The world outside—it’s a dangerous place. Stick with Christian community. Where it’s safe.
I have received that message—sometimes blatant, sometimes merely implied—within so many Christian communities from childhood through adulthood. I’ve been instructed to read only Christian texts, attend only Christian schools, support only Christian charities, seek out Christian doctors, root for Christian football players, heed only Christian music, and beware of “secular” influences. Last week, in response to my Christianity Today review of Arrival, some readers warned me that my soul was in jeopardy for seeking wisdom in a Hollywood movie. Once, on a Sunday morning, I carried my heavy heart down to the beach for some solitude and prayer, and a pastor later scolded me for choosing to spend time in nature (“an unreliable source of God’s wisdom”) instead of within God’s house. Stay inside. Where it’s safe.
Brendan, the young ninth-century hero in the 2007 animated feature The Secret of Kells, has learned similar lessons. Monstrous marauders are on the march, seeking to slay anyone in their path. And the woods are full of pagan forces. Stay inside, says Brendan’s guardian. Be safe.
So begins this extraordinary animated film. The Secret of Kells might be a rewarding choice for your family during the Christmas season. It’s bursting with imagination, music, inspiring characters, and a celebration of a holy book that brings light into the darkness.
Here’s the story:
Brendan is the inquisitive nephew of Cellach, the abbot overseeing the Monastery of Kells. Cellach is directing construction of a massive wall around their monastery which he hopes will save them from advancing Viking hordes called “Northmen.” Insulated against the outside world, Brendan recites his uncle’s warnings that these killers “make no distinction between young and old.”
And it’s no lie: Northmen are pillaging villages and spilling blood in their search for gold. Still, the monks quietly worry about Abbot Cellach’s obsession with the wall. And Brendan, despite his fears, cannot resist those breaks in the wall, those glimpses of a meaningful world beyond. He’s starved for beauty, for the unpredictable designs of God’s creation that resist the strict, straight lines of certainty. He’s thirsty for mystery.
When he finds a mentor in Brother Aidan, a renowned artist of illuminated manuscripts, his conviction “fails.” Aidan is crafting a masterpiece—The Book of Kells—and he needs some special berries from the forest. They’re the secret ingredient of an ink essential for the “most glorious page” of this book: the “Chi ro” page.
The movie doesn’t spell this out for viewers, but “Chi ro” is Greek for the first two letters in “Christ.” Brendan is being asked, in essence, if he can help bring Jesus’ name to life.
And so he breaks the rules. In the woods, he meets a mischievous faerie named Aisling, a tour guide to the forest’s forbidden splendor, and to a new appreciation of God’s glory.