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How Jesus is like, but better than Ted Lasso

Ted Lasso is the TV discovery of 2020 in our household. It’s streaming on Apple TV, and it’s worth a subscription for a month just to plough through the ten episodes. I’m delighted to see it getting the attention it deserves. It’s a beautiful example of a movement in the arts called ‘the new sincerity’ — a deliberate rejection of the cynicism that has defined so much art in the post-modern age, the sort one finds in comedies like Seinfeld, or the irony and snark that defined a generation. We see this ‘new sincerity’ in shows like Brooklyn 99, or Parks and Rec, but Ted Lasso is next level sincere — both the show, and its eponymous character.

Ted is an American football coach brought to England as a cynical move by a broken-hearted jilted wife, Rebecca, who has taken charge of her ex-husband’s pride and joy — Richmond F.C, following a messy divorce. She has every intention of driving the club into the ground. Ted is meant to fail, but his relentless sincerity in the face of her cynical scheming is a metaphor for the triumph of something new against the destructive forces of post-modernity’s embrace of irony as a modus operandi. David Foster Wallace, the part time philosopher, part time novelist, part time literature professor, wrote an essay in 1993, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.’ This essay explored the social and cultural costs of irony, and expressed a hope that a rebellion might take place, since then a battle has raged for the spirit of the west, and we’ve been waiting a messiah figure who might embody this sincerity and save us all from a world defined, still, by Seinfeld’s nihilism.

Wallace said this ‘rebel’ would be a figure who would:

“…eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.” 

Ted Lasso is the man for a time such as this. Ted Lasso is a show championing a different sort of outlook; an outlook that sees art as a vehicle for relentlessly uplifting us, pushing us to something higher. Something… nice. Every person in Ted’s orbit is ultimately made new, transformed, through his presence, except, that is, the one person he (for most of the season) wishes he might transform — his estranged wife back home in America, and the jerky, irredeemable, former owner of Richmond F.C. Transformation comes for those who dare to embrace sincerity over cynicism. For those who dare to…


Ted Lasso isn’t subtle in its sincerity; the coach even plasters the word ‘Believe’ in a prominent spot in the dressing room. It boldly oozes this sincerity as an act of Wallace-inspired rebellion.

That it has been so polarising in the TV review sections of the Internet is evidence that the war between cynicism and sincerity has not been won; there are those who don’t get it, for whom Lasso is too earnest, and yet, maybe that earnestness is its genius — and its entire point. Maybe art can ask us to look higher.

As a coach, Ted Lasso knows nothing about the game. He’s not going to get results on the field, but he has certain convictions about character being more important than results — he’s a trojan horse for a return to an ethic of virtue, rather than utility (though, his lack of utility — in the hands of his cynical team owner, is precisely the point). By season’s end his relentless positivity has uplifted and improved all those around him. He is a coach in the ultimate sense of the word — he comes alongside everyone in his orbit and makes them better versions of themselves. It’s risky TV, and it works. It left me, as a viewer, experiencing the same result as those in the show — having this sense that I might be better if only the spirit of Lasso was at work in my life.


The thing about Lasso’s brand of heroism is that he, as a coach, operates a whole lot like the Holy Spirit does in the Bible. Ted Lasso is a ‘paraclete’ which is the greek word for ‘advocate’ that literally means ‘called to be close beside.’ Coaching is Ted Lasso’s calling, it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t understand the game of football (or soccer) he understands his game, the game of coaching; the game of winning people to a vision of the better version of themselves, and working with them to step them in that direction.

It would’ve been an interesting exercise to write a post on how Ted Lasso, the coach, is like the Holy Spirit; but where they differ is that, when it comes to the story of the Bible, and to the nature of the triune God, the Spirit is not the hero. He shines light on others — especially the Father and Son. And while Ted Lasso shows what happens when Ted Lasso shines light on others, the lights, and the focus of the camera, are very much on him. Ted Lasso is a certain sort of Messiah; a man who calls us to discover and “believe” in a better version of ourselves as we believe in him.

The New Testament’s often expresses a vision of the Christian life as a ‘walk’ — one way Paul talks about this ‘walk’ is where he tells us to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ in Galatians. This walk language is often flattened in English translations to the more boring ‘live’… But this ‘walk’ is such a profound picture when we add this idea that the Spirit is a ‘paraclete’ — God walking beside us, advocating for us, guiding us towards a better version of ourselves as we “believe”… and Paul’s instruction to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ comes as he describes the fruit of the Spirit (on this, see K.B Hoyle’s review of Ted Lasso and the fruit of the Spirit over at Christ and Pop Culture). Paul says:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 

Galatians 5:22-23

There’s a whole lot of this sort of fruit on display in Ted Lasso’s non-cynical, sincerity… his earnestness and integrity, his pursuit of his calling — and also what he produces for those in his care. Ted Lasso might be a messiah in the battle against irony, and for the goodness of the new sincerity (I’m team new sincerity, for the record), and he’s a whole lot like Jesus, but Jesus is better, because Jesus invites us to believe in something more than ourselves. More than that, as Paul unpacks the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ — the new way of life, these new virtues, brought about by the ultimate coach, he sees these as a result of moving from an old life — life in the world and the flesh — because we ‘belong to Christ Jesus’ and so have died with him, and can now walk with him. Jesus is the key not just to our improvement, but to an ultimate victory that we enjoy through him if we keep walking the journey he has us on.

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:25-26

Ted Lasso, and the new sincerity, resonate with our human hearts because we aren’t made for cynicism. Cynicism is a dead end. We were made for joy, and hope. We were created for glory and victory, not for death and defeat. We’re not just wired to enjoy happy endings, rather than tragedy — the universe itself, though it feels otherwise, is headed in this direction, and Ted Lasso shares something with the fabric of the universe, because in some ways it is a reflection of the goodness of the Christian story, the story of Jesus. Ted is a rebellious, revolutionary, even, hero for our times, but he points us to a timeless revolutionary hero.

The Christian story is one that has little space for nihilism, ironic snark, or cynicism — it is a of triumph over death and destructive patterns of life, it is a fairy tale that says life doesn’t end in tragedy, but in hope. Like Ted Lasso, Jesus holds out hope that we might become better people if we believe, but Jesus invites us to believe in something better than victory on the field, or in the game of life — even in our relationships. As good as these things are, they are not ultimate. Jesus is the person who most completely walked in step with the Spirit, the one who embodied that fruit in every fibre of his being, and both his perfection, and his sacrificial death — his crucifixion — we have a path towards not just self-improvement but forgiveness, redemption, salvation and re-creation for eternity, we have a victory that is eternal — something worth believing in. Jesus is the one who makes us better, and brings us to something ultimate.

Here’s how Paul puts it in another letter.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 

2 Corinthians 5:17-19




How the Gospel is like Pixar’s Onward, but better

Pixar’s Onward is now top of the Pixar charts for me. It’s a stunning movie, and it seems a terrible shame that its cinematic release was stunted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The movie follows two brothers on a path to re-enchantment; one is a hopeless cynic, the other, his a hopeful, wishful even, older brother who dreams of dragons. It’s a fairy tale that embraces all the best bits of the genre and dares to put forward a message that maybe, just maybe, our modern, technological life has made our view of the world, and experience of it, a little less magical. If you haven’t watched it, I’m not about to spoil it for you, but here’s the trailer.

