What Maurice Sendak Can Teach the Church
Maurice Sendak, who just died, doesn’t seem, at first glance, to have much to teach Christians. After all, he was an atheist with a cynical outlook and a foul mouth. But underneath all of that, I think, Sendak saw something of the fallen glory of the universe we followers of Jesus sometimes ignore.
Sendak’s most famous work, of course, is his children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. It’s about a boy named Max, who is sent to his room for telling his mother he’ll eat her up. My sons love this story. Whenever I read it, they start shifting around in their seats as they hear about his room becoming a forest, about his encountering scary, teeth-baring “wild things.”
My boys aren’t unusual. I loved that story as much as they did, when I was their age. And when I talk to people about my age, I find that this book struck, and strikes, a particular resonance with at least two generations of American children, no matter what their racial, social, economic, or religious backgrounds.
Sendak said that the “wild things” originated with his fear and loathing of his grownup extended family, trying to hug and kiss him and “eat him up.” But I think there’s more to it than that, more that causes this story to persist.
If, as both ancient and contemporary wisdom tells us, stories exist to help us categorize our fears and aspirations, then “wild” children’s stories remind us of what we see everywhere in human art, from cave paintings to country music to the Cannes Film Festival. We’re afraid of the wildness “out there” in the scary universe around us. Whether we fear saber-toothed tigers or Wall Street collapse or malaria or our parent’s impending divorce, there are frightening, threatening forces out there that seem outside our control.
But Sendak also, at least in his artistic imagination, also recognized something the Christian revelation tells us clearly. Worse than what’s “out there” is the uncontrollable “wildness” inside of us, those passions and desires and rages and longings and sorrows within our psyches that seem to be even scarier because they’re so hidden, so close, and so much at the core of who we are. The wildness within us doesn’t seem to end, either. It just morphs throughout the life-cycle from toddler-age tantrums to teenage hormones to midlife crises to, well, sometimes, a lonely, cynical elderly person facing death.
The kind of story Sendak intuited is part of a larger fabric, the knowledge that the wildness both out there and in here needs to be governed. The wildness needs to be reined in, and reigned in. We need a king, and we need to be part of a kingdom. After all, Max only gains power over his “wild things” when he gains self-control, control that comes with his being named “king of all of the wild things”
I don’t know what happened in Sendak’s life in those moments before death. But I hope maybe, just maybe, he found that One who alone was able to do what Sendak imagined for that little boy in his story: to look wildness right in the eye, and to become king over it with a word. The Word came into the world, and the wildness did not overcome it.
At the end of the Wild Things, the book puts the rambunctious here right back in his own room after the journey is over. It’s the same room his mother had sent him off to, for his wildness, without his supper. But after his time with the wild things, he finds his supper waiting for him. “And it was still hot,” the book concludes.
At the time the book was published, the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim said the scary nature of the story wasn’t found with the wild things at all. It was found in the “time out” in the room itself. Being sent to one’s room alone, and without food, he argued, represents desertion, the worst threat a child can face. And maybe that’s what Sendak feared the worst.
Those are the fears addressed by the gospel. Like children frightened by wild things, we retreat backward into the “spirit of slavery” and so “fall back into fear” (Romans 8:15). The gospel, though, reminds us, all life long, that we have one who has gone ahead “as a forerunner” (Hebrews 6:20). We hear a voice telling us to be “strong and courageous” for “I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5), no matter how wild you feel inside. He’s the only one with the authority to tell the devils who accuse us to “be gone.”
Maurice Sendak plumbed our ancient problem. I can only hope that, somewhere in those final moments, he saw the demon-crushing cross of Jesus. I hope he saw the one who went out beyond the gates of Jerusalem, to where the wild things are, and became king of all the wild things, forever.