The creation story inside “Moana”

I remember the first time I saw the ocean. It was in high school on our senior trip. I sat on the top deck of our ship, the trip was a low budget cruise, and stared into the horizon for hours. That moment staring into the endless ocean made my small town in Pennsylvania feel like a cage surrounded by bars of mountains and hills.

Often our imaginations are limited by how far we can see in front of us and, growing up, each of my horizons had an end. This wasn’t the case on the water. Witnessing the vastness of our world first hand opened my mind and with each passing year my worldview got bigger and broader. The ocean was calling.

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Disney’s new movie Moana begins with the phrase, “In the beginning…” For Bible readers, this should be a familiar opening line. As with Moana, this is how our creation story begins. This is a great reminder that Christians aren’t the only culture that has a story of how the world began…but of interest is what is familiar and what is different about these stories.

In the writings of ancient cultures there are lots of stories about the world coming to be from the violent death of a beast or through a cataclysmic transformation of one piece of matter to the world as we know it. The world is formed from something. The outlier here is The Bible,

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty…” (ESV)

Or for those, like me, who like the Jesus Storybook Bible,

“In the beginning, there was nothing. Nothing to hear. Nothing to see. Only emptiness. And darkness. And…nothing but nothing. But there was God. And God had a wonderful plan.”

The creation narrative in Moana begins with a goddess in the form of an island, Te Fiti, springing from the ocean to create all that is alive. In an attempt to capture the island goddess’s creative potential, her heart is stolen by the demi-god, Maui (my personal life coach, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Years later, this theft sets in motion an intersection of the personal journeys of Maui and Moana and, in doing so, models for us what it means to follow our calling and tap into our own creative potential.

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Maui’s mistaken assumption is that life comes from Te Fiti…but the truth is that Te Fiti’s power, her ability to create life, her creative potential comes from the ocean. Maui believes that he can earn this creative potential through godlike feats. The tale and music of Moana tell a different story.

“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”

Moana’s parents have a plan for her life. She is tapped to be the next leader of her people, but Moana hears a different calling inside. Very quickly she realizes that in order for her culture and people to survive she must listen to that calling, not from her parents, but from the giver of life. Moana is about following your calling and realizing the same creative potential that the ocean placed in Te Fiti, resides in everyone. Similarly, The Bible continues from earlier,

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”

God, our creator, made us to be creative. We have the responsibility to cultivate creation. This looks very different for different people and every day as I work with college students I see this first hand. Some of them were born to create lesson plans that will inspire young people, others have an innate ability to read accounting spread sheets, while someone else might have a compassion that compels them to heal others. This creative potential is given, not earned. When we answer the call of our creator to live into that potential the world flourishes.

This is the heart of our story as daughters and sons of God. We are called to enter every realm of this creation and bring the heart of Jesus with us to bless those around us. When we do our work with other motivations (looking at you, Maui) we often experience the exact opposite of flourishing, destruction.

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Moana’s ancestors were culture makers. The ocean called them off their island to explore the world and cultivate the vast creation. Her voyage throughout the film brings her to a place where she answers her call, understands her legacy as a culture maker, and comes to know that the journey of life is hard and she’ll need reminders of her purpose. The songs in the film seek to write this on her heart.

“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”

God may seem too big and too distant to have a relationship with us, but the story of scripture echoed in the story of Moana are telling us that God dwells inside us. When we look in the mirror we are staring at the image of God and that image is crying out, inviting you to cultivate God’s creation. God is calling…

While you watch:

What defines Moana’s identity? What defines Maui’s identity? What defines yours?

Is there a voice, a feeling inside you that you can’t shake? Is there something you feel down in your heart that you should…or shouldn’t be doing? What is preventing you from answering this call?

Are you aware of what God has created you for or leading you towards? How will you fulfill this? How will you use your passions and gifts to be a blessing to the world…to bring flourishing to creation?

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Why I’m #TeamIronMan

In my most honorable hopes and dreams, on the political, ideological battlefield of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, I am #TeamCap all the way. Captain America is super strong, super genuine, super honest, super filled with integrity, and super human. He is everything I want to be. Tony Stark (Iron Man) on the other hand, he is flawed, riddled with guilt and shame, and guided by fear and arrogance. So if I’m being honest with myself, in my true/human heart, I am #TeamIronMan.

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If you haven’t seen Civil War yet and plan to this is the time to turn away, read my spoiler-free piece on grace and #TeamCap, and come back after. Because to talk about Tony’s flawed, human heart we have to go to Spoilertown. Yes, that was a *SPOILER ALERT*. This is a *SPOILER REVIEW*. Run away now if you don’t want *SPOILED*.

There are interesting parallels to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the story they have built for the man that started it all, Tony Stark. It was all kind of an accident. Marvel took a B-level hero and by creating a fun story with a perfectly cast lead, launched a blockbuster-making machine. In the first Iron Man film, through a series of coincidences including Tony’s imprisonment by terrorists, his will to survive transforms him into a hero. This launched the Earth into a hero-assembling machine and began to bring bigger and bigger threats to humanity’s doorstep. Thus the trajectories of Iron Man and Captain America begin on their inevitable collision course.

