Youtopia: The Perfect You?
The word utopia today means “a perfect place.” But when the word was first used in the early 1500s, it meant “nowhere.” Both definitions are fitting, in a way, since a perfect place does not exist on this earth. The same is true of the perfect ‘you.’ You’re flawed. You mess up. You’re not who you would like to be. And you’re not alone in this regard.
Second only to erotica and “romance” novels, self-help books continue to be among the best sellers every year. This shouldn’t be surprising, since I have never met anyone who doesn’t want to change. In fact, every January 1st people around the world write lists of what they would like to change (with varying degrees of successful follow-up!).
It seems this near-universal desire to change is a strong indicator that we all know (even if only as a feeling of restlessness) that we are not who we should be. That much we agree on. But there is much less agreement on what has gone wrong and how it can be made right.
Disney’s Modern Fable
I recently watched Disney’s Zootopia, which gets right to the heart of the same issue. On the surface, the movie seems to be mainly about prejudice. But at its deepest level, the movie is more about our identity. Does your past define you? Where do your dreams and desires fit in? What makes you you?
The movie opens with a scene from a children’s stage play. This storytelling device informs the audience that the predators and prey in this anthropomorphic animal kingdom once lived as savages, controlled by their biological instincts, hunting and being hunted, hating one another and being hated by one another. But now they have evolved beyond all that to a higher state of existence in which predators and prey now live together in harmony (for the most part). No longer afraid of being eaten, small animals are now free to pursue their dreams.
All this this is good news for Judy, a female bunny who has always dreamed of becoming a police officer in the urban metropolis of Zootopia—a city whose official slogan is, “Anyone can be anything.” Yet Judy soon learns that not everyone really believes that anyone can be anything. She meets another character (a fox named Nick) who holds an opposing outlook on life. “Everyone comes to Zootopia thinking they could be anything they want,” he says cynically. “But you can’t. You can only be what you are.”
These characters, and their relationship, form a microcosm of the entire animal world—and our own. They are meant to present us with two options for understanding how to think about our identity. Can anyone be anything? Or can we only be what we are?
I won’t tell you how the film ends, but I will tell you how the two options presented in the movie end up for everyone. If you follow Nick’s lead (“You can only be who you are”), you’ll walk the path of apathetic acceptance, viewing your life (and the lives of others) with a kind of gloomy resignation: “I’ve always been like this. I’ll always be like this. The world will never get better, and I won’t either. The more things ‘change,’ the more the stay the same. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can get on with life.” The end of that outlook on life isn’t one of joyful contentment. On the contrary, this path only leads to bitterness, resentment, depression, and crippling pessimism.
Which is why most people today don’t sound like Nick. Most people I meet sound much more like Judy. Yet it doesn’t take long before the naïve optimism of “Anyone can be anything” crashes into the real-life limitations of the world we live in. And this is where the film really fails us. Although the monologue of the final scene briefly addresses our limitations, the only obstacles to Judy’s dream in the film were other people—almost as if to say, “So long as other people don’t hold you back, anyone can be anything.” Not only does this seriously overlook our flaws and failures and practical impossibilities, it also puts all the power of success on you. And that sounds nice in theory, until you don’t actually succeed—or worse: you do succeed, but it doesn’t bring you the happiness and satisfaction that you though it would, leaving you feeling even more empty than before.
God’s Glorious Alternative
There is a third alternative that is tragically lacking in Zootopia. I’m talking, of course, about the good news of the gospel, which speaks a better word than “You can only be what you are” or “Anyone can be anything.” Instead, the gospel promises—promises!—that you will be who you were created to be.
This is what the gospel promises: the glorious self that you were created to be—a human who is fully alive to God and all the splendor of his world, free from the stain of sin, removed from the bondage of decay and death—that person is who you will become in Christ. Indeed, that is what salvation is; it is God’s longterm project of (re)making you into the person you were always meant to be but have been unable to become because of your slavery to sin (Rom. 8:29; Col. 3:9-10). Throughout our life God continually reshapes us and remolds us through the rhythm of faith and repentance until, at last, we are resurrected to be with Jesus, when God glorifies us and renews us completely (Rev. 21:5).
Because that glorious work is God’s doing, the gospel is good news that frees us to confess our sins and flaws (unlike Judy’s naïve optimism), while being equally emphatic about the hope of change for the better (unlike Nick’s crippling pessimism). The gospel also frees from the snare of Nick’s self-doubt and the false promise of Judy’s self-confidence. In place of both we have confidence in Christ, a deep trust that he will keep his promise to make us new. Finally, the gospel rejects Judy’s attempt at self-definition (God sets the limits; he defines who we are) and it rejects Nick’s self-loathing (you are made and loved by God). Instead of self-hatred and self-discovery, we are invited to find our true self in Christ. Change starts with him. And it’s just not possible; it’s promised!
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works by various authors. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.