.

If we imagine our culture as a train terminal, there are tracks heading off in a multitude of directions.

One conductor is shouting, “Come this way if you want to experience Enlightenment.”  Another beckons, “This train will take you to the fulfillment of your deepest cravings.”  Still another shouts, “All aboard for those who want to get rich and say goodbye to insecurity.”   

The options are dizzying.  “Just believing” in one of them doesn’t make it wise or safe or true.  Belief is a good thing – but only if it is invested in something worthy of being believed.

Jesus is never more counter-cultural than in John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Not only does he claim that there really is a Right Destination, and Truth with a capital T.  He himself is the one-and-only “train” we board to experience real and lasting Life.   

So, by all means, believe.

But believe in the Story that will take you places where no magical locomotive can ever go.

Believe in the Child of Bethlehem.