Reflections on Cinderella

Last Saturday night was date night for my lovely wife and me. Since our baby Nathan is old enough to stay with his grandmother for a few hours these days, we could go out for dinner and a movie for the first time in forever. What movie did we see? Cinderella. And I will admit to the face-palming of my masculinity that I was the probably the one most interested in seeing it.

As expected, the movie was lovely. Disney pulled off its Disney magic yet again, to the surprise of few, and created a fresh take on a classic which will certainly become the new canonical Cinderella story in the next generation’s consciousness. All this is quite fitting.

But Disney movies, fairy tales in particular, seem to always leave me with many thoughts which I simply must express. So as I did with Frozen before, I want to simply highlight a few themes and moments from Cinderella which I especially enjoyed or noticed. Hopefully you’ll all agree and enjoy.

“Have Courage and Be Kind”

I might as well start with the movie’s most explicit theme, namely the advice given to young Ella by her mother on her deathbed. She told her to promise to have courage and be kind. Ella takes this as her life motto and seems to truly stick to it. As to courage, she remains brave as her father continues his travels even after her mother’s passing. She hesitates not a moment to bless his wishes to find happiness with a new wife. And even when he finally passes away, she tries her best to keep living well among her stepfamily. As to kindness, she never stops for a moment. To her father, to her evil stepmother, to her obnoxious stepsisters, to the prince, and to her fairy godmother in beggar form she continues to show kindness even when in great personal despair.

Naturally, we have a lot to learn from this. For to have courage and be kind easily sums up Christian virtue. We are to endure all things, proclaim the name of Jesus, and even be willing to risk our lives for the Gospel of the Kingdom, so we must have courage. We are to love our neighbors and our enemies, bless those who curse us, give our worldly goods to those who have none, and by sharing the truth save others from eternal danger, so we must be kind. If we live by this advice given by Ella’s mother, what will we lack in doing good? Indeed, if most of us were even half as kind as Ella herself, we would be very different people and give our testimony of Christ much more credibility.

Who Am I?

There was also a quote that caught my ear near the end of the movie. As Ella descends from her attic to meet her prince, the narrator makes this point about her nerves: “This is perhaps the greatest risk any of us will ever take—to be seen as we truly are. Will we be enough as we really are?” And of course this is a real risk which we must reckon with in all our relationships. Will we abandon pretense, vanity, self-consciousness, and all other pride or fear so that we may truly love and be loved? Will we be actors or involve our real selves with others?

After this comment was made, Ella went down to see her prince, who was glad to have found her but wondered greatly who see was who appeared to him before dressed like a princess, vanished, and now stood before him a servant maid. What was her response to him? She says, “I have nothing. I am nothing, but who I am.” Finally she adds, “Will you take me as I am?” Naturally he agrees. What strikes me about this is how, for us who affirm the Gospel, it is radically our reality. We’ve come to Jesus having nothing and claiming nothing of ourselves. We must drop our disguises of self-righteousness and self-sufficiency and ask Him the all-important prayer, “Will you take me as I am?” And praise be to God that He promises to never turn away or cast out those who come to the Son! He will take us as we are.

Falling Headfirst into Love

An obvious major point of Cinderella is the romance of Ella and the prince. It was a pretty enjoyable development, in my opinion. The magic of their meetings in the forest and at the ball struck me as identifiable having myself only just left my teens. The movie called to memory the feeling before of meeting someone new, a hint of attraction involved, and getting to know a lovely stranger. It can feel like real magic, and seeing this onscreen is just altogether pleasant.

Of course, in the real world such experiences rarely lead to permanent, meaningful relationships. They tend to last briefly, and only a few grow into a lifetime of love. But they are not to be entirely spurned or written off for that reason. The very idea of these times is what makes them possible, regardless of where they end up, and when they happen the memories are worth it. And in some rare cases, such as I suggest the case of Ella and the prince, these events are enough to warrant further relationship and even marriage simply because they reveal quickly how worthy and good the people are.

