Don’t go to the new Pete’s Dragon expecting to see a close remake of the original, but that’s not to say don’t go. It’s not the same. There’s no mean foster family, no travelling salesman con-artist that can’t say Passamaquoddy, no lighthouse that can’t be lit or sailor lost at sea. Nora isn’t even Nora, she’s Grace, though she does have red hair. The tone is different, too. It’s not as light hearted, not as funny. It’s lonely and somber and at times sad. (I warn you, you might want some Kleenex.) It’s also touching and sweet and hopeful and even realistic in a lot of ways. So go see it, just know that it’s a very different Pete’s Dragon. A good one, but a different one. And in this new version the message of faith is much more front and center, much more pointed and obvious, than it was in the original.
Grace’s father, Meacham, told stories to the younger generations of the time he saw a dragon in the woods. Grace chided him for scaring the kids (to be fair, he was embellishing the story for the sake of thrilling and scaring the kids). Her doubt of the story, however, made the kids ask questions about whether or not it was true. His response to them gave some insight into their different approaches to the rumors of a dragon which could easily become a metaphor for the “rumors” about Jesus being God and savior. (We will let it be so for the purposes of this discussion.) He explained that Grace was more scientific in her approach and only believed in things she saw. He then gently goaded Grace with “Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” And she retorted, “Just because you say something doesn’t mean it’s true.” Touché.
Because Meacham was being dramatic and embellishing things, it’s hard to know at the start of the movie where he really stood, what he really believed. As the movie goes on, we realize that he believed very clearly in the existence of the dragon, but as no one else believed, and because he couldn’t force anyone to believe, he kept his belief to himself. Whenever he did talk about it, he did so lightheartedly, probably because it kept others from ridiculing or doubting him, calling into question something he actually felt very deeply about. It’s almost as if he’s decided not to “throw pearls before swine.”
A lot of people are like Meacham. They believe there is a God, but joke about it and keep their true beliefs hidden because they are in a culture where others don’t believe them. Maybe at one time they tried to tell others what they believed, but after a time, when they realized they had no proof other than maybe their own experience, when they realized no one would believe them, they learned to keep quiet about it. You might not peg them for a believer. They may even look like a skeptic or a mocker, but sometimes that’s just them going along with what’s acceptable in the society around them. Sometimes that’s just them protecting something that’s actually precious to them by keeping it hidden from others who don’t believe and/or cannot appreciate it.
It wasn’t until another believer showed up and the climate began to change about the topic of the dragon that he started to be more transparent about his own experience and beliefs. When Pete showed up, talking about a dragon with such conviction and from a place of deep personal experience, it changed things. People started to listen. First was Natalie, a child about his age. Children are usually the first to believe. The second was Grace—not that she fully believed, but that, with the seeds her dad had already planted from his own stories of the dragon, she began to get really and honestly curious. It was just that Pete was convincing, but there were other things that couldn’t be easily explained “naturally.” Things that the existence of a dragon would actually explain. Her search for answers led her back to her father who was much more open and willing to talk honestly now that she was truly seeking and not just scoffing.
It was in this new climate of honest seeking and budding faith that Meacham shared his “testimony” with Grace. He took out the silly dramatics of the story, about how he fought and stabbed it, fearing for his life… He recounted instead a most touching encounter. He saw a dragon in the woods. They locked eyes and he knew he was safe, but more than that, something “magical” happened. He admitted that, as time wore on, he often doubted himself. Had he really met a dragon? Had he made it all up? But every time he doubted, he also had to confess that his encounter with the dragon changed his life. Things were different. “It changed the way I see trees and sunshine, the way I see you,” he told Grace. He couldn’t prove to anyone else that what had happened to him was real, but he knew that it was because it changed him. He told his daughter he wouldn’t try to change her. He knew that he couldn’t force faith on her, that it had to be real to her to be of any good and that wasn’t something he could force. He did encourage her, however, to seek and be willing to see. “Maybe if you’d just be open to looking up” he said.
The most powerful testimonies are always ones from a place of personal experience and relationship. (Perhaps Pete’s testimony about Elliot was the more powerful because he had the closer relationship?) Like the blind man who was asked who Jesus was—he didn’t have a theological answer but he had a personal one. He was blind but now he could see. Encounters with the living God change us and that is something we cannot deny. And though it may not prove a thing to others, it proves it to us when doubt creeps in. Maybe that blind man asked himself from time to time if Jesus really was God, but then he couldn’t deny that his life was changed because of Jesus. He could see.
As believers share their testimonies, it often stirs up others. It will stir up the closet believers to be more open about their faith and stir the seekers (even those who were in the closet about it, or for whom curiosity had been a dormant quality). Often the seekers that arise have had some seeds planted into their life somewhere along the way. Many seeds can be dormant for years, only sprouting when the climate is right. Just because years go by without seeing a plant grow, doesn’t actually mean a seed isn’t there, waiting for the right environment to show itself. We can’t force people to change, but we can encourage them to be willing to “look up” trusting that God does in fact reward and show Himself to those who seek Him.
Grace sought Elliot and she found him. Led to him by a child. She and her father were both united in their belief and in their personal experience of Elliot. That belief, not only that Elliot was real, but that He was good, led them to action (alongside Pete and Natalie). Because, as things happen in the real/spiritual world, the moment they “came to faith”, there was an attack. Others were also coming to a faith of sorts—the belief that Elliot was real wasn’t confined to those who believed he was good, who were “friends” of his, but spread to those who would be enemies and who wanted to exploit him. Gavin (a relative, even) hunted Elliot, captured him and planned to control and exploit him. It was up to the “true believers” to set Elliot free. In the process, Gavin himself finally came around and became a believer as well.
God never needs our defense or our rescuing, but belief in Him does compel us to action. Which will surely be needed, because from the moment we come to faith we will be sure to also find ourselves in a battle. Jesus has an enemy and the moment we align ourselves with Jesus, we find His enemy has become our own. We will find that either we, ourselves, are attacked or that others are being attacked and we need to do something about it…or both. The exciting thing is that we will often find that our very attackers, the Gavin’s in our world, come to true faith and become our allies. That is such a sweet victory!
From start to finish, Pete’s Dragon is a movie about faith. Both versions of the story are, but this recent telling brings a highlighter to the issue, especially through Grace’s journey to belief in Elliot. Go see the movie. Have fun. Enjoy it. But don’t just stop there. Take a minute to think about it and discuss it. Take a minute to think about your own faith journey and that of the people around you. Talk about it with your kids. Use it as an opportunity to discuss whether or not you (or they) think God is real. Use it as an opportunity to share your testimony, your story about your own personal encounter with God. Just maybe you’ll find that as you start to share about your relationship with God, others might start to believe as well. That is what happened with Pete, after all.
Questions for Discussion:
- In terms of faith, who are you more like, Pete (full of faith and open about it), Meacham (quiet about and maybe even hiding his faith), Grace (doubting, skeptical, but seeking the truth) or Gavin (believing but hostile to it)?
- Have you ever had a personal encounter with God?
- How would you describe the climate around you in terms of faith in God? (Hostile, open, faith driven, etc.)
- Has anyone’s testimony ever impacted your faith or made you want to learn more?