Every aspiring church architect should be able to describe in detail the design of the tabernacle and temple.
Alan Jacobs on the Fëanor Temptation:
And this is why “making” in and of itself is not the answer to our decadent moment. “Love of things, especially artificial things, could be seen as the besetting sin of modern civilisation, and in a way a new one, not quite Avarice and not quite Pride, but somehow attached to both” – and this is the Fëanor Temptation. It is in light of this temptation that I advocate repair, which is a mode of caring for what we have not made, but rather what we have inherited. We will not be saved by the making of artifacts — or from the repair of them, either; but the imperative of repair has these salutary effects: it reminds us of our debt to those who came before us and of the fragility of human constructs.
Lately I have become more and more troubled by the tendency of my fellow Christians to elevate Art to the level almost of Gospel. (Mako Fujimura has advocated almost exactly this.) In so doing, we are far, far more like our secular modern neighbors than we think. When a Christian says “Beauty (or Art) will save the world,” we ought to ask, “Whose beauty? Which art?” Making is not unequivocally good.
In case I haven’t said this before on this blog, let me say it here: if any writer is going to guide us through the deceptively shimmering waters of Art in the 20th and 21st centuries, it will be J. R. R. Tolkien. I can’t think of anyone else with the necessary experience, humility, and depth of knowledge to write clearly on this subject, even though that writing takes the form of fantasy literature. It may be because it’s fantasy that it will prove so valuable.
If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: “the failure of religion.”Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction
On the next page Eagleton quotes an English professor named George Gordon (not Byron) saying:
England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.
Christians of my ilk like to bash Disney as the world’s guiltiest hawker of the Gospel of Self. Uncle Walt sold us the toxic message, “Believe in yourself,” which has caused generations of children to despise tradition and their parents.
Disney was certainly an optimist who believed in the inherent innocence of people—the childhood within—that can be counted on to keep us walking straight. Disneyland, the “World of Tomorrow,” and 90% of Disney products dish out this message liberally, so I understand my friends’ disdain. But, please, don’t throw Disney movies out with the bathwater.
The full-length, animated, theatrically released Disney movies are peerless examples of American cinema. In some ways, they’re more classic than classic films because most of them are based on folk tales and fables. And, far from promulgating a “Believe in Yourself” message, these films have a variety of messages, which I’ve summarized below. (Some of these I haven’t seen in years, so I either skipped them or had to rely on memory.)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Classic fairy tale. Other than silly animals and bumbling dwarfs, nothing untoward about this. Even C. S. Lewis liked it.
- Pinocchio: A puppet wants to become a human, but must first prove himself worthy. He is granted humanity only after he acts like a human. Patently not existentialist.
- Dumbo: A little bit of “Believe in yourself” here. You don’t need a magic feather to fly. The power was within you all along.
- Bambi: The whole point is Bambi growing up into his responsibility as Prince of the Forest.
- Cinderella: Another example of a lowly person of good character exalted to her rightful, royal position. And what an ending! “I have the other slipper.” A eucatastrophe to make Tolkien proud.
- Alice in Wonderland: Too weird to even have a message other than “Don’t fall asleep while your sister is reading to you.”
- Peter Pan: Tempted by a boy who never wants to grow up, the children eventually turn their backs on him and decide that, actually, they need to grow up.
- Lady and the Tramp: Tramp yanked from his lazy, irresponsible life and made into a loving husband and father.
- Sleeping Beauty: Classic fairy tale. Prince kills dragon. More silly animals and fairies. Beautiful sets, though.
- One Hundred and One Dalmatians: An evil heiress defeated by her own vanity and a horde of dogs. Parental courage and responsibility highlighted.
- The Sword in the Stone: Wart doesn’t want to become King Arthur, but has to. A silly wizard, but other than that, classic.
- The Jungle Book: Mowgli is told he must live in the man village. He spends most of the movie running away, until he sees a pretty human girl and suddenly the idea of being a man doesn’t seem so bad after all.