The younger brother, Ian, grew up without a father, and for one magical day he has the chance to meet his dad; the veil between life and death will be pierced as magic returns to his world (and perhaps, the world at large). It’s a story that follows all the fairy tale tropes as closely as possible; Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ is traipsed with what seems like deliberate care and attention, while the ‘big bad’ is literally, rather than metaphorically, a dragon. And the brothers emerge from their experience transformed, with a new view of life, and even a world transformed by their heroic sacrifice and love. Both are heroes, and it turns out that older brother Barley has been traversing the path of the ‘hero’s journey’ for Ian’s entire life, and his optimistic ‘magical realism’ is vindicated. His desire for dragons reflects a realer reality than an outlook truncated by technology and a myth of self-sufficiency in a closed off world where magic and the supernatural are dismissed as delusions.

Onward is the kind of story emerging with what’s been called ‘the new sincerity’ — the end of cynicism, and perhaps a modern probing into the limits of secular modernity’s closed off universe. Whether or not magic is real, life certainly seems more exciting and the ethical possibilities greater when we live like it is and pursue heroic and costly love. It’s a vivid picture of a growing dissatisfaction with the promises and effects of the technology driven life; and it’s perhaps a delicious irony that the movie is essentially only available via a streaming platform, and made by a company rescued by Apple’s Steve Jobs that produces all its movies with cutting edge computer technology that allows our storytellers to imagine and create such visually stunning worlds.

The story doesn’t simply owe its pathos, or structure, to Joseph Campbell and his myth-making archetype, it is a rich expression of Tolkien’s oeuvre, and his vision for fairy tales in his essay On Fairy Stories.

Tolkien’s essay unpacks the human (or elvish) capacity to create worlds, and sees this as an expression of our created task as sub-creators who are made in the image of a creating God. He sees humanity’s ‘desire for dragons’ — or at least his own — both expressed in the stories we tell and reflecting of deeper, Spiritual truths. And in both his essay, and his writing, saw enchanted stories as a pointed critique of a disenchanted world where we rely on technology to produce ‘progress’ — where technological creation that is not ‘sub-creation’ aligned with the purposes of the creator becomes not ‘elvish’ but orcish — both dehumanising and destructive. In a letter about his development of middle earth he talks about his use of non-elvish magic as a metaphor for technological disruption of the natural world.

By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.”

Then, he describes the role of the Elves…

The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.

And his understanding of evil…

“The enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others — speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans — is a recurrent motive.”

The magic in Onward — at least the good magic wielded by the trainee wizard Ian — is the sort of nature-extending sub-creation Tolkien imagines as elvish. It’s about beings discovering and working with the fabric of the ‘natural’ universe. It helps that Ian and Barley are elves. The ‘enemy’ — throughout the story — is the status quo assumption that magic isn’t real, and that the boys must stop and conform to the technological world and its benefits. Right up until the world is confronted with the reality of magic, and that there’s a sinister, beastly, dragon-like (literally in this case) force opposed to life and love, and geared towards destruction.

While Tolkien detested allegory, wanted mythic worlds to be consistent all the way down to the roots of the trees (and so had issues with Narnia for both its obvious Christianity, and the inclusion of Santa Claus and a random hodge-podge of mythical creatures from a variety of traditions), and didn’t think Christianity could be imported into these mythic worlds, or mythic worlds as expressions of human traditions (such that his letter linked above describes a desire for an English fantasy that didn’t contain obvious allusions to the Christian story), he was a Christian writer who saw all fairy stories as innately produced in us as a result of our relationship to the world-building creator, and all ‘fall stories’ and destructive dominion (via technology) as expressions of something in the human condition.

In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says we want a world where Elvish art, ‘sub-creation’ — a particular sort of magic is possible that is unlike the destructive magic embodied in our tech-obsessed world.

“At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician.”

Onward gets as close to openly embodying this desire. It also contains Tolkien’s most revered feature of a true fairy story — a ‘eucatastrophe’ — the good catastrophe — the joyous turn at the end of a story that makes for a ‘happily ever after’ finish, rather than a tragedy. Again, no spoilers, but the movie is particularly satisfied. For Tolkien all happy endings like this were expressions of the ‘like but better’ true myth at the heart of the universe; the reason the fabric of the universe and this desire for dragons produces these stories almost universally in human cultures is because there is a true fairy story that both produces and ultimately satisfies our longings and desires.

The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “Ifyou have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world…

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy story,or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christis the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story ofthe Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

Onward is a story that points us forward to the goodness of the true myth; the Gospel of Jesus, that invites us to ponder how our sense of ‘elvish’ sub-creating art and true magic has been obscured by our reliance on our own ingenuity and ability to dominate the natural world with technology, and invites us to consider too that the path of heroism involves a loving act of sacrifice that defeats a dragon and pierces the veil between life and death, not just momentarily, but forever.

It’s a beautiful story, because as a beautiful piece of sub-creation, it draws from and throws light on, the beauty of Jesus, whether it knows it or now.

How C.S Lewis is like Roald Dahl, but better (and Aslan is like Willy Wonka, but better)

My kids have hit the age where lots of the books I loved — that formed and form my imagination — are starting to resonate with them. We’ve been devouring Roald Dahl classics as audiobooks, and we’ve worked through a couple of the Chronicles of Narnia.

I love Roald Dahl, but I’ve noticed (as have others) that his books though dark and funny have very few commendable adult characters — child protaganists are often put up against sinister, authoritarian and abusive adults (and when you read Dahl’s autobiography about his childhood, Boy, it’s little wonder why). There are exceptions of course, like the dad in Danny the Champion of the Word, Miss Honey, in Matilda, and Charlie’s family (and Willy Wonka) in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The adults Dahl celebrates are those who haven’t lost touch with their inner-child — those who still give in to whimsy and imagination and produce wonder. The villainous adults are those who represent the mechanical, whimsy-less, adult world — who want children to grow up or stay silent (this is especially explicit in Matilda where it’s Ms Trunchbull and Matilda’s dad in one corner, and Miss Honey in the other).

C.S Lewis also has some pretty awful adult antagonists — like the White Witch, but on the whole he doesn’t position adults as buzzkills and wowsers. His fullest, most self-assured, adults (human or adult) are those who, like Miss Honey and Willy Wonka, maintain a sense of wonder — perhaps especially the Professor, Digory, whose house hosts the wardrobe in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (spoiler, he’s a significant character in the less widely read Magician’s Nephew). In fact, as we’ll see below, there’s one character who ‘grows up’ and loses her sense of wonder — the cardinal sin in the world of Narnia.

There’s a funny scene in Matlida where Miss Honey is discovering Matilda’s genius — that she’s read every book for kids in the public library. Miss Honey asks her which ones she liked:

“‘I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ Matilda said. ‘I think Mr C. S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.’

‘You are right there,’ Miss Honey said.

‘There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,’ Matilda said.

‘Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?’ Miss Honey asked.

