July 15, 2013 / Theology
Joerg Rieger discusses theology, Marx, the Occupy movements, and why we need to add questions of labor to the current theological discussions of capitalism and economics.
April 4, 2005
Now to him who able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
–Ephesians 3:20, 21
Story and Imagination
Now that the Disney Corporation and Walden Media have teamed up to produce and distribute the movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it seemed time for me to muse publicly on this most awkward of partnerships. I have no doubt this movie will be a success at the box-office and captivate millions with an introduction to this fascinating story. But for me this alliance brings to mind two distinct world views, one of which helps shape our cultural upbringing and the other which confronts our cultural heritage at every turn. This brings me to some fond recollections of a recent family vacation and an unexpected encounter with our culture, our imaginations, and our God of wonder and mystery.
I love to read great stories, stories that capture my imagination and enlarge my view of the complex world I live in. I love reading different genres of literature including history, biography, theology, and pastoral studies. But what really unlocks my imagination are novels of stature and vision such as Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or Dickens’ Oliver Twist, or Hugo’s Les Miserables, or C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Stories like these present characters of depth and courage and have helped motivate multitudes involved with social and political action. I enjoy entering into stories of valor, of Christian courage, of journeys far away from home heading toward destinations of hope, wonder, and of rest.
After a dramatic conversion from a life drifting into meaninglessness, I became acquainted with Christian apologetics and quickly snatched up all of C.S. Lewis’ works I could find. His defense of the faith in Mere Christianity was wonderful to plow through as well as his musings over the Problem of Pain and what suffering means in a defense of our faith. The Chronicles of Narnia became his most captivating work for me, these stories embraced my imagination and my soul’s yearning for purpose and hope. For a brief time I was able to imagine a world of wonder quite unlike my own. In a culture offering “fulfillment” around every corner, becoming citizens in a land promising diversion and distraction from the realities of life is a constant temptation. One such tempting “promised land” is located in Anaheim, California. It is, of course, Mickey’s world – Disneyland.
Disneyland is one among a plethora of cultural offerings that promises an experience having at least a pseudo-religious meaning. Many people undertake this journey at least once in their lifetimes; my family joined this annual pilgrimage in 2004. The family trek to the “Happiest Place on Earth” was well organized by my wife, and the five days we visited were indeed filled with fantastic sights, sounds, and smells. We waited seven years for this journey so that our two girls would be tall enough to be eligible to ride on any attraction without fear and, of course, we had to pinch the pennies in order to pay for the adventure. Finally, the time had come, all plans laid out and approved by the family; we were on our way to meet Mickey and company.
In the midst of the preparation and anticipation of our visit with Mickey, as a regular part of our family’s life, we had been reading the Chronicles of Narnia together before bedtime. We had just begun reading the final book of the series, The Last Battle, when we headed down to California. Not wanting to miss a beat, we brought along The Last Battle and planned to read this again in the evenings. Our imaginations had been captured by C.S. Lewis and we desired to read the end of the story, for this story was now a part of us, and stories like this are always new and full of life.
In some ways, Mickey does that for us too, helps us feel young again. We remember our childhood and how intertwined Disney has been in our formative years, and as adults we desire reliving early memories in order to simplify a complex life. We are “parishioners” in a Mickey Mouse Club religion; illusions fill our lives and we live in pursuit of those fantasies which are always just out of reach and always more expensive than the year before.
Imaginations of Captivity
Upon arriving at the resort, we quickly became acquainted with our hotel and surrounding areas and proceeded to map out a daily routine. I began my days with an early morning run from my hotel around the whole Disney property, a distance of about four miles. As I ran and prayed I remember thinking, “this place is not nearly as big as the promo video portrayed.” We were staying at a hotel just on the outside edge of the property, one of over seventy-thousand hotel rooms that feed the Disney machine. On my first run around the compound, I noticed that there was a wall around the entire four miles. Strange I thought, since the American dream of pursuing happiness at any cost has found a natural home in the “Happiest Place on Earth.” An intriguing question began to form. Why would a locus of the American Dream have a wall around it; to keep people out or to keep people in?
