Death of a Wild Thing
Russell D. Moore on Maurice Sendak & the Horror of a Domesticated Gospel
Maurice Sendak was, by all accounts, a lonely, misanthropic, cynical, homosexual atheist. But he managed, with his dozens of children's books, to unite a generation around a sense of wonder and creativity. When I heard, a few days ago as I write this, that he died, I lamented not only his passing, but all that he has to teach a church he never embraced.
Sendak's most famous work, of course, is his children's book Where the Wild Things Are. It's about a boy named Max, who is sent to his room for telling his mother he'll eat her up. My sons love this story. Whenever I read it, they start shifting around in their seats as they hear about his room becoming a forest, and about his encountering scary, teeth-baring "wild things."
My boys aren't unusual. I loved that story as much as they do, when I was their age. And when I talk to people about my age, I find that this book has struck, and strikes, a particular resonance with at least two generations of American children, no matter what their racial, social, economic, or religious backgrounds. The root of that lies, I think, in the fact that Sendak had a more realistic view of evil than many Christians do, at least when it comes to our children.
Wildness Without & Within
Sendak said that the "wild things" originated with his fear and loathing of his grownup extended family, and their trying to hug and kiss him and "eat him up." But I think there's more to it than that, more that causes this story to persist.
If, as both ancient and contemporary wisdom tells us, stories exist to help us categorize our fears and aspirations, then "wild" children's stories remind us of what we see everywhere in human art, from cave paintings to country music to the Cannes Film Festival. We're afraid of the wildness "out there" in the scary universe around us. Whether we fear saber-toothed tigers or Wall Street collapse or malaria or our parents' impending divorce, there are frightening, threatening forces out there that seem outside our control.
But Sendak also, at least in his artistic imagination, recognized something the Christian revelation tells us clearly. Worse than what's "out there" is the uncontrollable "wildness" inside of us, those passions and desires and rages and longings and sorrows within our psyches that seem to be even scarier because they're so hidden, so close, and so much at the core of who we are. The wildness within us doesn't seem to end, either. It just morphs throughout one's lifetime: from toddler-age tantrums to teenage hormones to midlife crises to, well, sometimes a lonely, cynical elderly person facing death.
A Dark Book for a Dark Universe
At the end of Wild Things, the book puts the rambunctious hero right back in his own room after the journey is over. It's the same room his mother had sent him off to, for his wildness, without his supper. But after his time with the wild things, he finds his supper waiting for him. "And it was still hot," the book concludes.
At the time the book was published, the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim said the scary nature of the story wasn't found with the wild things at all. It was found in the "time out" in the room itself. Being sent to one's room alone, and without food, he argued, represents desertion, the worst threat a child can face. And maybe that's what Sendak feared the most.
It's one thing for psychiatrists to be fussy about such things, but I'm amazed when Christians are. Some wag their heads at books such as Wild Things. They complain about how "dark" books like these are. Of course they're "dark." Isn't that what the gospel is here to tell us? The universe is dark; dark enough to be overcome only by the Light of Galilee. Until we learn to communicate this to our children with winsomeness and gravity, Maurice Sendak will seem more realistic than Sunday school or catechism class.
Too many of our Bible study and discipleship materials (whether for Baptist Vacation Bible School or Roman Catholic confirmation preparation or what have you) de-claw the Bible. They excise all the snakes and dragons and wildness. In so doing, they reduce the Bible to a set of ethical guidelines and a text on how gentle and kind Jesus is.
The problem is, our kids know there are monsters out there. God put that awareness in them. They're looking for a sheep-herding dragon-slayer, for the One who can put all the wild things under his feet. Until we can address, with gospel honesty, what scares our children—and ourselves—we can never get to the joyous wild rumpus of gospel freedom.
Reined In & Reigned Over
Like children frightened by wild things, we retreat backward into the "spirit of slavery" and so "fall back into fear" (Rom. 8:15). The gospel, though, reminds us, all life long, that we have One who has gone ahead "as a forerunner" (Heb. 6:20). We hear a voice telling us to be "strong and courageous" for "I will not leave you or forsake you" (Josh. 1:5), no matter how wild we feel inside. He's the only one with the authority to tell the devils who accuse us to "be gone."
The kind of story Sendak intuited is part of a larger fabric, the knowledge that the wildness both "out there" and "in here" needs to be governed. The wildness needs to be reined in, and reigned over. We need a king, and we need to be part of his kingdom. After all, Max only gains power over his "wild things" when he gains self-control, control that comes with his being named "king of all of the wild things."
I don't know what happened in Sendak's life in the moments just before his death. But I hope that maybe, just maybe, he found that One who alone was able to do what Sendak imagined for that little boy in his story: to look wildness right in the eye, and to become king over it with a word. The Word came into the world, and the wildness did not overcome it. •
Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.