‘I do,’ Matilda said. ‘Children are not so serious as grown-ups and love to laugh.’”

It’s curious that both Tolkien and Lewis would say they weren’t writing those books just for children, but, indeed, that our wonder-less society has consigned enchanted books like these to the realm of the child’s mind — and that section of the library. Our society seems keen on producing adults who are very much like Ms Trunchbull and Matilda’s dad — kids are blank slates to be grown up into economic units who plug in to the machine of our economy — they need education in science, technology, education, and math so that the machine might advance… one can only imagine how both Lewis and Dahl would view the modern approach to education (though Lewis, at least, was an educator and did write a bit about the problems with the earlier stages of a modern approach to education).

Both Lewis and Dahl spent time in boarding schools that they did not like; Lewis said:

“Life at a vile boarding school is in this way a good preparation for the Christian life, that it teaches one to live by hope.”

In some ways it seemed that Dahl’s experiences led to cynicism about adults, rather than hope.

Both were later confronted with the very worst of adult behaviour — Lewis fought, and was wounded, in the trenches of the World War One, while Dahl flew as a fighter pilot in World War Two (he was also wounded, in a crash landing). Both saw many of their fellow soldiers killed. Both, through their experiences, were particularly insightful when it came to identifying what it is in the human condition that produces destruction, and both suggest a new, renewed, imagination — a rediscovery of a sort of innocence of childhood, might be part of the solution.

And yet, both are quite willing to see the same flaws in the human condition at work in children — both Lewis and Dahl present the human condition in terms of a misfiring imagination leading to wrong desires that when acted on create harmful consequences. Consider these examples from Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Narnia stories. Children in these stories inherit a world shaped, and left to them, by their adult forbears. They both long for a child hero who can truly escape this mess; and both offer a sort of ‘rescuer’ to offer a means to escape — for Lewis, it’s Aslan, for Dahl, it’s Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory paradise.

One of the most unforgettable scenes in Matilda is the episode involving Bruce Bogtrotter and Ms Trunchbull’s chocolate cake. Bruce was tempted when he saw the illicit cake, he knew it was not for him, and he desired it, took it, and ate it. Ms Trunchbull’s punishment for this act was to force Bruce to eat a whole, giant, cake. Here’s the scene as rendered in the Matilda movie.

Now Bruce is a hero, of sorts, to the kids because he gets one over Ms Trunchbull by finishing the cake, but Dahl is dabbling with an idea more fully developed in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that we are what we love — an that we will be shaped and possibly consumed by those loves.

Consider the children who secure golden tickets to the chocolate factory — Augustus Gloop a food addict, who is ‘consumed’ when he falls into the chocolate river as he, despite being told not to contaminate it, tries to slurp it up… Violet Beauregarde, the gum-chewing machine/addict, who, when told not to chew a magic piece of gum, pops it in her mouth and then once she blows up like a blueberry has to be ‘squeezed’ back down to size… Veruca Salt the spoiled ‘I want it now’ troublemaker who owns more pets than she can handle because ‘I want it now’ — who in a bid to gratify her latest desire for one of Wonka’s magic squirrels, gets sorted into the rubbish as ‘spoiled’… Mike Teavee, a television addict who is so keen to ‘get on TV’ that he jumps in front of Wonka’s magic TV teleporter, despite being told not to, only to be shrunk down to TV size… There’s a common theme here — these kids want too much of a good thing, in theological terms they all have identities tightly connected to what they worship — and they get what they want, only to discover it doesn’t deliver… it destroys. There’s no redemption for these kids — because they don’t save themselves, their imagination isn’t big enough for them to find a way out of these problems. Problems that the classic Oompa Loompa song, which develops episodically through the book (and the movie versions of the book)as each child is farewelled, lays at the feet of the parents.

“Who do you blame when your kid is a brat
Pampered and spoiled like a siamese cat
Blaming the kids is a lie and a shame
You know exactly who’s to blame
The mother and the father”

Charlie is the alternative — the child captivated by wonder, and enamoured by Wonka’s vision, the child who, though he pockets an everlasting gobstopper, and enjoys an illicit taste of the magical fizzy lifting drink, is not consumed by his own desires. Instead, he values his potential relationship with Wonka himself as his means for flourishing and liberation, and he truly sees the Factory as paradise, not as a means to an ends on his own terms. He redeems himself, confessing his misadventures… and, as a result, Willy Wonka gives him his factory.

“How I love my chocolate factory,” said Mr Wonka, gazing down. Then he paused, and he turned around and looked at Charlie with a most serious expression on his face. “Do you love it too, Charlie?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” cried Charlie, “I think it’s the most wonderful place in the whole world!”

“I am very pleased to hear you say that,” said Mr Wonka, looking more serious than ever. He went on staring at Charlie. “Yes,” he said, “I am very pleased indeed to hear you say that. And now I shall tell you why.” Mr Wonka cocked his head to one side and all at once the tiny twinkling wrinkles of a smile appeared around the corner of his eyes, and he said, “You see, my dear boy, I have decided to make you a present of the whole place. As soon as you are old enough to run it, the entire factory will become yours.”

And why? Why does he do this? He says there are all sorts of clever adults who’d do anything to take over from him — but they’d ruin it by not listening — by losing the magic. The key to paradise in Dahl’s world — in the Chocolate Factory — is to not lose the sense of wonder, the imagination, that makes Willy Wonka tick — that produces the sort of coherent world within that chocolate factory, or the sort of world Dahl would very much have liked — where parents are more like Danny’s dad than Matilda’s…

Lewis’ equivalent to chocolate cake is turkish delight, in the unforgettable scene where Edmund meets the White Witch for the first time.

“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.

While he was eating the Queen kept asking him questions. At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive.

The Queen — the witch — promises more if he will become her creature, but he has to do her bidding first, before she’ll give him any more…

“Why not now?” said Edmund. His face had become very red and his mouth and fingers were sticky. He did not look either clever or handsome whatever the Queen might say.

It’s this desire that leads Edmund to betray his family, and Aslan, and that ultimately leads Aslan to lay down his life to rescue him.

He’s not the only one Lewis depicts being consumed by desire; Edmund’s cousin Eustace, the ‘boy who almost deserved it,’ came across a dragon’s lair filled with treasures. He was already greedy and selfish, and in this scene we get a little bit of what Lewis thinks about education for kids that is utterly without wonder  — it fails to prepare us for how to live as people:

“Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”

Eustace found treasure that he desired; he put on big golden bracelets, and went to sleep on the pile of gold, dreaming of his new power… only to wake up transformed by his desires into the dragon.

“Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.”

It’s fair to say Eustace didn’t want to be a dragon; he was helpless and crying when Aslan came along and cut him free from the dragon skin, he describes the transformation to Edmund.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was jut the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.  You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place.  It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”

There are two main difference in Lewis’ stories that make him better than Dahl.

One, he offers hope for transformation for people trapped in the vicious cycle of desire and destruction. Eustace and Edmund are the sort of children who meet sticky ends in the Chocolate Factory — who are trapped, but in Lewis’ work these children are redeemed, because unlike Willy Wonka, Aslan is not a bystander who watches to see if these kids can save themselves — he enters the story to save. Aslan is a not-even-thinly veiled Jesus — in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader he tells the kids he exists in their world as Jesus — and this is what brings a certain sort of hope to Lewis’ stories, the kids aren’t the heroes — Jesus is.

