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Fear, Escape, and a Good End -- The Christmas Present of I Am David

by Dr. Marc T. Newman
December 10, 2004
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(AgapePress) - Ever since I picked up and read my grandfather's copy of A Christmas Carol, I recognized the need for any good holiday story to have hidden, dark undertones. There is an undeniable seriousness to the Christmas season. Certainly it is a time to sing carols and to rejoice at the coming of the Messiah, but we must not fall into what cultural critic Richard Weaver calls "hysterical optimism" -- often represented by the Rudolph and candy cane crowd. Weaver knew that the recognition of tragedy was the necessary foundation for the understanding of redemption. That is why The Polar Express needed the Lonely Boy and the problem of unbelief in order to work its magic. It is also why the film I Am David is a welcome entry this holiday season.

I Am David tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy trapped in a Bulgarian forced-labor camp during the Cold War. Singled out by a sadistic guard, David finds that he must escape or die. And it is the riveting tale of his escape, and his journey from imprisonment to freedom, which provide the filmgoer with a metaphor for life -- the kind of metaphor which is so compelling at this introspective time of year. While David is in a literal prison, the Bible says that everyone is enslaved and that there exists only one way out. And once we are out, there is no promise that the path to our destination will be easy. There are enemies without, and enemies within. We are only promised aid along the way, and that, if we are faithful, we will make it home.

Freedom is the desire of the human heart. That is why heaviness lays on our land. Even though we are the richest nation on the planet, researchers report that we are unhappy. But researchers looking with empirical eyes will never be able to detect spiritual maladies. We are unhappy because we are in bondage. We have been given instructions from Someone who sees our true condition. But we must choose to act -- to have the courage to flee from the kingdom of the oppressed to the Kingdom of God.

When we are introduced to David, he is enslaved in a labor camp. Any attempt to flee is doomed to fail. How then is a boy to do what no man has yet accomplished? He has to have help -- someone who knows everything about the camp and who can lead him. When the film opens, David is receiving detailed instructions in escape. Every move is described, every moment accounted for -- even David's ultimate destination, Denmark, is specified. David has all of the information he needs to get away. Only one thing is needed -- the will to act.

As David moves from cover to cover, we move with him. When he is nearly discovered, we hold our breath. Finally, he faces the electrified fence and the moment of truth. Was his confederate honest? If the fence is turned off, David can scramble over it and move to the cover of the woods. But if the fence remains live, David's first touch will be his last. With only 30 seconds to spare, David commits.

The Road
If freedom were merely the result of escape, I Am David would be a short rather than a feature film. Escape from bondage is never the end of the story. The Apostle Paul had his epiphany on the road to Damascus, but he was led blind to Ananias, and reports that throughout his life he was in danger from without by perils and from within by false brothers. Jesus tells the story of the good field of wheat that an enemy sows with tares. Both grow up together, and even appear to be the same for a time. It is only at the end that they can be safely separated. In a dangerous world, who can we trust?

This is David's dilemma. Living in a labor camp, he has learned to be guarded. Told that the world outside is a dangerous place, filled with people who would capture him and return him to the camp, David is nearly paranoid. His story is the mirror image of the parable of the tares. He needs to learn to identify the wheat; instead he sees enemies everywhere. The most innocent questions from the adults he encounters along the road about his parents, or where he lives, appear to David an interrogation destined to involve the authorities and a return to bondage.

But slowly, when he cuts a deal for passage with a sailor, when he receives the delightful attentions of Maria, a young girl whose life he has saved, he discovers that there is some good in the world. Having been trapped in a wholly evil place, the discovery of good is a two-edged sword. Now that he recognizes it, he is pained to realize that he is unworthy of it.

It is the paradox of heaven that only those who recognize that they are too sinful to enter its holy gates ever have the hope of arriving there. It is not the religious Pharisee that Jesus points to as an example for his disciples, but the remorseful tax collector who cried to God for mercy. Peril precedes redemption.

It would be easy to think that after experiencing the horrors of the camp, David might assume that he had suffered enough. When a wealthy man takes David into his home after David saves the life of his daughter, David is given clean clothes, hot meals, and a luxurious room. His wounds are mended, and he is served by the household staff. But David is haunted by a sacrifice, made on his behalf, by a friend in the camp. As David sits in a warm bath, he remembers that his friend lies dead -- having paid the price to redeem David from a foolish act. David leaves the house, saying that he no longer believes that he deserves anything good. And it is that humility which makes the offer of grace both possible, and profound.

Coming Home
When we are in trouble on the road, God offers aid. It comes from His Word, if we have it to hand. Sometimes He may engineer circumstances, but most often help comes in the form of other people. God commands His people to practice hospitality because there are so many people bruised by the world. They need a place of compassion where they can regain strength for the journey.

David's help comes in the form of Sophie -- a grandmotherly Swiss painter that David comes across in his journey north. Unlike the other adults who were intent on "fixing" David, Sophie is interested in knowing David. She begins by painting her impressions of him. She helps him across the Italian border into Switzerland. She tells David the truth -- that there is evil in the world, and sometimes it is hard to recognize, but that there is good also, and we must be willing to risk trust. She shares with David her time, her food, her treasures, her history, her tragedy, her pet, and her home. Sophie is the safe haven, the helper. She does not provoke David to action -- she evokes his yearning for home, and stands ready to deliver when his call comes.

The Good End
David's redemption from death to life moves us because it reflects our own deepest desires. Even as children, J.R.R. Tolkien tells us, the fairy stories which most captivate us involve escape, a journey, and a good end. Adults long for escape and a good end as much as children, perhaps even more so, since they are more acutely aware of the fleeting nature of life. I Am David is a fictional representation of that journey of escape and consolation. Christians, who know the true bondage the world represents, who possess the directions for escape, who know the Helper, and who have the hope of heaven, should take a cue from this fictional film. Even in the midst of the light of the Christmas season, our world is filled with Davids struggling to find their way in the dark. God has sent us out to find them, show the way, and lead the willing home.

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. ( is the president of -- an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.

I Am David (Rating: PG), which opened in American theaters on December 3, is currently in limited release. It has won numerous film festival awards for best picture, best actor, best actress, and best director.

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