Civil War Tony 1

In the MCU, Captain America is an American soldier who fights throughout WWII. He’s been to basic training, he is willing to give up his life for his fellow soldiers and relies on them to feel the same way. Not only that but he is eventually frozen only to wake up 70 years in the future when everyone whom he loved was dead or dying. This leaves Cap’s world with only fellow soldiers…only people he keeps at arm’s length because he knows the cost of war. Cap’s world view is that of sacrificial servanthood. A servanthood he lives into as a superhuman with the powers to take on any threat with very little limitations.

Then there is Iron Man. Tony Stark grew up in privilege. He is a scientist, inventor, builder, businessman…not a soldier. The MCU takes place in his current life time that features a humanity that Tony increasingly cares for because he is a part of it. Throughout the first two Iron Man films he is strong, battle-tested, and has few limitations, but something happened through the course of The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The universe got bigger as did the threats to humanity. The Earth got smaller as did Tony Stark.

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Once Tony, who was fighting alongside a Norse God at the time, took a look through an intergalactic worm hole and saw one of the endless powerful threats on the other side, desperation set in. It was no longer enough to be a regular human in a suit of armor.

The world, the people he loves (primarily Pepper Potts), and Tony himself are vulnerable. In Tony’s mind we need thicker armor and better weapons. This mindset leads to the creation of Ultron, the A.I. baddie in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which then leads to massive casualties. This then enslaves Tony by his guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

For Cap, any loss incurred during war is expected. Mostly because he signed up to die if necessary and has the powers to make sure, under most circumstances, that won’t happen. For Tony, any loss experienced is devastating because the threats are now big enough that at any moment his armor could fail and the loss could be him or, worse, Pepper. In his deepest fears, he expects no loss at all.

Cap isn’t a mindless, emotionless drone, but because he sees the world and war in this way he fights with freedom from the fear of death. Tony fights under the constant fear of death, and because of that puts incredible pressure on himself to try to fix things. He creates more armor, and creates more weapons. Which, to this point, has only created more death. There is a telling scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony is attacked at his home and dons his armor only to fall into the ocean in his heavy metal suit as his house crumbles on top of him. Under water, confined in his suit, with concrete raining down on him. This is a situation he incited, locked in his own creation…is suffocating.

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Cap has witnessed his entire life fade away into the past. Governments and agencies have fallen or changed, and all of his friends and family have passed. He lives knowing death is inevitable. Tony thinks he is stronger than death and therefore it is his responsibility to save everyone else from it. We see him struggle with this to the point of panic attacks in Iron Man 3 and we see him fall even deeper through the course of Civil War. His quest to save everything has driven Pepper, the one he ultimately was trying to protect, away. He is confronted by the mother of a causality from the Ultron incident that causes him to make a deal with the government which drives away half of the Avengers.

Then the Civil War story ends with Tony being confronted one last time with the limitations of his humanity. He thinks he is stronger/smarter than death. He thinks that he can save everyone, but the moment in his past where he truly interacted with the death of his loved ones, there was nothing he could do. When his parents died back in 1991, it was an act of this war the Avengers are still fighting. They died at the hands of The Winter Soldier a.ka. Bucky a.k.a. Cap’s best friend. In the concluding sequences of Civil War, Tony watches the footage of Bucky, another superhuman, murdering his parents. In that moment, all of the guilt, all of the shame, all of the fear, all of the doubt, all of the human limitations are lighting a fire that makes his blood boil for vengeance.

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I think about the apostles of Jesus. Jesus told them of a kingdom to come, a kingdom defined by everlasting life in the freedom of a sinless world. Then, to their horror, Jesus is arrested, beaten, and violently murdered for the world to see. They had believed that Jesus was God. They had believed that they would live in freedom. They watched Jesus heal the terminally ill and raise the dead. On Good Friday, they were left with all of the same emotions Tony had watching his parents die. That is guilt and shame that they couldn’t save Jesus from death. Also, fear and doubt that they also won’t be saved from a similar fate. In those dreadful days, their lives were defined/confined by death’s sting.

But then, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. In that moment, the disciples were released from that guilt and shame, their fear and doubt began to dissolve. Knowing that death was out of their control, they were free. Now that death was conquered by Jesus, their lives were defined by eternal life. Tony sees that death is outside of his power and so he seeks to take control of it one last time in the form of revenge against Bucky. He tries to control death by taking it in his own hands. The end of Civil War isn’t a happy one, but I hope that in the next chapter Tony begins to see the error of his ways. This is a hope that I have for myself because I often live under the chains of guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

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It’s also a change of heart vocalized by Black Panther. Talking to the film’s true villain, a man who lost everything in the Ultron incident and is now fueled by revenge, Panther says, “Vengeance has consumed you. It is consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” Maybe in time Tony will see that he cannot control death, but that he can live a life for others without the fear of dying. Maybe in time I’ll see that too if I remind myself of Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1…

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Moses in “Zootopia”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” – Exodus 3:11

In the face of the new calling on his life, with God’s voice in his ears telling him exactly what to do, Moses takes full advantage of this personal conversation with the creator of the universe. “Who am I?,” Moses asks. This was probably a question Moses asked every day. We see the effects of a narrative Moses had been given throughout his life. The God of the universe is telling him he has been tapped for an incredible purpose and Moses’s first reaction is self-doubt.

