By Jack Holloway
One of the most beautiful sequences in the history of animation comes from Fantasia 2000, the sequel to the 1940 Disney classic Fantasia, both consisting of animated features set to classical music. [This article contains spoilers. Do yourself a favor and go watch this on Netflix before you finish reading!]
The finale of Fantasia 2000 is an animated feature set to Stravinsky’s The Firebird. In it, an elk emerges from a snowy forest and breathes on an icicle, which then emits a drop which falls into a body of water, only to emerge again as a kind of fairy, with hair and a body that flow like linens on a clothes line. She flies from the water to the land, and everything she touches loses its icy coating and reveals brilliant growth and life.
She moves up a mountain, however, and at a certain point, the land begins to resist her inspiration. Nothing will grow here. She looks up and sees that smoke is coming from the top of the mountain. She enters its crater and finds a stone-like figure in the center, standing like a cloaked demon. The demon awakes, initiating a volcanic eruption. This fiery abyss of a figure turns into an enormous firebird, which proceeds to make his own transformation of the landscape. He brings to it not life-filled goodness, but destructive fire.
His destruction is total. Nothing is spared. Every living thing in its circumference is swallowed up by the bird’s belly of flame. The whole land becomes an ocean of red hot lava. All is lost. Everything is destroyed, doomed to ash.
Then, in the still, quiet emptiness, the elk reemerges. This time, he breathes on the ash, and the nature fairy emerges, but quite defeated, traumatized, and hopeless; wrecked by her experience of the destruction. The elk offers her his antlers to climb onto. He then takes her, and runs. As he runs, tears start to form in her eyes. These tears fall from her face, and float onto the ground. When they hit the ground, what appears but little plants. The fairy sees the growth, and is exhilarated.
Inspired, she leaps from the elk’s antlers and spreads out into an enormous blanket of blue, covering all the land in a giant, sweeping motion. A fierce rain comes, and from the rain, an explosion of growth unlike anything you’ve ever seen in actual nature. Trees protrude violently from the ground; brown and green cover all. Creation erupts into new life.
I cry – every – single – time that I watch this.
To me, it is such a beautiful portrayal of the theology of redemption, perhaps best described in Romans 8. Here, Paul says, “the creation was subjected to futility,” placed under “bondage to decay,” so that “the whole creation has been groaning,” and not only creation, “but we ourselves … groan inwardly.” Nevertheless, he proclaims, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” What we groan for is “the redemption of our bodies.” One day, creation “will be set free,” and we will know “the freedom of the glory of God.”
Recently, it has felt very difficult to proclaim hope over the world, let alone believe in this talk of coming glory and freedom. Ours, it seems unavoidable to say, is a dark time. The firebird’s destruction might resonate with us. Our world, more and more, seems hopeless, godless, and meaningless. More than anything, we may feel groaning.
Karl Barth refers to the “monstrosity of general human being in time” (quoted in Gorringe, 182). As “the present hour and our future days rush irresistibly into the past,” we experience this world as if it were “condemned to perish” (quoted in Gorringe, 184).
What then are we to say about these things? How can we believe in coming glory under such circumstances? How can we have faith in redemption? How can we proclaim hope?
This has always been the scandal of faith. It witnesses to something entirely at odds with run-of-the-mill life on earth. Contrary to popular opinion, it was not easier for Paul to say what he said under the oppressive imperial regime of Rome, nor was it easier for Luther to believe it in plague-stricken Europe. We think our “world come of age” is so special, like culture has done the unthinkable: made it virtually impossible to believe in the God of the gospel.
Barth, on the other hand, refuses to give modern thought so much credit. The gospel has always been “a strange piece of news” to every age (The Humanity of God, 59), because it has always been the message of God’s ultimate victory over the present darkness, over the negativity which we experience as total and certain.
Barth offers us a way of looking at redemption that is more hopeful than any of the hope-searching we often find ourselves doing. We need not try to find signs of hope in present circumstances, we need not try to find concrete indications that things will get better, in order to believe in ultimate redemption.
On the contrary, seeing the present state of things with the eyes of redemption should lead us to critique the present all the more. Martin Luther King had seen the promised land, and from that he refused to accept the status quo. Barth witnessed WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. Between Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and American Capitalism, Barth denied the present order any revelatory status. No hope can be derived from the present historical conditions.
What Christians do is assert over against the current state of things that evil “has no perpetuity” (Gorringe, 180). Ultimately, it is not decisive. The only thing that has any true creative potential, any true concreteness, is God’s creative activity. That’s why Barth calls evil, injustice, and sin “nothingness,” because ultimately it has no decisiveness. He says, “It is no longer to be feared. It can no longer ‘nihilate,'” for it will ultimately be totally outgrown by God’s creativity (quoted in Gorringe, 180).
What is ultimate is the redemption accomplished in Jesus Christ, which “includes decisively the healing of time” (Gorringe, 183). To use Walter Benjamin’s words, Jesus is not only “the redeemer,” but “the subduer of the Antichrist” (Benjamin, 255). Everything will be redeemed! “All things work together for good for those who love God,” as Paul says.
Fantasia 2000 provides a wonderful illustration of this. None of the destruction from the all-encompassing inferno was in any way decisive. Ultimately, it was more than made up for by the abundant resurrection of creation, which erupted far more gloriously, and far more decisively, than anything that could have been accomplished by the volcano.
And it isn’t just an ejection from one world into another, ideal world. The fairy and the elk don’t ride off in the distance to some better land, untouched by destruction. No, what occurs is a transformation of the destroyed world into a new creation, with a new history.
None of the traces of destruction are left. No ash is to be found anywhere. All of it is made abundantly new, flourishing with a vengeance. You could cut down one of the new trees and find hundreds of rings, indicating a tree with a long, rich history–and yet, it protruded from the ground, full-grown, in seconds.
God’s redemption does not do away with the old, or wash over the past, as if nothing ever happened–but God does renew, resurrect, and create anew in such a way that the new creation totally and decisively supplants the old, with a new history, a history not marked by past sins, past injustices, past catastrophes. Redemption history is without PTSD, shame, regret, neurosis, and all other illnesses with which the past plagues us.
There is the time that we know, and then there is God’s time, the history that we know, and then redemption history. We always experience the former, and groan for the latter. Faith says that our groaning need not be mere wishful thinking (which just leads to more despair and more hopelessness). Faith says, redemption is a power that will eventually reveal its monopoly on reality.
With the assurance of faith, we can live our lives in hope and joy, continually renewed by the gospel of redemption.
Jack Holloway studies Karl Barth and Marxist Theory at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is also the sole member of the band The Heavens, with an album out entitled “Stenazó,” a Greek word which means “to groan.” You can find his music at theheavensmusic.bandcamp.com.
Barth, Karl. The Humanity of God. Translated by John Newton Thomas. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 2007.
Gorringe, Timothy J. Karl Barth: Against Hegemony. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.