Monday, June 30, 2014

Disney's "Maleficent" in Allegorical Analysis

Note: this post contains major spoilers (in fact, it gives away the entire plot of the movie).  It is not meant to be a review that estimates the entertainment value of the movie, but an analysis and critique.  So don't read this to find out if you should see the movie; go see it, and then read the post.  Also, I need to give credit where credit is due...some of these insights were first developed by my mother while we were talking about the movie.  Thanks, Mom!

               I finally saw Disney's Maleficent last week, and was glad I did.  It wasn't the best movie I have seen recently, but it provided plenty of food for thought.  I had recently heard part of an interview on Issues Etc. where Pastor Ted Giese claimed that the movie, while borrowing "Christian capital" from the original source material, failed to build on that capital in the tradition of the Christian worldview.  Despite my great respect for Issues Etc., I'm typically skeptical of worldview-based movie reviews (which often seem to miss the point), so I went into the movie deliberately thinking about symbolism, worldview, metaphor, and plot archetypes in order to see for myself what the movie was really trying to say.
               As it turned out, I found Maleficent to be heavily influenced by the Christian narrative (whether consciously or subconsciously), and probably more of that narrative in Maleficent than in its source material.  The entire movie is elaborately symbolic of redemptive history and the atonement, even incorporating Trinitarian symbolism into its story. 
               Consider the parallels between the plot of Maleficent and the Biblical salvation narrative.  Maleficent, a powerful fairy and defender of the moor ("Faerie"; "the perilous land" according to Tolkien) forms a relationship with a boy (Stefan) from the neighboring human kingdom.  But as the boy grows older, he is captured by lust for power and gain and eventually betrays Maleficent when the king promises to make him his heir in return.  This is the "Fall" in Maleficent, quite similar to the narrative in Genesis 3 in which Satan beguiles Adam and Eve to betray their faithfulness to God with the promise of knowledge and power, saying "You shall be as gods."  This action provokes Maleficent to anger, bringing her curse upon the whole land and her wrath upon Stefan and his whole family, just as Adam's sin provoked God to curse all of mankind as well as His whole creation, as Paul writes, "For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now."
               As in the original story, Maleficent curses Stefan's (now the King) daughter to fall into a deep sleep after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel, and Stefan sends his daughter, Aurora, to be cared for by three fairies in the woods.  But the twist in the story comes when Maleficent actually grows to care for the child and takes her into the moor with her.  Aurora grows attached to her godmother and Maleficent comes to love the princess, who spends all her time in the moor and plans to live there permanently. 
               But when Aurora finds out about the curse, she ventures out of the moor into the King's castle, paralleling the incarnation, for although the princess obviously originated in the human realm, she had since become practically a daughter to Maleficent and a creature of the moor.  The curse is fulfilled, and Aurora falls into a "sleep like death."  Maleficent is grieved, and repents of her act of vengeance.  Her wrath has been poured out upon her god-daughter and her desire for vengeance is gone.
               The allusions to Penal Substitutionary Atonement in this section of the story are obvious, as are the Gnostic overtones to the narrative; it portrays Maleficent, a figure of God, as doing wrong in her anger, and Aurora as the example of good and love, similarly to the way in which heretics like Marcion portrayed the relationship of the God of the Old Testament to the God of the New.  But this, frankly, is to be expected in any human story that echoes the Christian narrative; because the characters are human, it would be unrealistic to portray them as perfect, even when they symbolize a divine figure in the context of the story.  In the movie Thor, for example, (SPOILER ALERT), the need for the hero to change and overcome his arrogance (as opposed to Jesus' sinless nature) does not diminish his status as a Christ figure at the end of the film (END SPOILERS).  Similarly, it is murdering the metaphor in Maleficent to gripe about the heresies it would imply if taken literally.
               The point is that we are still left with a storyline that eerily resembles the Christian redemption narrative; Stephan's sin provokes Maleficent's wrath, and Maleficent's metaphorical daughter, Aurora, takes the wrath of Maleficent upon herself in her symbolic death, making atonement for the wounded land.  When Maleficent finds Aurora unconscious, she repents of her wrath, is grieved, and kisses the princess goodbye, but "true love's kiss" awakens Aurora, just as God, having forsaken His Son on the cross, also raised Him up in love after He had atoned for all sin.
