Atreyu and Falcor. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The NeverEnding Story

What a cult classic movie can tell us about Judaism

I’m obsessed with cult classic movies. There are true creative classics, like Jim Henson’s Labyrinthof course, which features David Bowie’s performance of a lifetime and incredible designs from Brian Froud. And my favorite movie of all time is The Goonies, with the film debut of Samwise Gamgee, aka Sean Astin. I’ve been known to shout “It’s our time down here!” at pivotal life moments.

The cult classic that I find myself proselytizing the most often is the 2002 TV miniseries Dinotopia. It’s about two average young men who find themselves on an island where dinosaurs never went extinct and a steampunk civilization is powered by sunstones. People ride Brachiosauruses (“Brachs”) like buses, and a Troodon named Zippo is the island’s leading public intellectual. Just go with it.

Then, of course, there’s Newsies, Heathers, Harold and Maude, Benny and Joon, Time Bandits… I could go on forever.

One of the strangest of these cult classic favorites of mine is The NeverEnding Story. A West German film from 1984, it features a bullied elementary school student shoplifting a mysterious book and finding himself plunged into a fantastical world full of racing snails, luckdragons, rock biters, gnomes, oracles, and a destructive force called “The Nothing.” It’s even weirder than it sounds.

A conversation with a co-worker a few weeks ago led me to attempt a re-watch. Popping the disc into the DVD player, I didn’t know what to expect. I remembered loving the film as a child, and I had distinct mental images of one iconic scene, in which the pre-adolescent hero Atreyu tries in vain to rescue his beloved horse from drowning in the Swamp of Sadness. As the opening credits began and the familiar theme song played, I was transported to childhood in my great aunt’s basement, watching the movie on a tiny TV screen. The visual effects aren’t necessarily what we’d expect from contemporary films – the puppets don’t benefit from CGI enhancement, and you can see some pretty obvious blips in the green screen shots. But those vintage effects make it all the more impressive; no one today would build an actual 43-foot-long animatronic dragon as a central character in their movie. Well, Peter Jackson might.

I loved every cringe-worthy minute of it. And it got me thinking.

The act of re-assessing the things we love doesn’t come naturally. We have to choose to do it, spend time on it, and then do the hard work of deciding whether these nostalgic classics “hold up” to the standards of our time. We shouldn’t just be doing it with movies, or books, or music.

We should be doing it with bigger things. Things like our faith.

Does our belief system still function in our society? Which aspects of it need to change in order for us to live full, productive lives in the modern world? What parts of it should we hold onto in order to stay in touch with the past? When is it valuable to look at old traditions (and old movies) through rose-colored glasses, and when is it more valuable to point out when something “doesn’t hold up”?

This brand of re-assessment led to the development of Reform Judaism; as Jews integrated into secular society and moved through Europe and to the United States, they saw the need for a new version of Judaism that gelled more effectively with modern, secular values. It didn’t mean letting go of faith, just altering practice to meet the demands of the contemporary Jewish experience. This re-assessment and alteration has also been a hallmark of the southern Jewish experience, as documented in the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.

We should all take moments – every few months, or every few years – to consider how faith serves us in our contemporary lives. What would we like to do differently? What would we like to remain the same? How can we uphold our faith by checking in on it?

The NeverEnding Story is an extended analogy about the human imagination. Fantasia, the world of the book-within-the-movie, is the world of dreams and fantasies. “The Nothing” that threatens this fragile realm represents the tendency to suppress those creative urges, to limit our capacity to dream. Let’s take a lesson from a cult classic. Let’s continue dreaming new possibilities for faith in the contemporary world. But let’s keep loving the things that make the classic, well, a classic: Atreyu, Falcor the Luckdragon, Artax the Childlike Empress, and a timeless tale of children triumphing over the forces that dare to keep them from believing.

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