January 21, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God.
Vulpes vulpes. It’s the Latin name for the common red fox. Wes Anderson has taken Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox and overlaid it with a poignant adult theme.
Mr. Fox, or “Foxy” as his wife affectionately calls him, had made a promise early in his marriage. Though he’d pursued danger with reckless abandon all his life, now that he’d betrothed himself to someone and had the prospect of becoming a father, he vowed to forsake his former thrill-seeking.
But later in life, with an awkward son stumbling into adolescence, Foxy finds his conventional life too constraining and desires to rise above it. Outside his window he sees a way: three prosperous and eccentric farmers by the names of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean possess immeasurable stores of chickens, turkeys, and apple cider, respectively. Foxy convinces himself it’s almost a moral imperative to dig his way furtively beneath their lands and abscond with a measure of their bounties.
The tension of Anderson’s retelling emerges when Foxy’s thievery elicits the ire of the farmers. For all his ingenuity and courage his plans have imperiled him, his family, and all the nearby animal population. During a brief respite from their flight from the vengeful threesome, Foxy’s wife, typically calm and collected, takes her husband aside, moaning, “Why’d you have to get us into this, Foxy?” Never to be found flat-footed—or flat-pawed, as the case may be—in justifying his actions, Foxy quickly deduces what has brought them to this moment:
“I think I have this thing where I need everybody to think I’m the greatest—the quote-unquote fantastic Mr. Fox—and if they aren’t completely knocked out, dazzled, and kind of intimidated by me, then I don’t feel good about myself.”
There it is. The core of the matter. It’s fear. Fear of how he might be thought of—by himself or others—if he doesn’t take matters into his own hands to establish his own fantasticness. It’s not the love of danger, or the desire to improve his family’s station, or even the indignation that the three clownish farmers have more than they can ever need. It’s the fear of what he thinks he might be that drives him to imperil everyone else.
For the last two weeks we’ve heard Joshua’s gravest concern for the Israel he’ll soon depart from in death. He admonishes them to “Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God.” Why? Because if they did not love their Lord, they would end up loving, so to speak, the next closest authority—the priorities enshrined in the deities of neighboring nations. Sadly, Israel eventually defied Joshua’s warning. Into a ruinous exile they went, imperiling their place in the outworking of God’s intentions for them (Gen. 12:2).
In a sense, Mr. Fox displays the same error Israel did, and the same consequence. Not being confident in God, Israel sought her own good in what was not of God—surely an homage to the first sin in the Garden—and found herself compromised. Foxy sought his own good without confidence in what really did make him good, and found himself compromising all he loved. Which brings me to my point.
If you do not trust what makes you righteous and beloved of God (in Foxy’s language: fantastic) you will take measures to establish your own fantasticness. In so doing you will inevitably imperil all you know and love because you’ll be acting out of the same fear Foxy did.
Coming to terms with what makes you fantastically beloved of God is the process of spiritual formation. It’s laboring to have the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ inform and shape your every pursuit. Specifically, it’s about deeply internalizing the truth that while you were incapable of overcoming your greatest problem (sin) and obtaining your greatest desire (God), God sent His Son to resolve both at great cost to Himself.
As Martin Luther said, “The truth of the Gospel is the principal article of all Christian doctrine. . . . Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” That head-beating is spiritual formation. And, as Mark reminded us Sunday, the formation that leads to the confidence of our belovedness is accomplished through not merely reviewing, but possessing, the Word of God. God surely forms our souls through a variety of means, but not without what He has already said and preserved.
Wes Anderson doubtless ruminated long and hard on the simple storyline of Dahl’s classic tale before he brought forth something wonderfully creative and particularly poignant. He made the film for the joy of filmmaking, and, let’s be honest, for the $14.6 million the film has made already. If he committed himself for those reasons to that kind of consideration of a fox’s search for fantasticness, should we do less in our consideration of what confirms our belovedness?