Guest commentary by George Love
As a pastor with a responsibility for preaching each Sunday, I always have my antenna up. Every experience is run through my “does this have the potential to ever appear in a sermon?” filter. Cobble together enough sermons and I realized that it’s a worthwhile practice to always be mining for material that seems to hold the promise of illuminating this point or that. That said, I was recently captivated by the Disney movie “Moana” to the point that it wasn’t until near the end of the film that it occurred to me the whole thing could work as a parable for the church in the present as it looks into the future.
To be clear, what follows is not intended to be a review of the movie. I’ll give you a short one here: It’s great; you should watch and enjoy it. Now, before we continue, a warning: potential “Moana” spoilers follow.
“Moana” is a wonderful movie with memorable characters, pleasing animation and bright, engaging music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of “Hamilton” fame. “Moana” is all of that and it is more. If you are looking for a tool around which to develop a discussion on the future of the church, pick up a copy of the “Moana” DVD and, in the words of one of the films songs, there you are.
On first glance, it’s a familiar Disney trope. Moana is a young woman growing up in an island village that she is quickly recognizing has boundaries she longs to go beyond. She feels called to the water, but her father, the chief of the village, sees in Moana a future chief. He wants Moana to be happy with the land of their island home. To venture off the island beyond where the fishermen go is too great a risk. It is unnecessary, as he believes all they could want or need is right there on the island.
The father’s version of life is built around the island and the preservation of the island and the traditions that the people have developed during their life on the island. It is their identity. It is who they are. The problem is that things on the island seem to be dying. There aren’t as many fish as there used to be. The coconuts aren’t good. Something is going seriously wrong in paradise.
Moana’s instincts tell her take to the water. It’s where she has always felt compelled to go and it is only reluctantly that she has tried to buy in to her father’s vision of reality. This is where the familiar trope becomes unfamiliar. Typically in Disney films there is a character who feels out of step with what Belle in “Beauty And The Beast” calls “this provincial life.” The rest of the folks in the community usually are content with things as they are and whatever transformation takes place is limited to the character who is in search of more. Moana’s transformation is different in that her transformation is not simply about her – it’s necessary and life-giving for her people.
It turns out the status quo of life in the island village is not based on the true history of the people, but on a history constructed in order to perpetuate the life of the village as it is in the present. “The island gives us what we need,” sing the villagers. “And no one leaves,” is Moana’s disappointed reply.
The revelatory scene comes when, with the encouragement of her grandmother (who some try to dismiss as eccentric and foolish… yes, the story comes with a dangerous and courageous woman!), Moana decides to question the narrative that she has grown up with. She finds her way to a cave where there are artifacts from her people’s past that point to their true identity. They are not land-loving island people. They are a seafaring people who traveled from place to place discovering new things. Moana has a vision of her ancestors, brave and bold, confidently sailing the seas. The threat to her village is that they do not know their true story and as a result they are not living their true story. The ancestors she sees on the water in her vision drive the point home by repeating the refrain “we know who we are.”
No one island is their home; the sea is their home, taking them from island to island. They were never meant to be a one-island people. That is not who they are. The present residents of the village – Moana’s people – have committed themselves to a course of action in which they are doggedly determined to be who they are not. A valuation of safety and security and holding on to things as they are has caused the people to forget their true identity and true purpose.
If it hasn’t already happened there is a giant spoiler coming right here…
The story ends happily (it is Disney, after all), as the people rediscover their roots led by Moana’s free spirit and her own journey of self-discovery. Towards the end there is a reprise of “We Know The Way” that is a pure joy to behold. It would make a wonderful hymn to sing on the floor of a future General Assembly meeting. It could be used as a celebration of a meeting where the church celebrates its liberation from courses of action designed from the dogged determination to be who we are not and who we were never called to be.
We are not primarily custodians of an institution. We are people on a mission, people with a great commission.
We are too often bound up with the preservation of the institution as we know it, losing sight of the true history of risk and mission and adventure, which are at the heart of our identity. Imagine that scene where Moana discovers the artifacts of her people’s seafaring ways, except it’s us and what we are discovering is the Book of Acts. That’s who we are.
I pastor a church that next year will celebrate its 160th anniversary. The church was built on its present location using bricks that were fired on-site. We love our sanctuary and we surely know the temptation of making our highest priority the preservation of our building. We are continually reminding ourselves that the building allows us to be in our present location, which in turn allows us to be in ministry in our community with folks beyond our walls. We do not do this perfectly, but we try very hard to remember that the building is not who we are. Instead we are the mission and ministry that our location makes possible.
I know why “Moana” resonates and why it challenges. As much as I want to identify with Moana, I have to confess I fully understand and identify with Moana’s father as well. Which brings me back to my initial point, which is not to make you feel bad about where your church is or what you are presently doing or not doing, but to say this: If you want to see an entertaining movie and at the same time spend a few moments sharing visions of the future of the church, “Moana” may just be your ticket.
GEORGE LOVE is the pastor of Hebron Presbyterian Church in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. He is a husband, father, sports fan, comic book collector and enjoyer of pop culture who loves discovering God in all of it.