Monday, March 23, 2015

Sermon: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Luke 6:37-45 (July 27, 2014)


As potential Disney movies go, Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is not generally the first work that comes to mind. I read the book back in Middle School, and the one thing that I remember about it is how gloomy, violent, and depressing it was. But, for whatever reason, someone working for the Mouse decided in 1996 that this novel was going to be the inspiration for the next big children’s blockbuster. Disney took dramatic creative license in the retelling of Hugo’s work, toning down most of the darker themes and giving the story a classically “Disney” ending in lieu of the “everybody dies” technique preferred by Hugo.

If you’re having a hard time recalling this movie, you’re not alone. Hunchback was commercially disappointing, and short-lived in popular culture. As a member of Disney’s target audience at that time (I was 10) I don’t remember being terribly impressed. But then, perhaps this is a fitting legacy for a movie about outcasts.

Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is primarily about Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer referenced in the title. In his infancy, Quasimodo’s gypsy mother was killed by the city’s judge, Claude Frollo, a man who, according to narration, “longed to purge the world of vice and sin/And he saw corruption everywhere except within.” However, when the archdeacon of Notre Dame confronts Frollo about the murder, he begrudgingly agrees to raise the child as a ward, on the condition that the hunchback remain locked away in the cathedral.

Fast forward twenty years; Quasimodo spends his days cloistered in the bell tower, since Frollo has told him repeatedly that his deformity is “a crime for which the world shows little pity.” Nevertheless, Quasimodo dreams of living in the heart of Paris among its people, especially once he meets the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda on an illicit excursion outside of the cathedral.

As the movie progresses, a love quadrilateral begins to form. The timid Quasimodo falls in love with Esmeralda, the pious Frollo battles with his feelings of lust for her, and Esmeralda herself develops a relationship with the heroic Phoebus, the former captain of Frollo’s army who rebels upon discovering the judge’s questionable morals. Ultimately, Frollo’s lust overtakes him, and he comes to believe that he must destroy Esmeralda to save himself from her “witchcraft.” Following Quasimodo to the gypsys’ camp, Frollo arrests everyone he finds there and burns Esmeralda at the stake. However, Quasimodo and Phoebus are able to work together to rescue Esmeralda and free the gypsies. In true Disney fashion, Frollo dies in the scuffle, although not at the hands of any of our heroes, the attractive couple winds up together, and Quasimodo is ultimately accepted in society.

As I mentioned previously, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is, at its core, a film about outcasts. This theme is emphasized when Esmeralda sings a prayer in the cathedral, pleading, “God Help the Outcasts, or nobody will.” It’s pretty clear who the outcasts are meant to be in this story, but for the sake of argument, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Merriam-Webster defines an outcast as “someone who is not accepted by other people.” Simple as that. Jesus had a lot to say about these types of people, first and foremost, of course, that we must love and care for them.

But instead of telling you what you already know about the proper attitude towards outcasts, I want to take a minute to talk about good guys and bad guys. Bear with me. As children, the good guy/bad guy dichotomy is one of the first elements of storytelling that we learn, and Disney movies unabashedly capitalize on this. The idea of a typical good guy or bad guy is so well established that most of us will use essentially the same characteristics to describe a hero or to describe a villain. Take a moment to recall what a stock hero or a stock villain is like. Heroes are the people who care of the outcasts, and sometimes are outcasts themselves—a special breed of hero that we call “underdogs.” Villains, on the other hand, are generally the ones doing the outcasting, excluding certain people or groups of people for their own nefarious purposes. We are well-trained to boo and hiss when they appear on screen. And we definitely know enough to pick them out when we see a bad guy in real life.

But here is where I think Hunchback takes us a little deeper than other Disney movies. These characters don’t fit as neatly into our standard “good guy/bad guy” categories as we might expect them to. The heroes are far from cookie-cutter Disney princes and princesses. True, Phoebus is more or less what we might expect: handsome, strong, clever, kind-hearted—in general, a credit to society. However, Esmeralda—who is a hero in her own right, despite needing to be saved on occasion—is less conventional. She’s beautiful, good, emotionally strong, and every bit as clever as Phoebus, but as a gypsy and a woman, she is disenfranchised—an outcast herself—and therefore overlooked by many. Quasimodo, of course, is the least traditionally “heroic” of the cast. Unattractive by almost all standards, shy, timid, perhaps even cowardly at times, his good heart is about the only thing that alerts us to the fact that he is a hero and not merely an object of pity—that, and the fact that the movie title is about him.

However, in spite of the unconventional heroes in Hunchback, I am most fascinated by the character of Claude Frollo. While he is clearly set up to be the antagonist of the movie, he’s unlike the other Disney villains that we’ve encountered during this sermon series. He’s not a power-hungry schemer like Scar, or an evil sorcerer like Jafar, or a greedy politician like Ratcliffe. In fact, he is a spiritual leader—a pious judge in the movie, but an archdeacon in Victor Hugo’s original novel—a pillar of the community! We’re all familiar with the corrupted leader cliché, but this type of antagonist is different from your typical bad guy. While most Disney villains are pretty much pure, unadulterated evil, the “corrupted leader” villain—and, in my experience, most real-life villains—give off more of a “good guy gone bad” vibe when you try to see things from their point of view.

