Barbie Goes to Church. Sounds like I’m all out of ideas, doesn’t it? Well, here we are near the end of summer and this week I felt like doing something a little bit fun so we’re going to talk about…Barbie. What??? Of course, this is church, so we’re really going to be talking about God—and Barbie is not to be confused with God—even if some of you may have worshipful feelings toward Margot Robbie or Ryan Gosling. So why talk about Barbie in church?
When a preacher spots a movie or book or some other story that seems to really capture people’s attention, we want to know why. Because most really significant stories draw upon some theme that humans have been struggling with as long as we’ve had the Bible. And along with Oppenheimer—which I haven’t had 3+ hours to sit through just yet—Barbie is the blockbuster movie of the summer. So I put on my preacher hat, and once the kids were off to bed the other night I went out to see the movie—and here’s what I came up with (Please note that I will try to avoid any significant spoilers in this sermon).
The story of the Barbie movie draws on a number of themes found in the Bible and about which one might preach a sermon: there’s femininity and masculinity and relationships—between lovers and parents and children, there’s commercialism and materialism and the meaning of beauty…and in my amateur movie critic analysis: Director Greta Gerwig did a remarkable job of addressing many of these topics thoughtfully and creatively inside of a movie that lasts less than two hours. But at the intersection of each just about all of these ideas is the one I really wanted to talk about, and that idea is authenticity. Who am I? Who was I created to be? How do I find that essential person? Why do I run from that essential person and put on disguises and make believe that I am someone other than who I am? And if I’m a person of faith, and believe that I was created not by Mattel but by God, then what does God have to say in answer to questions like these? Authenticity—that’s what I thought about most in response to this movie where so much is completely artificial.
Let me take a minute—and again, I’ll try to avoid any big spoilers here—but let me take a minute to talk about the movie and itself and then I’ll move to what it caused me to think about these questions about authenticity.
The basic premise in the Barbie movie is that there’s the real world, and there’s Barbieland. Barbieland, as you would expect, is where Barbie lives, in the Barbie dreamhouse, and Ken lives in Barbieland too, and they go to the beach and drive in Barbie’s Corvette, and every day is “perfect.” And in Barbieland, Barbie isn’t just some pretty girl because that’s not why Barbie was created. Ruth Handler, who created Barbie for Mattel, made the doll in response to her frustration about other dolls. All the other dolls were baby dolls, suggesting that every girl would grow up to be a mommy—and wonderful as it is to be a mommy, there was nothing else. So Ruth Handler created Barbie and all of her outfits to give girls the idea that they could be doctors or Supreme Court Justices or President—these were not just the realms of men. Of course, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, the rub comes mostly around the other messages Barbie gave young girls—like a body image that was impossible to achieve—and it is this complicated collection of messages from Barbie that cause lots of folks to have a sort of love-hate relationship with Barbie. (Again, my amateur critique): walking that love-hate line is exactly the thing this movie does really well. And the significance of Barbieland, is that it gets placed in tension with the real world—which you know all about—and the movie exposes the ways in which both the real world and Barbieland are far from perfect, and once you realize that, where do you really want to live?
So what the heck does any of this have to do with the Bible? That was the question I asked as a preacher as I sat and watched the movie; and here’s what I came up with:
On the surface, one of the first and most obvious things about Barbie—and Ken—is that they have lots of outfits, and settings, and when a child plays with the dolls they image something else they might be. That’s what the dresses are about, and the different professions and activities they stand for, and the cars and boats and homes Barbie inhabits. And so first, it occurred to me that the Bible has a lot of stories about people who dress up, and become someone else. What’s going on there?
Some of the Bible stories are positive in nature, and others are negative.
Just last week we talked about the story of Joseph, whose coat of many colors is first a cause of division between Joseph and his brothers, and later the brothers disguise it with goat’s blood so that they can fabricate a lie that he was killed by wild animals. It’s story of family conflict built around an outfit.
The boy David, who slays Goliath, is first put in a suit of armor to head out to the field of battle. But the armor and the sword are too heavy, and the only way David can save his people is to be authentic to who he is, so he heads out to slay Goliath with the sling he uses to guard his sheep.
In another story, Jacob, who is jealous of his firstborn brother Esau, sets out to steal his brother’s blessing. Esau is much more hairy than Jacob, so Jacob covers his arms in animal skins when he goes in to greet his father, who is old and whose sight is failing. And the trick works But this act of deceit will not pay off in the long run; by being inauthentic, Jacob alienates himself from his father and brother and is forced from the family’s home.
In other stories, a little disguise and even deceit is not such a bad thing. Esther, who is Jewish, hides her identity in order to make her way into the palace of King Xerxes and win the heart of the king. By doing so, she subverts the plans to of the king’s henchman Haaman, who wishes to destroy the Jewish people. So, Esther, by an act of disguising her identity, saves her people.
It’s true, isn’t it, that playing around with our identity is sort of a part of being human, and isn’t always just plain wrong. We’re all slightly different versions of ourselves depending on whether we’re with our parents or friends, at work or with our spouse, or around our children at their various stages of development. We try on different personas as we grow and mature, not always sure how it will turn out, because we have do some experimenting in life to figure out who we really feel called to be. Some of this is good, and sometimes it is bad, and sometimes it is not really one or the other.
But I suppose the only way we can navigate all of this playing dress-up that we do in life is to be able to come back to some grounding force, some reliable place, some familiar friend who knows us for who we really are, and in whose presence we can be fully ourselves. We need someone who understands all of our insecurity and imperfection and loves us still.
So I returned to those questions of authenticity I shared with you before: Who am I? Who was I created to be? How do I find that essential person? Why do I run from that essential person and and make believe that I am someone other than who I am? Who is God for us when we struggle with these questions? And I remembered Psalm 139:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
The One who gives us the grounding we need in order to imagine who we are and who are becoming… The One who gives us grounding to experiment and explore, and when things don’t go well, to find our way home so that we can start over, and know that we are still loved… The only One who can truly give us that grounding is God. Barbie is far from a religious movie, but it puts before us a set of deeply spiritual questions, and I guess, in defense of the life of faith, it occurs to me that the wonderful thing about being a person of belief is that we have One we can go to in prayer, throughout every one of life’s questions, when we are trying to figure out who we are and who we were created to be. The more deeply we invest in our relationship with God, the richer the relationship becomes.
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me… I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… In your book were written all of the days that were formed for me… I come to the end, I am still with you…”
And that’s what happens—at least according to this preacher—when Barbie goes to church. Amen.