The Predictability of Spirits

I never knew before having kids that I would one day become a bubble solution connoisseur. After a few run-ins with poor quality bubble solution and the tears that ensued (Tristan’s, not mine to clarify) I’ve been taking notes on which brands perform the best and asking family and friends alike who their dealers are for the best brands. You learn quickly with kids there are few things more deflating than going to blow bubbles and nothing coming out of the wand. As a parent you have to be prepared and stocked up with the highest quality solutions.

Well over the summer I think we’ve probably used at least a few gallons worth of bubble solution. That means watching our kids blow A LOT of bubbles. And I began to notice something…

While the wind may carry all of them in a general direction, the individual flight patterns of each varies considerably. Up, down, left and right, forwards and backwards. Often following the prevailing wind direction but at other times going against it. You can’t anticipate with certainty which way they would go next.

And it reminded me of this interesting verse from John 3:8. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

wind, spirit and breath

The original Greek words for “wind” and Spirit” used in this verse are pneuma and pneumatos respectively. I’m no scholar on ancient languages, but we can clearly see that these two words are clearly related in the original language. In fact in both the Old Testament and New Testament, the words wind, spirit and breath are often used interchangeably. While we see them as being distinct from one another, our ancestors saw them as far more integrated.

Take school spirit for example. It’s not a material object you can touch, move, or see with your eyes. It cannot be reduced to atoms bouncing off one another. It cannot be modeled by empirical formulations. And it isn’t bound by the laws of physics. Yet, I think all would agree it exists. School spirit animates students and teachers alike. It has the ability to breathe life into kids. It can move through a body of students much like the wind.

It’s why the word spirit shares the same root as words like inspire (“to give breath”), respire (“to breathe again”), and conspire (“to breathe together”). We still have remnants in our language of a former way of seeing the world. A way of perceiving that we still see in part.

Or consider the wind motif that is still in many of our movies. It often represents this subtle force that moves characters and pushes the plotline along. It’s found all throughout movies like The Lion King, Frozen II, and Pocahontas. It’s difficult to articulate the exact purpose it plays within a story, yet we all intuitively understand its role. Here’s a scene from the Lion King that captures that essence beautifully.

Much in the same way, we can intuitively understand how spirits govern the actions of individuals, schools, communitities, families, and entire nations for good or for bad. Yet, they often go unseen and unrecognized just like the wind.

the social sciences and the discernment of spirits

Recently I have started taking interest in topics pertaining to the social sciences. Family systems, personality disorders and mental health, the rise and fall of ideologies, religions and nations… it’s all relevant to the social sciences.

The social sciences is a field of study I would have scoffed at in my high school and college days for being something of far less value than the hard sciences. And yet, here I am a bit older and realizing just how crucial these studies are and the value they can provide when done well.

What is so baffling is that you begin to see that the behavior of groups start to follow patterns in a similar fashion to the traditional sciences like biology, physics, and chemistry. Political factions, dysfunctional families, churches, work environments, and even the lives of individuals tend to play themselves out in patterns that those in the social sciences can track and monitor with relative predictive ability. In many ways the social sciences have helped elucidate what has long been opaque. One could say the unpredictability of spirits, has to some degree become predictable.

And yet, I can’t help but notice that more often than not the consensus in the social sciences is regarding that which is pathological. Around how to live the good life, it seems very much that the jury is still out. It’s easier to identify addiction, personality disorders, dysfunction, cults, or what constitutes something like poor school spirit than the alternative. It’s easier in many ways for modern movie makers to depict villains than it is to create an engaging hero. It’s easier to see where things went wrong than to know how to fix them let alone articulate what the ideal is. And I think this is one of the points Jesus is trying to express to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, when he makes the aforementioned statement regarding the necessity of being born of the Spirit.

Jesus and the unpredictable spirit

Pharisees have a bad reputation for being hypocritical. And yet, on the other hand you have to recognize their attempt to live an upright life, even if hypocrisy was in play. In contrast to many around them, they were at least expressing an intent to avoid sinful acts.

Nicodemus approaches Jesus for a conversation because he recognizes that Jesus could not perform the miracles he had, if he were not from God. Nicodemus is essentially trying to confirm that they are both laboring for the same team. And yet Jesus responds in a surprising manner. He doesn’t openly embrace Nicodemus but instead states that even Nicodemus still needed to be born again of the Spirit if he wanted to see the Kingdom of God.

