The Gospel According to Willy Wonka

I was taking my classes through the play Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when we came to a question about symbolism. I really haven’t said a lot about symbolism, so I wasn’t expecting much from them. Then I started thinking about the symbolism and it occurred to me that the story is an allegory for the gospel itself. I’m certainly not the first person to come up with this understanding of the play. Others have made the case, if you do a search of my title, you can find them.

The story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is well known in our culture since both Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp have played the roll of Willy Wonka in two movies over the last 40 years. Depp’s version is closer to the play that we are reading from in class, but both differ in their ending from the play. For those who don’t know the story, Willy Wonka is a reclusive chocolatier who has not been seen for years, even though his factory continues to pour out chocolate year after year, without any known employees. The humans were expelled from the garden (factory) years before when spies started delivering the secrets of Wonka’s success to the enemy. We find that Wonka restarted the factory through the help of the Oompa Loompas, who serve as the moral guide throughout the play. When one of those invited to tour the factory fail, the Oompa Loompas tells us why they failed. The ones who are touring the factory, do so, through the distribution of five golden tickets which can be found by purchasing a Wonka Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight candy bar. The golden ticket actually only goes to a select few, but even among those select few, only one responds appropriatetly. 

The broad similarities are simple enough once you think about it. The five tickets reference the general call of the gospel and the five responses show the response to that gospel. The first ticket goes to Augustus Gloop, a real eating machine. His main goal in life is to satisfy the desires of his belly. His one desire in getting the golden ticket is nothing more than a desire to satisfy the flesh. Many come to the gospel with the same purpose in mind. They want the delights of heaven and the church, without the obedience and sacrifices required by our Master.

For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:18-20). 

And destruction is what Augustus Gloop meets. His desires for temporal satisfaction are so overwhelming that he begins to drink from the river that Wonka says should never be touched. Like the apple in the original garden, Gloop goes straight for that which is forbidden. He falls in and is sucked up into the pipe works of the factory, sent on his way to become fudge. The Oompa-Loompas tells us that “he’ll be quite changed from what he’s been, when he goes through the fudge machine; slowly, the wheels go round and round, the cogs being to grind and pound; a hundred knives go slice, slice, slice; we add some sugar, cream and spice; then out he comes! And now! By grace! A miracle has taken place!”

This may seem like a good thing for Gloop. But it is not. He isn’t acceptable to Wonka, the Father figure in the story. He is only acceptable to men, but then by only being converted to fudge, which was not God’s intended purpose for His children. Wonka needed a son to carry on the business of making candy, and Gloop didn’t measure up. Instead of making candy, he would be busy eating it, becoming even more Gloopy than he originally was.

Augustus Gloop would be made acceptable to the world by being turned into fudge, so that others who let their bellies rule them, could delight in the Gloop fudge. But this acceptance by the world does not equate into acceptance by the Father. Gloop was not, nor will he be, acceptable to the Father, therefore he is banished from the garden.

In fact, the next three all meet the same demise for the same reason: they were given over to their fleshly desires. Violet Beauregaurde is wrapped in the pride of life, chewing gum. She is really good at chewing gum and even has her own standard for doing so: longer than anyone else. Yet, this too leads to her downfall when she takes something Wonka doesn’t want her to have. The same is true for Veruca Salt, and Mike Teavee.

Not so for Charlie. He doesn’t take anything (even though in the Wilder movie it shows him doing so). Charlie is along for the ride and accepts whatever Wonka gives him. Charlie trusts Wonka, and why not, his grandpa spoke highly of him and he has no reason not to trust him. For this reason, he never transgresses against Wonka’s goodness and in the end, Charlie not only gets the prize of endless chocolate, but the entire factory. He gets it all, for his simple trust. Had the four other ticket winners been as trustful, they too might have had it all. Instead, they do as many do in our day, seek the golden tickets for their own advancement.

Where Wonka’s Gospel Fails

Where Wonka’s gospel fails is that it is rooted in moralism. Charlie is acceptable because he is too poor to be spoiled, too hungry to let his stomach guide him, too weak to be obsessed over chewing gum and too impoverished to watch television all day. I know from my research on the story that these things are what the author, Roald Dahl, hated about children in the modern era. The problem is that these qualities are nothing but moralism. There is no lasting value in a child not chewing gum because these standards fall well below the standard that is necessary for our return back into the garden. Our fallen human natures are so depraved that we need someone who kept the righteous requirements of God’s Law perfectly, not only to keep them perfectly on our behalf, but to also pay the debt of sin we owe the Father for breaking His Law.

There is no such character in Wonka’s gospel because the standard of righteousness is based upon some who do evil in the author’s sight, and not doing evil in the author’s site (evil being loosely defined as not eating too much, smacking gum all day, being spoiled or watching television 24/7). Hardly standards of goodness at all. Dahl fails to see sin for the problem it truly is. So while the story has reflections of the gospel, it fails because it does not provide any atonement for the character who does eventually get the entire garden (factory). And… Charlie will eventually die as well because of his own sin.

Yet, in the true gospel of Christ, we do have One to make atonement for our sin. And the garden we return to, is far better than some chocolate factory found in a nameless town in industrialized England. Once we enter that garden, (heaven) we don’t have to worry about finding an heir. We will always be there as the heirs to it all.

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3 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Willy Wonka

  1. The Wilder version was a beloved favorite when I was a kid. But until now I never made the connection with the gospel story. It raises a lot of questions in my mind about Dahl. Was he churched as a kid in England? Did he turn away from the faith at some point? Or find it again?

    He was a fabulous writer and quite incisive in his observations of (fallen) human nature.

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