5 questions parents can ask kids when engaging with popular culture

Practicing with Toy Story as it turns 25

November 19, 2020

“Sergeant?” “Yes, sir!” “Establish a recon post downstairs . . .”

That dialogue from the VHS trailer for a new movie called Toy Story enthralled me in 1995. When the film finally released on Nov. 22, my family saw it in theaters. Pixar Animation Studios’ debut made me a lifelong fan of this story and the studio.

Toy Story proved a worldwide phenomenon. Its revolutionary computer-generated animation inspired generations of growth in animated films and “live-action” special effects. Meanwhile, director John Lasseter and the Pixar brain trust’s simple story drew on children’s love of toys, parents’ nostalgia for Mr. Potato Heads and Etch-A-Sketches, and the fantastic idea that we’ve all probably wondered at any age: that sometimes, when we’re not around, toys just might come to life.

Twenty-five years later, Pixar has released three critically acclaimed Toy sequels as well as television specials and animated shorts. Toy Story has become a franchise powerhouse. Your own child probably owns something Toy Story–related: not just the films, but plenty of toys and merch. Depending on your age, you may have grown up enjoying the original Toy Story and its first sequel, Toy Story 2 (1999).

Familiarity may dull the impact of these tales. More likely, however, these films’ now-generational appeal may give families a perfect chance to re-watch Toy Story around its 25th anniversary. You could even more formally engage the story, world, common graces, idols, and gospel reflections of Pixar’s fantastical debut.

To organize such engagement of any popular cultural work, I recommend some basic questions. Grown-ups can first ask these questions of themselves, and then share them with children, taking into account children’s ages and attention levels.

Oh, and the purpose of this pop-culture parenting isn’t to “be cool” or “be like the world” (as some could conclude before reading an article about engaging culture). Instead, our goal is threefold. First, we want to worship God, and when we enjoy his good gifts to his image-bearers, who then share his common grace mixed with their own idols, we’re motivated to praise our Creator. Second, by engaging popular culture as families and Christ’s people, we build relationships, especially with our children. Third, this engagement with our real world—real people who cannot help but enjoy movies, TV, and beyond—we build relationships with others and have greater ability to share Jesus’s gospel with our neighbors who so badly need it. 

So, here are five questions to ask yourself and your family. 

1. What’s the story?

For this question, we ensure we get the basic facts right about any cultural work.

In Toy Story, vintage cowboy doll Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) oversees all the toys in his owner Andy’s bedroom, helping preserve domestic law and order. But his top-toy status falls when new arrival Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen) arrives with flashing lights, pop-up wings, and the space-ranger delusions. After Woody and Buzz get lost, they need to team up and return home before their family moves. When at last Buzz snaps out of his delusion and finds his own purpose, the story truly launches and “falls with style,” and our two heroes become lifelong friends.

2. What’s the style and shape of this world?

Here we explore the story-world’s “rules,” including genre and morality. We’re not yet sorting right ideas from wrong ideas. Our goal for now is observe and report. 

Magical realism reigns in the Toy Story–verse. Viewers must accept that toys really can come alive when people aren’t around, without explanation for how toys get this ability. Toys always follow certain fantastical/moral rules. You have to return to your place before a child sees you. You likely want to stay loyal to your particular child owner, and risk jealousy or heartbreak if the owner seems to reject you.

For Woody, and eventually also for Buzz Lightyear, a toy’s greatest purpose is to make a child happy. To fall out of a child’s favor means you will face abandonment and lost purpose—big themes, by the way, for a young child to confront in a story.

Pixar Animation Studios broke creative ground in scripting and storyboarding Toy Story’s plot, and then digital ground in designing, sculpting, scanning, programming, animating, and rendering Toy Story’s three-dimensional world. CG animation now takes viewers to entire universes of superheroes or alien realms. But in the mid-1990s, it took all a studio’s processor power to build just two small family homes, their surrounding streets, and a blinking, blooping Pizza Planet arcade/restaurant.

