The man looks confused. Addled. Perplexed. “Have you lost something again?” a pretty young girl asks as she passes by. He is known for this in the town. For losing things. “Well,” he stammers, “I believe I have. The problem is, I can’t remember what.” He sighs. “Oh well, I’m sure it’ll come to me.”
The scene is from Disney’s 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake, and the “pretty girl,” of course, is Belle. The confused man, we later learn, is none other than Mr. Potts, and what is it he has lost? We don’t know until the very end of the movie when his identity is revealed, and then we are stunned— because the thing he has lost is his family! Mrs. Potts, the charming teapot, is his wife, and chip, that spunky little tea cup, his son. But all this he has forgotten.
Pastor and New York Times Best-selling author Timothy Keller points out that there are strikingly similar themes that recur in many of our most beloved stories throughout history. He suggests these patterns point to a ‘bigger narrative,’ a bigger story behind and beyond the ones being told, and that their presence is a clue, an unconscious nod to something these authors sense we have lost, ‘the problem is, we can’t remember what.’ I found some of these themes in three shows I watched just this week. One came from an action-packed Naval drama on TNT, one from a well-bred BBC special, and one, coincidentally, from Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast
There are lots of things we could touch on here, but what jumped out at me most was the curse and its domino effect on the entire cast. The curse on the Prince and his household does not stop with the household— in one way or another, it touches the whole village, the least effect of which is causing the people to forget about the presence of such a magnificent castle and its occupants nearby. But I was most interested in how the curse affected the Prince himself. Condemned to live as a beast until he can learn to love, he is ultimately freed by the love of another. Yes, we see that Belle says that she loves him at the very end of the movie, and shows it with a kiss and with tears, and that then the curse is actually broken. But I think it is obvious to anyone who has carefully watched their interactions that she loves him long before that final moment. I think it is obvious that she loved him first.
Yes, the Beast loved Belle enough to let her go, but to get there he had first to be shown love by her. Beauty takes the first step, not him. In the beginning of the movie the Prince is rebuked by the Enchantress for basing beauty on appearance alone, but it is Belle, in the end, who does the real work of loving beyond and beneath the surface, or better yet, by loving based on who and what she is rather than by who and what he is. The miracle is not that a beast fell in love with a beautiful girl. The miracle is that She, Beauty, loves a beast. His heart is only changed in response to hers.
The Last Ship
In this action-packed 3-season drama about a U.S. Navy war ship crew that saves the world after a global pandemic, themes of redemption are common. But perhaps the most poignant episode I’ve seen yet involved the crew discovering that the man next in succession for the presidency of the United States was still alive, although allied now with evil forces bent on taking over what is left of the world. Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all the death and the horror of the plague that killed millions, the man has forgotten who he is. But the captain of the Navy ship hasn’t. And so, out of respect for the office, he and his crew “kidnap” the rightful president out from his corrupt surroundings and bring him instead aboard the safety of the ship. He is brought against his will and resists the kindness of his rescuers until the ship chaplain realizes that his problem lies deeper. ‘He needs to be given a greater narrative than the one he’s bought into to cope with his pain,’ the man wisely observes. In the end he is shown the lie he has believed, and that the truth, though difficult to face, offers a much greater purpose and hope for him moving forward. By the end of the episode he is ‘set free,’ given the best room on the ship (lovingly redecorated to resemble the Oval Office), and restored to a place of dignity, honor and respect.
Cranford, a delightful 5-episode field trip into the world of a 19th century English town, follows many major story-lines and a few minor ones. What ended up surprising me though, as we watched the final episode, was that one of the more subtle story lines actually stole the show. With most focus going to the very lovable and busy-bodied women of the town, it was the stern but big-hearted estate manager and a young pauper from a roadside hovel whose story won out. The manager, a widower who never had children, takes the desperate young boy under his wing after catching him poaching on the lands of his employer. But then, in a tragic accident, the manager dies quite suddenly. What nobody knew was that this humble man had actually accrued quite a vast estate in his lifetime and wished to leave it all to the boy, but didn’t see how it would benefit him in time for his education and upbringing. It is only as he is dying from his wounds that he sees his opportunity and is able to draft a last will and testament naming the young pauper his heir. To the surprise of everyone, the boy is transformed overnight from one of the poorest in the town to one of the richest.
A Greater Narrative
Justice and judgment, home and exile, self-sacrifice and redemption—why is it that stories with these themes show up so often in our movies and literature and tend to move us the most, even though, as Timothy Keller puts it, “we may be secular materialists who believe truth and justice, good and evil, are complete illusions?” Nevertheless, he concludes, “in the presence of art or even great natural beauty, our hearts tell us another story.”
The chaplain from The Last Ship is right. There is a greater narrative, and we need to know what it is in order to move forward in life. Who we are, who we’re supposed to be, how we got here, how we get back— there is a greater story, and it’s one we’re all trying to remember. It shows up in our books and our movies and our fairy tales so frequently precisely because it is vital to us, precisely because it goes to the root of our ultimate well-being. There is a Beauty (Ps. 27:4) and there is a beast (Gen. 6:5). There is a curse leveled against us as consequence of a great crime (Rom. 3:23; 5:12), a debt that must be paid (Rom. 6:23a), an impossible task to be achieved (Lev. 18:5; 1 Peter 1:16; Matt. 5:48), but at a cost so high there is left no doubt the last petals of our days will fade and fall before we can ever hope to achieve it. And yet, there is hope— because there is also a Hero. One who saves by His great Grace, doing the work for us (Jn. 3:16; Matt. 5:17). One who redeems our beastly selves by taking on the great curse for us (2 Cor. 5:21), by taking the first step for us, by loving first for us (1Jn. 4:19), loving to the point of death (Rom. 5:8; Phil. 2:8) so that we who are paupers might become sons, heirs to a great and staggering inheritance (Rom. 8:17), heirs to a future full of dignity and honor and respect.
As I was finishing this up today I stumbled across one last theory that has circulated out there about Beauty and the Beast. It suggests, in short, that the curse touching the town was not just forgetfulness, but also a sort of ‘stuckness,’ that the whole town, along with the Prince and his castle, were actually stuck in a time loop. This would explain, beyond just the humdrum routine of a small town, why Belle could observe the town every day and sing: “Ev’ry morning just the same, since the morning that we came.” The town is stuck— stuck in routine, stuck in the past, stuck in a curse, and the implication is, stuck in such a way that they are doomed to endlessly loop through the same mistakes again and again and again that have gotten them there in the first place until the end of time.
Unless someone from the outside intervenes. Someone from outside the town. Someone from outside the curse. “Have you lost something again?” Belle asks the confused Mr. Potts. “Well, I believe I have. The problem is, I can’t remember what. Oh well, I’m sure it’ll come to me.” What he cannot know as he smiles and turns away is that all the things he has loved and lost are to come back to him through the girl right before him. Through the one who has come from outside.