Throughout the movie, Frollo is internally conflicted, unlike his evil brethren, whose motivations seem to be unwaveringly focused on, well, evil. He is much more like the “bad guys” that we encounter in the real world. When Frollo sings his soliloquy, “Hellfire,” we gain some insight as to what’s going on in his head. He acknowledges his struggle with his lust for Esmeralda as well as his dependence on God for deliverance—ideas that most of us can relate to, or at least understand. We see that Frollo does not want evil things for the sake of evil. In fact, he generally wants admirable things—to follow God, to resist temptation, and to make Paris into a holy city—but the problem, and what transforms him from misguided leader to bad guy is, in Christian author C.S. Lewis’ terms, “…pursuing [these otherwise good things] by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much.”[1]

The key here is to understand that even though Frollo clearly seems to us to be in the wrong, he does not understand himself that way at all. Where we might see evil, he sees in himself a man trying to do his best in a world that scorns God’s law. A world where he does not experience love because others don’t understand him. A world in which he, too, is an outcast. See, outcasts are not only victims of circumstance or those who are unfairly judged for situations out of their control. They include those who contribute to their own outcasting, intentionally or not. They can be people who hold unpopular opinions, those who don’t have social skills, or those who are so convinced that their view is the only legitimate one that it’s impossible to hold a civil conversation with them.

Ironically, sometimes those who do the most outcasting of others can be outcasts themselves. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day fall into this category. Fundamentalist sects from many religious traditions of today also fit this description. It can feel impossible to pray for these people, let alone love them. Surely Jesus doesn’t mean for us to accept them. They bring it on themselves. They’re so clearly wrong, they don’t deserve our attention. They harm others, so it can’t really be so bad for us to ignore them. They’re jerks. Right? It is in this company of outcasts that Judge Frollo dwells.

Oh, but irony is a cruel mistress. Because I would imagine that this type of thinking is exactly what makes men and women like Frollo who they are. So now the tough question: how often do we neglect those in this second category of outcasts? In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus instructs us not to judge, so that we also might not be judged. Full stop. At no point does he add, “…except for the really unlikeable people.” Christ doesn’t work in caveats.

Furthermore, Jesus anticipates our reaction. He reminds us that we are predisposed to a particular kind of blindness regarding those we perceive as wrong. Even as we seek to “fix” these people by removing the speck from their eyes (notice, I did not say “help” or “understand,” because rarely is our motivation to honestly help this type of outcast) we are completely oblivious to the log in our own eye. We are constantly looking at others through log-tinted lenses, so to speak. So again I ask, how ironic is it that we judge Frollo for judging Esmeralda and Quasimodo?

So we are left with a charge to care even for this special category of outcasts without judgment. But I must caution you that this is not something that we can resolve to do once and consider ourselves to be in scriptural compliance. I am reminded of this fact every time I log into Facebook. I like to consider myself a level-headed person who is always open to new ideas, but the truth is that I, like many others, tend to surround myself with people who think just like me. When I encounter someone whose views are different from mine, whether in politics, religion, or anything else—which, let’s face it, happens every several seconds on the internet—my first instinct is to gape at how “backwards” they are and to mentally condemn their perspective in harsh language. Worst of all, without even flinching, I put on my log-lenses. I refuse to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, I’m missing something bigger about myself in my eagerness to point out how outrageous their ideas are.

The funny thing is, though, the few times that I stop and make the effort to recognize the log in my own eye, the urgency of getting that darn speck out of my neighbor’s eye becomes far less significant, and my entire approach becomes more compassionate, almost by accident. What if Phoebus had tried to discover why Frollo found the gypsies so appalling, instead of reacting in the brash manner that we expect from our “heroes”? Perhaps he might have been able to finally understand Frollo’s motivations, as twisted as they were, and maybe Frollo, finally having an invitation to fully consider and articulate his actions, would have seen things in a different light…or maybe not. But by charging into the fray without removing the lumber from their respective eyes, without seeking the full picture, they never even had that chance. As it is, with the black and white “hero/villain” paradigm and the log-tinted lenses glued firmly in place, everyone suffered violence, heightened conflict, and undue emotional turmoil. Great for a movie plot; painful in real life.

As much as we hate to admit it, only God can see the whole picture. We are limited, biased creatures, and we willfully handicap ourselves by ignoring some things and choosing not to consider others. So I challenge you to try removing the log from your eye in your everyday interactions with others. Who is the “outcast” that you discount for being a “bad guy”? Who is the “other” that you vilify? Is he a religious extremist? Is she a pacifist? A Democrat? A Republican? Pro-life? Pro-choice? A feminist? A member of the 1%? A Capitalist? A Socialist? I could go on and on. In our world of sin and selfishness, everyone is a bad guy to someone. But Jesus reminds us that it doesn’t have to be that way, that God doesn’t want that for us.

So this week, I encourage you to take a personal inventory. Find out who is the Claude Frollo in your life. Hold yourself accountable. Know that it is okay to discover that you have neglected these outcasts. What is not okay is refusing to remove your log-tinted lens once you recognize them for what they are. Trade them in for Christ-tinted lenses. I promise that it will make the world a much brighter place. Amen.

[1] Mere Christianity, p. 44.

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