It was near the end of this run that this question was answered. It was then I understood. The “Happiest Place on Earth” is a reflection of the American experience; it is Walt Disney’s pioneering entrepreneurial vision as it reflects the American response to living in “the valley of the shadow of death.” The “wall,” as I examine it more closely, is intricately tied to keeping the “real” world outside of Disneyland. The attractions that are part and parcel of this first-ever amusement park are designed to approach risk and death and have it cheated at every turn. The world of fantasy, of sentimentality, of escape and facade are all created to attract, distract, and captivate. Walter Brueggemann argues in his classic protest against the technological world in The Prophetic Imagination, that the American dream, driven by a consumerist philosophy, results in a people who are sustained not by imagination, but by self-absorption and a collective “numbing” to the world of grief, of pain, of human need and suffering. Our culture seduces and pressures us into accommodating our values and desires within a relative and subjective hedonism. This is nothing but a post-modern “speed-ball” attempting to escape responsibility on behalf of our neighbor and our world.
There is no requirement at Disneyland to relate to anyone but your immediate party in any significant way. In fact, the crowds are competitors, challenging the pursuit of the next thrill or the next event. Even the employees are seldom ever acknowledged as persons; they really are just part of the facade, are they not? Our society desires power and safety more than any other commodity, ignoring any hint of the inevitability of the need for justice and God’s judgment. We think we control our lives and our safety, but that is an illusion Mickey would be proud of.
Now don’t get me wrong. I had as good and self-indulgent of a time as the next guy. I even helped the Disney Corporation post a tidy little profit in the fiscal year, mostly from their amusement park revenues. But there was something beyond these attractions which bothered me intensely. As my wife and I teach our children the discerning art and skill of cultural critique and exegesis both within the church and the social context we live in, this seemed an appropriate time to critically examine our adventure. Henri Nouwen in his book, The Living Reminder, states that the job of the principalities and powers is primarily to distract our attention away from God so we pay little or no attention to Him. Far be it from me to accuse Mickey of being the “Anti-Christ,” but there is something beguiling about this mild-mannered rodent. One has to wonder why the average Evangelical Church attendee in America is so comfortable visiting this place. Perhaps because our churches and Disneyland have so little that distinguishes them from one another when it comes to promises of self-fulfillment and security.
Disneyland is about distraction, about the pursuit of the present where no hints of any past or future exist; there is living only in the here and now. How is this any different than any addict living for the next blast, the next rush? There are no chemicals to alter our minds, just two-dimensional images and cartoons that are all pretense. Few things are real at Disneyland; even the employees seem to take on an appearance of unreality after a while. Resting our feet one day in the park, I imagined standing on one of the parapets of Cinderella’s Castle and shouting, “Mr. Eisner, tear down this wall!” But the wall is much bigger than I had at first realized. The wall is not only around this fantasy park, it is also around our hearts and the American Dream as well. The search for happiness is a fruitless quest without a suffering and resurrected Lord. America has forgotten that lesson, and Disneyland exploits that collective ignorance.
Imaginations of Freedom
Disneyland is not exactly a place to gain the solitude you may crave on vacation. Our days were filled with fun attractions and rides and jostling crowds, plenty of sunshine, and the usual nostalgia of parents remembering their first Disney experiences, and intentionally passing those experiences down to the next generation. It was quite a contrast in imagination and anticipation. Mickey was accessible and predictable, hugging, dancing, and playing as only a cartoon mouse could. But it was a meeting with quite a different mouse in the Last Battle that shook us out of our amusement park-induced trances and revived our tired minds. We met Reepicheep once again, the valiant mouse of Narnia.