Nicodemus, like the Pharisees in general, was predictable, following a set of rules and operating in absolutes. Jesus however lives by a different Spirit, and one that like the wind, often surprises people. He zigs when others expect him to zag. Much of the gospels can be summarized as different individuals and groups thinking Jesus is on their side, trying to recruit him, and finding out he operates in ways that confound them. Jesus is, in a way, unpredictable. Not that he is erratic. But he is able to hold within himself what we often perceive as conflicting virtues in perfect harmony.

And for 2,000 years individuals, families, communities and nations have been altered and animated by this Jesus and the Spirit by which he lived. Part of what makes him such a captivating person is his ability to avoid being compartimentalized. In many ways he’s unpredictable like the Spirit that moves him. He sets impossibly high standards yet communes with the sinful. He made bold claims to his own divinity and authority yet he humbled himself to the point of being unjustly hung on a cross. And he chastizes his disciples for having little faith yet has the utmost patience and grace.

Even today, Jesus is used as a model for both inclusion and holiness. Both grace and judgement. Both perfect service and kingship. The lion and the lamb. The first and the last.

Yes, the path the Spirit calls us to may be to take the narrow path and avoid the wide path to destruction. And in that sense the prevailing wind is predictable. But beyond that narrow path are wide open vistas of a life that to many will seem to many as “unpredictable.” The type of unpredictable that leads to admiration, which is part of why this Jesus of Nazareth has captivated so many for so long and continues to breathe new life into this world.

The Hidden Meaning of Onward

One of the best perks of being a parent is seeing your kids enjoy things for the first time. Whether it’s petting a baby bunny, wading in the water, or tasting cake and brownies, the overwhelming joy they experience is contagious. The world is infused with wonder not just for them but for the parent, often in a way we have so long forgotten was possible. These experiences make you question what ever happened to the fascination that we had as children.

So much was new and there was so much to be learned. Seeing a giraffe or elephant at the zoo took your breath away. You were struck with a sense of awe when staring at the stars at night or looking out from a mountaintop. Even the seemingly small joys like seeing your parent return home from work elicited uninhibited elation. And they provoked unfiltered and pure amazement with the world for child and parent alike.

So what happened to us? Where did the excitement with the world go? Was the new car smell destined to wear off once we lived long enough to see the world for how it really is? If having kids seems to give us a little taste of this experience again, could there possibly be other ways to recover the appreciation for life from our childhood?

Cue Pixar’s movie Onward, which, maybe better than any movie I can recall seeing, can point us toward rediscovering that fascination with the world all over again.

more than a story of two brothers

Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and best of all—there was magic. And that magic helped all in need. But it wasn’t easy to master, and so the world found a simpler way to get by. Over time, magic faded away, but I hope there’s a little magic left in you.”

Pixar’s latest film begins and ends with these words from a father’s note to his sons Ian and Barley. A note accompanied by the father’s gift of a magician’s staff and a spell that would allow him to visit them for a day, which were left behind for his sons’ use long after he passed away. A gift that, when received as teenagers, would spark an adventure for these two elven brothers.

Their mother cautioned them that he was only an accountant, and that “he got interested in a lot of strange things when he got sick.” She was bracing them for what she thought was inevitable. That this gift was a nice gesture of their dad’s affection but sadly nothing more. There wasn’t really any magic. The world had long forgotten it and failed to even acknowledge its existence anymore.

And so, to their surprise when Ian’s attempt to bring their dad back partially works – bringing back the lower half of their dad – they have to embark on a quest to find another Phoenix Gem to finish the spell and restore the rest of their dad so they can see him face to face before the spell wears off. A quest that provides the setting for an endearing and relatable story about two brothers that is poignant in its own right. A story that certainly jerked a tear or two from me (like nearly every Pixar movie), but also struck a chord even deeper. Something beyond the mere tugging of heartstrings.

I think the writers’ intended to offer much more to their audience. A subtle and hidden message that is so relevant, especially today. A story that has everything to do with rediscovering that wonder that has gone missing.

the pitfalls of modernity

People haven’t always thought about the world in the same way that we do today. It seems like such an obvious thing to say, and yet, it is so hard to step back and understand the very frames or lenses we use today to see the world. Having a child helps you to see it. You get to relive aspects of your own childhood and experience the novelties of life a second time. You may be visiting the beach, lake, or park, or spending time with family like you had done for years before having kids. But suddenly it’s all the more meaningful. The setting hasn’t changed. Your perspective has.