               Clearly, Aurora is the Christ figure in this story, while Maleficent represents God the Father.  Diaval, the shape-shifting raven who becomes Maleficent's "wings," could furthermore be said to represent the Holy Spirit (who is often symbolized by a bird and even appears in the form of a dove at Jesus' baptism) in that he carries out the work of Maleficent among men just as the Holy Spirit carries out the work of God among His church.  At the end of the movie, Aurora, having "risen," is exalted by Maleficent as queen of the whole realm.  Maleficent lifts the curse and the human and fairy kingdoms are united under the reign of Aurora.  Thus, the redemptive narrative of Maleficent is complete - except for one thing.
               This particular flaw in the plot falls between Aurora's "resurrection" and the subsequent happy ending.  When Maleficent and Aurora attempt to escape the castle, Stefan traps Maleficent and a battle scene ensues in which Stefan and his men attack the fairy.  The tide of the battle turns when Maleficent regains her wings (assisted by Aurora who releases them from their captivity), but Stefan presses the assault and is eventually killed.  Although Maleficent does not kill him in malice but causes his death in self-defense, which justifies her actions, the problem with this scene is not its ethical message but its place in the context of the story.
               Stefan, as a figure of Adam, is the one who falls into sin, betraying Maleficent and provoking her curse.  However, this metaphor falls apart when, instead of being redeemed, Stefan is killed at the end of the movie.  Whereas the story arc, having completed the allegorical atonement, should have ended with the redemption of the original offender, it inexplicably leaves him out of the redemptive ending.  Now, I'm not one to demand that every story containing an atonement metaphor follow it precisely the way it is described in Scripture.  That would not be fair on my part.  However, there are specific aspects of Maleficent that seem to demand Stefan's redemption, as follows:
               1.  One could justify Stefan's death with an appeal to justice, but justice has been done already, both externally with Maleficent's curse and internally with Stefan's obvious agony over his sin.
               2.  One could describe Stefan as typical of Satan rather than Adam, but, besides throwing a wrench in the allegory, it also runs contrary to what the audience naturally longs for and to how they perceive Stefan's character.  I mean, did anyone really want that cute little boy at the beginning of the movie to die a violent death?
               3.  If Maleficent has truly repented of her vengeful ways, and if her anger has truly been satisfied and swept away by love for Aurora, then it makes much more sense for her to forgive Stefan than to kill him.  Of course, she causes his death in self-defense only, but once Maleficent has relented of her anger, it only makes sense for the change in her to be played out in her relationship with Stefan.
               4.  Despite being the ultimate antagonist of the story, by the end of the movie Stefan comes across less as an evil villain and more as a pathetic character, driven quite literally to insanity by anger and repressed remorse for his deeds.  A pathetic character like Stefan begs to be redeemed, not to be killed.  And, while we're at it, his character is interesting and should have been developed more anyway.
               Finally, I simply believe that the story would have been much more powerful had Maleficent forgiven Stefan at the end and had Stefan been redeemed.  The death of Stefan is a letdown, in my opinion, and a rather anti-climatic ending to the story.  The arc of the plot absolutely begs to be fulfilled with an act of pure grace on Maleficent's part, an act that would seal her transformation and bring the entire movie full circle to the metaphorical "Eden" at the beginning.  Without Stefan's redemption, the ultimate resolution of the movie seems empty.  Even more powerful would have been a scenario in which Maleficent had Stefan at her mercy and Aurora stepped between them, interceding on her father's behalf and prompting her godmother's forgiveness, followed by Stefan and Maleficent both bestowing her with the crown of their respective kingdoms.  This would have further solidified Aurora's redemptive and Christ-like role in the story, emphasized her queen-ship (and the unification of the kingdoms) to a greater degree, and transformed Maleficent from a good but somewhat predictable and anti-climatic movie into a classic of fairy-tale adaptation.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Song of the Week