As a final note on falling in love, when memories like this are looked at in retrospect, nostalgia is almost inevitable, and a pang of sadness that those days have ended. I’m a married man with a 9 month old baby now; I’ve already met my wife, gotten to know her, and fallen in love. Seems like a shame it will never happen again, right? But the truth is, as watching Cinderella reminded me, that these days do not have to be over, nor should they. The difference is the challenge and effort. Falling in love to begin with isn’t hard if you are willing, but to continue to learn about your beloved, to know them more, and to find every day more delight and reasons to love—that is hard and takes conscious effort. This is what the ideal of fairy tale love compels us to seek by confronting us with magic. As long as we long for that magic which Ella and her prince so embody, we have inspiration to keep working on knowing and loving our spouses every day.

Why Get Married?

As the prince spoke to his dying father, the issue of the reason for marriage came to my mind. The king gave in; he told his son to marry for love and not advantage. This was good, because it made for the happy ending. But was he right? Is this fairy tale teaching of marriage for love the right reason to get married? After all, that’s not what most people have historically believed and done. And while Ella is right when she says, “Just because it’s what’s done, doesn’t mean it’s what should be done,” were our ancestors actually wrong? They often married for many reasons besides love.

I do not believe it is wise to marry if because of love alone, at least in the sense of being in love. Contrary to popular belief, just because you love someone doesn’t actually mean you should marry them. Other things matter as well. Can you reasonably unite your two existing lives? Will you hurt other people in the process? Do you have goals and beliefs about your life and future which work together or which will conflict? And what about children? Surely reproduction is one of the most important reasons—though certainly not the only or necessarily the controlling reason—for marriage and sexuality. In all honesty, as well, when we hold to the traditional and Biblical teaching of sex as reserved for marriage, is there anything to gain from marriage besides sex and children which cannot be gained without marriage? All of these questions and considerations matter in the real world.

But I do not in saying all this dismiss love as a motivator. Instead of saying people should marry for love, with “for” meaning “because of,” I might suggest people should marry—at least in part—for love, with “for” meaning “in order to.” After all, when we are following the right path of waiting until marriage to become one in life, body, and habitation, how much can we really already love? Surely we do love, but not to perfection. There is much growth to remain, and is it not for the full potential of matured love and not the usually temporary and passionately-determined seeds of love that we should actually marry? This sounds correct to me.

The Cinderella Story

Finally, I want to address the actual plot of the movie. We all know the story. It is timelessly classic, and beloved.  Countless versions, spin-offs, and retellings have been made. So why is this story so enjoyable? Why does it receive so much attention? While I’m sure there are many reasons, I do offer one possible part. In the story of Cinderella we see redemption in Christ.

Trace out the plot and think of it. Though we were made by a good Father, before long we found ourselves the wretched servants of an unnatural parent, Satan. Even though as children of the Father we ought to have abundant life, we were miserable in dust and isolation. In one point very different from Ella, we ourselves were no less wicked than our stepfamily of evil. But all that changed. For the Son of the King found us, and in love He made us His bride, raising us from our pathetic existence in slavery to exalt us as royalty through Him. We are both Ella, the wronged servant, and her stepsisters, the ones wronging others, yet we were rescued by a worthy Prince, Jesus Himself, with a little supernatural help in the form of a fairy godmother the Holy Spirit. With this allegory so clear, it is no wonder that the story of Cinderella captures the hearts and minds of so many people. For all souls long for rescue by the Prince of Peace.

Blessed be the God who has done all this! Amen.

Reflections on Cinderella

The Hunger Games, Amos, and American Christianity

If you have any idea what this post is about by the title, you deserve a prize. I doubt the connection between the items is at all obvious, unless maybe you’ve recently given them each good thought. But there is a connection, and one that concerns me. To put it as concisely as possible, the connection is “luxury and poverty.”

The Hunger Games presents this theme quite prominently, and even a bit humorously. While most of the people in Panem live difficult, impoverished lives, working hard to just provide the basics for their families and avoid the government’s wrath, one small part of the population does none of this. The residents of the Capitol live pampered lives in comparison. They feast while those in most Districts starve. With plenty of leisure time, they keep busy with absurd fashions, graphic television, and celebrity gossip. All of this comes, of course, from the slavish toil of the inhabitants of the Districts who struggle to get by.

Our reactions to the citizens of the Capitol seem to range from condescending amusement to unadulterated loathing. We tend to look down on them and think they should realize the tragedies outside of their walls. We may find ourselves indignant: “How dare they party so hard with so much food while poor children like Primrose never know if they’ll have enough to eat!” And that reaction would hardly be unwarranted.