In the opening scenes of Onward, the note from Ian and Barley’s father shows the stark contrast he found between the ways of the past and the ways of today. In the past, magic was integral to the community and to every facet of their lives. But as science offered easier solutions to life’s problems, the apparent need for magic slowly faded away and with it, their ties to it. It was pushed further and further to the periphery of society until it was almost completely forgotten. Magic was still available to them, but they could no longer see it.

Motorcycles, cars, and planes replaced their previous methods of transportation. Sprites didn’t know they could fly and instead started a motorcycle gang. Centaurs, who could run up to 70 mph, gave it up to drive their cars.

Historical architecture was commodified into nothing more than a fantasy version of Chuck E. Cheese. And the ancient fountain which served as a significant landmark for past ancestors was considered an “old piece of rubble” by current citizens and an obstacle to be removed for new construction.

Unicorns garbled down some garbage from a trash can and a mermaid basked in a inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. And maybe nothing captures this change in culture more than the fact that what was left of magic was now relegated to a trivial board game that only the geeks would take part in.

The writers of the movie attempt to draw a line between magic and science within this movie and the outcomes of society’s dependence on each.

One could make the argument that we, like the citizens of New Mushroomton, are living in the afterglow of the scientific experiment or the Enlightenment. For a few centuries we have attempted to live within what philosophers would term a “modernist” frame of mind. The things worthy of the most study and debate became more and more exclusively devoted to those things that can be measured. Epistemology, or the theory of how we know what we know became all the more important. And therefore science came to the forefront. Anything that could not be proven by the scientific process of measurement and observation, would be of lesser value than those that could.

As a result, we increasingly discovered more of the world at the cosmic and atomic levels and everywhere in between. We discovered and subsequently studied and named phenomena like black holes, quarks, and photosynthesis. But in the process we largely domesticated the incredible complexities of these amazing aspects of the universe. Yes, to make our lives easier and safer, but at some cost. As the power of science was touted more and more the need for grand metaphysical claims diminished more and more over time. Religion and philosophy were pushed to the periphery like magic in New Mushroomton.

Ian and Barley were living in a post-magic world. Well… almost a completely post-magic world. We likewise find ourselves largely living in a society that is very skeptical of any claims to any overarching story or truth. Have we lost something by getting to this point?

the meaning crisis

I can recall talking to a friend a few years ago who lamented that the story he had been told for how to live his life seemed shallow. Here’s the gist of that story our culture implicitly told young people, like himself, to pursue.

“You get a few years of childhood. Then you go to school to get good grades and try to be the best athlete or musician you can be. Then those good grades and achievements help you get into a good college, where you work hard to get more good grades and accrue more achievements. Then you get your diploma which hopefully turns into a job. Then you work for decades of your life until you may be able to retire. Maybe you enjoy some leisurely activites and hobbies along the way. And then you get a few more years to enjoy in retirement before you die. What’s the point? It’s all meaningless.”

Few have the foresight to actually consider the eventual end of their lives and courageously confront that reality. Or maybe we’re scared to. My friend was willing to face it. And the sad thing was he felt he had no framework afforded to him that could infuse his everyday experiences with meaning. What was the grand purpose beyond the temporal accumulations of wealth, prestige, or bliss, if in the end we were to die and cease to exist? Culture told him the story of life was progress, but the story didn’t jive with how he knew it would end.

Couple that with the narrative that comes out of several of today’s big thinkers like Sam Harris. What seems to be one of the major frontiers for science today is the study of human consciousness. But the story that thinkers like Harris are telling thousands of young people are that we are simply a lump of cells with no autonomy or agency over what we think, do and say. That our own experience of agency in our life is an illusion. Every keystroke I hit to write that was just a part of the constantly unfolding process since the Big Bang and I have no control in it. And neither do you with any aspect of your life.

You want to see the pitfalls of a modernist framework of seeing the world? You can find it in these two dogmas we so often cling to. Progress and particles. We are told to hop on and stay on the hamster wheel of life and keep striving for the sake of progress. And then we reduce everything, even our own sense of agency to mere atoms bouncing off one another. And then we wonder why people are taking drugs and drinking to numb their sensations, using virtual reality to escape the reality they find themselves in, and committing suicide at higher rates. We’ve given them a decrepit story to live within and expect them to be happy with it.

