Can you think of a Disney film in your life that made a great emotional impression on you, either positive or negative? For me, it was Lilo and Stitch. The storyline explored family and belonging thru the concept of “Ohana,” illustrating how compassion and the longing to belong filled both the heart of the little girl in the film and her outer space visitor.
Preaching a sermon on the connections between Disney and our Gospel may seem, at best creatively unusual and at worst, inappropriate or saccharine, but given the influence and vast reach of Disney characters and films in childhood, adulthood, and culture, we would do well to examine them using our faith as a touchstone. Disney has been both the subject of boycott by religious leaders (i.e. Southern Baptist Convention in the 1990’s) and also uplifted by pastors of different theological viewpoints who wish to seriously and critically engage with the stories, characters, lyrics, and themes. Over the years, there have been at least two scholarly books written by Anderson and Pinsky, respectively, which look at particular Disney films with an eye to the gospel, hundreds of articles, and countless clergy have used the films in sermon series and even bible studies.
To be sure, the disciples who were on the road to Emmaus later that Easter day did not recognize the stranger who began walking at their side as their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Likewise, our eyes do not always recognize Christ in our largely secular culture until we agree to come near enough to listen to and “converse” with a particular media or art form in its entirety. We might even find that, like the disciples, our eyes are kept from recognizing gospel-like themes because we understand that the film was never intended to be specifically Christian, or we relegate cartoons, storytelling and fables to our childhood, or we feel as if God must be explicitly mentioned in order for Christ to show up. Yet, after conversing with the stranger, after asking him to stay with them, and after breaking bread at table together, the disciples eyes were opened and they recognized Christ in their midst.
My point today is not to convert you to become a Disney film lover. Hardly. It is not even to help you win the cultural wars with your neighbor over LGBT inclusion and representation, empowering women in primary and not simply secondary roles, supporting greater diversity in the arts, or urging a Christian endorsement of the Disney enterprise. It is simply to help you to see that our Christian faith is a particular and valuable lens through which we can critically engage with the arts…whether it be a film or a particular song, a poem, a play or a cartoon. If you are a parent or grandparent, my hope is to help your child or grandchild (or maybe even yourself) understand both the worthy and not-so-worthy contained within the films as you watch them, just as we are a mixture good and evil, positive and negative traits. With a gospel lens, we may more readily recognize God when she shows up through a character’s unique struggle which may indeed be our struggle, or perhaps a challenge that we, as a people,, as a people, struggle to understand or have empathy for in a neighbor. To recognize God in the stranger is one of the stronger tenets of our faith; to recognize that same stranger in our arts and in our lives takes practice and a special kind of seeing.
As noted in Anderson’s book, Walt Disney was the child of a Congregationalist parents, Elias and Flora Disney. Walt’s father and the pastor of St. Paul Congregational Church were great friends that sometimes Elias would fill in for the minister when he was on vacation, but even more telling, little Walt was named after the Reverend Walter Parr, and Pastor Parr named his son after Walt’s father, Elias. Walt’s baptismal certificate is dated June 8, 1902. Walt’s father, as a carpenter, had built the new sanctuary for the church and Walt’s mother, Flora, played the organ.
Yet, relatively few of Walt Disney’s early films mention God or religion explicitly, nor did they need to do so in order to convey life lessons of empathy and insightfulness. It is important to add that the early Disney films were often a sad and difficult reflection of the same racist stereotyping and gender mores that our larger society upheld and continues to uphold. Over the decades, many college students, among others, have argued that, in the early Disney films, women are too dependent on their Prince Charming arriving in the nick of time in while people of color were generally characterized in stereotypes.
Even the song that we chose as our introit this morning has strong racist undertones, originating from the film Song of the South. The movie is about a former black slave singing songs and telling stories while still living on the plantation he was enslaved in. When the movie was shown, it created palpable dissension and protest. On November 27, 1946, Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, sent telegrams to newspapers describing the NAACP’s objections to the film. While expressing approval of the film’s technical achievements, White stated that the NAACP “regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the North or South, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery….[the film] unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.” As Henry A Giroux wrote in a book called The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, “The racism in these films is defined by the presence of the racist representations and the absence of complex representations of African Amercians and other people of color.”
However, as the years progressed and Disney directors changed, the films, storylines, and characters have gradually changed too. In recent films, Disney has become intentionally more diverse and the characters more complex. Like Sesame Street, the writers and producers have tried to reflect and uplift the diverse social circumstances and makeup of the audiences that watch.
People change as stories change and vice versa. Much like our bible, writers may be inspired by God, but they may also reflect problematic ideas and prejudices too. We address this by helping others to see where humans have erred grievously and where God is still speaking to educate and inform. And as we well know, as the interpretation of stories develop and, in some cases, change for the better, we change too.