3. What’s good, true, and beautiful in this story? 

Now comes a happy task: we can invite our kids to join us in finding the honorable, virtuous, and artistically excellent elements of a creative work like Toy Story.

Toy Story’s world is explicitly moral. It presumes toys benefit from organization and moral behavior. Toys behave almost like parents themselves, often arguing and reconciling in order to make their children happy. And, while we (infamously) never see Andy’s dad, it’s clear his mom loves her family and wants to support them.

Our answers can include these elements that are clearly “good.” But we should also find the story’s “bad” elements, which the story actually wants to show as negative.

The gospel gives us and our kids the greatest hope that our favorite stories can only reflect in part.

For example, characters may believe or act in ungodly ways, yet the story itself may clearly show this as undesirable behavior. At first, Woody shows envy and anger. He hilariously but rudely mocks Buzz Lightyear for his space-ranger delusions. Later, Woody’s ill temper gets the best of him and backfires. He’s forced to rely on Buzz when they’re both trapped in the house of the toy-abusing neighbor kid Sid. (For grown-ups and older children engaging with advanced popular culture, a story’s violent moments or even language can also serve as reflections of truth.)

Meanwhile, Pixar’s team here shows the talents that made them famous. Animators brought in their own favorite toys, “becoming as little children” to recapture the thrill of simple play. Writer Pete Docter nailed old shoes to a board to better study the movement of little green army men. Sound designer Gary Rydstrom used filters to make the toy’s celebrity voice actors sound “plasticky,” yet without obscuring their identities. All the way, using mid-‘90s machines, Pixar’s best took extraordinary lengths to make Andy’s bedroom and Sid’s mutant creations look believable. With this creative excellence, they reflect the gift of God’s imago Dei to the world.

4. How do we find and subvert the story’s idols?

This question doesn’t refer only to cussword-counting or expectations of “clean” stories. Instead, we’re seeking out whatever good things the story offers to fulfill its characters’ hopes. Then we can show kids how these good things can actually turn into idols that cannot fulfill our heroes’ hopes, either in their world or in our reality.

For example, Woody hopes to regain his place as Andy’s favorite toy. We’ve shown this can reflect a good purpose: to do everything we can to please another person. What happens, though, when Andy grows up and goes to college? Will any toy be able to stay happy then? (Astute Toy Story fans know that sometimes a film franchise continues for so long that its own writers may eventually explore such a subversion themselves!) Without some greater purpose, Woody will find no lasting fulfillment.

In reality, we can do all we can to please a family member, boss, or spiritual leader, but that person’s pleasure will not last and will not ultimately fulfill our longings.

5. How does Jesus answer the story’s good hopes?

Now we can answer the story with the gospel. Yet the gospel is not just moral support for the story’s good parts, or moral judgment on its bad parts. Instead, Christ’s true story calls the story’s “bluff” of a happy ending. The gospel gives us and our kids the greatest hope that our favorite stories can only reflect in part.For example, we can show kids the lack of any creator in Toy Story. The film gives us no master “toymaker” who gives the toys their purpose and provides the rules they have been following. Now, switching to reality, we can recall that our real-life Creator has not left us so lost. God has created us for a purpose: to enjoy perfect happiness in him alone. His Word endorses good gifts, like making toys and stories, but focuses on describing the true and best

story about Christ’s quest to rescue his people from evil. Someday he will renew all creation and make us happy forever. In that day, no one will grow up and abandon us, and no toys will be left behind.

To be sure, you’ll find more beyond this introduction to engage about Toy Story. As a parent (or teacher, pastor, guardian), you’ll need to vary your approach, depending on your child’s maturity level. Briefer comments will help younger kids stop to think, while detailed questions will help older kids work through their thoughts.

Either way, always challenge kids to see all stories in light of God’s true story. Help them think and imagine how only our true Hero, Christ, can give us what we need.

E. Stephen Burnett

E. Stephen Burnett creates sci-fi and fantasy as well as nonfiction, such as The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ (coauthored with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore, from New Growth Press). Stephen explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as publisher of Lorehaven.com and cohost of the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24