Who could ever forget Reepicheep, the heroic and loyal mouse of Narnia who was introduced in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, sailing with Prince Caspian to the end of the world? Reepicheep, the brave and gallant oversized mouse, always upright and true and willing to take on any risk that came his way, and in the end sailing alone into Aslan’s country beyond the edge of the world. We encountered him once again as Aslan renews Narnia at the end (and the beginning) of all things. We were astonished! Lewis’ description of the never-ending world of Narnia, of Aslan’s country was something we could sink our imaginations and our hopes into. Here is a world of life and death, of good and evil, of bravery and valor, of cowardice and frailty and grace. Mickey offers no grace because there is nothing to forgive in Disneyland and no real relationship with anyone who could offer it to begin with.
Mickey and Reepicheep live in opposing worlds. Mickey’s world invites everyone to enter into the illusion of safety. Reepicheep reminds us that everyone who enters Narnia enters into danger, uncertainty, and mystery. There is nothing in Mickey’s world to challenge the status quo in our lives, nothing to remind us—as Eustace was reminded in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader—that becoming human after becoming a dragon, means pain, suffering, surrender, and deliverance. What in Mickey’s kingdom can compare to Lewis’ description of Aslan’s country as never-ending and expansive, where no walls exist to keep out death, because death has been conquered and is no more? What in Mickey’s world can compare to the masterpiece of expectation and hope that is Aslan’s country, and the chapters that are written of that land are always better than the chapter before, forever? Lamentation, hope, and deliverance, the classic language of the Biblical prophet, are not ignored in Narnia, for this language is the language of Reepicheep and Aslan. It is the Christian’s language too, the “new news” as G.K. Chesterton stated, of Jesus of Nazareth. Mickey’s playground seemed to shrink before us as we began to imagine ourselves in the story of Narnia’s re-creation alongside Reepicheep, experiencing the freedom our own dreams created, crafted by our own mind’s eye and not the “Imagineering” of Disney employees.
The vision that Walt Disney built in his “Magic Kingdom” and that Michael Eisner has expanded as part of the globalization of the world is not a place I am comfortable in, and that is good. But it is also a place that I am most comfortable in, and that is bad. As an American, I have been given the “cultural keys” of consumerism and indulgence from birth and find in this new-world economy a never-ending smorgasbord of products to help fill an insatiable appetite for more. You have to hand it to Walt; he created the itch to begin with and gave America the place to scratch it—for a price. But my imagination will always yearn for the real “kingdom” that extends beyond the provisional struggle of this life and that actually speaks hope into my soul and my existence, addressing the questions I have concerning life and death amidst the aging of this world.
In the end, the “The Happiest Place on Earth” delivers on its promises. The trouble is that its promises are not nearly big enough. Reepicheep reminds us that hope and joy, and ultimately happiness, come with a price and a purpose, and this is what Mickey cannot possibly comprehend. Reepicheep and Mickey are “world-views” apart. The reality of our existence and the re-creation of the “cosmos” should give us courage in this dangerous world as we proclaim the incarnational presence of Jesus in the communities we live, work, and die in. As for me and my family, we imagine ourselves with Reepicheep and Aslan, always going “further up and further in.” Reepicheep’s bravery and daring also remind us that for the Christian, life is a journey of freedom and courage toward a kingdom of peace and adventure (shalom) well beyond “…all we ask or imagine.” As for Mickey, he can keep his “kingdom,” and share that with Walt and Michael in the quintessential walled and gated American community—a community that ignores the death and suffering of this world in self-indulgent fantasy, reminding all who look behind the facade and who care to listen, that the “Happiest Place On Earth,” this icon of American cultural religious experience, is a “Small World After All.”
Dale Pollard is director of Bridging Counseling Ministries and founder of Hillcrest Community Services, based in Bellingham, WA. He is a graduate of Regent College, Vancouver BC, and is now currently a doctoral student at Bakke Graduate University concentrating in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. He is an associate pastor at Hillcrest Chapel in Bellingham, WA and is married to his wife of twenty years, Diane, and has two daughters, Amy and Anna, adopted from China and Russia respectively.