Each December, we engage in retelling our favorite stories. The all-time favorite at this time of year is of the birth of Jesus. But we’ve got other favorites that get repeated each December. And one of my family’s favorites is the Will Ferrell movie Elf.
So, what do these two stories have in common with each other? Is it even possible to compare the story of the birth of Jesus with the story of Buddy the Elf? Or are they just too different?
What I find interesting is that the two stories share the same basic plot structure, albeit with some significant departures.
Both stories begin with an unlikely birth. Jesus, the Son of God and long-awaited Messiah, is born to a humble virgin and laid to sleep in a lowly manger. Buddy is adopted by a lonely elf and raised at the North Pole, far from home and in an alien culture. Neither are true residents of the worlds they enter but love the people there nonetheless.
Both are about an innocent one entering into and saving a world that has lost faith.
Both are teachers. The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear. Buddy’s simple statement is enough to change the entire outcome of the story. Jesus’ simple statement of “Turn and believe for the kingdom of God is right here” continues to change the world.
Both spend time with outcasts, befriending those whom others have passed by. Francisco! That’s fun to say! Francisco… Frannncisco… Franciscooo… We see Buddy’s welcoming heart in the scene among the mail workers, where he ends up dancing on a table to their great delight. This place reminds me of Santa’s Workshop! Except it smells like mushrooms and everyone looks like they want to hurt me. Even that darkness doesn’t negate his kindness. Rather, he changes the environment by being himself and changing them (and getting a little drunk). And we see Jesus similarly eating and drinking with notorious sinners, including tax collectors and prostitutes, offering them a winsome love and an entry into a new and transformed life (without getting drunk).
Both speak truth to those who “sit on a throne of lies.” Buddy speaks truth to the Gimbel’s manager, to Jovie, to the angry elf, and to the fake Santa who smells like beef and cheese. Jesus likewise speaks truth to those in power, be they religious leaders or political leaders.
Similarly, both are rejected or ignored by the authorities. From the Gimbel’s manager to the angry Central Park rangers, Buddy finds himself persecuted by those in positions of authority. Not only is Jesus rejected by the religious leaders who should have supported their Messiah, but from the beginning of his story, he is ignored by the Bible scholars who pointed to Bethlehem as his birthplace.
Both restore the faith of those who have lost it. Jovie had stopped singing and Buddy’s dad had lost his way in the world, but both end up singing out of wider hearts through time spent with Buddy. From the start of Luke’s gospel, where we encounter a cynical Zechariah, and on to the man who tells Jesus, “I believe; help me in my unbelief,” we find ourselves in the company of those who find themselves in a springtime of faith because of Jesus.
Both are heart-broken by sin. Santa: Sorry Buddy but… your dad is on the naughty list. Buddy: Noooooooooo! Similarly, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), sees people as sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36), and wants to gather them like hen gathers her chicks (Luke 13:34).
Both teach us how to love. I’m here with my dad/ And we never met/ And he wants me to sing him a song/ And I was adopted, but you didn’t know I was born/ So I’m here now/ I found you, Daddy/ And guess what, I love you, I love you, I LOVE YOOOUU! While the message of Jesus is the kingdom of God, the means of establishing that kingdom is love. His compassion. His desire to heal and to exorcise the demons that bind people. His teachings. His spending time with those ignored and rejected by others. His cut-to-the-heart questions. His forgiveness of even those killing him. His care for his mother. His death on our behalf. His restoration of deniers. His pouring out of his Spirit. It’s all love and shows us the way of love that is foundational for his kingdom.
Both return to where they came from and bless us from there. Buddy returns to the North Pole and writes a book about his adventures. Jesus returns to heaven and makes us the book he is writing.
Both stories are ultimately about the wooing of a bride. By the end of Elf, Buddy and Jovie have gotten married and have a son of their own. And the biblical story ends with the marriage supper of the Lamb, where the people of God are collectively the Bride of Christ.
All of these things are seemingly insubstantial comparisons. But the fact that the overall shape of each story is fairly similar and that many of the essential details of each story have the same basic flavor shows that the Jesus story continues to shape our imaginations for how good stories ought to be told.
There are many stories told on the big screen which stand in high definition contrast to the Jesus story. So, it is always refreshing to be engaged by one with so many similarities.
Buddy the elf may not be Jesus, but he reminds me of him.
And just for kicks, here are a few more of my favorite lines from Elf:
Miles Finch: Call me elf one more time. Buddy: He’s an angry elf.
[Answers phone] Hello, this is Buddy. What’s your favorite color?
[As he is hit by a snowball] SON of a NUTcracker!
First we’ll make snow angels for two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie-dough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle .
We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.
I like to whisper too.
My finger has a heartbeat.
Buddy: I’m singing! I’m in a store and I’m singing! I’m in a store, AND I’M SINGIIIIING! Gimbel’s Manager: Hey! There’s no singin’ in the North Pole! Buddy: Yes there is! Gimbel’s Manager: No, there’s not! Buddy: We sing all the time! Especially when we make toys!
Somebody needs a hug!