Thinking Aloud

Lacking Recognition

Over the weekend I found myself searching the web to see who performs the voice for the popular Sesame Street puppet Elmo. My daughter has taken a real liking to Elmo — requesting to hear songs and view videos featuring this endearing puppet monster. In fact, I imagine that a song featuring Elmo probably tops the list of most played songs on our Alexa device at home. So I was curious as to who was supplying the voice.

After doing a quick search on YouTube, here’s what I discovered:

I know it shouldn’t surprise me to see a grown man doing the voice of Elmo (after all, I have a brother who is good at doing all kinds of funny voices and impressions), but I was surprised. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. At one point in the interview, Kevin Clash (Elmo) explains that after demonstrating Elmo’s voice to one such skeptic, the hearer responded, “Okay, but I can do it better.” We don’t always get the recognition we deserve.

But recognition is not the same as motivation. Sure, our motivation to do something, or even to be a certain way can certainly be influenced by a perceived lack of recognition — recognition alone should not stand as our key motivation for taking action. Instead, motivation is to be found internally, or as is often the case, found outside ourselves — whether that be in the form of a particular goal, person, cause, ideal, etc. (becoming internal when we adopt it as our own).

An early Christian writer talks about external motivation when he writes:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24, NIV).

The writer’s original audience were enslaved people living in Roman occupied areas during the first century AD/CE. Being enslaved suggests to me a life that lacks recognition — robbing the enslaved of basic human dignity. And so I can say unequivocally, slavery is evil and appalling. But to be one whose worth and work are measured by their Creator (to people in all places and at all times) — and that this comes with an inheritance — that indeed is recognition.

A Smurfy New Perspective

Photo by   Ryan McGuire

Photo by Ryan McGuire

When I was a child, I spent countless Saturday mornings watching the animated cartoon The Smurfs – and from conversations with many of my peers, I wasn’t alone. I am fairly certain that if I were to watch an episode today it would not elicit the same kind of allegiance it did back then, I can say without apology that as a child I was a fan. However, not everyone shared my same fondness for this harmonious community of diminutive creatures.

In addition to my Smurf viewing, I also participated in a Christian boys group that in practice seemed to be a cross between military, scouting, and life as a cowboy (early 1960’s conceptions of American masculinity?). On one of the meeting nights our program was promptly canceled and all of us children were ushered to a special parent presentation already in progress. The speaker on stage was “exposing” the dark and insidious side of American culture all of us had blindly overlooked, but was apparently eating away our faith like some kind of undetected cancer.

I still remember the speaker mispronouncing the band name Metallica (pronouncing it Met-a-leek-a) as well as struggling with the name of the universe in which the animated series He-man was set (this was a cultural expert?). However, it was his characterizations of the Smurf community that really grabbed my attention, especially when he noted:

  • The Smurfs practice magical arts, and as such, should be avoided by true Christians.

  • The Smurf community was actually a veiled homosexual community, designed to elicit acceptance of homosexual behavior amongst the younger generation.

  • Smurfette (a female smurf originally created by Gargamel, the enemy of the Smurfs) was actually just another male Smurf who was cross dressing as a female.

You can just imagine the horror I felt in hearing that my beloved Smurfs were to be avoided – especially if I were serious about the faith I professed. I was well aware that they practiced magical arts (after all, that’s precisely how Smurfette was created by Gargamel and then later transformed by Papa Smurf), but that practice was commonplace in the universe in which they lived. The presenter talked about human sexuality, but what did I know about any of this? As I sat there, puberty was still far away in the distance. Sure I knew where babies came from: moms (again, I was a kid), but exactly how they got there was another question. The guest speaker had successfully transformed the happiness of my beloved blue community into something to be feared and reviled. In short, my love of the Smurfs was not compatible with authentic love of God – or so it was said.

I wonder how many children experience this same kind of transformation in their own burgeoning faith by equally well-meaning-but-fear-introducing-mentors?

In light of the geo-political climate of the 1970’s and 1980’s, criticisms by this presenter were not even the strongest objections — related to faith or otherwise — that could have been raised against the Smurf community (though it should be noted that at least the second and third objections identified above are simply absurd). A stronger case could be made regarding how the Smurf economy appears to be based completely on communal sharing, and that vocational identifies are singular in nature (i.e. there is never more than one “Handy Smurf”). What happens when a young Smurf desires to set their sites on an identity outside of their natural abilities – wanting to try something different? Does Papa Smurf, who just so happens to be sporting the color red and wearing the beard of a revolutionary figure, simply not allow this? In such a case, one might make the case that the Smurfs are anti-capitalism–and quite possibly anti-individual, which may be troubling for Western viewers (the reader may want to add these to absurd list as well:).

However, I identified this post as a new perspective, and clearly what has been said above has been said before — so not exactly new. Instead, I want to draw the reader’s attention to an issue that has been before us all this time, but we have simply overlooked: the Smurfs are blue. Sure this appears to be a novelty that adds to their unique identity, but perhaps their actual blueness might in fact be the result of micropolyspora faeni (mushroom worker’s lung). Because the Smurfs live in mushrooms, their exposure is significant, and their condition chronic. With their lung function compromised, it is possible that the blue skin we have so come to love is in fact a symptom of something far more dangerous – a lack of healthy oxygenated blood flowing through their tiny smurfy bodies. In addition, the cry “are we there yet” that came quite frequently when the group journeyed together was actually a cry for endurance – their oxygen starved bodies struggling to deal with the mountain before them. In the end, the Smurfs should not be avoided and feared, but rather rescued and healed. I dare say that this is a far different kind of cultural engagement altogether.

All silliness aside — and believe you me, this entry is full of all kinds of silliness — we do well to remember that it is hard enough for young people to navigate the world, let alone to do so with all kinds of inaccuracies being espoused from trusted authority figures. As leaders we need to do our homework, and even more to take a page from the Smurfs themselves — humbling embracing our work and position to cultivate a loving and just community.