Before I decided to follow Jesus, a lot of folks tried to convince me. Maybe you can relate. I got handed a lot of pieces of paper on sidewalks, paperbacks that tried to explain it all, and even a tiny orange New Testament through the passenger side window as my mom pulled out of my middle school’s parking lot. I also, of course, went to church semi-regularly for much of my childhood and listened to a lot of sermons, only one or two of which remain in memory now. Even in those days before the Internet and smartphones, I was surrounded with an absolute glut of information about Christianity, much of which seemed contradictory or unintelligible to me. The Living Word all but drowned out in words, words, words.
Who would have thought that, out of that sea of stuff, a low-budget and frankly terrible straight-to-video release would be the thing that actually taught me something about the love of Christ?
The movie to which I refer is The Buttercream Gang, a 1992 production of Feature Films for Families. Now, my sister and I got to choose our own movies generally, and our parents didn’t pressure us to watch this one at all. It was my grade school horseback riding teacher who lent it to my family, buried in a stack of other terrible movies about little girls having adventures with their horses. I don’t think my mom even knew it was there. You can watch parts of The Buttercream Gang on YouTube, although in all honesty I would not recommend it. The acting is awful, the plot is contrived, the dialogue is stilted, and the overall cheesiness level exceeds even my own admittedly high tolerance. As a child, though, most of the movies I watched were very nearly that bad, so I saw nothing unusual in its lack of quality.
The formulaic plot of the film goes thusly: the Buttercream Gang is a “gang” (quotation marks heavily emphasized) of young boys who go around doing good deeds for people in their small town. Their leader, Pete, moves away to the big city and joins an actual gang (probably also of the quotation mark-worthy variety, but we’ll let that pass). He moves back and everyone is shocked to find out he’s apparently a bad boy now, complete with an ever-present bandana on his head. The Buttercream Gang members want him to rejoin the flock, but the more they try to bring the old Pete back, the more he resists them. You get the idea. Most of it is completely forgettable, like thousands of other children’s movies but even less in touch with the youth of the day. And yet the climactic scene, I remember over fifteen years later. Maybe not the exact details, but definitely the heart.
In this scene, Pete is holding up the tiny town’s tiny corner store. It’s so tiny, in fact, that the store’s owner is at the cash register. Pete threatens the owner, screaming that he wants all the money in the till.
The old man, obviously shaken, manages to stammer out, “Okay, I’ll give you some money. How much do you need?”
Pete looks confused for a split second, then snarls, “How can you not get it, you idiot? I want all of it! I’m robbing you!”
The store owner opens the drawer of the cash register, pulls out the entire contents, holds it out to Pete, and says quietly but firmly, “You’re not robbing me. I am giving it to you.”
Pete is utterly shocked by this response. He freaks out, trashes the store a bit, and runs away. When we hear from him again, he’s turned his life around.
Now, I realize that a story very similar in theme to this one was told earlier and more compellingly by a fellow by the name of Victor Hugo, but hey, I was ten, and I had no idea what to make of this scene. I had never seen such a plot twist. In all the strange, corny children’s films I’d seen, no one had ever offered to save someone from the penalty of a crime by erasing any offense from the action, sacrificed so much for a person so blatantly and unashamedly out to get them. Who does that? I wondered. I instantly knew that there was something different, something troubling and yet thrilling about this scene.
At the time, I didn’t know what that “something different” was. Now I know it was an example of what Christians call grace, or the Gospel. Good news for people who like good news. Who does that? Who forgives offenses without waiting for an apology and at great cost to himself? Jesus, that’s who.
Given all the sermons, maybe I should have known. I didn’t realize The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was a parable at first either. Call me slow on the uptake.
But maybe what made this scene so unsettling and challenging for me in a wonderful way was the fact that it relied on actions rather than words, a story rather than a textbook-style explanation. Maybe the very thing that made it hard for me to understand is exactly what eventually helped me to understand: I had to do the math for myself. As so many students and teachers know, those are the lessons that stay with you.
Jesus was always telling stories, using metaphors, answering a question with a question. This very quality of showing instead of telling is what made his teachings so brilliant and made us remember them; it’s also what has allowed his Church to screw lots of things up for the last two thousand years. But he wants to give us that freedom. He knows it’s a big risk and a big potential payoff.
He told his early followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Disciples, meaning students. That is to say thinkers, not parrots. Perhaps you thought following Jesus was all about never questioning anything? Then why did he react so positively to people who asked him questions in the flesh? Okay, some people asked him questions with an ulterior motive, as a trap, and he wasn’t so much into that. But the ones who really wanted to know, he never turned away, and often he would often respond with a story, which in turn led to even more questions.
Jesus also said his students should be like children. Among children’s many other qualities, some endearing and some maddening, they are mostly excruciatingly aware that they know almost nothing about the world. With humility and trust, they turn their face upward toward their parents and ask endlessly, “Why?”
So perhaps it’s not surprising after all that, among all the little pieces of paper with textual and logical proofs for faith, I learned more about God from a scandalous story that made me ask, “Why? Why on earth would someone do that?”
This, more than anything else, is why I write. I try to make it the motivation behind everything I do. I want to leave people with questions, to lay out the mystery and get them hooked on trying to figure out what happened. When others write a textbook, I want to write a story. When others shout, I want to whisper. When others strive for perfection in their art, I’ll be content with my deeply flawed work, provided that it sparks good questions.
If The Buttercream Gang can do it, there’s hope for the rest of us yet.