Two, he actually wants us to take fairy-stories and the imagination seriously — to see them as where real adulthood — real humanity — is to be found.

Because he believed fairy stories are true and serious in a way Dahl did not.

For Lewis, wonder and enchantment flowed out of a sense that the world itself is miraculous and enchanted, he describes the moment he realised this in his book Surprised By Joy:

“For the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since—the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult. Not everyone has this disease; those who have will know what I mean. I once tried to describe it in a novel. It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts. It is probably this passion, more even than the desire for power, which makes magicians.”

C.S Lewis is serious about what Dahl jokes about; even as both want us to pursue a childlike wonder and joy. For Lewis these enchanted stories and our sense of wonder are small stories reflecting on the big story — the ‘myth that became history’ — the death and resurrection of Jesus. Which is a story that offers hope and transformation in the face of the mess we make of our lives through our misplaced desires — if only we can hold on to belief, to keep seeing the world as magic and Jesus as the Aslan of history — the redeemer who dies to free us from the cunning tempter, and cuts us free from the dragon-like mess we make of our own lives.

To ‘grow’ past that belief, in Lewis’ world, is what Susan did that kept her from the happy ending in the story — to let go of wonder in exchange for small trinkets in this world.

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight to keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. He whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

How Jesus is like Fortnite, but better

Fortnite is a global phenomenon. The free-to-play first person shooter from Epic Games has just celebrated its first birthday. It’s just cracked $1 billion in revenue from in game purchases (and the growth there seems exponential, it started raking in more than $300 million a month back in May). It has 125 million players globally. It isn’t just popular to play — players in just one month spent 700 million cumulative hours — 79,908 years — watching other people play. When you ponder what else might have been done with those hours (the Great Pyramid of Giza took an estimated 131,200 years of construction time) that’s a pretty staggering commitment to a game — because it’s not even counting playing time.

I started playing Fortnite because the kids in my religion classes at school are obsessed with it — it’s all they want to talk about. One kid told me that during the last school holidays he spent $300 on the game’s in-house currency ‘V-Bucks’. Fortnite might be free to play, but once you’re in you can customise the look of your character by purchasing skins, dance moves, and assorted odds and ends that make no difference to game play — this kid told me the point of spending money is all about looking good while you play; there’s nothing more to it than that (and the in-group satisfaction that comes with caring about that sort of performed identity). The money making model is all about digital vanity; in Fortnite beauty really is skin deep and its what’s on the outside that counts.

But Fortnite is fun. It really is. It’s both simple to play and complex to master; and you come face to face with players, 100 at a time, from across the skill spectrum.

Fortnite is all about loot. The only form of the game worth playing is the Battle Royale. It’s a last-man-or-woman-standing shoot-em-up on an island filled with treasure chests containing the arsenal you need to survive and thrive (and take down the other players). When you kill another player you upgrade your stuff by switching your bad stuff for their best stuff so that by the endgame the survivors are running around armed to the teeth. There’s no respawning in a Battle Royale; when you’re done you’re done, the stakes are high (except you can of course play another one, and another one, and another one, ad infinitum).

The catch is the island shrinks minute by minute so there’s no standing still and lots of smashing and grabbing and shooting in a frenetic pace. It’s fun. It’s majorly addictive. It’s fleeting. You might amass a pretty great personal armoury by the end of a Battle Royale; you might stand victorious; but the very next round you start with nothing again — your loot evaporated… which is perhaps why people spend dollars on the more permanent but less useful character skins. They might be digital and so intangible but they don’t disappear upon death or victory… they’ll last as long as the Fortnite fad lasts.

I enjoy playing (though I am terrible; my death to kill ratio is stacked heavily towards death). I get the addictive pull of the bright lights and flashy dance moves (if you’ve seen people under 15 engaging in dance moves you don’t recognise, chances are they come from Fortnite).

But Fortnite won’t last. Kingdoms rise and fall — whether they’re political or digital. I don’t know many people still playing Pokemon Go… All those V-Bucks will be like the dollars I spent on CDs in my teens and early years of part time work… they’ll be archived somewhere (in this case digitally) — away from the moths and decay that might get into other temporary treasures, but no less fleeting. Fortnite, as fun as the party is, reminds me of the words of the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible — the ‘teacher’ searched for meaning in a world where every fun thing is ‘breath’ (sometimes translated ‘meaningless’). Where our success — like victory in a Battle Royale — just gets handed on to the winner what seems like moments later.  He said:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labours
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.


Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them. — Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, 10-11

And it gets worse — the teacher explores real pleasures and wealth and finds the same thing — breath, vanity, meaningless…

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
    I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
    and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
    and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
    nothing was gained under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

How much more is this true of digital treasures — ‘skins to make you look cool’ that will last until you buy a younger, cooler, model and then will finally be shelved when the next game tops the charts.

The teacher doesn’t get super-cheery by the end of the book; he decides that life has its pleasures — of which Fortnite might be one — and that we should enjoy these moments while they last (until the next big thing) but trying to build meaning on something ‘breathy’ or fleeting or meaningless isn’t particularly wise. He realises that amassing treasure and then dying — or having them lose all their value — is ultimately pointless.

Jesus comes along as another teacher a bit later — providing an antidote to ‘fleetingness’ that is more fulfilling than the teacher’s pleasures in Ecclesiastes and the fleeting glory of a Fortnite victory or a well stocked treasure chest in-game. He also has a bit of advice to those who want to spend hundreds of dollars on ‘skins’ as digital ‘treasure’.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” — Matthew 6:19-21

This is pretty great investment advice that you might pass on to the V-Bucks obsessed kids (or adults) in your life. But where Jesus is better than Fortnite, and anything meaningless, is that building your life on him is both real wisdom and how to store up treasures in heaven.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” — Matthew 7:24-27

He lasts; his kingdom is eternal, his victory was over the meaningless that comes from life-in-the-face-of-death, and he won’t be knocked off his throne by anybody.

How Jesus is like Caesar Augustus, but better

It’s the year 2017 AD in the western world this year. Did you know that the AD means anno Domini; which is latin for ‘the year of our Lord’… our calendar counts the years from an estimate of the year that Jesus was born (it’s probably a few years out). But things could be different. We could be counting the years from the birth of Caesar Augustus; if the Roman empire had survived and continued to expand the way it was under his rule.

Did you know that lots of the titles used for Jesus: son of God, saviour of the world, the one who brings ‘peace on earth’ were all first used of Caesar Augustus, and proclaimed in a thing called a ‘Gospel’ (a Roman proclamation of good news)? There’s an inscription from 9BC called the Priene Calendar Inscription, which proclaims the following:

“whereas Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with virtue for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us a Saviour who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in peaceful order; and whereas Caesar, when he was manifest, transcended the expectations of all who had anticipated the good news, not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him; ….. proconsul Paul Fabius Maximus has discovered a way to honour Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his nativity; therefore, with the blessings of Good Fortune and for their own welfare, the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23, which is the birthday of Augustus; and, to ensure that the dates coincide in every city, all documents are to carry both the Roman and the Greek date, and the first month shall, in accordance with the decree, be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.”