The people of Israel in the prophet Amos’ day were in a similar place. There were poor and needy people throughout the land, but the rest did not care. They made their poverty worse with high taxes, lots of fines, slavish work, and apathetic attitudes. All the rich offered lavish sacrifices with extravagant celebrations which did not include the beggars they pushed their way through on the way to the temple. Women exploited those in need for clothes, then called to their husbands for more wine bought with fines and tax revenue.

Again, it is clear to see where the Israelites were wrong, especially when you see the strong language of the actual Bible. The natural response is horror and disbelief that people could live such luxurious lives at the expense of others who must live pathetic ones. The exploitation going on in Amos’ day seems to clearly justify the violent and terrible judgment which he prophesied against Israel.

I now reach us, the American Christians, and find disturbing parallels. Like the citizens of the Capitol and the rich Israelites, we never lack in food or clothes, and instead have our own problem of too little space in our closets and fridges. We act and speak as though we think of ourselves as the only people in the world, much like Cinna’s oblivious assistants. Many of us do not know or care anything about the state of peoples and nations that are aren’t in the news, like the Israelites who grew so proud in their national election that they thought nothing of the people near them. Republican Christians are likely to despise legislation which could actually help those in need if the government plays any part, while Democrat Christians are likely to support high taxes and strict regulations that no matter who they target, are likely to do damage all the way down to the poorest. In our individual lives, we applaud God’s condensation of the women who enslaved the poor for sandals, but I wonder how different that is from our imported clothes made in sweatshops. We stuff ourselves after church at Golden Corral without a thought to the millions of people whose budget to feed their children for a month is less than the price of our meal.

The truth is that we American Christians, even those of us who make below the official poverty line, live a life of luxury compared to most of the human race, both historically and geographically. This isn’t to say we’ve got no problems or lack. The rich life brings its own troubles. But we do sit obliviously atop the world’s economy. Ninety nine percent of Americans are really the top 1% of the world at large. This itself isn’t a bad or wrong thing. What justifies or condemns us is how we respond to that fact.

So what should we do if we don’t want to fall like Israel or Panem? I doubt God will be pleased if all we do is tag Jesus in the album of our otherwise normal, oblivious, pampered lives. In fact, I know He won’t be, since He tells us Himself in the parable of the sheep and the goats that He identifies deeply with the poor, oppressed, and needy. So to go most days ignoring them is all too close to ignoring the Father, even when we do personal devotions and church. Jesus tells us that He is hungry, He is sick, He is imprisoned, His children have been sold into sex slavery, He works hours and hours for a couple bucks, and can’t afford a place to live. So what will we do for our God?

To be honest, I’m not sure what all to do. Since I don’t see much of the suffering out there, it’s hard to get most of the needs. Moreover, I don’t like boycotts or such things because they are rarely effective or consistent. I’m also not convinced that the best route is a radical abandonment of normal life. Normal isn’t bad, after all. It’s a gift to be received with thanksgiving. But it is simply not enough on its own. So what do I propose? I don’t have much of anything concrete, but here are a couple ideas bouncing around in my head.

  • During a month or longer, or even indefinitely, match all the money you spend going out to eat with a donation that puts food in the mouths of the hungry.
  • Get out and see needs up close. Find the bad part of town and explore. Imagine how you would feel if you and your children had to live in that ratty house in that dangerous neighborhood. Make it hard to forget or ignore.
  • Start keeping up with the politics, news, and general welfare of another, less prosperous country, and consider what it would be like if you lived there. Start praying for them and getting involved in projects that can benefit them. Maybe even take a trip.
  • Try getting involved in something obvious and stereotypical that you never thought to do, like helping at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Avoid excuses, e.g. You are not truly too busy, and if you are, then get less busy. Take real time and real effort to meet needs and involve yourself with people who don’t have so much luxury.
  • Fast, but not for your personal growth in particular. Instead, give up something you have that much of the world doesn’t, and spend the time in prayer, service, and giving for their provision.

All of this is pretty experimental in my head, and I still need to try to implement stuff like this in my own life. I haven’t so far, at least not much, but reading Amos has convicted me again. So also remember not to be offended, because most of this criticism is really about me.

