The gospel according to “Coco”: on legacies and the ordinary mediocrity of grace.
I know I’m late to the game but I finally got around to watching Pixar’s 2017 epic, Coco. It’s a delightful tale, to be sure, hitting familiar beats and striking familiar chords (pun intended). The crux of the story revolves around a young Hispanic boy who gets transported into the Land of the Dead, where he must either find his long-lost great-great-grandfather or risk becoming a permanent resident among the deceased. It’s backdropped against the Mexican holiday, Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, which offers all manner of opportunity for the studio to show off their artistic flair.
Coco’s cinematic brilliance.
Knowing Pixar’s penchant for exactness, I assume their retelling of this celebration, albeit fantastical, is nonetheless an accurate representation of the culture. In any case, the richness of the heritage and the traditions seem tailor made for the studio’s attention to detail.
There’s simply no denying the cinematic brilliance of this film. For all of Coco’s otherwise predictable storytelling, Pixar brandishes its animatic genius with typical gusto. While the studio’s narratives have progressively gotten less imaginative over the years (with the exception of 2015’s Inside Out — still easily and overwhelmingly my favorite of theirs — don’t @ me), they’re still operating with unparalleled cinematic verve that spoils any perceived triumph of those “other” animation houses. Pixar’s on another level when it comes to computer-generated filmmaking, and while Coco, perhaps, won’t be as revered as previous entries in a long line of classics, any other studio would die to have a film as brilliant as this only be considered “fine.” Yet for all of Coco’s brilliance, I couldn’t help but muse upon its restless implications. Throughout the course of the film, I was overcome by a brooding sense of law. Let me explain.
Coco’s restless implications.
The movie’s primary plot centers on the tradition of the ofrendas, which are altars that adorn the gravesites of loved ones. Typically, these ofrendas are furnished with portraits and family pictures, as well as embellished with offerings of the favorite foods, beverages, and accoutrements of the departed. They’re also gilded with cempasúchil, vibrant orange Mexican marigolds, which are thought to encourage the visitation of the deceased souls to hear the prayers and remembrances of living loved ones.
The troublesome aspect of the film, though, comes as the connection is made between the legacy of the departed and their “life” in the Land of the Dead. That is to say, as long as family members decorate your grave with photos, your memory is alive and so are you. Life in the afterlife is conditioned upon the extent of your impact and measure of your significance in the Land of the Living. As the film progresses, the young boy learns firsthand what it means to truly be forgotten. He and his deceased skeleton friend traverse to a ghetto, of sorts, full of those who are on the brink of being unremembered. There they hope to acquire a guitar, which is integral to the plot, but upon meeting their source, he laments that he’s on the verge of “the final death,” as it’s called. When no one living remembers you anymore, when your photo’s no longer decorating your grave and your story’s no longer being recounted, you fade into the forgettery of this final death.
The rule is simple, then, and the message is clear: do something significant and be remembered, so that you may have a long life in the Land of the Dead. Notwithstanding the persistent skeletal likenesses that grace the screen, this edict of excellence alone makes me question whether I’d ever show it to my daughter. (Digression forthcoming.)
Our society’s edict of excellence.
There’s something within each of us that makes us think that mediocrity is equivalent to failure. If I’m not excelling, what am I doing with my life? If I’m not reaching for something higher, something beyond myself, aren’t I just wasting the time I’ve been afforded in the Land of the Living? Thus, society has laid down the law: excellence is the only bar that matters, and to pass that bar you have to be significant, you have to be perfect.
This law is felt by everyone. It’s the uneludible self-inflicted injunction. Mankind’s formative principle remains perfection and the pursuit of it, at all costs. Yes, even pagans are afflicted with reality of coming short of glory. Whether their own or a higher being’s, glory in perfection is the carrot we’re all chasing. It’s the chord we feel most comfortable strumming, even as it kills us in the process.
This law is also loud. It lectures us, urges us to always be building and climbing and improving. It demands that you live up to something, that you accomplish something, that you bring it every day and never let your days outlive your dreams. The unrelenting whisper in our ear is the law’s voice that says, “Make your life count. Be better. Strive for excellence.” Or, as Coco’s locution runs, “Seize your moment.” And for all that this law promises, it never delivers. It’s only making for more tired skeletons.
A life of lusting after legacy.
In an article entitled, “What if All I Want is a Mediocre Life?,” writer Krista O’Reilly-Davi-Digui divulges her own wrestling with the law of excellence and significance:
What if I all I want is a small, slow, simple life? What if I am most happy in the space of in between. Where calm lives. What if I am mediocre and choose to be at peace with that? . . . what if I just don’t have it in me. What if all the striving for excellence leaves me sad, worn out, depleted. Drained of joy. Am I simply not enough?
I would say that “not-enough-ness” is, in sum, man’s existential groaning for a savior. They might not acknowledge their need for salvation from eternal damnation, but the ever-present angst over a life that’s less than fulfilling remains the plague that afflicts every generation. Krista continues:
What if I never really amount to anything when I grow up . . . What if I never build an orphanage in Africa but send bags of groceries to people here and there and support a couple of kids through sponsorship. What if I just offer the small gifts I have to the world and let that be enough . . . What if I embrace my limitations and stop railing against them. Make peace with who I am and what I need and honor your right to do the same. Accept that all I really want is a small, slow, simple life. A mediocre life. A beautiful, quiet, gentle life. I think it is enough.
