The Church of Misfit Toys


This Christmas Eve, I’d like to share a great post from Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog. Beck, a research psychologist at Abilene Christian University, writes engagingly about how insights from the social sciences can inform theology and vice versa. In this entry from last December, he describes the gospel message at the heart of the classic Christmas TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.

As you may recall, Rudolph has always been teased and excluded for being born different from the others. He and his pal Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, go on a quest to find someplace they’ll fit in, and wind up on the Island of Misfit Toys:

…At this point in the show all the misfit themes are coming to a climax. We see misfits seeking community, we see empathy as one misfit identifies with another, and, finally, we see one misfit seeking to act as savior. A misfit to save the misfits. A misfit Messiah.

But the theology of Rudolph takes its most radical, surprising, and extreme turn when the personification of evil, The Abominable Snowman, comes back from death in a quirky resurrection event–Bumble’s Bounce!–as a peaceable creature who is also in need of loving community. Apparently, this “evil” creature is also a misfit. And the hint is that he’s “abominable” because he’s been marginalized and without community.

So, summarizing all this, I learned from Rudolph this important lesson about Christmas: Something about Christmas means misfits have a place, a community, a home. Or, rephrased, Christmas means that there are no more misfits.

In a more adult way, this theme was strikingly presented in this season’s opening episode of the FOX medical drama “House”. Watch it here.

Dr. Greg House (Hugh Laurie), a brilliant and antisocial man who specializes in diagnosing medical mysteries, is confined to a mental institution to cure his painkiller addiction and other emotional problems. Unable to tolerate not being in charge, he engages in a contest of wills with the hospital staff, trying to cause so much trouble that they’ll release him without making him do the work of getting well. At first he uses his diagnostic genius to play on each patient’s unique symptoms and set them off against each other. But eventually, this man who’s so afraid of his own emotions begins to care for his fellow inmates, and uses his psychological insight to forge them into a community of people who help one another.

Nearly every dilemma in my life comes down to epistemology: How do we know what we know? Which really means, whom can we trust? Not ourselves, not anyone else, if perfection is the criterion. I’ve recently lost faith in some people whom I used to regard as a pipeline to the divine. And what does that say about my own ability to discern God? When relationships founder, we often say “She’s not the person I thought she was”, or “I just didn’t understand my own feelings”. Too many of these breakpoints, in the past two years, left me feeling lost in a hall of mirrors.

So this episode of “House” was healing and inspiring for me, since it showed that God can be contained in the most broken vessels. Perhaps especially there. You don’t have to be right, or right in the head, to receive His miraculous love and reveal that love to others.

Come, Lord Jesus!

2 comments on “The Church of Misfit Toys

  1. Steve says:

    I am on the other side of the dark valley of disappointment with people and community, I think. Christmas is back this year. It was like watching something long dead bloom again in my heart. So many things have been wrong with me around my sense of church, community, Christmas (in particular) and even family… I am beginning to mend. My children saw their father, for the first time in their memory, enjoying putting up the tree, enjoying singing carols.

    You, on the other hand, seem to have had a year that has plunged you into the shadows, down into a difficult valley. May your stay there be short. May your recovery be swift. May love conquer all. May Christmas and New Years bring healing and strength and joy.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    I’m so happy to hear that, Steve. Your artwork is full of joy but I know that it is sometimes hard-won. May you and your family be blessed this season.

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