The Gospel of Thomas the Tank Engine

thomas-the-tank-engine-pic-pa-852681578My boys pour over Thomas catalogues. They build train tracks every day in their playroom. My oldest learned to count like this: “Thomas #1, Edward #2, Henry #3…” The three boys have seen their fair share of Thomas the Tank Engine videos–which means my wife and I have also seen more than our fair share of Thomas the Tank Engine videos. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on the Gospel of Thomas the Tank Engine, but I’m in the middle of my Ph.D. and on the tail end of finishing a dissertation.

Most Thomas the Tank Engine episodes boil down to a very predictable plot:

  • One of the engines is given a task.
  • The engine’s pride causes him to disobey instructions or become engaged in extracurriculars that distract him from his primary task.
  • A moment of crisis appears when the engine’s misdeeds come to light either through a colossal crash or impending failure to deliver.
  • The train is afforded the opportunity to make up for his mistakes.
  • No lasting consequences ensue, the train has learned his lesson–at least for today, and everyone chortles as the credits begin to roll.

The Virtue of Usefulness.

If there is one thing every engine on the Island of Sodor longs to hear from the Fat Controller, it is this: “You are a very useful engine!” Usefulness is the most coveted attribute on the tracks. This is understandable on an island where the economy is highly dependent on a reliable railway. Sir Topham Hatt is a businessman after all, and we cannot fault him for being concerned about the bottom line.

I understand why parents would appreciate this continue emphasis on usefulness. Kids that long to be useful are a lot more helpful come chore time. When the playroom is a wreck, it’s always helpful to have that extra reinforcement: “Don’t you want to be a useful little engine?” The concept of usefulness also promotes teamwork, selflessness, and serving others. Each train must deny his own wants for the sake the of the railway.

Sodor is essentially a self-contained economy, so it is not surprising that a train’s value is determined by its utility. Trains should be useful, or they should be scrapped. However, it is unfortunate at best to communicate to a child that his value lies in his usefulness to the home or the society at large. Christian virtues are not always economical. What is right is not always expedient, and people should not be valued on the basis of their utility to the rest of the world. When usefulness is the height of virtue, there is much left to be desired.

Penance not repentance.

It amazes me how the economy of Sodor survives. The trains consistently do more harm than good. Someone is always running off the bridge into the swamp or wrecking their trucks and spilling their goods or missing deliveries because they are chasing butterflies. Somehow, each episode ends with everything back in its right place. No transgression leaves any permanent scars on the Island of Sodor.

The familiar narrative curve of an episode is that after the discover of a train’s naughty behavior he is given the chance to atone for his wrong. If Thomas missed deliveries, he goes back and fulfills them with speed. Friends often pitch in and help get one another out of a bind. But at the end of every episode, the trains have found a way to make right what went wrong.

Episode after episode of this formulaic plot communicates something to children: what is most important when you do wrong is that you make it right. What matters most is that you fix what you broke, you undo what you did, you make up for your mistakes. This is the concept of penance, not repentance. Is this the message of the Gospel–that we make right what we did wrong? After we sin, can we really set everything back in its right place?

Where’s the heart?

Which brings me to the most troubling matter–the matter of the heart. Trains don’t have hearts. But children do. The trains on Thomas the Tank Engine are terribly prideful. In that way, they do provide a good mirror for children to look into. Unfortunately that pride is hardly addressed. Episode after episode, we find Gordon pompously puffing and James vainly whooshing and Thomas carelessly disobeying orders. The trains realize the error of their deeds, but their prideful hearts are never called to repent.

Because this is a kids’ show. And that’s the point. What I’m arguing is not that we should burn our kids’ Thomas DVDs on the pile of their wooden train tracks in a giant bonfire. What I’m pointing out is a great opportunity for discussion. Something is missing in Thomas that you can talk about with your children–the Gospel.

When children recognize the ways that they behave like these trains, you can show them how it is pouring forth from a prideful heart that does not love or obey God. You can explain that in the real world, sins have permanent consequences–consequences that we can never make right and only Jesus can fix. You have the chance to assure your children that their value does not lie in their usefulness but in the fact that they are made in the image of God.

Don’t discard Thomas. Ride that train straight to the Gospel.

(photo credit)