Judy Hopps

You see Moses was a man caught between cultures, with a mishmash of an identity, carrying the weight of past failures. When God tells him he will be the deliverer of the Hebrew people Moses balks citing his lack of identity, lack of knowledge and spirituality, and lack of gifts and skill. Basically, Moses is asking what is the use in trying, Lord? I’m just Moses, a nobody, a murderer, a shepherd, and that’s all I’ll ever be. God’s answer is one that can carry even us through the deepest valleys of self-doubt, but before we get there…let’s go to Zootopia because in Disney Animation’s newest film that very same question is posed. What’s the use in trying?

Zootopia is a story with battling narratives. The narrative printed across the brand of Zootopia, a city where eons of predatory instincts in the animal kingdom have been squashed in the name of peace and prosperity, is that “You can be anything.” In reality, though, written on the faces of the older generation is a different narrative. “You can be anything…as long as it aligns with your zip code, species, gender, and place in the food chain.” No one whose worldview is based in reality would ever truly believe that first narrative. Enter a young Judy Hopps, a rabbit from a rural area that has bought into the brand of Zootopia.

ZOOTOPIA

Despite there never being a bunny cop, in the face of pressure from her parents to accept her fate as a carrot farmer, Judy remains a trier. The question of what’s the use in trying has never crossed her mind. Judy is a beacon of hope in the world of Zootopia because not only is the film her story, a story of trying, but it’s also the story of how the roads of this world are paved with the broken hearts of triers everywhere.

This fact is hidden behind the smiley façade of Judy’s parents and it is emotionally told through the life story of Nick Wilde, a sly con-fox, who fails to understand where Judy gets her optimism. With these characters in place we get to see the narratives of Zootopia played out from beginning to end.

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In Judy’s parents we see the end of the story, a life lived believing reality says there are limits to what you can accomplish based on your class, species, and culture. In Nick, we see a character with a fresh break in his heart. We get to hear his story of trying only to have culture slap a muzzle on his predator snout. He even says at one point he’s stopped trying to be anything other than what other animals see him as. Then there is Judy who is in the midst of having her heart broken. We get to witness the process in action, the world beginning to break her down. It’s through these stories you start to realize Zootopia isn’t about animals at all…it’s about us.

Young Nick

Disney is the crew that brought us the line, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.” The sugar of Zootopia are the stunning graphics, adorable cartoon animals, self-aware jabs at Frozen, and the fun, pop beats of Shakira. The medicine is a hard look at the state of race/gender/class relations in America. These same narratives battling in Zootopia are at war in our reality every day.

The narrative painted across the brand of America is that racism is a non-issue, that we’ve moved past the dark marks on our history. You can be anything you want to be in America. There is a narrative at war with this, though, and we can see the effects in minority communities. Across the board, people of color are less likely to apply to top institutions even when academically qualified, less likely to choose fields with top starting salaries like STEM majors, and less likely to come into higher education prepared for academic differences between high school and college.

We are at most two generations removed from the civil rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s and our current minority communities are still lacking opportunities and environments to establish economic and academic success. This is a situation that is crying out for a different narrative. There is a moment in Zootopia where Judy breaks through the narrative Nick has built in his life. She tells him that he can be more, that his story isn’t over yet. This changes Nick’s life.

Nick and Judy

Recently, I attended the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh, and there I got to hear Dr. Brian Bantum, author of “Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity,” speak on diversity in higher education. His story is unique. Someone late into his academic career broke through the narrative of his life and told him that he had the knowledge and the gifts to become a PhD. And he did.

Dr. Bantum went on to say that had he not had professors of color, compassionate mentors, and others in his life guiding him, achieving the academic success that he has would have had to be a “pure act of imagination.” Without a different narrative he might have answered those encouraging him with doubts. He may have even asked them, “What’s the use in trying?” or even “Who am I to be a PhD?”

That leads us back to Moses and the answer he received to his doubts. Over and over again, in different ways, with different words God repeats to Moses, “I am God. You are mine. I will be with you.” Maybe you will never be whatever you want to be. My window of being the first astronaut to play electric guitar on Mars is closing more and more every second. There are some limitations to what we can accomplish but at the very least God tells us that we are all created in His image. We have the power to achieve amazing things in that image. We can flourish. In America, we really can’t be anything that we want to be, but no matter what your race, culture, or gender is you should have the opportunity to at least try.