Crumbling Creativity – The Philosophical Implications of The Lego Movie

A master builder crafts a carefully organized cosmos, places people within it, and provides complete instructions for them to live happily. He declares his creation very good—until his creatures begin to challenge his restrictions. When they rebel, he divides them into separate continents and worlds, withdraws to a distant throne room, and develops a plan to make his creation perfect once again. Does this sound slightly like the Judeo-Christian account of creation and the fall? Well, it’s not. It’s from The Lego Movie.

I was just as excited as my college friends about the release of a Hollywood production based entirely on such a fixture of my generation’s childhood. With kids, teens, and young adults as its primary audiences, I expected last year’s blockbuster (pardon the pun) to be typical animated fare: a plotless comedy/action movie packed with cheap jokes and clumsy pop-culture references. But as I watched The Lego Movie, I discovered some unexpectedly deep narrative themes.

Not only does the movie offer an incisive commentary on several popular worldviews of the twenty-first century, but also it considers some fundamental aspects of the Christian faith and its relation to culture. I say this cautiously, because overeager Christian reviewers love to endow secular films, books, and music with redemptive themes and philosophical subtexts that aren’t there. I don’t think directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had Christianity in mind when they created The Lego Movie, nor do I think it intentionally presents a layman’s sermon on culture. Regardless, however, this movie asks probing questions that every believer should be equipped to answer: Who or what controls the universe? How much free will do we have? How do we respond to evil? How do we determine our identity?

In particular, The Lego Movie comments on four prevalent belief systems of twenty-first-century society, including a distorted version of Christianity, and then synthesizes these philosophies into its own worldview of autonomy.

Mainstream Moralism

Like so many of its Hollywood predecessors, The Lego Movie ridicules rote rule following. In the film, the central city of Bricksburg frowns upon innovation and expects total and complete obedience to “the instructions.” That’s no problem for the protagonist, a construction worker named Emmet, who loves instructions and cheerfully follows them to the letter. Emmet guides his life according to How to Fit In, Have Everybody Like You, and Always Be Happy—a book whose cover charmingly illustrates a happy person being devoured by a shark. In fact, Emmet’s supreme character flaw is an utter inability to function without rules; when he is called upon to “create the instructions in your head,” he repeatedly draws a blank. Emmet eventually saves the world, but not until he learns to harness his innate creativity and escape his bondage to the instructions. As the movie seems to imply, rules (whether they stem from old-fashioned religious convictions, a totalitarian government, or another source) suppress the creative originality with which we should approach the world.

Oblivious Optimism

Unexpectedly, the film also takes a playful swipe at the irrationality of mere “positive-think-ism.” In a psychedelic world aptly named Cloud Cuckooland, the effervescent character Unikitty explains that “there are no rules. There’s no government, no babysitters, no bedtimes, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind.” When someone points out how many no’s are in that sentence, she retorts, “And there’s also no consistency!” Ultimately, Unikitty’s bubbly optimism proves insufficient to sustain Cloud Cuckooland when real evil encroaches.

The Ethos of Entertainment

The Lego Movie humorously articulates the dangers of living in an entertainment-saturated culture. As means toward the government’s totalitarian ends, pop music, television broadcasts, and city-wide holidays like Taco Tuesday all play a role to keep the masses from revolting, worrying, and (above all) thinking. The government-approved song “Everything Is Awesome” sits at the top of the government-run radio station’s charts—and only when the driving beat of this hyperactive pop song permanently implants itself in your head will you truly understand its potency. Television, meanwhile, provides inane humor and undoubtable information. Emmet doubles over with laughter at his favorite line in his favorite show (“Honey, where are my . . . pants?”), then pauses: “What was I just thinking? I don’t care.” Later in the movie, another character addresses viewers from the studio: “Hey, everybody. You don’t know me, but I’m on TV, so you can trust me.” And as he prepares to seal his city’s doom, the president of Bricksburg broadcasts this ominous announcement: “Hello, hi, welcome to Taco Tuesday! Don’t worry about this big black monolith thing that’s blocking out the sun. What you need to worry about is this question that I’m about to ask you: Who wants a taco?” Of course, the irony of these satirical jabs at an entertainment-dominated society is the medium through which they are delivered: an animated comedy, one of the most powerful and highly developed channels of twenty-first-century American entertainment. Neil Postman would certainly have something to say.

The Christian Creed

While Christians can at least chuckle at The Lego Movie’s playful satire of the previous three worldviews, the movie launches a more sinister attack against the biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption. The story is haunted by the mysterious presence of The Man Upstairs and the tyrannical rule of Lord Business, his incarnation in Lego character form. According to one character, “all the people of the universe were once free to . . . build whatever they wanted” before Lord Business “erected walls between the worlds and became obsessed with order and perfection.” (Do you notice a resemblance to the story of Babel?) In lingo a twenty-first-century teen might use to describe total depravity, Lord Business complains about how the world has been filled with “weird, dorky stuff that ruined my perfectly good stuff.” The solution he and The Man Upstairs develop is to freeze the universe and destroy its inhabitants’ free will. In effect, The Lego Movie sets up a distorted version of the Judeo-Christian God as the principal antagonist of its story.

