A discussion of theology, from the writings of St. Paul through the ironies of Soren Kierkegaard, delves into questions of God, of human nature, of theodicy and the problem of evil, and of incarnation, sacrifice, grace, and salvation. The heavy Summa Theologica tomes of St. Aquinas and the cartload of Dogmatics of Swiss scholar Karl Barth seem foreign to the interests of the animated film even as cartoons appear as undecipherable and insignificant hieroglyphics to the men and women of the cloth. Where one easily finds theologians debating the works of film artists like Ingmar Bergman, Terrence Malick, and Yelena Popovich, one seeks longingly for those who probe the theological artistry of Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, and Pete Docter. 

The place to begin, appropriately and mischievously, is in the book of Genesis. God becomes the first stop-action filmmaker. Like an ancient Willis O’Brien or Will Vinton in Creation (1981), He takes clay, breathes into it, and animates a curious creature. The theological concept of Imago Dei, male and female in the image of God, erupts out of humus and scripts a cosmic drama, slipping into tragedy and ascending to a Divine comedy.

A wedding of theology and animation finds a fertile union in the theological concept of the parable, embedded in both Hebrew and Christian traditions. Religious thinkers discover how the short, animated film parallels that pithy, curiously provocative, and entertaining storytelling mode of the parable. Both offer a mode of indirect communication, one used more frequently by Jesus than direct sermons. Their interest is not in didactic religious cartoons, in mediocre animated adaptations of Bible stories, or even in impressive feature films like Brenda Chapman’s Prince of Egypt (1998). Seminarians see religious parables in short cartoons, observing what P. G. Wodehouse saw as a story that “sounds at first like a pleasant yarn, but keeps something up its sleeve which suddenly pops up and knocks you flat.”

Like the book of Job, short, animated films ask pungent questions and pose theological riddles. Dutch animator Paul Driessen plays with the notion of the Providence of God in his Cat’s Cradle (1974)and his Christmas parable of God’s care for the poor and outcast in An Old Box (1975). His Killing of an Egg (1977) offers an exemplary ethical illustration of the consequences of not following the golden rule, of finding you will be treated as you treat others. The ironic climax shocks with laughter (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Paul Driessen’s Killing of an Egg (1977), a multilayered parable on the Golden Rule, arrests one’s curiosity and then erupts in hilarity with its “yolkish” aesthetic.

Two theological themes permeate the animated film: sin and grace. The most empirically verifiable doctrine of sin exists in every human being. We know two things. First, we know that we should live in a certain way. Second, we know that we don’t.  None of us even lives up to our own standards, much less a biblical one. Artists look in the mirror and often capture this truth. The folly and selfishness of characters carry their own consequences, what Dante in his Purgatory called the contrapasso. When Daffy Duck commits envy in Show Biz Bugs (Friz Freleng, 1957), Mr. Johnson exhibits anger in The Cat Came Back (Cordell Barker, 1988), or the hapless, self-consumed mob practice acedia in Steve Cutts’ Are You Lost in the World Like Me? (2016), judgment follows.

Grace appears in Canadian Sheldon Cohen’s PIES (1984). A meticulous, immaculate German Lutheran hausfrau contrast with her sloppy, easygoing, Polish Catholic neighbor. The Polish woman owns a cow that makes manure “pies” which disgusts her finicky neighbor and leads to an angry snit between the two. The scrupulous Mrs. Meuser steps in the poor Mrs. Cherak’s cow-dung. A fight ensues between the two, as they challenge each other with a tit-for-tat, “who is dirty now?” mentality. Seeking revenge upon the cow woman, the German bakes a mincemeat pie with a “special” ingredient, borrowed from her neighbor’s pasture yard, and serves it to her neighbor (Figure 2).

Figure 2. After Jesus tells a lawyer to love his neighbor as himself, the man cross-examines the Lord by asking “Who is my neighbor”. Sheldon Cohen’s Pies (1984) shows us what it means to love that person.

Over coffee and the poop-filled mincemeat pie, (“What is it?” “It is a special way I make it.”), they begin to discuss their children and how they have trouble with them, just like “the Holy Mother” had trouble with her child. As they share and laugh, the vindictive Meuser discovers her righteousness is like, as St. Paul wrote, dung.  She prays to the Holy Mother, the Virgin Mary, confessing that she has hated her neighbor.  She asks for strength to swallow what she had done and then chooses to eat her own shit. “No neighbor should eat by themselves,” she prays. Turning the other cheek and forgiving, she learns to love her neighbor, and her cow, the two women bond. Rarely has G.K. Chesterton’s observation that God told us to love our neighbors and to love enemies—probably because they are the same people—ever been so accurately captured on film. Yet, the “pie,” an instrument of vengeance becomes a means of grace and reconciliation in this remarkably theological cartoon.

In his medieval novel, The Name of the Rose, semiotician Umberto Eco answered the objection of seeing the Divine in such a vulgar experience as laughter. His Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville, exhorted his solemn brethren by arguing that, “divine things should be expounded more properly in figures of vile bodies than of noble bodies”. Eco continues noting that we know more of God on this earth through humbler depictions. In the “vulgar” artistry of the animated film, theology finds fresh parables.

Terry Lindvall (PhD, University of Southern California) taught theology and film at Duke University and the College of William and Mary.  He now occupies the C. S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan University. He published fourteen books including God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire (NYU Press, 2015) and Divine Film Comedies (Routledge, 2016), God on the Big Screen (NYU Press, 2019), and most recently Animated Parables: A Pedagogy of the Seven Deadly Sins and a Few Virtues (Lexington Press, 2023). He recently produced the feature documentary, Hollywood, Teach Us to Pray (2023).