When we were young, one of my siblings got her hands on a VHS copy of Mary Poppins. Children have a high tolerance for repetition, and so for what felt like an endless succession of days, weeks, and months, my brothers and I were subjected to a daily dose of Supercalifragelisticexpialidocious and Feed the birds / tuppence a bag. Eventually, there was no sugar that could make that medicine go down, and we taped an inconsequential local football game over it in protest. My irrational hatred of musicals may have something to do with such scarring childhood experiences.
My wife has only a vague grasp of my Poppins-related emotional baggage, and so rented the film for my daughters to watch. Clinging grimly to the promise that time heals all wounds, I sat down with the family to give Mz Poppins another go.
To my surprise, I found myself enjoying it. The song and dance routines were not that annoying. They even made sense in the context of the story. The lyrics were, dare I say it, funny. The references to the suffragettes movement and to imperious British banking had come to life for me. I found it full of symbolism and (surely the softness of fatherhood speaking here) even emotion. The characters were even interesting, such as the world’s most subservient and deferent feminist mum. In short, Mary Poppins is quite good!
Now this may not be an important revelation for anyone else, but it is a mini conversion experience for me. It is as though I found myself suddenly craving cold butter beans, or rooting for Manchester United. While supporting Man U could only happen if they were playing a greater evil (such as eleven clones of Cristiano Ronaldo), or perhaps if I incurred serious head trauma, enjoying Mary Poppins seems to have come about with growth in maturity. I’m old enough to get it. This prompts me to wonder in what other areas we have allowed immature perceptions to cloud our judgment.
Certainly, most people have a love for simplicity, such as the desire to categorise things with labels such as black and white, good and evil, true and false. Such labels are comforting, but things are rarely that simple. Christians are often guilty of insensitivity to outsiders, or of dismissiveness towards the beliefs of others, just because it’s easier to deal with competing ideas if they are ‘wrong’ or ‘of the Devil’.
However, as guilty as we are, I get the distinct impression from outsiders to Christianity that they often do a Mary Poppins on us. Opinions about the Bible are very often formed on the basis of what someone remembers from Sunday School, or what the local preacher says or does. Popular characterisations such as ‘Bronze Age myths’ are comforting dismissals for our opponents, but hardly a relevant genre description. ‘Clumsy prose’ or ‘the coarse ravings of uneducated fishermen’ are the kinds of descriptions that one hears of scripture, but it is rare that any of these opinions are formed on the basis of mature reflection upon the text itself.
I gave Mary Poppins another go, and it completely turned around my childish judgments upon its value. Perhaps if I stopped regarding Manchester United as the enemy, I would find their manager charming and their football attractive. Perhaps. Perhaps if you set aside your perceptions of the Bible for a while and read it in its own terms, you might find that an old enemy is not actually the Devil that you remembered. If I can be won over by a musical, the conversion of any perception is possible.
But let’s not get too carried away about musicals. I still intend to set the hound of the Baskervilles on the cast of Cats.