Theology in the movie Elf?

In my last blog post, I mentioned two movies, namely Elf and The Christmas Chronicles 2. Since I’m still feeling rather Christmasy and reflective, I figured now is a good time as any to explore these movies by looking at them with my own seasonal twist. What sort of theology might be found in secular Christmas movies? As a fan of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I like the perspective and challenge of seeing God in all things. So why not take this a step further and see how we can come full circle with Christmas and some of its more secular interpretations. The Christmas Chronicles 2 is actually quite easy due to some of the intentional writing and interpretation of the Santa Claus figure. With Elf on the other hand, I had to make some interesting leaps and tumbles to arrive at a point of view that might actually make a bit of sense. So let’s begin with a quick look at the Chronicles.

I think what I liked about The Christmas Chronicles movies on Netflix is similar to what Kurt Russell, who plays Santa enjoyed about them. He wasn’t just playing the commercial Santa, he saw the character as the 4th century bishop who inspired the Santa Claus myth, St. Nicolas himself. And while this wasn’t explored in the first movie, it was much more fleshed out in the second. So while it was still a “believing in Santa Claus, saving Christmas” type of movie, it did celebrate the historical tradition of the iconic figure. Perhaps is was particularly nostalgic for me, because the St. Nicolas/Santa Claus transition was actually how I rationalized his existence when I was a kid. I had learned about the saint in school and knew that he eventually “became” Santa but there was certainly a lot of gaps to fill in. So for me, and the Kurt Russell Santa, due to his spirit of generosity and zeal for helping and giving to the needy, Nicolas was blessed with long life and special powers. He was kind of like a saint who just continued to live on earth and used his gifts to help others, particularly children of whom Nicolas is the patron saint. So while it’s not said explicitly, here is a Santa who is certainly a believer in the true meaning of the Holiday (he’s a saint after all). I could certainly imagine him talking about and celebrating the Nativity story and birth of Christ, not something I could really see the Scott Calvin (of The Santa Clause fame) being all that familiar with.

So now let’s have some real fun with Elf. If you haven’t seen the movie, this won’t make a whole lot of sense so check it out if you haven’t already. It’s a comedy above all else so be sure to approach it with good dose of humor. First off, I think that most stories that last are influenced by the social and religious mores of their time, whether they are cognizant of it or not. Some are quite intentional, like the gritty fantastic worlds or C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Others take a good amount of inspiration from various mythological sources yet still can’t seem to shake off some striking Judeo-Christian themes, such as classic Star Wars or the Matrix. And finally there are those that may not intentionally look to Divinely inspired writings but unknowingly draw from that deep well. I would be willing to wager that the writers of Elf fall into this last category.

There are two ways that I have been able to see this whimsical film. The first I call a mismatched interpretation of the Prodigal or Lost Son (Luke 15: 11-32). I say mismatched because in the movie there is the father (Walter Hobbs), his oldest son (Buddy), and his younger son (Michael). However they seem to match up to the parable in a completely different way. Walter is actually the younger lost son who has allowed the secular world to shape his reality. He is on the naughty list, a sinner who is first shown taking children’s books away from a nun who runs an orphanage. Michael is the eldest son who has always been faithful but feels left out and unloved. Buddy the Elf is the father who shows nothing by unconditional love, even when wronged. The details still need some working out but please, share your thoughts on this one if you think it has any merit.

The second way I have been considering about this story is that of the Incarnation itself. Yes, a Christmas interpretation. Take a look at John 1: 1-14. Buddy the Elf in this metaphor is the Word, or Jesus. I know, I know, it sounds like a blasphemous stretch, but walk with me a bit on this one. He comes from above to a world that doesn’t accept him in order to save, not Christmas, but humanity because of their unbelief. That’s the simple summary but allow me to flesh it out a bit (incarnational pun intended). Papa Elf (God) sends Buddy (his son) down south (to earth) in order to meet (and save) his father. In this version, I see Walter as a metaphor for sinful humanity. He doesn’t even recognize or accept the Christ. As in John 1:11, “He came to that which was his own but his own did not receive him.” Jovie, and Michael, on the other hand, were his first disciples. I don’t think that it’s a total coincidence that their names mean “Joyful” and “Who is like God”. And not only that; Buddy brought joy, healing, and even teaching to all those he met. Christmas Cheer became the symbol for the Gospel message. His message was received not only by Jovie and Michael, but also the girl at the hospital, the ex-con in the mail room, Mrs. Hobbs, and Walter’s secretary. Those who were poor, sick, and vulnerable were the ones to whom he came and they received him. Those with power had no use for him. While Walter symbolized this throughout most of the film, it was most characterized by the famed yet self important children’s author, Miles Finch. He went so far as to physically attack Buddy. The overall metaphor continues to the climax of the story in which Buddy is betrayed by Walter (humanity) and cinematically dies. His cheer is gone, he leaves dejected.

Of course this is not the end and his followers find him alive in Central Park (a garden) and he rises over a crowd filled with Christmas Cheer (the Gospel message). His mission did not fail as we witness a change in Walter, who also comes to believe in him. And what’s more significant to me is that Walter is not so much convinced by Buddy or even Santa, but rather by his “disciples,” namely his son Michael. At the end, our titular Elf returns to the North Pole (heaven) and his family (Christians) continue to celebrate his life and the message that he taught. A bit of a stretch? Perhaps, but I also believe that it’s extremely difficult to remove the true meaning of Christmas from a Christmas movie. Merry Christmas!

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