I Don’t Want to be a Really Useful Engine

I read way too much into children’s TV shows, which seems like a wise use of a graduate degree in English. The gift of interpretation, let me tell you, is a double-edged sword. As much as it brings insight and understanding to a cryptic, symbol heavy movie or tries to make sense out of a modern novel, it can also, well, ruin things. Like books my wife is reading or children’s TV shows.

The show Thomas the Tank Engine is one of those shows. The entirety of the show is a bunch of lighthearted yet thoroughly depraved, jealous and childish trains trying to shine the brightest for their whimsical yet harsh task master, Sir Topham Hatt. The trains end up coming around to being nice to one another or forgiving one another, and then, if they’re lucky, Sir Topham Hatt tells them that they are “a really useful engine.”

In brief: the trains are young children and Sir Topham Hatt is a parental figure. Meaning, that the optimal way for children to behave is to be really useful.

One could just write this off as being a thoroughly British quirk, to be obsessed with usefulness and utilitarianism  It’s certainly one of the underlying themes of other British children’s stories, like Peter Pan (can’t he grow up and get a job?) or Mary Poppins (bankers are useful!). Yet, Downton Abbey aside, being British doesn’t make it right.

What bothers me is that usefulness is not the “chief end of man” or a definition of Christian vocation that I want to teach my children. At the end of the day, I don’t want my child to tell me he or she has been really useful today. I want him or her to tell me “I’ve been loving” or “I’ve been just” or “I’ve been merciful.” Usefulness is not a metric used by God or found in the Christian faith. Instead, we are given the Golden Rule, the Great Commission, spiritual gifts and the Fruit of the Spirit as measuring sticks for our daily work.

The idea of what Christian vocation is has been usurped by the values of our culture’s economy: productivity and usefulness. Sir Topham Hatt’s refrain “a really useful engine” is a fancy way of saying, “time equals money.” As Christians, we measure time as a gift from God, not as a unit of money. We need better metrics to measure the success of our pastors and plumbers, roofers and researchers, ministers and masons than by how useful or productive they are with their time. Instead, we need to measure what informs the work that we do:

Are you a peaceful pastor? A joyful janitor? A gentle grocer? A kind kindergarten teacher? A self-controlled scientist?

That is what matters to God, not how much money you make or how useful you are in the eyes of the world.