Arguably one of the most Christian films is Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame which was based on Victor Hugo’s novel and released in 1996. As Mark Pinsky writes, “…it would be difficult to find a more thoroughly Christian film, one which stands the devoutly anticlerical novelist Victor Hugo, the author of the book on which it is based, on his head.” The Hunchback of Notre Dame as presented by Disney is truly a film for our day and time. In it, the themes of persecution, xenophobia, genocide, grace, healing, acceptance, and difference are all explored and intertwined. In it, the powers of justice have become corrupted—like the Roman authority in Jesus’ time– as represented by the government official and arch-villain, Frollo.
Frollo, who holds the primary civic power in the film, has spent a lifetime persecuting the Romani people—so much so that he causes the death of one Romani mother on the steps of a cathedral (Notre Dame) causing her baby to become orphaned. Again, we can see how in the film and in Hugo’s novel, the Romani people are referred to as “gypsy,” a racist slur. Yet, simultaneously, we can also see parallels with how the Romani people were persecuted through genocide during the Holocaust, in addition to the Jews, and not simply in France in the late 1400’s. We may draw parallels to the welcome and treatment of outsiders, refugees, and immigrants in our own culture.
After Frollo causes the child’s mother to die, the Arch-Deacon of the church reminds Frollo that his soul is terribly endangered and so Frollo agrees to raise the Roma boy child, Quasimodo, as his own as a kind of penance—but he shuts Quasimodo away in the church. Misshapen and teased for his appearance, Quasimodo is persecuted by both Frollo his “adopted” father, as well as the community, until a Romani woman, Esmeralda, who is the heroine of the tale both befriends and helps him. Gaslighting —an experience that abused spouses and children know all too well—is clearly depicted by Frollo in his relationship with Quasimodo.
In the film, Esmeralda, the Romani woman, claims sanctuary in the church in order not to be killed by Frollo, the so-called Minister of Justice, and his guards. Like the corrupt Roman officials of Jesus’ day, Frollo is ruthless. Likewise, we can see a parallel in the internal wrestling and conversion of one of guards who aids Esmeralda—similar to the Centurion who, after Jesus’ death, proclaims “surely this was God’s Son!”
While in the church, Esmeralda sings a poignant song about what it means to be an outcast. She looks at a sculpture of Mary and wonders aloud if God were an outcast. She sings….
I don’t know if You can hear me
Or if You’re even there
I don’t know if You would listen
To a gypsy’s prayer
Yes, I know I’m just an outcast
I shouldn’t speak to You
Still I see Your face and wonder
Were You once an outcast too?
While she sings, Esmeralda prays for others. While others who have more—more education, more money, more acceptance, more safety—pray for more of the same, Esmeralda prays for the outcasts, her people.
She sings… (Kathleen sings)
I ask for nothing
I can get by
But I know so many
Less lucky than I
Please help my people
The poor and downtrod
I thought we all were
Children of God
Don Hahn, the film’s producer, would later comment on the film’s message when asked during an appearance on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.” Hahn replied, “There are many people in our society that are different from us, for a variety of reasons. Don’t discard those people, because they all have great worth. There’s a great nobility of the human spirit that we should celebrate. And that’s what this movie is about.”
When the disciples failed to see Jesus walking beside them, it was likely because they were overwhelmed by trauma and grief-stricken. However, our text doesn’t specifically say this. What it does say is that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This is a puzzling (and troubling) line because it may imply that God is the agent keeping them from seeing. However, there are many things that can keep us from recognizing a truth that is standing right beside us. Sometimes it is because we are so sad that our tears cloud our vision. Sometimes it is because we are challenged to hold the tension between what is a worthy aspiration and what is not, what has been generally and falsely painted in broad strokes and truths that may require more precision and detail. And sometimes it is because our nostalgia for the past gets in the way of seeing the present with clear eyes. As Gusteau from Ratatouille says, “If you focus on what you left behind, you will never be able to see what lies ahead.”
For many, the Disney films are entertainment and nothing more, but for those who seek to know Christ, a greater love, transcendence, and wisdom can be found within the transformative struggles and stories of its characters. Perhaps the true power of these stories lies not simply in what is depicted on the screen, sung in a song, or in the creation of specific characters. Perhaps the greater love and wisdom can be found within the viewer’s heart when a particular experience engages with, or challenges, his or her own experience. In those moments, it may be as if God, too, were at the movies, interpreting the scriptures, breaking bread with us, and helping our eyes to finally be opened to gospel truths, and helping us to see what we could see only dimly before.
 Philip Longfellow Anderson, The Gospel According to Disney: Christian Values in the Early Animated Classics (California: Longfellow Publishing, 1999)
 Mark I. Pinsky, The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2004)
 Idid, 167.
 Ibid, 173.