- The Aristocats: Similar to Lady and the Tramp. A happy-go-lucky wanderer accepts parental and marital responsibility.
- Robin Hood: A pox on that phony king of England! Oo-de-lally!
- The Rescuers: Secret agent mice! The only people who think they can be whoever they want to be are the villains.
- The Fox and the Hound: Nothing can change who you are, but you can choose to be the best version of who you are.
- The Black Cauldron (1985): Never seen this one. Bizarre.
- The Great Mouse Detective: An intelligent stuck-up detective is humbled by caring for a little girl.
- Oliver & Company: Ok, we’re kind of getting into “Be whoever you want” territory here. But from what I can remember, Oliver stays a cat.
- The Little Mermaid: Follow your dreams. Be who you want to be. But, as my wife pointed out, Ariel’s actions almost cause her father to be trapped forever by a sea witch, so following your dreams comes with a risk.
- The Rescuers Down Under: You’re small. The mission is big. Better get started.
- Beauty and the Beast: A prince is transformed into a beast so that his appearance matches his cruel and shallow soul. Like Pinocchio, he has to learn to act human before he is allowed to be one again.
- Aladdin: Aladdin tries to be whoever he wants and it utterly fails! But, on the other hand, he does get to be the Sultan’s son-in-law in the end…
- The Lion King: You can’t run away from your responsibilities without causing a massive famine.
- Pocahontas: Been so long since I’ve seen this one that I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s quite pantheistic.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Same. No memory.
- Hercules: Pride goes before a fall.
- Mulan: I get why Christians don’t like this one. A woman wearing the costumes of war, etc. But, in the end, Mulan reverts to the natural state of things and becomes a woman again.
- Tarzan: This is a weird one. Tarzan does not become a man (which he absolutely should do), but neither does he get to be whoever he wants to be. He prefers the status quo (plus Jane in a jungle bikini).
- The Emperor’s New Groove: Another selfish prince transformed. He can only become human again after he’s changed.
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire: A weird one. Man’s reach exceeds his grasp, or something like that.
- Lilo & Stitch: I don’t know what to say about this one. It’s a cartoon. Family is whomever you love.
- Treasure Planet: I really don’t know what to say about this one.
- Brother Bear: Selfish person transformed into animal to learn a valuable lesson. I can’t even remember what happens at the end.
- Home on the Range: Never seen it. Never will.
- Meet the Robinsons: Keep moving forward.
- Bolt: Get in touch with the real world.
- The Princess and the Frog: Humans-turned-animals learn a lesson.
- Tangled: Selfish thief comes to care about something other than himself. Also, like Samson’s strength, Rapunzel’s power was never really tied to her hair.
- Frozen: Elsa is cursed with ice powers and condemned for her thoughtlessness, but of course, all anyone remembers is “Let It Go.”
- Moana: Kids should accept their ancestry and pursue their assigned tasks, whether their dumb parents like it or not. Still going back and forth on this one.
This is a haphazard analysis, to be sure, but I hope it demonstrates that Disney movies aren’t always as villainous as they’re made out to be.
I encourage you to explore Alan Jacobs’s redesigned website, The Gospel of the Trees. As it says on the About page:
The Bible is a story about trees. It begins, or nearly enough, with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story.
Start by clicking on the leaf icon in the upper right corner. From there, clicking “Explore” will take you to a random page, containing a photo, a poem, or a quote about trees, usually with some kind of spiritual dimension. The experience of going smoothly from an arresting image to an insightful thought is a little like walking through the woods with a clever, well-read friend at your side. In my few minutes clicking through, I saw photos of trees, part of Auden’s Hora Canonicae, the lyrics to “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” a passage from Deuteronomy, and an excerpt from a news article about the difficulty of arboreal classification — creating a family tree for trees, as it were.
I had something like this website in mind when I started my time Tumblr, The Escapement. Perhaps one day that, too, will be a beautiful “coffee-table website.”