Imagine you’ve been languishing in a grey world of despair since you can remember. Suddenly, your world is turned upside down, your heart filled with a joy it’s never known before! You start trying to tell everyone you know – you can’t help yourself, you’re so exhilarated! – but all you get are confused looks or misunderstanding. They haven’t seen it or felt it. You do your best to itemize, bullet-point, and break it down but you find there is a mystery and wonder to it that ultimately transcends rationale. You’re suddenly inspired: emulate it! That will show the world.
But then… but then it all goes so terribly wrong.
Jack Skellington has already had quite a journey in our assessment of The Nightmare Before Christmas thus far. His next steps are tainted, however, by compromise and hubris. What he’s doing isn’t an entirely terrible idea, but these critical flaws set up a scenario for disaster that only the tender Sally sees.
First, the Pumpkin King already pandered to his audience by giving them “what they want”, a compromised view of “Sandy Claws” that fit their Halloween-darkened minds. It’s one thing to contextualize a message to your audience: knowing the culture, speaking their language, losing the secondary trappings while maintaining the essential elements. This is what the apostle Paul did when he took the gospel to the Athenians in Acts 17. However, when things are taken so far that the essential nature of the message – of the man – is lost… Jack Skellington joins the ranks of those who pervert the gospel by syncretizing it to culture.
syncretize: to attempt to unite and harmonize especially without critical examination or logical unity
It’s obvious to the viewer what results from this. Seemingly well-meant minions of Halloweentown eagerly fashion presents and sleighs and “Christmas” trappings, but when we see smashed toys, hats made from dead animals, and bloody child-eating ducks we know that the essential truth that struck a chord in Jack’s heart has been lost. It’s not even just worthless now, but actually destructive. The film’s “good intentions” mirror the Christian reality that when the true center is missed, the product can actually be dangerous. Jack preached a different Santa just like many preachers will sell a syncretized vision of Jesus. Syncretization leads many down a hellish path of pain and destruction, for them and others. The good news that changed your life isn’t what you’re sharing: you’ve replaced it with a false gospel.
Jack determined he could “improve” on Christmas. Instead of being a recipient of that good Christmas cheer, or being an advocate or participant in distributing it, he wants to be the CENTER of it. He doesn’t just want to be like Santa, he wants to be Santa. Like Jack, we often want to be the center of life’s story, the hero everyone lauds and adores, when the reality is we’re spectators and participants in God’s great story where he’s the hero. It’s so obvious looking at the red-suited Jack that he’s still just a skeleton of what Santa Claus ought to be. As with Jack, so with us…