Our society is in desperate need of a change of narrative. And it is this sad state we find ourselves in that Onward speaks to.

the most unexpected of heroes

The first time you watch this movie, if you’re like me, you’re probably fixated primarily on Ian’s story. The development of a young man gifted with magical abilities but lacking in confidence into a completely self-secure wizard who saves his family and town. It’s a classical hero’s journey story, like so many we’re familiar with and it naturally draws our focus in.

However, I think it’s Barley’s story that is much more veiled yet valuable to today’s audience. Barley is written off by the viewer early on because he’s the goofball, clumsy, older brother who can’t seem to figure his life out. The two things he’s seemingly most passionate about are his board game and beat up van. He doesn’t seem to have any clear direction in life. He’s an embarrassment to others in town and even to his own little brother. He’s not showing any progress. If anything he appears to be regressing.

We as a society often write off similar people in our community. The ones who fail to launch. Who bounce between jobs. Who don’t reach their potential (whatever we envision that word to mean). But Barley has something else to offer. Something unique to him that the rest of the community needs, including Ian. He even has something that we as viewers probably need.

The completely integrated life that invites others to find the magic again.

When you watch this movie, you will find that Barley far more than any other character helps others bring their life back into touch with the magic they had long foregone. He states to the sprite biker gang that “they used to fly around spreading delight.” A comment that provokes a fight but ultimately leads to the sprites rediscovering their ability to fly.

Barley reminds the Manticore that she isn’t just a restaurant manager but the heroine who wielded the Curse Crusher and led people on quests. And maybe most importantly he serves as the biggest supporter for his younger brother and helps him realize his potential. He helps Ian to see in himself what Barley has always seen in him. Barley is the unlikely hero who revives his family and community. And how does he do it?

more than just a beat-up old van

When the trailer for this movie first came out I was really curious what the title would have to do with the story. Most other Pixar movies have pretty self-explanatory titles to them. Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Up, The Incredibles, and Cars… But Onward is much more mysterious.

That is until you get to the car chase scene with the sprites when Ian has to shift Barley’s van Guinevere not into drive, but to “O for Onward”. You may not have noticed this, but the O was written on duct tape. The point wasn’t that all vehicles in this alternate reality called the drive shift selector position “onward”. Barley had duct taped this over the normal “D” for drive.

And a closer look at the name for his van “Guinevere” indicates the name’s meaning is “white, fair and smooth, or soft.” A fitting name for a van with a Pegasus adorned on both sides. A van Barley constantly referred to as his steed. His proudest accomplishment that he wanted to share with his dad. And the van that Barley sacrificially gives up to help them escape the police. Notice how much of this pivotal scene embraces the magical and mythical elements of what Guinevere represents to Barley.

The sound of a horse in the revving of the engine. The galloping motion and sounds when the tire is punctured by the rock. The van taking flight and the unpaid tickets resembling wings. And then the camera’s focus on the Pegasus adorning the side of the van. This was more than a van. Barley lived a completely integrated life where everything, even his method of transportation was infused with his belief in magic. She was more than just “a beat-up old van.”

His method of transportation was more than a piece of technology helping him get from Point A to Point B. It was so well tied up into everything he believed to be true about the world. His whole life was a quest and Guinevere epitomized this reality.

This movie is similarly laden with seemingly unexceptional moments that become so crucially important and meaningful later. A bag of cheese curls. A splinter from the wizard’s staff. And the reflector that falls off Guinevere.

This movie reminds us that everything can have meaning again if you’re willing to look back in history for what we’ve lost along the way. As Barley says, “On a quest, the clear path is never the right one.” Maybe the clear story our culture is currently telling us to live by may not be the right one. The story of Onward never indicates that science in and of itself is a bad thing. It just cannot be the thing. It asks us to consider that maybe there is a way of seeing the world from the past that can bring the wonder back for us today.

I think that’s what Ian and Barley’s father wanted for them as his dying wish. That gift of a story one can live within may be the best thing we can hand down to the generations after us. Something he clearly imparted to Barley and that Barley then gifted to Ian. A beautiful depiction of the role we can play in helping to restore the lives closest to us and helping all in need.

I think Ian and Barley’s father said it best.

Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and best of all—there was magic. And that magic helped all in need. But it wasn’t easy to master, and so the world found a simpler way to get by. Over time, magic faded away, but I hope there’s a little magic left in you.”

I certainly hope there’s a little magic left in us too.

