I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us….  For in this hope we were saved.  (Rom 8:18, 24)

It probably never occurred to Saint Paul that we would be reading his letters 2000 years after he wrote them.  Those letters are full of evidence that Paul believed that the world was headed for a fateful moment in history when God’s purposes would be fulfilled and his glory would inhabit the earth and his kingdom would be established: the eager longing of creation would be realized.  This he expected sooner rather than later.

Not so the animators and story-tellers at Disney studios.  The recent animated film WALL-E imagines what will have become of us and the rest of creation 700 years from now.  The earth is literally a wasteland, overwhelmed by the mountains of rubbish generated by a consumer society gone out of control.

Having rendered the planet uninhabitable, humans have evacuated to become refugees in space, living on luxury liner space ships where a single corporation, Buy-N-Large, relentlessly markets the next available meal.  In the description of one film critic, humans have become “ a flabby mass of pea-brained idiots who are literally too fat to walk.”

Back on earth, it appears that the creation long ago ceased its groaning toward a promised blessing.  A single robot remains functioning: WALL-E is its acronym-ed name.  He is one of an army of obsolete robots who piled the trash into mountains.  All alone except for a cockroach he has befriended, WALL-E continues daily in his futile work.

Over the centuries WALL-E has become a collector of things that particularly interest him.  (This is a Disney movie, after all, so the robot has to be lovable.)  And one day he discovers something he has never before come across: a little green shoot with four or five leaves that has inexplicably sprouted amongst the mountains of waste.  This plant becomes a part of WALL-E’s collection of interesting things.

It turns out that probes have been sent from the space ship to search for just such signs of life on earth, in the now-faded hope that some day the planet would be inhabitable again.  WALL-E falls head-over-heels for the sexy probe he encounters, and (this being Disney) romance ensues.  When the probe (whose acronym spells her name, EVE) discovers the plant in WALL-E’s collections, their relationship is threatened as she succumbs to her hard-wired directive to return the plant to the space ship for verification, romance be damned.

Back on the ship it becomes clear that the desire to return to earth was long ago obviated by the convenience of being fed by a corporation that knows what you want and can keep you distracted while it feeds you.  The plant, and the possibility that earth may once again be habitable, is not such a welcome development.  And so the story of WALL-E and EVE’s romance becomes intertwined with the question of whether or not the obese humans will overcome their dependence on Buy-N-Large and actually return to earth.

Despite the romancing robots, as Disney films go, this one has a strange air of plausibility.  It is a caricature that makes features of ourselves, our habits, and our impact on this planet easily recognizable.  The implicit criticisms are only tolerable because it is only a cartoon, after all, and WALL-E and EVE are awfully cute together.

To put a biblical gloss on the story, you might say that the humans have managed to elude the fate they deserve for their selfish piggy-ness.  Rather than face the kind of judgment we hear Jesus describe in the parable of the weeds in the field, where some end up thrown into the furnace of fire, the humans have simply decamped to outer space: fat and happy.  But in escaping their fate, they have left behind hope, and can now look forward to nothing more than their next meal.

And as a symbol of hope, the little sprout of a plant is a useful image.  Like so much hope, it is something that was long ago given up on, forgotten by many.  So effectively have the humans adjusted to their new lives, in fact, that the promise of hope seems even unwelcome now.  Who needs it?  And since it threatens to interfere with the corporate culture (and profits) powerful forces are at work to destroy it once it appears on the scene.

In our own day the idea of Christian hope is often reduced to a cartoonish caricature of wishful thinking.  Belief in a God who promises to establish a kingdom where justice and peace prevail is on a par with the belief that God will help you find a parking space if you only ask him nicely enough.  These are both acts of wishful thinking of a quite deluded sort, the current thinking goes.

But here are the facts.  We are, in fact, covering our planet with mountains of trash, at the same time as we are poisoning the atmosphere, exhausting natural resources, exterminating entire species, and ruining entire eco-systems.  We have even left so much litter in outer space already that you have to be careful where you fly when you head for the stars.

The more sports clubs and gyms we build, the less healthy we seem to be.  The more nutritional information we print on our food packaging, the fatter we get.

We are quite happy to submit to the guidance of corporate America as long as it gives us what we want super-sized and super-cheap.  We will even provide tax breaks to such a corporation so that it can undermine local businesses and treat its own employees miserably.

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on entertainment to keep ourselves distracted while we wage wars in other places.

These sad realities are not biblical judgments of us and our society, they are the results of our own selfish piggy-ness.  And they help us to forget about hope.

But this is Christian hope: that somewhere in the trash heaps of our lives there is a small green shoot struggling to survive.  That among the landfills of plastic bags, and tires, and old cell phones a little sprout lives.  That from the pile of ashes that is to be our mortal remains, there is new life to be born.  That God has already begun building a kingdom where justice and peace will prevail.

Most of us have become refugees of hope.  We have assumed that hope is really only wishful thinking, and we have booked our tickets for a cruise with Buy-N-Large, because if we can’t have hope, at least we can eat whatever we want and keep ourselves distracted.  And why worry ourselves about hope when even the church herself is such an inept guardian of it?  Better to glide through the heavens in luxuriant obesity, satisfied that we were at least smart enough to get out while the getting was good.

At the end of the Disney film, a decisive struggle takes place between the flabby, weak-willed captain of the space ship and its corporately programmed auto-pilot over whether or not to return to earth.  Will the complacent captain awaken to his own humanity?  Will the corporate plan override latent hope?   Will the plant survive to bring forth seed and propagate new life in a world of trash?

WALL-E the robot has managed to protect the plant.  And as the captain and the auto-pilot fight each other on the bridge, the space ship lists to one side, endangering the humans and their chubby children.  As the opportunity to return to earth seems to be slipping out of reach, it is WALL-E – who has seemed more human than the humans, and who therefore knows what it is like to be desperately in love with EVE – it is WALL-E who sacrifices himself – crushed beneath the machinery of the space ship during the conflict – to save the day.  His sacrifice clinches the victory for the captain and the humans, and ensures their return to their rightful home.  

And of course, it is only a cartoon.  But I believe it is based on a true story; that something green still grows where we would have left behind only wasteland; that there is one who saves us, even when it seems we are beyond being saved; that God has someplace for us to go in this life he has given us.

Was WALL-E’s demise really his end?  Is his small carcass, too, headed for the scrap heap?  I won’t ruin the end of the story for you.  Except to say that I believe it is based on a true story.

There is a green shoot of hope in the world, sprouting several leaves.  And it is more than wishful thinking; it is hope.  And in this hope, we were saved.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
20 July 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 20, 2008 .