Benjamin Britten/Hymn to St Cecilia

          Exquisitely beautiful, this piece (not exactly a "song") is choral music as only Benjamin Britten could write it, with one foot in the Middle Ages and another in the Twentieth Century.  The interplay between male and treble voices creates a sense of tension and contrast that pervades the entire piece, augmented by the quirky dissonances that lend this basically tonal work a somewhat uneasy quality.  From the lilting, swelling sea-story of movement I, to the second movement's frantic canon, to the oratorio-like give-and-take of the third, Hymn to St. Cecilia is a perfect masterpiece of choral composition.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

On the Culture Wars

               And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.  Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
               Jesus does not mandate pacifism in this passage, which clearly speaks specifically to His situation in the context of the narrative: i.e., that to rescue Jesus with violence would be wrong because Scripture could not then be fulfilled.  But there is more to these words of Christ than their context in the Passion narrative; this saying is a commandment not only applicable to the disciple but to the Church.  John's Gospel reveals that the swordsman was none other than Peter, who typifies the Church with His confession "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!" that is the rock on which Jesus promised to build His Church.  Thus, the Church today must be careful to take heed of this commandment and its implications for our lives as Christians in this world.
               The commandment is this: simply, that the Church must not attempt to defend their Lord with violence.  For although Christ's body is not under threat now in the same sense it was in the Garden of Gethsemane, His name is blasphemed throughout the earth, spat upon by those who hate Him and His Church.  Mockery outside the Church blasphemes the name of Christ, heresy blasphemes Him from within, and sin both inside and outside saddens and offends against our Lord.  But Christ makes it clear that, although the world's sin against Him is great, that the Church is not to restrain or punish offenders against Him with force and violence. 
               For Jesus has satisfied the wrath of God with His own blood, spilled violently upon the cross, and demands no more sacrifice but is full of mercy.  We are saved by the grace of God through Christ, and cannot find God's favor in our works on His behalf, nor can we satisfy His wrath by restraining the evildoer, for His wrath has already been satisfied.  Although sin certainly saddens God, we are not called to subdue the sinner with coercion, which would sadden Him even more.  As Jesus reminded Peter that He was perfectly capable of defending Himself, so He also reminds us today that vengeance against the evildoer is His responsibility, not ours, and that if the Church resolves to use violence, it will surely be a victim of the same, for "All who take the sword will perish by the sword."  Therefore, when we hear people mock Christ or see them engage in immorality, we should not try to silence or stop them but instead engage them, pray for them, and trust God to deal with them justly.
               This is an especially relevant commandment for today's American Church, in which the controversies tied up in the so-called "culture wars" have created great divisions within and without the Body of Christ.  The problem with the culture wars is not the opposition of various ideas and principles (as if debate was a bad thing) but the use of force on the part of Christians and the Church in order to defend the name of Christ and advance His kingdom by regulating immoral behavior.  Simply, the more literally that "combatants" take the term "culture wars," the worse they are going to get.  Of course, there are not many Christians who prowl the streets looking for sinners to restrain by force.  But when the Church appeals to the government to do the same - to make certain behaviors, substances, or types of speech illegal - they violate this command of Christ by proxy, since they themselves do not use violence but rather encourage others to use it for their ends.  For laws are by nature coercive, and when the government passes a law, it includes the threat of violence as a punishment for breaking that law.  When the Church, then, attempts to influence the government to pass laws restricting immoral behavior, it becomes complicit in the use of violence against sinners.  When the Church acts in this way, it becomes no different from the Pharisees, who had to be stopped by Jesus from stoning the woman caught in adultery (John 8).
               For all Christians are soldiers of Christ and members of His Kingdom, but the Kingdom of God does not come by forceful behavior modification.  Rather, Jesus has inaugurated a Kingdom that comes through Word and Sacrament in the vessel of the Church, the true Body of Christ here on earth.  The proper response to the depravity of our culture is not for the Church to appeal to the government, a coercive institution, but simply to preach the Word, for in Scripture, Christ Himself speaks to us, and the Holy Spirit comes in power to work faith in the hearts of men and to "call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify" the Church and its members (Luther's Small Catechism). This is the subversive reality of the Kingdom of God: that its weapons are not guns and grenades, but "the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Ephesians 6:17), the drowning of baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and the body and blood broken and shed for us in the Lord's Supper.  Although He has prohibited violence, Jesus has not left Himself and His Church defenseless.  Let we believers, then, truly wage Spiritual warfare, not according to the principles of this world, but according to Christ, who leads His people into battle armed with the power of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Parable Explained