The Hunger Games, Amos, and American Christianity

5 Snowflakes for Frozen

I was a latecomer to the party, but last week I saw Frozen, and I completely loved it. It is the best Disney animation I’ve ever seen (noting that I don’t remember at all some of the classics I saw when I was young). I really liked Tangled. I liked Wreck-It Ralph. But Frozen blew them both out of the water. Besides the obvious attractions (excellent music, great visuals, etc.), I think there a number of themes, messages, and object lessons to be found that truly set Frozen apart from the pack. I’ll give five great truths to see in Frozen. (Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the movie yet!)

Yeah, About “True Love”

No movies are more associated with the myths surrounding “true love” than Disney movies. So when Frozen defies the stereotypes not once but twice, I find myself someone refreshed. Early in the movie, when Anna meets Hans and they almost instantly fall in love (which led to the excellent “Love is an Open Door” song), their quick engagement doesn’t seem that stunning. If they had followed through and gotten married, no one would have batted an eye because in the Disney universe, you can find true love in a few hours. Yet not in Frozen. Instead, the concept of such instant love is scoffed by Else, ridiculed by Kristoff, and finally revealed as a scam when Hans betrays Anna and exposes his true motives. (This was, by the way, one of my few nitpicks with the movie. The twist was a good idea, but I think they played the good-Hans a little too convincingly up until that point, making his actual plan seem like an unrealistic twist.)

“Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”

Olaf

If Frozen had stopped there, I would have been content. Yet the challenges continues. Near the end, when Anna is dying of her frozen heart and racing for Kristoff, apparently her real true love, she sees Hans about to kill Elsa and turns to save her. She chooses to save her sister instead of be saved by her handsome hero. Again, this is a refreshing twist on the usual portrayal of love. In fact, this self-sacrifice becomes the act of true love which thaws Anna’s frozen heart. This goes well with what the quite wonderful snowman Olaf said, which is a much better definition of love than what some will give: “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.” Word, Disney. Frozen’s portrayal of love actually reminds me of Jesus’ words in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 

Letting Go: The Right and the Wrong

Even if you haven’t seen Frozen, there is a good chance that you’ve heard the musical masterpiece that is “Let It Go” (and if you haven’t, then go to YouTube right now and listen). Easily the most memorable and high quality song of any Disney movie in many years, “Let It Go” expresses the sudden shift in Elsa when, having failed at her number one goal to never let anyone see her icy powers, she takes a 180 and decides to embrace and explore her abilities far away from all the people from whom she had been hiding. For years, she blocked out everyone else and isolated herself, trying to hold in her powers and not hurt anyone. Now she’s failed, and she’s ready to quit that road and enjoy what she can do.

The funny thing about “Let it Go” is that most people seem to miss the point. Far from being an anthem of self-expression and self-realization, “Let It Go” marks Elsa only getting things half-right. She rightly realizes that the suppression she put on her abilities have been damaging, and she does well to embrace them, but what she fails to see is that the most dangerous part of her power is still present. She still isolates herself. She still fears sharing her life with others and loving people. So she goes to the wilderness and revels in her self-satisfying abilities, but remains broken, as is clearly seen later when Anna tries to bring her home. What “Let It Go” really shows us is that self-expression alone is quit unsatisfying and impotent. 

For Elsa, sharing herself and her powers with others to benefit them is shown to be the best way to live.

Fortunately, Elsa is eventually redeemed from her isolation, and when she learns to love her powers are no longer an uncontrollable force of destruction but a beautiful force for good. Enjoying her powers alone left Elsa only slightly better off than repressing them alone, but sharing herself and her powers with others to benefit them (like ice skating for all her people, or using a magic cloud of snow flurries to keep Olaf around in summer) is shown to be the best way to live. This is a pretty great alternative to the usual Disney message, which makes self-expression the primary virtue and only brings others into play as people who support your self-expression, and whose self-expression you support. In fact, this makes me think of verses like, “Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4) and “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others” (1 Pet. 4:10).  