The Solution: Be Special

Retaliating against Lord Business’s plan of destruction, Emmet, under the mantra that “the only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be,” uses his creativity to save the world. Eventually he confronts Lord Business face to face with these words: “Look at all these things that people built. You might see a mess . . . what I see is people inspired by each other, and by you. People taking what you made and making something new out of it.” He continues, “You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the whole universe. And you are capable of amazing things. Because you are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone.” Emmet makes peace with this godlike figure by convincing him of the innate value of human creativity, regardless of any disorder humans cause or disobedience they commit. The Lego Movie impresses on its viewers not only admiration for Emmet’s heroism but also the inspiration to believe in themselves more. Don’t stop to ask how you and I can both be the most extraordinary person in the world; just go forth, use your creativity, and enjoy the glow of being “the Special.” And so, after so deftly criticizing the various worldviews of our current culture, The Lego Movie ultimately offers up the same final answer: the worn-out message of self-esteem.

So Hollywood has produced yet another cookie-cutter story full of self-glorification and humanistic autonomy. What of it? Why should Christians pay attention to The Lego Movie? For all of its flaws, this film digs deeper than many similar productions, calling viewers to question their motivation for living and working in this world. In particular, I believe The Lego Movie presents three elements that the Christian church must address.

Caricatures of Christianity

First, we need to understand the culture’s caricatures of our faith—not in order to make peace with the world but to map out the terrain of the battlefield. Intentionally or unintentionally, The Lego Movie reinforces popular misconceptions of Christianity: of God as a frustrated Master Builder, “obsessed with order and perfection,” miffed when his creatures rebel; and of his loyal followers as mindless minions, content to sing his songs, listen to his messages, and—above all!—obey the instructions. As we share the gospel with unbelieving neighbors and friends, we must seek out and destroy such distortions wherever they appear. (To refute this portrayal of God, read the Canons of Dort. To refute this portrayal of Christians, read the Heidelberg Catechism.)

Challenges to Christianity

Beyond lighthearted mockery, The Lego Movie challenges Christians to fight hypocrisy and inconsistency in our own presentation of the gospel. If we have made Christianity into mere moralism, we need to remember the inadequacy of the law in the gospel’s full scope, where service comes only after salvation and sin. If our faith has been stunted by blind optimism, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the reality of evil in this world—but also the reality of its defeat in Christ. If Christianity has become just a vehicle for entertainment, we need to reaffirm the ordinary efficacy of prayer, preaching, and the sacraments. As groups claiming to represent the Christian faith continue to multiply, the need for these corrections increases daily. It is bad enough if The Lego Movie’s analysis of Christianity is false, but it is far worse for us if it is true.

A Call for Christianity

The most significant takeaway from The Lego Movie, however, is its clear call for a better answer to life’s problems. It applauds the glory of human creativity but ignores the reality of human sin. It fails to acknowledge that in our fallenness we create things that are not only “weird” and “dorky” but often corrupt and wicked. Evil exists, inside and outside our hearts. For it to be exterminated, we need a solution far more radical than to “believe in yourself.”

That better answer hinges on the existence of a God far different from the tyrannical Man Upstairs of The Lego Movie. We need a God so holy that “evil may not dwell with [him]” (Ps. 5:4, ESV), yet so compassionate that “he remove[s] our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Our Creator’s loving work—not our own pathetic creativity—must be the source of our individual value. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, to enjoy true comfort we need not only an “almighty God” but also a “faithful Father” (LD 9, Q&A 26).

As Christians, we place our trust in just such a God—a God who responded to Adam and Eve’s reckless disobedience with the promise of deliverance (Gen. 3:15), a God who divided the builders at Babel to protect them from their own concentrated wickedness (Gen. 11:6), a God who, “because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). Like Lord Business, this holy God demands total perfection. But unlike Lord Business, He mercifully “pervades the inmost recesses of man” (Canons of Dort III/IV.11) by His Spirit to give us new hearts in Christ. He does not wait for us to make peace with Him, as Emmet was forced to do; He makes peace with us. What a refreshing alternative to The Lego Movie’s chaotic world!

Here’s my recommendation: Watch The Lego Movie. If you’ve already watched it, watch it again. Contrast the crumbling creations of man with the everlasting ordinances of God. Mourn for those who seek comfort and hope from the dry wells of autonomy and self-esteem. Pray and work for these souls to know the comfort that comes from belonging “in body and soul, in life and in death, to [our] faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” And rejoice that we serve a God who “is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works,” who “is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Ps. 145:17–18).

Michael Kearney a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY, studies communication and music at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at mrkearney@optonline.net

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