WALL-E and the Prodigal Son

Beyond its charming love story and the adorable personification of a little trash compacting robot, WALL-E gave its viewers much to meditate on. WALL-E truly is a masterpiece in storytelling. Conveying most of the story with so few words, the story is strikingly simplistic and yet filled with incredible depth.

This 2008 Pixar movie has served as a G-rated version of classic stories like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, asking the audience very similar questions. Can wealth and comfort really provide the security and fulfillment we all long for? What are we giving up by trying to escape the difficult realities we are presented with on earth? What does courage really look like? And what exactly is it that makes this little robot so endearing?

But unlike Brave New World, WALL-E presents us with more lighthearted scenes with WALL-E going back to his home as probably the most memorable. We see the WALL-E trying to find a place for his newly found spork, creating a hat out of a trash can lid, and recognizing the beauty of held hands from a scene of “Hello, Dolly!”. And while that scene gives us a thorough introduction to what motivates this little robot, I don’t think we have to look much further than the first few minutes to get a glimpse into one of the most important and overlooked parts of the story.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that just before zooming in on a trash covered Earth, they were finishing the following lyrics from the song “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.”

There’s a slick town, Barnaby… Out there. Full of shine and full of sparkle. Close your eyes and see it glisten, Barnaby.”

The stark contrast is immediately drawn between the “shine” and “sparkle” we would envision for an idyllic world and the reality of a trash-covered Earth. Between the world we would all love to live in, like the Axiom ship the humans escape on, and the littered world this fictitious group of people decided to leave behind. Between the world we all would want to leave for future generations and the world this lonely robot is left to inhabit.

And yet, if we were to place ourselves alone in this polluted and toxic world like this, would any of us have the attitude WALL-E has? Would we be listening to music and humming along while working what to many of us would seem like a meaningless job like compacting little cubes of trash all day? Would we be content with such little impact and without praise from others?

Or would we be looking to escape that reality like the humans in the movie? To fill our stomachs to the full? To spend our time binge-watching more TV shows than we could ever watch in a lifetime? Trying to escape reality through whatever food, sex, drugs, alcohol, or virtual realities we can get our hands on?

If this robot was disgruntled, would he have nearly the appeal that he has had on people, or is it in fact his pleasantness in spite of the circumstances that makes him so alluring?

And yet, WALL-E presents us with another conundrum to consider. WALL-E is the only robot in the movie that from the beginning of the story seems to have transcended his programming. And he’s also the only WALL-E robot still functioning on Earth with all others losing functionality after 700+ years of hard work. All other robots are stuck doing routine functions without really giving consideration to why they do what they do. I don’t think this is a coincidence either, but rather an important facet of the story.

WALL-E, by the end of the movie helps both groups realize what they are lacking. He is such a powerful character because he serves as the unassuming savior of the story. A robot going about his business even to the point of his near destruction for love and for purpose. And this story is so poignant and moving because it invites us to ask how do we respond to watching such heroism and courage. And it’s this aspect of the movie that reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the Bible.

The passage is found in Luke 15 and it’s the parable of the prodigal son. So many of us are familiar with the story of the younger son. The younger asks for his share of the father’s inheritance. He essentially asks his father to liquidate half his wealth because he couldn’t wait for his father to pass away and acquire his share of his wealth then. Then he goes and wastes his inheritance on frivolous things only to find himself in trouble when a severe famine occurs.

He returns to his father only hoping that he would be merciful enough to allow him to work in his garden again. He does not expect to be received as his son again after what he did. But expects to be received like an average laborer, to earn a living just so he does not starve. But instead the younger son is welcomed home with open arms from the father and a feast. The story demonstrates that God is always open and ready to receive the repentant sinner. A story that fell therapeutically on the ears of the downtrodden, sinful, lost and forgotten in society both then and today.

But Jesus also continues with the story of the older son, which is often forgotten and discussed far less often. And this part of the story is intended for a second group in his audience. It’s the story of a son who worked in the garden, never asked for his father’s inheritance, and appeared to be doing everything right. Yet he was bitter when the younger son was received by the father so joyfully. The father asks the older son why he would not come inside for the party to celebrate the return of his younger brother, but the older son remained resentful.

“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

For a son who appeared to be doing everything right, and laboring away for his father, he was quite indignant and certainly not appreciative for the situation he was in. Despite being in the father’s garden, he was not happy, let alone content. Quite an interesting difference presented in these two brothers.

The parable of the prodigal son is an interesting one because it provides two examples of how not to live, but in a way insinuates that there is a third way of living. A life that enjoys working in the Father’s garden and is ready to invite others to join in.

