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Gospel According to Disney

Greetings from sunny southern California! I have spent the last two days enjoying all things Disney… well, maybe not the roller coasters… but so much more... The Bells know how to make the most of a Disney adventure! I know you thought I was in California for our daughter’s wedding. But first we plan to experience some of what our daughter loves about her new home. We will hike the mountains, explore a bamboo forest, stroll through a succulent garden, dip our toes in the Pacific Ocean, and jog around the Rose Bowl. But of course, we had to start with Disneyland! They say that Disneyland is “The Happiest Place on Earth.” I am not sure those exhausted toddlers who were in one too many lines would agree. But for our family, it was a great adventure! How fun to see the world through the eyes of fantasy, where animals can talk, anyone can be royal, and of course where “the dream that you dream can come true.”

Our children, like most in our nation, grew up on Disney. Now our granddaughters are doing the same. The children of our nation sit at the feet of Disney like Mary (the sister of Lazarus) sat at the feet of Jesus, drinking in every word. The time our children spend watching Disney, developing Disney values and a Disney worldview, dwarf the time they spend in church. For better or for worse, the Disney gospel is among a child’s earliest tutors. Mark Pinsky, the religion writer for Florida’s Orlando Sentinel, has written a book- Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust- to explore the influence Disney is having on our children. He writes, “The Disney canon is fairly simple. Good is always rewarded. Evil is always punished. Faith is paramount—faith in yourself and, equally, faith in something greater than yourself. But it doesn’t matter what it is that’s greater than yourself.” While many families have drifted away from the church, their children are being moved and shaped by the values of Disney. Yet we would have to admit, even our families who come every Sunday are more influenced by the Gospel of Disney than God’s holy Word. So perhaps we should pay attention to what that gospel is teaching. Here are just a few lessons:

Magic trumps God. Every Disney story has some form of magic, pixie dust, or extra-human powers that come to cause catastrophe or to save the day. From Fairy Godmother waving her magic wand to send Cinderella to the ball, to Elsa, the Princess of Arendell, transforming the world into a frozen scene of ice and snow with the wave of her hand, magic moves and shapes many a Disney story. Yet, God is absent. Some have argued that Disney’s exclusion of God is their attempt to create a more inclusive message that welcomes all faiths and worldviews. But one could also point to Walt Disney’s childhood to find a few clues to his intentional ban of God. The Disney boys were strongly influenced by their father Elias Disney. Although they respected and honored him all their lives, by all report he was at times an abusive parent. His imposition of a rigid Christian fundamentalism turned his sons away from organized religion. Walt turned to fantasy and storytelling as a means of escape. The stories he told, the stories that he helped bring to life, found salvation in magic, not God.

Children save the day. Youth is celebrated in Disney. How wonderful! We want our children to know that they have power and purpose, that their lives can make a difference in the world. How many of us dream big dreams for our children? As the mother of a daughter, and the grandmother of three beautiful girls, I especially love the ‘girl power’ message in many of the stories. I want my girls to believe that they were born with a purpose. I want them to dream big dreams. I hope that they will change the world! But have you ever noticed the message that goes alongside the childempowerment theme? Parents- actually all adults- are the ones who have failed. We are the problem that children need to solve. We have created the disaster that children need to fix. We are the fallen that children need to save. I hate to admit, perhaps there is some truth in that… BUT… As Disney creates stories where parents are often absent, and the lessons of adults cannot be trusted, Disney quietly, subtlety strips the adults in our children’s lives of authority and value.

Christianity is out- Eastern Nature Religions are in. Try as you might, it is hard to find any references to Christianity in the Disney gospel. Some have argued that the apple Snow White eats is an allusion to the Fall in the Garden of Eden, and Geppetto- the puppet maker in Pinocchio- being swallowed by a whale is a veiled reference to the Jonah story. One might even stretch to wonder if Jiminy Cricket’s initials (J.C.) is an allusion to Jesus the Christ. But perhaps the only true reference to Christianity is in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the building offers the sanctuary the people of the church will not. Such a reference does not paint Christianity in a very positive light. Yet, many of the Disney stories raise up nature religions and Eastern philosophy as valuable and trustworthy. Mulan celebrates the Confucius honoring of the ancestors. Pocahontas illustrates Native American animism where there is a spirit in all of nature. The Lion King portrays Hinduism’s great circle of life tradition in an African setting. And Moana brings to life a polytheistic world with a delightful shape-shifter demi-god Maui, who enables Moana (the child) to save her whole island nation.

The Disney religion is built on the unfailing American belief that virtue and hard work will make all your dreams come true. Pinsky writes: “The Gospel of Disney is all about me. My dreams. My will. The Disney bible can be summed up in one verse: When you wish upon a star, your dreams can come true.” As a Christian parent and grandparent, this gospel leaves me wondering about the last two days I have spent celebrating all things Disney.

With you pondering…
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