This inscription marks a move in the empire to recalculate the year, and the counting of years, from a new beginning date for the calendar; the birthday of Augustus, who was called ‘our God,’ the saviour who brought peaceful order and made war to cease…

And yet…

It’s 2017 AD, not 2026 AD. And the AD refers to Jesus, not Caesar.

You’ve got to wonder why. Don’t you. There were so many good things about the Roman empire; they were cultural innovators, educators, inventors, architects, world builders and had a pretty impressive military with a winning record. The empire also had a sophisticated economic regime and some pretty impressive propaganda, which centred on the spread of ‘good news’ like this, and on worship of the impressive emperor. Statues of the emperor, and coins bearing his mugshot, would circulate around the empire marking his reign, and signalling that it was Caesar who guaranteed the trade that was making people rich and comfortable within the empire (the same sort of coin that Jesus would one day say ‘give to Caesar what has his image on it,’ and give to God what has God’s image on it).

These statues would give people a sense of how to dress, and how to style their hair, and would reinforce the emperor’s place as a God. There’s even a line in Livy, the Roman historian’s work Ab Urbe Condita, which claims Augustus was celebrated as the “founder and restorer of all temples,” he was the head of the Roman state religion, the Pontifex Maximus (high priest)a pretty impressive man with a very impressive legacy (at least as he tells it, in his will, the Reg Gestae Divi Augustus — which translates as the ‘deeds of the Divine Augustus,’ his own claim of divinity.

At the heart of Augustus’ claim to peace was a pretty sinister suppression and destruction of anybody who stood against the empire. Rome was an intolerant military regime that used its propaganda skills to humiliate and destroy those who would not conform; who mastered the art of military conquest, certainly, but also, by the time of Caesar Augustus, had figured out how to crush any opposition from within. Augustus oversaw the transition from Republic to Empire, and his power was absolute; this sort of concentration of power would subsequently be abused by future Caesars in some pretty horrible ways, but Augustus represented the first absolute concentration of Roman power into the hands of one man.

This was the sort of power that meant that when, in the 70s BC, Rome faced an uprising from slaves in the empire, led by Spartacus, they crucified 6,000 men along one of Rome’s busiest thoroughfares, the Appian Way. This was a very clear message about these men who would oppose the empire, and helped give the cross it’s propaganda power. The cross was a symbol of total humiliation, reserved for slaves and eventually to those who would oppose Caesar; to empty their claims of power. This is also what led to a coronation of an entirely different sort of king; and the re-calculating of the calendar all over again. Augustus learned from this sort of history and realised that real power wasn’t just about the ability to decide between life and death for thousands of slave-warriors, but in being viewed as a god-man. Augustus was the ruler of Rome when another would be king entered the scene, as we’re told in Luke’s Gospel:

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” — Luke 2:1

A census is where a king would, for pride’s sake, measure the size of the kingdom and their military might. It’s the sort of activity that underpins claims like these in Res Gestae:

“I undertook many civil and foreign wars by land and sea throughout the world, and as victor I spared the lives of all citizens who asked for mercy. When foreign peoples could safely be pardoned I preferred to preserve rather than to exterminate them. The Roman citizens who took the soldier’s oath of obedience to me numbered about 500,000. I settled rather more than 300,000 of these in colonies or sent them back to their home towns after their period of service ; to all these I assigned lands or gave money as rewards for their military service. I captured six hundred ships, not counting ships smaller than triremes…

I carried out a census of the people, and I performed a lustrum after a lapse of forty-two years ; at that lustrum 4,063,000 Roman citizens were registered. Then a second time I performed a lustrum with consular imperium and without a colleague, in the consulship of Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius; at that lustrum 4,233,000 citizens were registered. Thirdly I performed a lustrum with consular imperium, with Tiberius Caesar, my son, as colleague, in the consulship of Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Appuleius; at that lustrum 4,957,000 citizens were registered.”

Bizarrely it’s this census that brings about the birth of an alternate king in the town in which his birth is prophesied; this act of human power and ego boosting that fuels a bragfest for Augustus also introduces a new king; God’s king, into the world. It is pretty amazing that God organises history in this way so that Caesar is basically a pawn in his plans; or a bit player at the start and end of Jesus life (though by then it’s the authority of a different member of the family that is employed to legitimise the execution of Jesus).

Jesus was tried and sentenced to death for exactly the same crime as Spartacus and his slave-soldiers; for opposing the empire. In Jesus case it was for claiming the same titles that Caesar claimed for himself; titles that would later lead his followers to write ‘Gospels’ claiming that Jesus is the one who would bring peace on earth.

Here’s what ultimately leads to the death of Jesus; on a cross — which incidentally is no longer a symbol of Roman power, but of the subversive power of the Gospel; the king who turned the whole world upside down and reshaped history so that we count the date from his birth, not arguably the most powerful man ever to have lived.

Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12-16

Crucified. This was meant to be the humiliation of Jesus; the emptying of his claims, at the hand of Caesar. This was a tool meant to ensure the calendar kept ticking over undisturbed. Somehow, at least as history and the calendar in the western world has unfolded, Jesus is like Caesar, but better. Somehow there are crosses on buildings all over the world marking the peace of Jesus, and his kingdom here on earth, rather than eagles bearing SPQR proclaiming the pax Romana (the peace of Rome).

There’s a series of announcements voiced by different people in Luke’s Gospel that sound very much like that Priene Calendar Inscription, using titles very much like Caesars, and these claims about Jesus are much easier to track down than the claims about Augustus, because Jesus is like Caesar Augustus, but better.

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” — Luke 1:32-33

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” — Luke 2:14

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.” — Luke 2:29-32

And this from Jesus himself, as potentially a more accurate res gestae (literally ‘things done’):

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

That he ultimately achieves this mission via a cross; Rome’s symbol of power, the symbol that ultimately changes the course of the empire (and the calendar) is a delicious irony that we sometimes miss because we’re so removed from events.

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How the Gospel of Jesus is like the story of Moana, but better

Moana is the best Disney princess movie I’ve ever seen. And as a 33 year old bloke you might be wondering just how extensive my knowledge of Disney princess movies is, but as a brother of three sisters, and father of two daughters, and as someone who likes to embrace my ‘sensitive’ side sometimes while pretending to mock what’s on the screen — I’ve seen lots. I can’t say I’ve seen them all, but I do alright on those online quizzes where you don’t just have to identify the princess, but know things about the story, and about their handsome prince charming.

Perhaps the best thing about Moana is the total absence of a Prince Charming; where Frozen still has a subtle romance story between Anna and Kristoff (with Anna as empowered leading lady), Moana has the title character, the princess, going toe to toe with a demi-god; not as some weird star-crossed love thing where the god falls in love with some fair maiden; but as a heroine who is determined to put the world to rights, even if she has to grab the god by the hook to do it.

Moana is visually spectacular, and the songs. Oh, the songs. Give me the harmonies of Pacific Island choirs, The Rock rapping, and Jermaine from Flight Of The Conchords belting out a comedy number, and I’m happy.

