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When Bad Things Happen to Good Sheep

A new animated movie charmingly wrestles with one of Jewish theology’s thorniest questions

Liel Leibovitz
August 21, 2015
Courtesy of Optimum Releasing/Studio Canal
A still from ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie.’Courtesy of Optimum Releasing/Studio Canal
Courtesy of Optimum Releasing/Studio Canal
A still from ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie.’Courtesy of Optimum Releasing/Studio Canal

One of the most theologically profound films in recent memory is now playing in a theater near you. Torn from their verdant Eden and tossed into a dark dungeon, its characters must secure not only their freedom but their faith, as their Lord and protector turns his back on their ordeal. The movie is a fine example of theodicy, or the effort to explain why an ever-loving, omnipotent Creator would ever allow harm to be visited on his flock. And I mean flock literally: The movie’s protagonists are a bunch of sheep.

Created by Nick Park, the stop-motion visionary behind Aardman Animations, Shaun the Sheep made his debut in 1995, a guest star in the Academy Award-winning short featuring Park’s best-known creations, Wallace and Gromit. Resourceful, responsible, and cheery, Shaun was a scene-stealer, and by 2007 he was rewarded with his own show, comprised of seven-minute-long episodes and revolving around life on the bucolic Mossy Bottom Farm. Neither the animals nor the people speak, and the action revolves around delightful physical set-ups, like a comical attempt to fix the barn’s leaky roof or rein in a ravenous goat.

Translating such a sweetly simple premise to the big screen was a challenge; to meet it, Shaun the Sheep Movie , released earlier this month, sent its protagonists on a long day’s journey into night, starting out in their familiar farm and ending up in the big city. It’s all madcap fun for a while, but when the farmer bonks his head and loses his memory, the animals lose their lord and shepherd. To make matters worse, Shaun and Bitzer, the farmer’s dog, are captured and placed in a dark pound with some of the animal kingdom’s worst, including a feline channeling his inner Hannibal Lecter and more than one homicidal-looking mutt.

They escape, of course, and find a way to jog their master’s memory, which means that young viewers can cheer on the triumph of what the film’s trailer cleverly calls wool power. But to the theologically minded among us, this tale of sentient beings eager to connect with a superior who had forsaken them might resonate more deeply.

Why do terrible things happen to good sheep? The Bible offers divergent attempts at an answer, most of which revolve around the divine need to mold the moral material of his earthly creations. Granted free will, these sinful beings must err in the wilderness before they’re permitted into the promised land. Like silly children, they often behave outrageously, and the Heavenly Father, merciful as he may be, has no choice but to punish them. A few smitings, a handful of war, a touch of pestilence—these are the things that shape the souls of men.

Early Catholic theologians followed a similar line of argument, believing that the world existed, to borrow Keats’ neat phrase, as “a vale of soul-making” and that suffering made it possible for mortals to grow more godlike. But Augustine, the most magnificent of all early theologians and the author of the doctrine of grace, had grimmer thoughts: God, he reasoned, was perfect; it was us, tainted by the original sin, who were born of corruptible seed. The only way to remain good was to bask in God’s life, which was made possible by virtue of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.

This attitude remained dominant for centuries, trickling from Augustine to Aquinas and from Aquinas to John Calvin. But with a few notable exceptions here and there, the question did not prove in urgent need of revisiting until the chimney stacks of Auschwitz grew cold and theologians, many Jewish but some not, began to ask themselves how, in the aftermath of such colossal evil, might one still make an argument for God.

Some, like Emmanuel Levinas, himself a concentration camp survivor, argued that the very question was outrageous; genocide, Levinas thundered, wasn’t God’s making but man’s, and if we cared for each other and stood vigilant we could, all by our own powers, prevent the next bloodshed. It’s a potent answer, but it necessitates strong moral agency and presupposes men, not sheep. Sadly, too often, that’s just not us. We’re closer to Shaun than we are to Levinas’ fiery soul. We may be good, and we may be kind, but too often we find ourselves lost in a big city, feeling like the big guy has temporarily forgotten that we exist.

That, more or less, was Martin Buber’s argument. God, Buber suggested, was like the sun, always incandescent but occasionally eclipsed from human view. When darkness falls, we’ve no choice but to await the reappearance of the familiar warm rays; when they come, they carry with them an invitation to reconsider our relationship to the divine. Most of Buber’s argument was constructed, both before and after the Holocaust, as a meditation on the Book of Job. The Bible’s man of constant sorrows, Buber wrote, found himself in a stalemate with the Lord and instead emerged with something more tenable: religion.

“Instead of his God, for whom he looks in vain, his God, who had not only put sufferings upon him but had also ‘hedged him in’ until ‘His way was hid’ from his eyes … there now came and visited him on his ash heap religion, which uses every act of speech to take away from him the God of his soul,” Buber wrote of Job. “Instead of the ‘cruel’ and living God, to whom he clings, religion offers him a reasonable and rational God, a deity whom he, Job, does not perceive either in his own existence or in the world, and who obviously is not to be found anywhere save only in the very domain of religion.”

And religion, like the law, cannot be followed privately. It’s a collective undertaking. Job, Buber writes, isn’t one man; “Behind this [Job’s] ‘I,’ there stands the ‘I’ of Israel.” Disaster leads to revelation. Revelation leads to rebirth. Rebirth requires community.

Just ask Shaun the Sheep: The movie, like the series, is a testament to teamwork. In one particularly masterful scene, the sheep, hot on the farmer’s trail, pile up two or three tall, put on human clothes, and waddle into a fancy restaurant, doing their best to mimic the manners of the other diners. They fail miserably, of course, but they fail together, and, eventually, they succeed.

Which, if you think about it, is a pretty good working definition of the Jewish notion of redemption. We’ve no savior, no grace, and no permission to assume that the Great Farmer in the Sky has abandoned us, even if he is temporarily indisposed to hear our cries of help. We have faith, and we have each other, and, blissfully, we have a small and sunny sheep to show us that we can ask for no better theology.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.