WALL-E captivates me in many of the same ways that Jesus does. To the casual observer WALL-E’s job would appear to be without meaning of significance. He’s a trash collecting robot. There are far more inspiring things one could do for an occupation. And yet, he joyfully goes about his work diligently and when an opportunity arises for him to carry out a significant mission and return the lost plant to Eve, he’s prepared to do it. Through his actions he invites the other humans and robots to step outside of their comforts and their programming to see there are more meaningful things in life to pursue. He helps them transcend who they were to become would they could be.

Jesus lived his life in the very same manner. Whether we have tried to find an escape from the harsh realities of life through the dulling of our senses and the gratification of our fantasies or mustered all our strength to begrudgingly work through life, Jesus has something to offer us. A model of a willfully laborious life given sacrificially, even to the point of death and ridicule, all so that we can see there’s abundant life to be found living in this same manner. That there is a different way to live that may seem counter intuitive to the casual observer, but when acted upon, truly can provide life in its fullest.

We can get up to work each day in a world that is often missing its “shine” and “sparkle” and go about our little jobs even when they appear to have such little meaning. We can labor in the Father’s garden, being joyful for the opportunities that come our way, and excited for the day when others may decide to come back or join us in the labor. And who knows, maybe we find a little rest in the midst of the work. A message maybe as relevant today as it ever has been.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 –

So yeah, WALL-E is a beautiful and thought-provoking movie for many good reasons. But in my opinion, what makes it most influential, are the aspects that most echo the gospel. A life lived so radically that it brings life to those around them.

Why We Shouldn’t Throw Away Fairy Tales

One of the things I most look forward to as a father will be the opportunity to read stories to my son. Morgan and I have already started the habit of rocking him to sleep while reading books and I am excited for when he’s old enough to really engage with the stories.

For some reason, there’s something about stories that resonates so much with me and maybe that’s the case for you as well. I’m not ashamed to say I’m the type of guy who gets teary-eyed at the end of movies like Up, Wreck-It Ralph, and Toy Story 3. How can you not shed a tear when Carl gives Russell the Ellie badge, when Ralph is sacrificing himself into Diet Coke Mountain, or when Woody, Buzz, Jessie and their friends are all about to be melted in the incinerator and they are locked arm-in-arm facing it together?

These stories don’t have to be animated films though to create these deep feelings. Maybe war films like Saving Private Ryan conjure up similar emotions as you witness their camaraderie and sacrifice. While they aren’t usually my cup of tea, romantic films like The Notebook get people welling with emotion as they see the deep love Allie and Noah share. Or maybe you were feeling emotional when half of our favorite heros from the Marvel Cinematic Universe vanished into dust before our eyes in Avengers: Infinity War. Hopefully no one needed a spoiler alert on that last one!

Maybe the stories that most resonate with you are from literature. I remember the shock when reading Harry Potter and the scenes when Dumbledore and Snape died. As with any great piece of fictional writing, these were characters I had come to know and identify with and to read of their deaths was to in some way experience that myself.

These experiences drive us go to the movies and read books. These stories seem to point to certain values or ideals that resonate with so many of us. Even when we can’t articulate into words what exactly in the story resonates with us, their impact is felt. In a way, these fictional stories, although they are not necessarily true historically, abstract out themes and concepts that are incredibly true to our real-life experiences as human beings.

What’s interesting is that lately there seems to have been more dialogue about Disney’s princess stories. Now I’m not going to argue that the Disney version of these older stories are the epitome of fairy tales, but I do think that they are the ones we collectively are the most familiar with.

Keira Knightley, an actress probably most commonly known for her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean, recently said on Ellen that the movies Cinderella and The Little Mermaid are banned in her house because of their depiction of women. Her comments sparked some discussion with people voicing both support and opposition to her thoughts. I don’t think she’s alone in holding these opinions.

Even a scene in Ralph Breaks the Internet, featuring the Disney princesses, which I will admit I found to be humorous (and still do), poked fun at the past princess stories that Disney had created and as stated in news headlines “spoofed the Disney Princess Industrial Complex” and was a “moment that mattered.” A scene like this would not have happened if Disney did not realize this was a widely shared sentiment.

As funny and creative as that scene is, the question remains… Is what this scene portrays about these older stories true? These movies have been mostly acclaimed since they were released. The question is then what changed recently? Are we better people today that we can look back on these stories and see them for what they really are? Or do we have a different and maybe inaccurate perspective on what these stories were really meant to convey?

