Sermon Illustrations from a Hollywood Monster
“And I shall,” replies the monster, and shivers run down my spine.
Insofar as it is possible for a big, deep, booming voice resonating around a cinema to bring to mind the ‘still, small voice’ of God, this voice did. It was the kind of voice that left no room for doubt, and was both awe-inspiring and deeply comforting. It sounded like the feeling of being wrapped in a thick, warm blanket; powerful and safe.
The monster in this superb film, A Monster Calls (based on a novel of the same name by Patrick Ness), is the embodiment of an ancient yew tree that stands in the churchyard on the hill that is visible from Conor O’Malley’s bedroom. The animation is incredible, and the film would be worth seeing just for that (if you’ve missed it, or are a ‘book first’ sort of person, I highly recommend you watch the trailer at least). But I loved it most for its depiction – whether conscious or not – of a figure who reminded me rather a lot of God.
Quick synopsis: Conor’s mother is dying of cancer. Conor knows this, but won’t let himself believe it. He is hoping against hope that each new treatment will work, will heal her. Yet he has a recurring nightmare in which his mother is swallowed up by the earth (as, fascinatingly, is the church on the hill. Symbolic, maybe?). Conor tries to hold onto her but cannot, and she falls from his grip into the belly of the earth.
One night Conor awakes from this nightmare only to enter what seems to be another one – the tree on the hill comes to life and starts walking towards him, crushing walls, fences and streetlamps as if they were made of matchsticks, and punching through his bedroom wall to grab him. Yet this enormous beast is gentle, too. It doesn’t crush the boy, but talks to him. Conor wants the monster to heal his mother, to fight off the disease that is eating her up, but the monster just wants to tell him stories. “I will tell you three stories,” it says, “And then you will tell me a fourth. Your truth, your nightmare will be your story.”
For those of you who preach and need sermon illustrations, you’ll find some really great ones throughout what follows. Here are a few I picked up:
1) We need (and have) a God who has a bigger, longer, deeper perspective than we do.
The stories the monster tells are parables, each illustrating that things are not always what they seem; it becomes very clear that the information the boy is given and his expectations based on prejudice and past experience are not sufficient to equip him to make the correct judgements about people’s hearts or the consequences of different actions.
The fact that the monster is a yew tree is no accident – they can grow for thousands of years, their bark, sap, berries and wood are deadly if misused, but have also been used for centuries for their healing properties, and they have long been associated with eternal life. This God-figure is timeless, is to be respected and not misused, but is able to heal and to bring life.
2) The truth will set you free [NB There’s a BIG plot spoiler in this paragraph – skip to point 3 if necessary!]
The story Conor has to tell the monster is about the truth of what happens in his nightmare. The truth is, he lets his mother fall. He could have held on longer, but he just wants it to be over. The film does a brilliant job of building the tension to this revelation, and of illustrating how much it costs Conor to admit it. He is afraid that it will actually kill him to confess – it’s such an awful truth – but as he himself falls into the abyss, the monster catches him. He raises him up and speaks the truth over him – again, with that huge, all-encompassing, still small voice. He speaks the truth, and Conor is set free, and is able to curl up in the embrace of the tree’s roots and fall asleep.
It’s not a confession that brings forgiveness, and in fact there’s a recurring theme of Conor not being held responsible for his actions throughout the film - nor is there any scapegoat/Christ figure, so you won’t find a substitutionary atonement illustration anywhere, but the truth line is a useful one anyway.
3) The answer we need is not always the answer we want
The monster assures Conor that he will bring healing, but it is not until much later that he reveals he meant he would heal Conor, not his mother (I haven’t flagged this up as a spoiler because really, it’s so predictable. If you didn’t see it coming then you need to get out more, watch more movies and read more books!). When Conor spoke the truth, the monster was able to heal him and give him the strength to cope with what came next – it was only while he was trying to hide and carry it all inside that he felt like the monster wasn’t coming through for him.
A quick synopsis could leave you thinking this was a film about unanswered prayer, but a closer viewing reveals that it is all about prayers answered – differently to how we wanted, maybe, but by someone bigger and wiser than us.
4) We humans are good at deceiving ourselves
After Conor has confessed his deep secret, he tries to get to grips with how his thinking managed to get so muddled, how he could convince himself that his mother’s treatments were working, whilst knowing that they were not. The monster explains:
“Humans are complicated. They believe comforting lies while knowing full well the truths that make them necessary.”
You could write reams and reams on that – it’s a study in itself. I’ll let you ponder it and see how it fits in your situation but our culture is adept at telling itself comforting lies (‘Abortion doesn’t hurt anyone’, ‘I could quit any time I like’, ‘Disagreement equals intolerance’…the list goes on). If this monster is right, the lies are often held to most vociferously when the truth is rattling the doors of a person’s mind. That gives me hope that somehow, if we can find the right key, we can unlock those doors and bring the truth out into the light, where it can begin its work of healing.
There’s probably more in the film that I missed, and I’ve bought the book, too, so I can read it in more depth, but I highly recommend it. See it, if you possibly can. As a secular depiction of a God-like figure, it’s got some incredible insights.