• Spear Wounds and Sleigh Bells: Believing and Seeing in the Gospel of John and the Polar Express

    Eric Vanden Eykel (see profile)
    Biblical Studies, Religious Studies
    Church history--Primitive and early church
    Item Type:
    Conference paper
    Conf. Title:
    Society of Biblical Literature 2015 Annual Meeting
    Conf. Loc.:
    Atlanta, GA
    Conf. Date:
    November 2015
    Gospel of John, Intertextuality, Johannine Community, Literary criticism, Biblical studies, Early Christianity
    Permanent URL:
    In his children’s book The Polar Express (1985), Chris Van Allsburg tells the story of a boy who travels to the North Pole and receives a bell from Santa’s sleigh. The sound of the bell nourishes the boy’s belief in Santa into adulthood. Van Allsburg’s narrative plays off a theme central to the Gospel of John: the relationship between hearing and believing. But while the author of the Gospel emphasizes the role of hearing in engendering faith, Van Allsburg’s narrative is one in which the ability to hear is a sign that faith is already present. In this paper I explore the tensions between these works in order to bring to light some of the more subtle points of the Johannine vision of belief. In John 20, for example, Thomas refuses to believe that his executed teacher is alive. He responds to the other disciples’ enthusiastic proclamation with a skeptical request for tangible proof. The episode highlights what until this point in the Gospel has been only latent: that the most significant faith comes not through touch or sight, but through hearing. Jesus’ words bring the episode to a close: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In The Polar Express, by contrast, the boy believes in Santa from the beginning, and he believes because he has heard what others have told him. When he requests a bell from Santa’s sleigh, he does so not because it will help him believe, but because he already believes. After the boy loses the bell, The Polar Express comes close to affirming the central claim of the Thomas pericope, namely, that belief is not contingent on materiality or sight. But the tension is resolved when the boy finds the bell waiting for him under the tree on Christmas morning with a note from Santa: “Found this on the seat of my sleigh…” That the boy’s belief persists as he ages is evidenced by the fact that he alone continues to hear the sound of the bell ringing; in the end, the ability to hear presumes the existence of faith.
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    6 years ago
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