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John’s Two-Level Drama and Toy Story 3

January 29, 2013

I’m currently writing a little book on reading the Gospel of John which is intentionally geared toward non-specialists in the field of biblical studies (what I am sometimes uncomfortably forced to call “laypeople”). Most of the illustrations I have used in the book so far come directly out of my teaching. I have just begun the chapter on reading John as a two-level drama and I had a new revelation about my experience with the Toy Story franchise. Specifically, I had an epiphany about how watching that movie corresponds to the understanding of a “two-level drama” that I am trying to relay. Here it is:

In the summer of 2010 my wife and I took our three children (at the time, aged 10, 8, and 5) to the movie theater to see Toy Story 3. Given the differences in their ages, it can sometimes be difficult to find a movie all three will want to see, but this was a rare exception. Honestly, the two of us were probably as excited as our children to see the final chapter in the story of Andy and his toys. We had been exposed to the first two movies around 2001 and had fallen in love with the story and its characters. Over the first decade of our parenting career we had watched both films numerous times with each of our children. That day, as a family of five we sat anxiously in the theater, waiting for the film to start. It was probably the first time that each one of us was equally excited to see the same movie—a rarity indeed, if you have watched much programming aimed at the entire family.

The Toy Story franchise follows the adventures of Andy and his toys, a mixed bag of animate playthings led by Woody, the grounded cowboy who serves as the de facto leader of the bunch, and Buzz Lightyear, the occasionally delusional but always entertaining space ranger. The first two movies provide snapshots into different stages of Andy’s adolescence and reckon with the ever present reality that one day Andy will no longer need his toys. As the third film begins, Andy is a fully grown teenager preparing to leave for college; the entire movie is driven by the anticipation of Andy’s departure into the adventures of young adulthood.

In a scene toward the end of the movie, Andy’s mother walks into his empty room and releases an audible gasp. She looks around at the walls that had once been plastered with crayon drawings and Buzz Lightyear posters to see few remnants of her son’s waning childhood. She stands face-to-face with the realization that her little boy is no longer little. I am not ashamed to say that at this point in the film tears were streaming down my face. I had followed Andy’s journey from childhood to young adulthood and now I was saying goodbye to him, his room, his toys, his childhood, his innocence. But I was crying for another reason. As I sat by my oldest son, Christopher, I realized that I was not just watching the culmination of the story of Andy and his toys. I was watching the story of my own journey. As a young parent I had watched my son live vicariously through Andy’s experience. I watched him play with his own toys and wonder if they came alive whenever we left the house. That very year I had experienced, firsthand, the waning of his own adolescence as he lost his final baby tooth, jettisoned his belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and began asking for electronics rather than action figures for his birthday. I cried because I knew that all too soon, I would be standing in a similarly empty room preparing to take my son off to college. I looked over at my wife and I knew she was thinking the same thing as tears also streamed down her cheeks. For the both of us, Toy Story 3 was operating at two levels. At one level we were watching the story of Andy and his toys, while at a deeper, more visceral level, we saw a reflection our own parental journey in Andy’s move to adulthood and departure for college.

For several decades scholars have recognized that the Gospel of John is a two-level drama, operating similarly to what I have just described. At its most basic level, John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ origins, life, vocation, and death, but lurking beneath the surface is the story of the community for whom the Gospel was originally written. To say it differently, the Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus while also revealing the story of a community in crisis.

Those of you with children will, I hope, get what I’m trying to do here. I would love to hear your thoughts on this illustration (and I’d love it even more if you pick up a copy of the book when it comes out!). For those who haven’t seen the film, here’s a tease. You really should see it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Josh Barfield permalink
    January 29, 2013 5:06 pm

    Dr. Skinner,

    Thanks for this. Yet another reason why I fell in love with this Gospel, one that doesn’t get enough respect in regard to the synoptic Gospels.

    I am interested in how you interpret the other drama going on in John, primarily the drama that takes place in the life of the modern reader. As you have said before, John not only tells the story of Jesus (as well as the story of a community in crisis, as you have shown above), but also includes the reader in this drama. John tells the story of Jesus is an way that is inclusive to the reader, where the reader is just as much a character in the drama as Nicodemus and Judas. Namely, we are also responsible for Jesus’ death, are affected by Jesus’ resurrection, and actually become “children of God,” as the prologue suggests. So, John is telling Jesus’ story, which, in an awesome way, is also our story.

    Taking all of this into account, would you say there is a three-fold drama taking place in the Gospel of John?

    • January 29, 2013 5:49 pm

      Yes, Josh. I think you have hit the nail on the head. Narrative critics call this “the world in front of the text” and in light of your comment, I may need to slightly re-envision how I write the chapter. Thanks for weighing in! Hope all is well at Duke.

  2. January 30, 2013 9:39 pm


    I haven’t seen any of the Toy Story movies, but I think this illustration and the way you’ve explained it works really well.

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