Moana begins with a retelling of its world’s creation story. Moana’s grandma, Taia, the village storyteller and sage (the mother of the chief, Moana’s father), opens the movie with the words ‘in the beginning,’ and sets out the status quo of the world; the story of paradise lost to the children of Moana’s village; including the infant Moana. In this story, the world isn’t as it should be because Maui, in a bid to impress people and be loved, adored, and worshipped, stole the heart from another god, Te Fiti, who became a sort of world eating, fire-throwing, monster who is gradually causing the natural world to fall apart.

This is the ‘origin story’ of the world that Moana enters as the heroine; the saviour; the ‘chosen one’ — called by the ocean, and the gods, to put the world to rights. This call, from the ocean, includes being gifted, literally, Te Fiti’s heart; a small stone that the ocean throws up to her when she’s a small girl; the ultimate external call to adventure. Only, her father wants her to heed a different call… not a call to go out on an adventure; whether aimless or to save the world, but instead, to remain in the village.

Moana’s family, her village, live on a cloistered island paradise, seemingly out of reach of the destruction wrought by Te Fiti. Paradise hasn’t been lost for them, and in order to protect this community and its idyllic life, staying on the island has become not just an ideal, but an idol; a little tower of rocks placed by chief after chief sits on the highest peak of the island as a stony representation of this religion; where human flourishing is connected to place, and to this story (that the island is not like the rest of the world, and that it has ‘all we need’). This religious outlook is reinforced by rules about fishing within the fringing reef, and the kids, it seems (though especially Moana as the future chief), are brought up with a sort of sung liturgy that reinforces this belief.

Moana, it’s time you knew
The village of Motunui is
All you need
The dancers are practising
They dance to an ancient song
(Who needs a new song? This old one’s all we need)
This tradition is our mission
And Moana, there’s so much to do (make way!) — Where You Are (Moana Soundtrack)

This ‘tradition’ is their mission? These are religious concepts; and they come off the back of (and contradict) the religious creation account that opens the movie. But this new tradition is teaching the children of the island to stay; that home is where the hearth is; even despite their yearnings to the contrary. Where you are, in this tradition, is who you are.

The island gives us what we need
And no one leaves
That’s right, we stay
We’re safe and we’re well provided
And when we look to the future
There you are
You’ll be okay
In time you’ll learn just as I did
You must find happiness right
Where you are — Where You Are (Moana Soundtrack)

Taia subverts this religion, she challenges this orthodoxy, by trying to connect the kids with both the bigger story of the world — the creation story — and the village’s true heritage — they are fearless voyagers who explored the sea and found many other ‘paradises’. She sings:

“You are your father’s daughter
Stubbornness and pride
Mind what he says but remember
You may hear a voice inside
And if the voice starts to whisper
To follow the farthest star
Moana, that voice inside is
Who you are” — Where You Are (Moana Soundtrack)

She says ‘where you are’ is not ‘who you are’; rather ‘where you are going’ shapes who you are — this desire to voyage beyond the island. Yet; the power of liturgy in both song and practice is strong. Moana is convinced, momentarily:

So here I’ll stay
My home, my people beside me
And when I think of tomorrow
There we are
I’ll lead the way
I’ll have my people to guide me
We’ll build our future together
Where we are — Where You Are (Moana Soundtrack)

But despite this brief resolution; Moana is struck by the wanderlust. She is pulled by the call of the ocean; and by her voyager heart’s longing to meet the horizon.

I’ve been standing at the edge of the water
‘Long as I can remember, never really knowing why
I wish I could be the perfect daughter
But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try

See the line where the sky meets the sea it calls me
And no one knows, how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know, if I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go… — How Far I’ll Go (Moana Soundtrack)

She starts to doubt her father’s account of what the good life looks like, and how she should live for the sake of herself, and the village.

I know, everybody on this island seems so happy on this island
Everything is by design
I know, everybody on this island has a role on this island
So maybe I can roll with mine
I can lead with pride, I can make us strong
I’ll be satisfied if I play along
But the voice inside sings a different song
What is wrong with me?  — How Far I’ll Go (Moana Soundtrack)

The need for Moana to leave the safety of the village (which is matched by her desire) comes when it turns out their island isn’t free from the scourge of Te Fiti — the coconut trees and fish they depend on for their paradisiacal existence start to die; their future is in jeopardy, and to save the future they need to reconnect with the past. Ultimately Taia reveals that Moana is actually part of a tribe whose true heritage is caught up in voyaging; that her heart’s yearning is actually the traditional one, and part of what real flourishing for her tribe looks like; despite her father’s fears and isolationist instincts.

“We read the wind and the sky
When the sun is high

We sail the length of sea
On the ocean breeze
At night we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are

We are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders
In the never ending chain” — We Know The Way (Moana Soundtrack)

Finally, through the course of her journey; her embracing the call; she realises who she is, and it allows her to solve the problem and save the world… mostly without the help of Maui (who turns out to be a relatively self-absorbed (non-)saviour, who is ultimately, himself, redeemed by Moana.

Who am I?
I am a girl who loves my island
I’m the girl who loves the sea
It calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me
I’ve delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more
Still it calls me
And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana! — I am Moana (Moana Soundtrack)

The titles of these songs mark Moana’s journey to this point of realisation: Where You Are, How Far I’ll Go, We Know The Way, I Am Moana; and this journey allows her to save Te Fiti, as expressed in her song: You Know Who You Are.

The demi-god couldn’t save the world; he only broke it. It was up to Moana to restore the goddess Te Fiti, by taking her own journey of self-discovery and using it to remind Te Fiti of who she is “you know who you are, this is not who you are” — and it’s not just the ‘heart’ that determines this, because at this moment Te Fiti doesn’t have one; identity in this story comes from beyond the self, and through relationship with others via the story of the world for their good, but not to please them. Moana’s message to this wronged goddess is: don’t let Maui’s foolishness define you; don’t let other people’s wrong actions shape you; you aren’t shaped just by your stolen heart… there’s an external call that even this goddess can answer.

This is the way of the world. The Moana world.

Flourishing in this story is about your heart lining up with both your tradition, and the good of others; it’s about pursuing the internal and external call to pursue and serve the greater good.

There’s even a rebuke of Maui that comes as he realises that his attitude in ‘You’re Welcome’ and the people pleasing call from his heart doesn’t line up with his ‘tradition’; the real story of the world. Maui is more like the villainous Tamatoa the garish crab than he’d care to admit, his heart aches for the love of humans, but not truly for their good, for what feeling wanted and worshipped makes him feel.

“Now it’s time for me to take apart
Your aching heart

Far from the ones who abandoned you
Chasing the love of these humans
Who made you feel wanted
You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough” — Shiny (Moana Soundtrack)

Maui is a disappointing demi-god, and the world of Moana, broken by the cursed goddess, needs a human saviour who’ll take on destructive anger of this goddess and appease, then restore her, and thus the world.

