How To Train Your Dragon (or Your Pit Bull): Leadership, Creation Care, and Being the Image of God

Recently, Reel Spirituality’s Elijah Davidson published a review of How to Train Your Dragon 2. As always, Davidson’s logic, keen eye, theological training, and film expertise showed through the review to create a stunning engagement with the film’s themes. In particular, the treatment of the issue of gun control underlying the narrative of HTTYD2 was perfectly executed. My only problem with the review? I don’t think the movie cares about gun control.

Now, Davidson brings up many good points: there is a serious intertribal power dynamic in play that rides on the firepower of dragons; the words of Hiccup about “Bad people do bad things with dragons” echo those of Charlton Heston about guns; and the human propensity for sin a la Romans 3:23 tends to shoot holes in Heston’s (or Hiccup’s) argument. But ultimately, it seems that Davidson just barely misses the point right when he is addressing Heston’s famous argument, adopted by HTTYD2:

The first assumption [in Heston’s argument] is that a gun, separated from a human hand, is inanimate. It has no soul. It has no will of its own. A gun by itself a neutral object. (This fact doesn’t exactly extend to dragons, who have wills of their own, but that’s beside the point, right?)

That is actually exactly the point: dragons have wills of their own. They are not something that is loaded and then fired. In the world of HTTYD2 and its predecessor, they are beings that display fear, self-defense, hunger, distrust, friendship, loyalty, and happiness. Yes, the argument Hiccup uses sounds like Heston’s, but it is actually the same argument used by another activist group—dog lovers.

For those who thought the gun control connection sounded like a leap, this might cross into the realm of absurd. But I see the evidence as overwhelming—the primary concern of HTTYD2 revolves around animal abuse and its antithesis, the proper ordering of relationships. And Christians must be concerned as well, as this certainly falls into creation care and being the image of God to the natural of the world.

First, the movie. (SPOILERS abound.)

The world of Hiccup and his Viking community has changed drastically since the start of the first movie. Whereas dragons were feared and killed and Hiccup was ridiculed, we now find dragons and Vikings living in an interspecies community with Hiccup as both its hero and future Chief (the latter much to Hiccup’s dismay). Hiccup is struggling to be a leader like his father Stoic, when he really only wants to be exploring and doing dragon research. Hiccup doesn’t understand what it means to lead, assuming that it has to be something that looks like Stoic’s brash, loud heavy-handedness. Astrid suggests that Hiccup is already—or well on his way—to becoming a leader.

As the movie progresses, we realizes that Astrid is right; Hiccup is a leader by means of his loyalty to and care for both dragons and his fellow Vikings. He becomes juxtaposed with Drago, the villain, whose leadership is based on fear, brutality, and pain. Drago’s Leviathan dragon obeys him out of fear.

This juxtaposition of Hiccup and Drago—compassion and care versus fear and brutality—is the driving force of the story that plays out in their dragons. Hiccup’s dragons, or those of his mother, Valka, are benevolent and protective, existing in a mutually symbiotic relationship with their humans. Drago’s beasts, or those taken under his control via the new Alpha, are vicious, destructive, and deadly. The hope of turning back those dragons under Drago’s control and saving their community—a loyalty to both their dragons and fellow humans—is the only reason Hiccup and the others can find the resolve to take on Drago after the death of Stoic.

In that final confrontation, we find loyalty and compassion pitted directly against fear and raw power. Much to Drago’s surprise, Hiccup’s approach wins the day. Toothless would rather follow Hiccup out of compassion than Drago out of fear. Death with and for Hiccup is preferable to life with and for Drago.

And so, much as we saw in the first movie, Toothless just about gets himself killed for the sake of Hiccup, and so does everyone else. The dragons and Vikings stand with their leader who has compassion and loyalty instead of the tyrant who threatens pain and death. Yes, there is a bit of beating Drago and his Alpha into submission, but there is no destruction of the beast like there was of the great dragon in the first movie. Drago’s Alpha backs off, and the Island of Berk can rebuild with Hiccup as Chief and Toothless as Alpha.

The issues that run throughout are loyalty and leadership. Who is loyal to who and why? Who leads who and why? The two are ultimately connected: loyalty out of fear of a leader is fleeting and weak, while loyalty to a compassionate leader is strong and deep. The bad leader creates fearful and destructive servants. The good leader creates loyal and compassionate companions.

And this is where the issue of dogs comes in. I have owned large dogs all my life, including three German Shepherds, supposedly one of the most vicious of dog breeds. Every time my family hears of another Pit Bull or Rottweiler attack, we mourn, for both the victim and dog. Chances are it was neither the victim’s fault nor the dog’s. It was likely the owner’s.

