Digging in Deeper: Philippians 2:4

“Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

In a famous children’s story whose original form and meaning makes absolutely no sense in our modern culture, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys lived their lives in the blissful world of Neverland where they had an endless stream of adventures uniquely suited to tickle the fancies of young boys which worked out just fine because they never grew up. In Neverland you remained locked in childhood forever. The whole thing is made to sound terribly fun and romantic; something that everyone should want for themselves. By the time you reach the end of the story, though, you are left with the sense that in spite of Peter’s seemingly unending bliss, there is something he’s missing out on that would be an even grander adventure than he’s known before: growing up. In the culture of its day, the story was a reminder that while childhood is a wonderful time, it was not only necessary but good to grow up and experience the wonders of the world waiting on us there. Somewhere along the way, though, that final moral was lost from the story, and we embraced the supposed virtue of youth with gusto and have made living in a perpetual state of adolescence a goal worth achieving. I say all of that to make sense of the observation that the dream of Peter Pan is alive and well. We are living in a day when a great many of the movies being made are an attempt by filmmakers and moviegoers alike to relive their childhood adventures. Along the way, the younger members of Gen X and the older Millennials are inviting their kids into their adventures. I got to experience a taste of this last night as I watched the latest Sonic the Hedgehog movie with my boys. Let’s talk for a few minutes this morning about what I saw and heard.

I grew up playing Sonic the Hedgehog on my Sega. I played it so many times I could just about complete some of the levels with my eyes closed. I occasionally watched a few of the spinoff cartoon series, but none of them were very good. The latest big studio releases, though, have both been a lot of fun. The first film of the series, released in 2020, was a surprise hit. It was one of the based-on-a-game movies that, honestly, no one expected to do very well. But the well-done CGI combined with a terrifically fun performance by Jim Carrey as the evil Dr. Robotnik and a story that nicely updated the original video game tale (and not to mention a pandemic-weary nation hungry for anything to distract them – and their kids – from the misery of being locked down) resulted in a streaming success. The theater-release of the sequel a few weeks ago became the most successful video game-based movie ever released. Not bad for a story about a speedy, blue hedgehog.

The basic storyline is that the titular character is an alien creature whose origins are a complete mystery to this point in his cinematic journey. With the help of a super-advanced alien technology that uses golden rings (the collectible currency in the original video game) to create holes through space from literally any location in the universe to another, Sonic is sent to earth by the race of giant owls who raised him as a final act of sacrifice to protect him and to ensure his ability to use his powers (again whose origins are still a mystery that is likely to be revealed in the third installment) to protect the Master Emerald, a mystical gem that grants the one who holds its power the ability to turn thoughts into reality.

In the first film, Sonic is being chased by a government organization committed to capturing him and harnessing his seemingly limitless energy. The chief science officer of the group, Dr. Robotnik, though, has his own nefarious plans, and gradually becomes the cartoonish villain who is known and loved from the original game. By the end of the film, he is banished to a distant planet composed of nothing but mushrooms of every variety. And if the silliness of the whole thing is starting to blow your mind, remember, this is an adaptation of a children’s video game that has been updated and adapted to the big screen for a new generation of children. You’ve got to be willing to suspend your disbelief just like they do, or you won’t be able to enjoy it at all.

In any event, Robotnik manages to use one of Sonic’s super-powered quills and his own immense genius to construct a device using parts from the spaceship in which he was banished to the mushroom planet that sends a signal into space which attracts the attention of the race of echidnas who warred against the owls and are searching for Sonic to force him to reveal the location of the Master Emerald, which was originally created by one of their warriors, to reclaim it as their own. Robotnik tricks the leader of the echidnas, Knuckles, into getting him back to earth so he can claim the power of the Master Emerald for himself.

To condense an hour and a half’s worth of film to a single sentence, in the end the good guys win, and the bad guys lose (but not without a post-credit scene setting up the next movie). That was never really in doubt. What caught my attention, though, was something Sonic’s adoptive dad on earth (delightfully played by James Marsden) said to him early in the movie when giving him some coaching on his need to grow up more if he was going to become the hero he desired to be. Sitting in a canoe on a peaceful lake before any of the real adventure of the movie starts, but after Sonic’s latest attempt to play hero has resulted in more of a mess than any real help to the local law enforcement, Marsden challenges Sonic on his idea of what being a hero is really all about. He says, “Sonic, taking care of yourself is not what being a hero is all about. It’s about taking responsibility for other people.”

It was Sonic’s “Uncle Ben” moment and becomes an ideal that shows up later to shape and drive the choices he would make in the process of saving the world. It even leads him to give up the ultimate power of the Master Emerald rather than keeping it for himself when he has absorbed it to defeat Robotnik. And I’ll say, it’s a pretty good line. There’s a lot of truth there. It echoes something Paul wrote to the Philippian believers in the context of calling them to better imitate the example of Christ in their own lives. Paul said just what you saw at the top of the page: “Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others.”

Marsden’s challenge to Sonic is something we would do well to take into account in our own efforts to be a hero in our lives. Real heroes don’t put themselves first. They put others and their interests first. For that lesson alone, the movie is worth watching with your kids. Now, the movie isn’t perfect. It contains an excessive level of silliness that goes even beyond what the first movie offered. It also contains a few jokes for adults in the form of somewhat off-color culture references that you probably won’t want to explain. But on the whole, it doesn’t ever take itself seriously and offers up a ton of fun with that positive message. If you have access to Paramount+ and are looking for something to do with your little ones this weekend, it’s worth your time.

Here’s what really struck me, though. As much truth as is packed into Marsden’s “Uncle Ben” line, it really doesn’t make any sense apart from the Christian worldview. Apart from that objective grounding of moral values in something much higher than ourselves and whatever we want in a given moment, the idea of putting others first like this not only largely nonsensical, it is even a net negative. If there is not a God who is sovereign over the world, who is omniscient and omnibenevolent, then our first and highest good is always our own interests. To put that another way, if there is not a God above us who will look out for our best interests should we choose to sacrifice those, it does not make any sense to suspend our pursuit of our interests in favor those of the people around us. But if there is such a God, we are free to pursue the good of others in the confidence that He will have our backs as we do.

Absent this context, the truth from Sonic 2 isn’t any less true. But what it does do is to remind us that there is but one source of truth in the world. The truths we find there are true truths. They are properly reflective of reality. This isn’t always convenient (and in fact is often terribly inconvenient), but it is always good. Where we see the culture around us reflecting echoes of those truths like Sonic does, we are reminded of just how true they are. They are so true that their truthfulness penetrates the alternative worldviews of the world which are often held with eyes and ears closed to avoid anything that smacks of the Christian faith. Yet truth is truth and our unique creation in God’s image whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not means truth rings out even when we try to avoid it. As followers of Jesus, we should celebrate and encourage this. We do that and gently remind people of where that truth comes from. Sonic 2 does it well. Stay on the lookout for other bubbles of truth so they can be encouraged as well.

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