               The unjust physician is the government, and the patient is the United States.
               The government sees the illness of our land - social issues, economic problems, crime, and the like - and takes advantage of it.  It makes laws that ease the symptoms of our problems, but that make the underlying issues worse.  Consider the unsustainable gymnastics of Keynesian economics that temporarily keep the markets stable but ultimately cripple our country's economy and stifle the free market.  Take note of the regulatory state that professes to protect workers and consumers with its petty laws but in fact cripples the agency of both individuals and businesses.  Look at our justice system, that pretends to solve problems by throwing innocuous stoners in jail for their "crimes."  The government addresses all of these problems on the surface, but uses their solutions to mire the country deeper and deeper in debt and dependency.
               Why does the government operate this way?  Is it out of simple ignorance?  No!  Although it definitely exists among the political elite, stupidity is not the primary vice that afflicts Washington.  It is not stupidity, although there is certainly short-sightedness among politicians who manipulate the land for their political gain and do not foresee their own inevitable downfall.  No, the problem is evil.  Corruption.  Lust for power and money.  Politicians continue to propagate their own self-seeking policies, pragmatically "fixing" the problems on the periphery, and all the while the wheels of the machine turn, driven by greed, easing the people further into total dependency on the government and its bad medicine.
               We already perceive this dependency today.  How often do we hear voices from both sides cry, "Without government, how would poor people be fed?" and  "Without government, corporations would oppress us!" and "Without government, who would protect us from moral degradation?" and "Without government, who would protect us from evil people?" and on and on and on without end.  What these people never seem to consider is that it is the government that keeps people in poverty, the government that allows corporations to oppress us and oppresses us itself, the government that promotes moral degradation, and the government that is the evil we need to be protected from.  We Americans have Stockholm Syndrome; we fawn at our captors and follow them on leashes loyally because they give us a few scraps of bread to eat, never stopping to consider their violence, rapaciousness, and repression!  We shudder at the frightening freedom of a life without coercion, and retreat back into our safe holes in the den of the thieves.
               The government is evil.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Bad Medicine: A Parable

               There was once a physician who had a patient with a severe illness.  Every month this patient, afflicted with severe pain, would attend her monthly appointment, and the doctor would prescribe her medicine for her ailment.  Month after month, year after year, without fail, this arrangement was repeated, the patient seeking a remedy for her prolonged illness and the doctor giving her relief for her symptoms.  As time went on, the disease was not healed but rather spread and became more severe, but by gradually increasing the dose of the patient's medicine, the doctor was able to keep her pain mostly under check.
               But, unbeknownst to the patient, this physician was evil and corrupt, a man who lusted for wealth and relished the power he exerted over his clients.  Although he knew the proper vaccine for the patient's illness, he kept it a secret from her and instead provided her with a weak medicine that only treated the symptoms of her disease, in order that he might keep her dependent upon him and extort more and more money out of her.  Furthermore, the prescribed medicine, although appearing to treat at least the symptoms of the condition, actually was designed to make the underlying problem worse, causing the disease to spread further and more severely throughout the body.  This allowed the evil physician to milk his patient for even more money, as the increased dose and strength of her medicine also cost more.
               The patient, however, unaware of the doctor's true character and not astute enough to research the condition for herself, loved her doctor and believed that she could not live without him.  "Without this physician and his medicine," she would say to herself, "I certainly would have died by now."
               What think you of this man?  And of what is he deserving?