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In this visually bombastic age where smartphones and selfies are our culture’s ubiquitous ornaments, a film like The Book Thief comes as a much-needed reminder of the value of stories, of books, of words, and of life itself.
The film, based on the New York Times bestseller by Marcus Zusak, and directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey and North and South), tells the tale of 10-year-old Leisel Meminger, whose mother, fleeing Nazi persecution, sends Leisel and her little brother to live with foster parents in Germany in the years prior to World War II.
On the journey to their new home, the little boy dies, leaving Leisel alone in the world. The themes of loss and dying pervade the PG-13 film, with Death himself acting as the narrator. Some might find this morbid, but Zusak’s Death character is not as much the Grim Reaper as he is a Dickensian spirit who observes the comings and goings of man and takes them out of the world when they complete the full number of their days.
Death is not the star of this show; little Leisel and her love for books is. When she arrives at the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Leisel is in shock from the death of her brother and loss of her mother. She cries herself to sleep every night, clutching a little book.
Her foster father, Hans, with small acts of kindness, slowly brings Leisel out of her sorrow. He quickly realizes she can’t read and offers to teach her if she’ll help him be a better reader too. Together they go through the booklet she keeps beside her at night—The Grave Digger’s Handbook—a book she stole from the graveyard when her little brother was buried.
Each time Leisel encounters a new word, she writes it in the “dictionary” Hans made for her. Little do they know that these words, and Leisel’s love for them, would minister to a young Jewish man named Max, who comes to Hans for shelter from the Nazis. Max tells her that his religion teaches that “words are life itself.”
Christians should heartily agree. In the Old Testament, God creates language and then uses words to communicate His character and eternality to His chosen people (I AM). In John 1:1-5, He uses the title “the Word” to express His incarnation. And in James 3, we learn that words, as articulated by the tongue, hold the power of life and death.
Words are life, particularly when used in a story. If God used the story form (the Bible) to communicate His love and redemption to His people and Christ used the story form (parables) to transmit specific truths about God’s kingdom, there must be something inherently powerful about it.
Nevertheless, popular wisdom in the church holds that if you have an hour to read, it should be spent on instructional literature or books of theology. Christian hipsters need to relearn what older generations of Christians knew well, that stories are not an extravagance or indulgence. They make us more human. They transmit values and morality. They broaden our horizons. They bring us hope.
Stories, as we poignantly discover in The Book Thief, are life itself.