How “How to Train Your Dragon” Explains Life. And Evangelicals + ‘The Mainline.’

There’s a joke that nurses like to tell about doctors: a doctor will hear a rumbling noise in the hallway and, tapping his pen on his pad, goes over the various theories as to what it might be. Meanwhile, the nurse will just go and see.

{Just keep that joke in mind, okay?}

One of my favorite animated films is the poorly-titled How to Train Your Dragon. I first saw it in Germany (the cinema had one or two showings in English each day) and seeing it was like taking a bubble bath, luxuriating in words and humor that made sense to me.

{I loved living in Germany, and I love living in other cultures. But I don’t pretend it’s not tiring!}


If you haven’t seen the movie, I want to warn you that I’m going to spoil some things about it. So if you are the sort that hates to have surprises ruined, you may want to stop here.

The film could probably be ‘read’ in a number of allegorical ways, but the essence of it, for me, is a story of compassionate encounter triumphing over abstracted and prejudiced theories. Hating and fearing dragons is based not on genuine encounter with dragons (and an understanding of why they do what they do) but on fear that’s taken on the sheen of fact by being codified into books.

Hmm, is *all* (or almost all) human hatred something like that?

And so when Hiccup (the protagonist) encounters an actual dragon, gets to know him, and compares what he has experienced with what’s in the Dragon Textbook, he says–and this is important!–

“everything we know about you…is wrong.”

I think this concept is enormously interesting and provocative. There are so many times in life when a real encounter trumps theory. My friend Ellen wrote yesterday about how ‘mainline’ Protestant churches

“contrary to some stereotypes […] are not repositories of chilly, rote religion practiced by people more interested in tradition than the movement of the Spirit.”

No. No, these churches–and their related institutions–are more than (and just plain different from) the caricatures that have been made of them (even those from less-controversial figures than Mark Driscoll. Ahem.)

If you go over the the website of Presbyterian Mission Agency, for whom I work, you will see that it focuses its work on three issues:

  • identifying and addressing the root causes of poverty, particularly as it impacts women and children
  • together with other member of Christ’s body, we will share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ
  • we will engage in reconciliation amidst cultures of violence, including our own.

If you go to the Presbyterian (USA) church I attend, you will hear many of the same most of the same songs and hymns you would hear in an “evangelical” church. You might even confess the same creeds, say some of the same prayers, hear very similar kinds of sermons.

However (you knew there would be a ‘however,’ didn’t you?), not every Presbyterian (USA) church is the same. Some are more ‘liberal’ on certain social and theological issues. Some are very ‘conservative’ on those same issues. Which means that to generalize and/or theorize is, inevitably, to get it wrong.

For me–a person who loves Jesus, is concerned about poverty, and who believes that Christians have a duty to engage in peacemaking, working with the Presbyterian Church (USA)–seems a perfect fit. But I have to admit–I hate to admit–that my evangelical education did not prepare me to see this.

My evangelical education (and I’m talking about my education at specific institutions) prepared me to write off ‘the mainline’ as people who had lost the true ‘fundamentals’ of the faith more than 100 years ago.

And that is sad, because after I truly encountered brothers and sisters in mainline churches and organizations, I found myself echoing Hiccup: “everything we know about you is wrong.”

For me, it was a powerful lesson in learning to go and see before deciding what’s there.

This couldn’t apply to any other encounters in life, could it? 😉 I’m thinking political party affiliations, homeschoolers, atheists and Christians, and more.

We could all learn something from Hiccup.

{Another reminder: I am by no means speaking in an official capacity for the PC (USA). These opinions are mine and mine alone.}

4 thoughts on “How “How to Train Your Dragon” Explains Life. And Evangelicals + ‘The Mainline.’

  1. I grew up in a PC (USA) church, and it had leadership that ran the gamut from theological conservative to liberal. I’ve seen the same in congregations as a whole as well. The one in my town is so liberal in its theology as to be close to embracing the Gaia wing of the denomination. In a nearby town there is a very large PC (USA) congregation that is extremely orthodox in its theology. The denomination as a whole seems to encompass and tolerate a wide variety of levels of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, from my observations over the years.

    That said, there is a lot the body of Christ is doing through PC (USA) churches. It all gets chalked up to the fact that God works through his people, I figure, since there is no congregation (nor individual) of any sort – PC (USA), SBC, AME, AoG, or any other acronym you like – that gets anything done for the kingdom without God, right?


  2. Just last week we visited a Reformed Episcopal (Anglican in America) church for the very first time. I was near tears the entire time, so peaceful, so true, and so happy. We really never knew, just like your post says.

  3. I’m reminded of some of my earlier visits to Guatemala, where I was drawn to the quiet, Christ-like grace and peace I saw in places like Las Obras Sociales de Hermano Pedro, while being repelled by the crass materialistic sloganeering of many evangelicals there. Over time I got to meet people like the Garcias of Colegio Kairos, so my feelings about the Church in Guate became much more nuanced. God’s grace agents are all around, often somewhat “undercover!”

  4. I love this movie. I feel that Hiccup represented reason and everyone else represented ignorance and religion. The Vikings hated and killed the Dragons because of their handed down traditions (similar to religion). The Dragons attacked the Vikings because of the legacy of this huge old queen dragon (remember when Toothless joined in the ceremony with the other dragons to give food to the queen dragon? It was a religious ceremony for them). The vikings rejected reason when they rejected all of what Hiccup was. Only when the huge queen dragon (religion) was destroyed, did the vikings and the dragons embrace hiccup and his reason. Only then could everyone live together in harmony. The moral of this story for me is religion and ignorance must be destroyed in favor of reason in order for mankind to live in peace.

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