Elf and Cross-Cultural Issues

This Christmas season, you will watch the film “Elf” at least 37 times. Or, perhaps the opportunity to watch it will present itself as many times a day. As I write this, it’s playing in the background of my home. And why not? It’s charming, humorous, and a perfect showcase for Will Farrell’s comedy. Great stuff indeed. However, did you know that “Elf” is among the most brilliant depictions of cross-cultural issues available?

No really…and stop laughing at me.

The tension of cross-cultural interaction is this. Two people, from different cultural customs (be they familial, ethnic, or religious customs) live, work, and interact alongside one another. Their cultural norms appear bizarre, or uncomfortable to the other person.  Inevitably, people clash. When things appear “abnormal,” a common reaction is fear, stereotyping, joking, or otherwise harmful behavior. As much as Christianity is about inclusion thanks to the gospel message, we often struggle deeply in this area (our vast number of denominations serving as one of many proofs).

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A Little Elfin Wisdom

Our family will be stirring in the kitchen—the twins will be making their school lunches, and I'll be in the middle of my bleary-eyed coffee-making ritual—and in the dreariness of that morning moment, my son Justin will suddenly belt out in a loud and chipper voice, "I'm singing!  I'm singing!  I'm in a store and I'm singing....!"

Around my house this time of year, the one movie that gets quoted more than any other is "Elf."  Starring James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, and a surprisingly PG-rated Will Ferrell in the title role, the movie exudes elfin charm, wide-eyed innocence, and more than a knowing wink-and-nod to the traditional Christmas classics.  Besides "Napoleon Dynamite," it may be the most quotable movie ever.  My kids and I will randomly throw out quotes at each other over dinner, during chores, or even while playing Madden.  

One of the things I like about the movie is that there is this clumsy and naive, yet unrestrained moral anchor that underpins the central character.  In contrast to the soiled and unsafe world of New York City, Buddy the Elf's morality seems quaint and old-fashioned, but ultimately—and in Hollywood fashion—wins everyone over in the end. 

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