My five year old daughter has been singing these songs on heavy rotation since the movie came out (who am I kidding, I’ve been singing these songs on heavy rotation). Like all good Disney movies, we’re carried through this story, and ‘liturgised’ ourselves, by these songs (as we play them endlessly on repeat in cars and lounge rooms, and learn the rap to impress our children). These songs encourage to find our own sense of ‘calling’ — in terms of our traditions, our community values, our internal desires, and an ‘external’ call to adventure voiced by those who would see us flourish, and coming in response to the needs of others (and the world). And there’s so much that is right about this! Moana also made me think about parenting (and about parenting in Disney movies); how do I respond to the big scary world and teach my kids to live in it in a way that is true to my understanding of its story; rather than in a way that interferes with and re-writes that story into a story of my own making?

The story of Jesus is like Moana, but better. This picture of human flourishing is mirrored in the Gospel, but exceeded — because the God of the gospel is better; the promise of the Gospel is greater, and our songs give us a better sense of where and who we are; because they teach us whose we are, and where we’re going.

Moana gets so much about life in this world right; at least according to the Bible. Our world is broken. It is cursed. It is cursed as the result of a wrong action — but this action is not the act of a demi-god who wants our love, it’s broken because we humans wish we were gods. The curse on this planet does need a human solution; but it also needs a divine solution — and rather than a plucky human heroine teaming up with a reluctant demi-god and fixing the broken heart of another god; in the Christian story the God who has been wronged takes on humanity in order to both pay the cost and provide an infinite and divine solution to the problems with the world, before ultimately restoring it to something greater than the paradise lost.

But that sort of ‘parallel’ to the Gospel story isn’t where Moana really thrives; lots of stories do a sort of mirroring of the Gospel narrative with Jesus as the hero… It’s how Moana explores what human flourishing looks like in a world where gods and the supernatural exist and call us to live in certain ways in response that makes it great (and again, where the Gospel is greater because it is true). The difference is our God isn’t capricious and trying to please us so breaking the world; he’s for us and with us; and we are the problem with the world that he fixes by becoming one of us. Willingly, not begrudgingly like Maui.

Moana invites us to see the world as enchanted; just as the Bible invites us to see the cosmos as created by God for his own grand story; which centres on the arrival of Jesus as ‘God with us’.* It’s this story that provides an external call to go into the world and make followers of Jesus, because of the promise of a better future (and that God will be with us always until the end of the age); and this external call matches the internal call; it lines up with who God has made us to be and what will be good for us and the universe. It links us in to God’s promise to restore and recreate all things; to lift the curse of death and destruction that we face, just as Moana and her villagers faced. Where the Gospel is a better story than Moana is that it teaches us that it’s not just where we’ve come from, or are born, what we do, or where we are called to go in this world that determines who we are; it’s also where we’re going. Paradise restored in Moana is temporary; paradise restored in the Christian story is forever. Here’s how the story of the Gospel ends; the story of Jesus’ victory — not a demi-god, but fully-god, and fully human — fixing everything; inviting us to know who we are as we hear this story and are invited into it.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridebeautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. — Revelation 21:1-7

Plus. It comes with better songs. Songs that we’ll be singing in this new eternity forever.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” — Revelation 7:9-10

Moana challenges how we parent in this world too — because it shows us where parenting can go wrong if the world is actually enchanted and there are causes beyond ourselves and our survival; if there’s a bigger narrative — especially one that addresses our problems and fears. And it reminds us that songs and stories are really powerful tools for shaping our kids; so we should choose good ones, and I’m happy for my kids to watch and sing Moana songs, so long as they’re also hearing and singing songs about the real king in order to know who they are, and where they’re called to go. Given that we know where we’re going, and who wins, there’s no room for fear and restricting people to our little safe communities when they call — the mission of our tradition — is much bigger; to go into all the world and make disciples.

*For a bit of a reflection on how Moana provides a better version of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary” than our modern stories, see the comments.


How the Gospel is like Frozen, but better

I have a five year old daughter. Which means I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Frozen, let alone the times we’ve sung along to the soundtrack. I also have an almost two year old daughter, so there’s no sign of this trend letting up any time soon (plus sequels…).

Frozen is, for all its ear worms, a great movie. It’s not just a great movie for girls — though it is that; featuring strong female protagonists, no salvation-through-prince-charming narrative, ‘true love’ found in the context of family, and a brave questing heroine in Anna. Frozen is a great movie for boys too (and not only because it presents girls as something other than a prize).

I’ve been trying to convince my oldest daughter that her first take (and many subsequent takes) on Frozen have been wrong. I’m almost there. Now I’m going to try to convince you.

Elsa is not the most powerful hero in Frozen; she’s the powerful villain who is ultimately redeemed.

Anna is the more powerful hero, who follows the conventional hero’s journey, and she is the redeemer who sacrifices herself in an act of true love; demonstrating that love, in fact, is more powerful than the weird genetic ability to make ice, and so, both sacrificing herself for Elsa in order to save her, while also redeeming Elsa, unlocking a more powerful (less broken) version of herself, and giving her the example she needs to bring life not death to their kingdom.

It’s a shame that Elsa gets so much more attention in the merchandise, and the more compelling anthemic songs to sing (and to have sung over, and over, and over, and over again). The songs in Frozen are an interesting window into our world’s problems when it comes to stories (and why my daughter was harder to convince than she should be of this thesis). Songs are a pretty great ‘long tail’ revenue raiser for a movie, for most people they exist in the imagination (and a long time after the story), and the more they are removed from the story the less of their original meaning and context they retain. Somehow, Let It Go has become a sort of liberating anthem for girls who have, for too long, been told ‘conceal, don’t feel, don’t let your powers out, put on a show’ — and there are absolutely things in this narrative in Elsa’s head that are villain creating — but according to the movie, Let It Go is not redemptive… it’s destructive. It’s where Elsa locks herself alone in the centre of an ice kingdom with a deadly monster who almost kills the sister who came to save her. It’s part of her path to redemption, part of her journey, but not its end. In the end we learn that Anna has had the key all along (though she too has had to learn to channel her powers and not focus them with great and inappropriate intensity on everyone)… Love is an open door.  She was just, in terms of her journey, singing it to the wrong person — projecting years of being shut out from loving her sister onto the first person who offers ‘an open door’ (so here’s a hot tip for parents out there trying to learn something from Frozen… please don’t close the door, please don’t tell your kids not to feel, to conceal who they are out of fear… model health. And probably don’t both drown on a ship in a storm). 

Anyway. Anna’s heroic journey teaches her something more about love; she is forced to question whether the story she built for herself with Hans is fact or fiction, and it’s not just Kristoff’s words that challenge this, but his very existence (and his own ‘open door’ policy of simply speaking his mind and challenging her bad decisions), their interactions with the ‘love experts’ (and it’s pretty clear the trolls have a fairly limited understanding of human love — as marriage/romantic love — and that they gave some pretty bad and damaging advice to Elsa early on in the piece), and the unconditional love she receives from a snowman (who’s something of an avatar of the last time she really felt loved by her sister (a symbol, in part, to some of her longings in Do You Want To Build A Snowman, but also a sign that Elsa hasn’t totally forgotten that moment of joy and love they experienced before the door closed, and before the gates closed).