This bout with “not-enough-ness” is the heavyweight match of the century. Actually, it’s the fight of all our lives. Believers and unbelievers alike are beset by the same legacy-lusting disposition that makes us cravers and coveters of the “something else” that’s purported to fill the gaps in our lives. Scripture would call this the “old man.” You might also call this the “old Adam.” Martin Luther would refer to this as the “theologian of glory.” It’s the nature that lurks inside each of us that shouts for recognition and significance at every turn. Everyone who’s ever lived has been smitten with the insatiable temptation for attention.
Notwithstanding how noteworthy our lives actually are, we self-aggrandize our accomplishments and give them more weight than they’re actually due. It’s a symptom of the narcotic we’re all shooting. The drug of our generation isn’t (necessarily) an amphetamine, it’s notoriety. We’re addicted to being seen and recognized and celebrated. We’re entangled in thickets of “personal brands” and individual kingdoms in which we act as both advisory board and sole decision maker. Society constantly reminds us to make a name for ourselves. To busy ourselves with the perceived legacies we’re creating and leaving. But, like Krista bemoans, what if you just don’t have it in you?
What if I’m burned out on the quest for significance and want to make peace with the mundane and mediocre? Because let’s be honest, it’s going to be difficult for your great grandchildren to remember your name, let alone the world. Besides, the best legacy you can leave your loved ones isn’t something you have to chase or hunt down. It’s not something you accomplish. It doesn’t come in making a name and legacy for yourself but in living a life of faith that points to the name and legacy of Another.
The Savior’s call to ordinariness.
The message of the Bible is inconsonant with society’s edict of excellence. The economy of the gospel is completely opposite to the economy of the world. Jesus’s words are altogether different, disabusing our innate sensibilities that the big, colossal achievements are worth more than the mediocre and mundane. Christ our Light illumines all the minute crevices of our lives and grants us the grace to become less. He celebrates the simple and exalts the small. In the gospel, narcissism is resurrected into self-forgetfulness.
One of the greatest comforts of Scripture is the revelation of God’s incessant use of the ordinary. Christ’s qualifications as a savvy headhunter with an eye for talent fly out the window when you understand who he chose to be his closest confidants. He didn’t search out spiritual superheroes, nor did he call out the most qualified to carry out his mission of global evangelization. Actually, Christ’s selection of the Twelve remains befuddling to our success-driven understandings. Jesus consistently beckons from the fringes of darkness his brightest lights. He’s bent on making his extraordinary grace shine brightly in and through ordinary people. What’s more, the pages of Scripture are filled with instance after instance of God’s extraordinary mercy meeting and redeeming ordinary people in the very messes they’ve made.
This serves to underscore the beauty of the gospel of ordinary grace. You’re probably never going to be a Fortune 500 CEO, or New York Times bestselling author. You’ll likely never be a megachurch pastor or director of a thriving nonprofit. And that’s okay. As Scott Sauls puts it, “God has not called you to be awesome.” God’s purpose for you is to find meaning in the small, slow, simple life. Your calling is for a quiet, humble, faithful following after God and his Word. The gospel liberates us to find freedom, meaning, and purpose in our own expendability and obscurity.
You see, where we crave perfect legacies at the efforts of our own hands, a more perfect record has already been promised and covenanted to us in Christ. Jesus supplants all our striving after renown with his glorious perfection. He, in fact, becomes your legacy. You become known for who you are in him, not by how much you scratch and claw after being remembered. Jesus’s legacy is gifted to us in grace, in empty-handed belief.
The full measure of the righteousness of God is yours because of the death of his Son. (2 Cor 5:21) No smidgen of that is left up to you. Christ has finished it all. Your legacy and identity isn’t rooted in how successful you are at work, or how well your kids turn out, or how big of a house you have, or how amazing your marriage is, or how fit your body is, or how much money’s in your bank account, or what kind of car you drive. It’s not conditioned on how firmly you “seize the moment” or how well you’re remembered. Rather, your legacy is firmly rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s only begotten Son, the One who loves the weak and the foolish, the small and the ordinary. And in that weakness and smallness is found the power and wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:24–25) One of the shortest Psalms trumpets some loud truths into this conversation:
Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I do not get involved with things too great or too wondrous for me. Instead, I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like a weaned child. Israel, put your hope in the Lord, both now and forever. (Ps 131:1–3)
Regardless of what I “dream” to do, I pray I would learn to be content with what God has designed and destined me to do. To be content and quiet in faith and fortitude for the grace of the gospel. I can still the noise of the soul that craves significance by the Savior’s reassurance of who I am in him. I don’t have to clamor for remembrance. I don’t have to waste myself on “things too great or too wondrous for me.” I don’t have to meticulously curate my legacy. Christ has given me his. And for however unremembered by my family as I may be in generations to come, grace assures me that I’m never forgotten. Jesus has died my “final death,” so that whether or not my story’s told at the fire or photo hung in the hallway, I’m always remembered by God. And that’s enough.