Two interesting death notices from the past week:
+ Curtis Allina, 87, was the candy company executive who first came up with the idea of adding a spring-loaded plastic head to the top of a candy dispenser for Pez mints. A concentration camp survivor, Allina emigrated to the United States and went to work for Pez-Haas company.
At the time, Pez was an adult mint (the name is a contraction of pfefferminz, the German word for peppermint) and was marketed as a smoking alternative. It came in a small, narrow tin called “the regular”, which was meant to resemble a cigarette lighter. When sales went flat, Allina approved the idea of remarketing the candy to children, including making the mints fruit flavored and redesigning the container with the character heads.
In no time, the dispenser became the product. There are hundreds of dispenser variations (among them: Elvis Pez, Popeye Pez, Paul Revere Pez and Mozart Pez). Now, there are thousands of Pez collectors across the globe and even a Pez museum.
+ Art Clokey, 88, created the bendable green Gumby toy in the early 1950’s. The head of the iconic toy was inspired by Clokey’s father’s cowlick hairdo and te body was to represent a ginger-bread man. For years, Clokey made animated stop action clay animation shorts featuring Gumby and his horse friend Pokey for several children’s programs.
Clokey resisted merchandising the toys for years because “I was very idealistic, and I didn’t want parents to think we were trying to exploit their children.” Even at that, the series faltered a bit. Clokey created the claymation duo of Davey and Goliath and used the profits to bring a Gumby series back to television in the 1960’s. Two decades later, Eddie Murphy satirized Gumby as a cigar-smoking Hollywood-type on Saturday Night Live, bringing a new surge of popularity and a new series. As of 2007, all 233 original Gumby episodes were made available on You Tube.
Pez is a simple candy in a simple spring-loaded dispenser.
Gumby is a simple, flexible rubber toy.
Then why have they been so consistently popular? I think the key is whimsy. Both are a bit quirky. Both are rooted in the unexpected. Both prod the imagination. Both make individual connections. Both provide tiny snatches of joy.
It occurs to me that whimsy just may be a missing element in Christian interaction with our culture. Yes, the inviolable truths of Scripture must stand. Yes, the realties of the gospel are profound and the implications are serious. Yes, the cross is a horror, sin is horrible and the cost of one sinner’s rescue is the blood of God’s only Son is incalculable.
And yet, the salvation of one sinner is also a mind-boggling wonder. It sets people free from God’s wrath and condemnation—and accomplishes it by the unimaginable gift of grace. It sets bound prisoners free. It brings joy unspeakable and peace beyond understanding. It resonates with the laughter of heaven from angels.
Sometimes, however, when we have conversations about faith with people in our world, we act as if only the serious part is true. We can come across as sober, a little angry, condescending and sad. Somehow, the joy, peace, freedom, grace get submerged and the angel laughter gets muffled.
If we could find a way to inject a little whimsy into our conversations about faith and everyday life, I suspect far-from-God people would engage with us more readily. What do I mean by whimsy?
+ Talking with the sort of joy that comes from knowing a secret behind everything—a secret that is too wonderful for words.
+ Responding in unexpected (grace-full, inquisitive & compassionate) ways to issues that Christians normally knee-jerk.
+ Not being so ridiculously predictable and cookie-cutter—being free enough in Christ to be both uniquely Christ’s and available to the people in your world.
+ Being unafraid of the imagination, so that the arts, media, technology, economics, sports, fashion, medicine and headlines become portals to enter faith conversations.
Pez and Gumby are time-bound cultural tid-bits that spur momentary interest on E-Bay or when somebody has a fit of nostalgia. Curtis Allina and Art Clokey created icons that have lasted decades. But whimsy is really wasted there.
Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is life, hope, joy, peace and more. Whimsy may provide the intrigue necessary to draw precious people –like a Curtis or Art or Cindy or Andrea–one step closer to Him.