Anna becomes the hero a bit by accident. She goes looking for a redeemer who’ll thaw her frozen heart, and in the climactic moment of the movie she runs in front of a sword meant for Elsa — a sword of judgment — and takes that sword upon herself.

In a way Hans is the devil; he abuses Anna’s naivety to replace her desire for ‘true love’ with ‘false love’, and pushes Elsa to the point where he might legitimately destroy her with a sword — as an act of ‘legal’ judgment (though Anna isn’t dead, so Elsa hasn’t actually killed her)

And in that act of sacrifice — she unthaws Elsa’s frozen heart. And they all live happily ever after. Love is the real power in Frozen, and loving sacrifice the real path to building the kingdom of Arendelle.

When you watch Frozen this way it’s a great story. A powerful story. A story we should want capturing the imaginations of our daughters and sons (not just the songs)… it’s a story very much like the Gospel story.

The Gospel is like Frozen, but better. It’s better because, as J.R.R Tolkien said, it’s a ‘true fairy tale’. It’s better because the sudden and unexpected happy ending — the thawing of our frozen hearts — the beating of Jesus’ heart after death, and the redemption of our own icy villainous hearts is true; not just an animation. It’s better cause we have better songs connected to the story.

The story of the Bible is something like the story of Frozen. We humans get bad advice early on (from a serpent, not a troll). We ‘close the door’ on God, and ‘ice’ claims our hearts. We become cold, where we were made for love we forget how to love, and in some ways we forget that love is important to give for anything other than selfish reasons. We spread that ‘coldness’ around us, even though we know it’s bad for people, when we just decide to ‘let it go’ — when we pursue our own ‘kingdoms’ by letting it go, and being true to our hearts, it’s bad and isolating for us, and dangerous to others. We are like Elsa. We need redemption. It’s true that in the movie, ice can also be used to create beautiful and redemptive things, so it’s not a perfect metaphor for sin, it’s more our humanity apart from God, and a re-connection with God, in the Bible’s story, re-animates this humanity so that we make beautiful and good things again.

Jesus is like Anna. But better. He doesn’t need to be taught about his power, loveand how to use it. He doesn’t accidentally become the hero at the end of the story because of what has been latent in him all along. He doesn’t misfire, and he doesn’t drive us away or make us fear what life looks like when we embrace our true power (love). He doesn’t have ice in his veins, but he does lay down his life and take an icy blast from us. The utter evil misdirection of our icy fury. Where Elsa kills Anna, we kill Jesus. And yet. Jesus lays down his life for us. To save us from the swinging sword of judgment. It’s actually not the sword that kills Anna; the ice Elsa blasted her with finally freezes all of her, and her icy death — her frozen body — turns the blow aside.

Jesus is like Anna because he shows us that true love is ‘laying down one’s life for one’s friends,’ Jesus is like Anna because he takes on our ‘icy mess’ and uses that moment not just to save us from the sword of judgment, but to redeem us — and thaw our hearts — providing new life for us and an example to follow. And we have a song to prove it. Philippians 2, where Paul talks about what it looks like to live following Jesus. He tells us the story of the Gospel in what is held to be an early Christian hymn.

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

This is the song I want my kids singing, and because Frozen is like the Gospel, I think it’s a great bit of ‘media’ to use to bring some of these ideas to life.

How Jesus is like Batman but better…

I love Batman. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Caped Crusader; whether it’s the Adam West Batman from the 1950s-1960s, the cartoons I grew up with, the Christian Bale ‘Dark Knight’, Lego Batman, the Batman of the Arkham series of games, or even, dare I say it, Affleck-Batman. I love the idea of Batman embodying his fears to strike fear into the heart of Gotham’s villains.

I love the complexity of Batman’s character and his relationship with the city of Gotham (as it has evolved). I love the idea that Batman is the real person and Bruce Wayne is the ‘masked’ alter-ego (as opposed, perhaps, to other heroes, with the exception maybe of Superman). I love that in many ways Batman is Gotham; for good and for ill, and that ultimately Gotham becomes ‘Batmanesque’… I love that in embodying the terrifying, Batman shapes Gotham in ways he might not have expected; where he first entered the scene to fight the organised crime in his city — of the sort that led to the death of his parents outside the theatre on that fateful night — Batman’s edgy-but-principled vigilante crusade in the mask and caped visage of the bat, spawns a series of outlandish and garish comic book villains — the Joker, Two Face, The Penguin, The Riddler, Poison Ivy… when you introduce a larger than life masked hero with all sorts of gadgets to an ecosystem like Gotham, he creates a new range of super-villains with their own gimmicks and gadgets. Gotham gets worse, not better. This is a point traded on for laughs in the recent Lego Batman movie, and grappled with more earnestly in the Dark Knight (both in graphic novel and movie form); the equal-but-inverse relationship between Batman and his coterie of villains is another consistent Batman trope, even Adam West Batman in all its kitschy/glam glory features similarly over the top iterations of these villains.

Batman embodies the problem his city faces in order to deal with the problem, yet he ends up frustrated (most of the time) because his embodying of the problems of Gotham actually perpetuate these problems. It’s interesting to think about our own approach to changing the world or fighting for a cause, and what we can learn from these stories (and interesting to ponder whether Batman might actually be better off investing Bruce Wayne’s billions into positive development initiatives for the city, like better street lights and employment programs that keep people out of gangs, or from having the sort of spare time to develop a criminal masterplan and associated gimmick). It becomes an intense arms race. A vicious cycle of destruction.

Jesus is like Batman, but better.

Jesus enters the world to fix the world. He knows there’s a problem that needs solving, and he embodies the problem. The story of the Bible tells us that the problem with the world is, fundamentally, a human problem. Sin. Sin is the name the Bible gives for not following God’s design for humanity; it’s the rejection of the manual for living in the world the right way, and so sin is what makes us trash the world; it’s why we re-shape the world in our own image, to share the darkness in our own hearts. It’s why Batman, in all its versions, is on to something — we do shape our environments, even as they shape us.

Jesus enters the story as a human; a descendent of Adam, and of David, of all the problem-riddled humans in the Old Testament story. He’s a different sort of human though; he brings something additional to the table. He’s unique in history in that he’s fully God, and fully man (perhaps Batman should try being fully Bruce, and fully Batman). He brings a new approach to sin, he rejects it and lives the pattern for humanity that God intended; and so begins re-shaping the world into what God intended it to be (he now does that through his followers as we rediscover what heroism looks like in the face of sin). There’s lots of ways Jesus is like Batman, even if he didn’t wear a cape and a mask; but here’s how he’s better (and a better example for us when it comes to tackling problems around us).

Jesus brings something newer and better to our world than Batman does for Gotham (and than our real life heroes do for the places they try to fix). Here’s what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

God made him sin, Paul says… Jesus takes the problem onto himself, but rather than using this to create the same old pattern of something wrong; rather than perpetuating a new breed of super-villains, Jesus makes us righteous, he restores us to God and to his design for people and the world; he makes us new creations. He sees us as these new creations and frees us from the vicious cycle of inventing the new gadgets and gimmicks that we use to destroy ourselves and the world, and that other people invent to compete with us.