In 1935, Munro Leaf spent about 40 minutes writing a story for his friend Robert Lawson, a then-struggling illustrator. After a slow start, Munro’s text coupled with Lawson’s beautiful ink drawings became a success, and “The Story of Ferdinand” has never been out of print. A few years after its publishing, Disney released an Academy Award-winning short film based on the book, and a full-length feature film opens in theaters on December 15.
“The Story of Ferdinand” tells a humorous story of a gentle-spirited bull who wants to “sit just quietly under the cork tree and smell the flowers.” When five men come to Ferdinand’s pasture to “pick the biggest, fastest, roughest bull to fight in the bull fights in Madrid,” all the bulls except for Ferdinand try to prove that they should be picked.
Ferdinand desires no glory, though, and instead just wants to sit peacefully. When he’s stung by a bee, however, the men spot him flailing and snorting, and choose him for the bull fights. Once in the ring, much to everyone’s shock and dismay, Ferdinand cannot be provoked to fight.
It’s funny to imagine, isn’t it? The bull in the pasture isn’t so scary when he’s as gentle as the butterfly on the flowers he’s sniffing. The idea coupled with Lawson’s captivating illustrations are enough to elicit a giggle from even the stodgiest of readers. Leaf said, “If the book fails to make you chuckle there is no excuse for its existence, as far as I’m concerned.”
Not Everyone’s Laughing, Though
Although Leaf says his story was nothing more than a tale meant for a laugh, “The Story of Ferdinand” met its success alongside some serious controversy. First published near the start of the Spanish Civil War, different views had the story being both pro-Franco and anti-Franco. Ferdinand has also been called a fascist, a communist, an anarchist, and most commonly—given the context of the unstable world during the book’s first printing—a pacifist. Burned by Adolph Hitler as democratic propaganda, 30,000 copies of the book were later printed and distributed when Berlin fell in 1945.
While many of the original readers had strong political interpretations of the book, many modern readers have embraced Ferdinand as champion for following one’s heart. The Washington Post’s 50th anniversary tribute to Ferdinand praised him for knowing “that true courage is being true to one’s self, no matter what anyone else might say.”
Similarly, in the latest Ferdinand film, audiences will be told, “Be strong, be brave, be true… to yourself.” In the case of a bull who’d choose peace under his cork tree over fame with the matadors, we might argue that he chose the better. But our world is not the fictitious world of Ferdinand. For the human heart and mind, being true to oneself can quickly lead us to dangerous relativistic thinking.
Ferdinand, The Transgender Bull?
Our culture is rapidly changing, especially on sexual and gender ethics, as we continue to reject absolute truth. Not surprisingly, Ferdinand, the bull who refused to behave like all the other bulls, has also become an emblem of gender nonconformity. Huffington Post contributor Lori Day wrote:
Ferdinand was sweet, loving, and gentle and he did not want to fight. He was not traditionally masculine. In fact, he was actively resisting gender norms! The Story of Ferdinand is possibly the first modern children’s book written about a character that did not want to perform his or her gender as expected.
But being true to yourself isn’t isolated to just rejecting classic sexual ethics or sex roles. We can be true to ourselves in any number of gluttonous, lustful, and selfish ways. My millennial friends are known to say, “You do you,” believing that each person has the right to pursue whatever makes him or her happy. They don’t want to deem any actions or beliefs as wrong or untrue because they believe that each person defines truth and morality. This thinking has led to a culture that often ignores sin and even calls it courageous.
In “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis equated being true to oneself with the sin of idolatry. He wrote:
What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ – could set up on their own as if they had created themselves – be their own masters – invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.
This idolatry of being true to oneself is opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Instead of teaching us to be true to yourself, Jesus teaches “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” Instead of saying to follow your heart, Jesus warns that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Instead of telling you to indulge yourself with whatever you want, Jesus says to deny yourself for a better life and a deeper joy by following him.
You Can’t Always Trust Even Persistent Impulses
When we make decisions exclusively according to our desires, we will find it often puts us in conflict with others. The heart is naturally corrupt, and allowing it to be the final arbiter in what we pursue will often lead to someone else’s loss or pain. Philippians 2:3-7 offers a different motivation for how to live:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
Only one ever did that perfectly, but we can still grow in our virtue and selflessness. That is not to say that the act of sacrificing for another dooms one to unhappiness. Even though it is more natural to want to follow your heart, the act of sacrificing for another is more gratifying.
We will not be satisfied in our search for happiness and satisfaction when we search for it within ourselves. The Beatitudes, from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, tell us that true happiness and contentment here on earth, as well as great rewards in heaven, come to those who recognize their spiritual poverty, hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, are pure in heart, are peacemakers, and are persecuted for Christ’s sake.
But this is not the message our culture wants to offer. The easier, more attractive message is to tell people to follow their hearts and be true to themselves. For Ferdinand, a silly bull who rejects fighting so he can smell flowers, it is fine, but discerning audiences will see that it is dangerous for a human.