The Sacrifice

No Christian review for Frozen would be complete without mentioning Anna’s Christ-like sacrifice at the resolution of the movie. Though Elsa has frozen her heart, when she comes to the choice of being saved by her apparent true love or losing her last moments to save Elsa, she chooses the latter. The Christian parallels should be obvious. We were not worthy of God’s love any more than Elsa had deserved Anna’s. Indeed, we treated God and His grace with far more contempt than Elsa did to Anna. Elsa shut Anna out of her life, but Paul tells us that we were once enemies of God and hostile to Him (Rom. 5:10). Yet Anna continued to love Elsa by choice, regardless of merit, just as God has been faithful to love us in spite of all our wrongdoing and rebellion. Anna’s love ultimately became the means for redemption, for though Elsa had brought death upon herself by her frozen outburst, ready to fall to Hans’ sword, Anna gave her life to save her. Elsa was saved by this love, and indeed this constituted just the “act of true love” which was needed to thaw Anna’s frozen heart, giving her a kind of resurrection (any time you throw in sacrifice+resurrection, my Christian allegory senses start tingling). In a similar way, Christ died for us even while we remained estranged from Him, and by His death we are saved from death, and in the end He rose from the grave, leading to reconciliation between us and God.

The best part about this particular event is that Anna’s sacrifice really makes every bit of good as an allegory for the Cross as Aslan’s death in The Chronicles of Narnia, even though C. S. Lewis’s work was specifically intended to have such a parallel while, as far as anyone knows, Frozen was not. Yet the story of redeeming love breaks out even here because the reality is powerful. What Jesus really did is something so marvelous that His story begs to be mirrored, even if unconsciously. Pointing this out to children who see Frozen is, in my opinion, an excellent idea and a great excuse to watch the movie again (and again).

Law and Grace

I actually missed this connection at first. Somehow the thought escaped me. Only after I read this blog post did I notice. Yet Frozen actually makes a good allegory for the dynamics of law and grace, in addition to the other themes. See, in the beginning, Elsa works entirely by her willpower to obey one command, first imposed by her parents and then self-imposed: “Conceal it, don’t feel it, don’t let it show.” She is motivated by fear to follow this charge strictly, as one deviation could ruin everything. Yet this doesn’t actually help. The rule doesn’t work. Instead, Elsa’s powers grow increasingly uncontrollable and dangerous. This parallels life under the Law. The Law can do nothing to change or save us. We find ourselves controlled by sin and fear, and the Law cannot do anything about that. Instead, we are unable to keep the Law, and until we realize our hopeless state we will continue to disappoint.

Though the law of concealing failed her, Elsa finds she can live differently when grace comes from Anna. This is also like the grace that God gives us. Though we are unable to keep the Law, through grace we can begin to live in the way that God has prepared for us.

Yet then there is grace. While facing death, Anna makes a choice to show mercy. She sacrifices herself for her sister who doesn’t deserve any help. Anna loves and sacrifices because she chose to love an unworthy Elsa, and this is what sets Elsa free. No longer a slave to fear and unable to control her powers, Elsa finds freedom in the love and grace showed to her by her sister. Grace thaws the frozen heart and enables real life. Though the law of concealing failed her, Elsa finds she can live differently when grace comes. This is also like the grace that God gives us. Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8), and this sets us free from condemnation and the power of sin. We no longer have to fear, and we can begin to live in the way that God has prepared for us. Grace changes us and enables us to live more in line with the Law than we ever could when we were under the Law.

Wrapping Up

I could go on about other great parts of Frozen, but these are the main themes I wanted to highlight. Frozen gives better moral messages than most Disney productions, and also unwittingly provides powerful Christian allegory about law, grace, and redemption. Plus, being an animated Disney movie, you can count on the lack of objectionable content (unless the words “gassy” or “impaled” upset you). There are some who claim a pro-gay theme running throughout the movie, but I deem their claims hogwash and refer you to this blog for reasons why. So, needless to say, my children will enjoy Frozen one day, as I have, and they will certainly hear the Gospel commentary from me afterwards. For the rest of you, I encourage everyone to see this great movie if you haven’t already!

5 Snowflakes for Frozen

My Only Beef with Disney

In middle school and high school, I was a bit of a Disney geek. I admit this. I memorized every song in the first two High School Musicals and Camp Rock. I can jam out to the theme songs of Phil of the Future, That’s So Raven, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, The Suite Life on Deck, Hannah Montana, Phineas and Ferb, Jessie, Wizards of Waverly Place, Sonny with a Chance, So Random!, and Shake It Up!, if not others as well. I have turned several Disney songs into Christian songs. Oh, and I still kind of am one now. I still watch every new Disney movie when I get a chance.
Continue reading “My Only Beef with Disney”

My Only Beef with Disney