Take Sleeping Beauty for instance. This is a story that could very easily be construed as “a woman is in trouble and needs a big strong man to save her.” There is the obvious plot line of being willing to fight for true love, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing to teach. However, I think Sleeping Beauty contains a strong lesson on parenting.

Aurora’s (Sleeping Beauty) parents, did not invite Maleficent to Sleeping Beauty’s christening. In essence, her parents were unwilling to allow anything that could be potentially dangerous into her life, which I think we all know, whether or not we want to admit it, is impossible to do.

They were then confronted by Maleficent and issued a curse that on her 16th birthday she would die from pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. Her parents then decided that in order to protect their daughter, they would burn every spinning wheel in the kingdom and send her away to live with the three fairies. They decided to keep her secluded from all spinning wheels, which I think is a metaphor for all potential things that they believed could cause her harm. Interestingly though, they couldn’t keep her from pricking her finger on the spinning wheel as Maleficent still found her way to Aurora.

There is so much more to this story that could be extracted. We could learn from the isolation of Maleficent contrasted with the family and community of all the other characters. Or we could compare Prince Phillip’s courage to the fear of Aurora’s father. Or how about the importance of strong female supporting characters (which is present in a lot of these fairy tales) around Aurora and the importance that mentorship has in a young person’s life.

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle is responsible for redeeming the Beast and is by far the most admirable of all the characters. Gaston, represents the epitome of the self-aggrandizing jerk that I hope we all agree no man should be emulating. Ariel, Pocahontas, and Mulan all represent incredibly strong and courageous women in their stories. Cinderella is a great demonstration of good things coming to those who are diligent with their responsibilities and that is a great lesson for men and women of all ages.

Disney adapted these fairy tales that had been passed down for several centuries across cultures. There are reasons these stories were shared for so long and that Disney was willing to adapt them into films. You can compare it to evolution and survival of the fittest. These stories that have been handed down to us have been maintained because they speak to some of the deepest virtues and values that we have come to embrace as a culture better than other stories that have been told. Yes, they may be imperfect stories, and worthy of critique, but I think we need to be careful about thinking we are so different or (even worse) better, than our ancestors and that they cannot through their stories speak into our lives.

For the same reason that not every movie and story made today will be remembered 100 years from now, not all stories of old have been passed down by our ancestors to us. There’s a reason Lion King will be remembered and not The Emoji Movie or why books like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter will last instead of The Twilight series.
I’m not saying we can’t joke about these movies. I just think we need to carefully watch what we joke about, because it very easily and quickly be adopted as “truth.”

It feels like there has been a growing disdain or casual indifference to most of what we inherit. It’s almost like we’ve become so preoccupied with the mistakes of our ancestors that we are now in the process of trying to clean the slate of their influences in our lives, which often manifests as the throwing away of everything that they created, valued, and passed down to us, including their stories. We view these older stories as antiquated, irrelevant, or (even worse) oppressive in the themes they portray.

However, I think there is a real danger in this interpretation of these stories and as a result the dismissing of them. Reducing each of these stories down to the plot line of “a woman is in trouble and needs a big strong man to save her” or fill in the blanks “_ is oppressed and needs the oppressor __ to save them” is stripping these stories of their real value and intended message.

I’m not saying there’s never been oppression, nor am I saying that these stories are perfect in the stories that they tell. However, I think we will be giving up on some of the best stories we have to learn from and discrediting the significance of what our ancestors learned if we just throw them away. I believe that the degree to which we decide to give critical thought to the themes of these stories is the degree to which we will draw benefit from them. Yes, we can still criticize these stories, but to discard them could be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And if that’s the precedence we set, why should we expect our descendants to want to hear any of the stories we tell?

C.S. Lewis once said, “But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

I hope we can continue to give these stories a chance to teach us and consider why they have been deemed valuable for so long. I think they have so much to teach not just my son, but me as well because they have been shared with so many people across time and have resonated with so many. I don’t want to be a parent, like Aurora’s father, that in an effort to shield my son from all of the potential malevolence in the world keeps him from living his life. Similarly , I think it’s much better to engage with these stories and be able to learn through the process, then to not even give them a chance.

Let’s be careful about what we decide to throw out  because our ancestors are worth listening to and we may be getting rid of the very best they were trying to share with us.