There are no such things as vicious or bad dogs. There are only dogs who have been warped and twisted by poor owners. Perhaps this thinking borrows Heston’s terminology, but those of us who adamantly train our dogs spout this mantra constantly: “There are no bad dogs, only bad dog owners.” A “bad dog,” or rather a dog who does bad things, is one that is fearful or trained to think that brutality is a means of surviving physical abuse or threat. These dogs are neglected, physically abused, or trained to treat every creature besides its owner as a threat. It is how that dog has learned to survive, to use a vicious defense or preemptive strike. The brutality of the owner poisons the dog.

An untrained dog is as equally dangerous, because it allows its dormant feral instincts to dictate its behavior instead of the superior intellect of its owner. The lack of discipline from the owner creates a void filled by the wildness of the dog.

When a dog is rightly trained—taught commands, well-nurtured, given attention and interaction regularly—it is the most wonderful creature to be around. I have often stopped in my tracks at my parents’ house and marveled at the fact that two species live under the same roof to mutual benefit. My nanny when I was a child was a 115 lbs German Shepherd named Ace, who would redirect my brother or I away from toddling into danger, would stay between me and a stranger until trust was established, and never once attacked a human being.

My dog now, Sheba, also a German Shepherd of nearly 100 lbs, used to walk between my wife and me when we were first dating to protect me from this person from outside the pack. I have never worried about Sheba ever hurting anyone who was not threatening our safety, because our family has led her well. A well-trained and well-loved dog is nothing to fear. A rightly ordered relationship between a dog and a human works wonders on both parties, making them devoted, caring, and compassionate towards each other.

And this is the point that HTTYD2 drives home. A dragon that is trained, that is loved and cared for, is not a danger, but instead can be a benevolent part of society. A dragon that is introduced to pain and fear—as Toothless is at the hands of Drago—becomes a danger to anyone around it, even its former master.

So with dogs. An animal that is abused or fearful is dangerous. A dog that is loved is loyal to its leader, and far more so than a fearful dog, even to the point that that animal is willing to lay down its life for its leader in the face of near certain death, as does Toothless in the fight against the new Alpha.

So, does this have anything to say about the Christian life? Absolutely.

The parallels to Christian thinking are legion—love inspires love (John 13:34-35), love trumps fear (1 John 4:18), reconciliation and forgiveness are possible after anything (Luke 15:11-32; Psalm 85:5), and on and on. But the point that seems most important to the movie goes back to how we lead, how we are loyal, and how this affects creation.

In Genesis, humankind—adam—is formed out of topsoil—adamah—into the image of God “so that they make take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on the earth” (Gen 1:26, CEB). We are part of the earth that is formed into the image of God, this in-between creature that is both of the world and of God, a connection between heaven and earth. We are told to “take charge” of the earth—and here many people have seen this as carte blanche to do whatever they want to creation—as images of God, as symbols of his rule, as miniatures of the Creator himself.

So how will we lead?

The microcosm of dogs and humans shows the inevitable outcome of leading with fear, selfishness, and brutality. The Center for Disease Control estimates that roughly 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, with roughly 40 deaths reported in 2012. Poisonous or irresponsible leadership by humans brings out the worst in our dogs, but it can also bring out the worst in the world as a whole. At the macro level, brutality towards creation is wrecking everything around us, from fracking causing earthquakes in Oklahoma to overfishing sharks until the ocean dies to greenhouse gases poisoning and melting everything. Our engagement with the natural world has looked more like Drago’s than like Hiccup’s. Destruction is what we reap when we abuse nature and the power God has granted us over it.

Leading with love and compassion leads to good dogs, to a symbiotic relationship that sees a benefit to all it encounters. Leading with love and compassion leads to a healthy planet and a sustainable future. Am I saying that our good stewardship will make the domestication of other animals possible, or cease natural disasters? Will we stop evil and pain in the natural world? By no means. All of that is God’s job. What I am saying, though, is that the evidence at the smallest level—humans living with dogs—shows that we can make either good come of that relationship or evil, and that is paralleled by evidence at the higher or larger levels of nature interaction as well. 

Yes, a struggle for power is present in HTTYD2, but that is a symptom of the larger questions of leadership and the loyalty it induces. And the film is not talking about the inherent evil that is or is not present in guns—though that is a worthwhile discussion to be had. Ultimately, HTTYD2 is a question of how the actions of humans play out on the natural world, paralleling the debates over so-called “vicious dog breeds.”

With this in mind, something as seemingly small as making sure your dog is well-trained and treated well becomes a crucial issue to the Christian life. It isn’t about having a dog that can do tricks or fetch your paper. It is about treating God’s creation with dignity and living up to our purpose of being the caretakers, leaders, and images of God to the rest of the natural world.

Reed Metcalf is the Editor of The SEMI (Fuller Theological Seminary’s student magazine) and the co-founder of Fuller’s Faith and Science student group. Recently graduated from Fuller with a Master of Divinity, Reed works at the seminary in fields of social media and public relations. A writing addict, he spends his free time composing fiction, sermons, and essays when not studying theology, astronomy, linguistics, or literature. He and his wife Monica live in Pasadena, CA, as he pursues ordination.

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