Sticks and Stones
“Everything we know about them is wrong.” – Hiccup, Isle of Berk
Last fall I went to see How to Train Your Dragon. I found it absolutely charming, exhilarating and even inspiring. In fact as I was planning my blog posts for the season of Lent, I thought about movies as well as music.*
Today as I considered my possibilities I recalled a wonderful piece of music from How to Train Your Dragon. The song comes at the end of the movie and is sung by Icelander, Jónsi, who is the lead singer for Sigur Rós.
But first a little more about the story.
“This is my home.” That’s how the movie opens. Hiccup is narrating the story (based on a book of the same title, by Cressida Cowell). He’s a teenager at that awkward stage, being neither child nor adult, but trying to find his way and live up to his Dad’s expectations. It is a coming of age story, in the truest vocational sense. Moments after the story begins, the Viking island of Berk is under attack from dive-bombing, sheep-snatching, fire-breathing dragons. The Vikings fight fire with fire in a spectacular scene of destruction that leaves you wondering how often they must have to rebuild the village. Hiccup is forbidden to go out, but of course he ventures into the mêlée with his newly invented catapult contraption. What he lacks in brawn he makes up for in brains and ingenuity. From a dark corner of the village he manages to make a strike. He takes a dragon down, one so stealth that it is virtually never been seen by a Viking in the light of day. No one but Hiccup notices the strike.
In daylight Hiccup sets out to find out what’s come of the dragon he knocked out of the night sky. He discovers the powerful creature trapped and wounded in a ravine from which he can’t escape. He tries to kill the dragon in order to prove his skill and character, but in the moment he can only cut the ropes and free “Toothless.” Meanwhile Hiccup’s dad (who is of course the village chief) puts his son in training school to learn how to kill a dragon and become a true Viking. The rest of the movie plays out the drama of the tension in Hiccup between being trained as a dragon-slayer and training a wounded dragon to fly again. He has chosen to befriend an arch enemy of his people. **
The music video
Watch the video of “Sticks and Stones” sung by Jónsi and featuring clips from the movie.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Growing up I mostly heard these words as a morality lesson. (As in, people may say words don’t hurt, but really they do.) I don’t recall them as a genuine taunt or come back on the playground. (Maybe you do?) In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup certainly was taunted by the other village kids. Until he began to show how he knew more than they did about dealing with dragons. And how did he learn? Well, he makes friends with one.
As the snapshots of the story in the music video show, Toothless takes Hiccup and his friend Astrid to soaring heights and breathtaking dives. Hiccup and Toothless depend on each other for survival. Without the repairs to his tail, Toothless could not fly and neither could Hiccup.
Two lines to notice in the song . . .
“Let yourself… go (Oh Oh Oh)”
“Open your eyes and see – You see”
Feel the soaring as you watch. And notice the masterful way the filmmakers portray the feelings on faces of humans and dragons alike.
The Gospel text for Sunday is Matthew 4:1-11. From his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into a wilderness where he fasts and prays for 40 days and nights. It is another kind of vocational coming of age story. Moments after the story opens Jesus is facing a crazy-making, temple-climbing, mountain-soaring, tempter. Meanwhile he is in the most precarious possible state – alone, hungry and vulnerable. He has to come face to face with his enemy, the tempter, the devil. In fact he has to converse with his enemy in a meaningful way and draw on all he knows to survive. The tempter takes him to the pinnacle of the temple and the highest mountain. Jesus is offered the whole world – if he would just give up himself. This is a narcissistic vision indeed: you could have it all! One catch: you’ll have to give up your own sense of self and worship the vision of gradiosity, instead of leaning wholely into God.
The gospel writers tell us that Jesus gets this wilderness moment right. He faces his tribe’s arch enemy and survives. Most interpretations I’ve heard make the point that Jesus overcame the evil and temptation by sheer resistance, by willpower, by being God in the flesh. Okay. Maybe. But what if we read the story as another vision for making friends with our so-called enemies. Because another way to see what happens is that Jesus doesn’t flee or fold in the face of the temptations. Instead he finds courage and speaks out of it. But he experienced firsthand the lure and promise of sacrificing himself for the sake of a grandiose vision. Yet, he chooses to stay true to his first calling and identity. If we move too quickly to the divine power of Jesus, we miss the real crisis he was facing in the wilderness.
Part of the beauty of lectio divina and visio divina is that many meanings are possible, and the spirit may guide you in any number of directions as you watch and read. I’ll offer some reflections on my own reading of the two stories.
One of the filmmakers, Alessandro Caroloni, says about How to Train Your Dragon, “So the whole second act of the movie is about the contrast between loving your enemy and learning how to kill it.”
Both Hiccup’s story and Matthew’s story of Jesus give us pictures of courage in the face of temptation to be anything but true to one’s character and calling. Neither Hiccup’s dad nor his friends understood him very well, but his so-called enemy (a dragon) understood him quite well. Something similar could be said about Jesus, I think. Neither his family nor his friends understood him, but the tempter knew exactly where his vulnerabilities were.
At an even deeper level, I think both stories invite our consideration about the very difficult calling to love enemies, attend to brokenness (even if we are the ones who caused the wound), and most importantly to embrace courage by facing our greatest fears and temptations. Each story offers its own unique take on how to enter into a space of brokenness and alienation and find the possibility of invention, friendship, creativity, and even the healing of ancient misunderstandings. Hiccup discovers that a dragon, who had been cast as an enemy for generations, was actually misunderstood and turned out to be a worthy and loyal friend. “Everything we know about them is wrong,” he said.
Jesus discovered that staying true to calling, and drawing on the best of his religious tradition, gave him courage and strength not to collapse or flee in the face of temptation. Surely his long season of prayer and preparation were teaching him through experience a deep dependence on God and the loving care from God’s embrace.
Consider the words of the song sung by Jonsi. I think I hear in it echoes of the word of God . . .
Stay close to me
Count one, two and three
Up in through your sleeves
Right beyond the trees
Show you how you’ll be
So this Lenten season . . . open your eyes and see. What might God be trying to show you?
* For this year’s six week time of preparation for Easter, I’m focusing on a different sort of meditation. Rather than the usual choice of “giving something up” to help me pay attention to prayer and renewal, this year I’m in search of healing through taking up a new practice. In most of this year’s Lenten posts, I will focus on a brief video with commentary which connects to themes of healing and/or scripture texts for the week.
The practice could be considered a pop-culture version of visio divina – divine viewing. It is somewhat like lectio divina – divine reading – which may be more familiar. The latter is a slow purposeful reading of a brief text – usually Scripture. The newer visio divina grows out of lectio divina and is a conversation between scripture text and artistic text.
** Click here for a link to the movie trailer.