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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.