By Jeremy E. Scarbrough
As we are currently amidst the publication process of Lexington’s forthcoming volume on Disney and Moral Theology, I find myself wishing that we could have included just one more chapter—a chapter dedicated to Raya and the Last Dragon, because I think it is theologically rich and it would be scholastically rewarding to unpack and explore thoroughly. Although it is not a musical, which may disappoint some Disney fans, and critics can always find something which rubs them the wrong way, it nevertheless earns its place in the Disney’s animated-feature canon. In the volume’s epilogue, I encourage future researchers to give this film the attention it deserves. In this two-part article, I simply offer a reflection upon some of the themes that stood out to me after viewing the film only once on a recent Daddy-Daughter Date. In the first part, I ponder the worldview-nature of narratives in general and Raya’s fascination with the human condition in particular. I also consider the significance of sacrifice. In the second part, I consider themes of faith, redemption, and charity.
There is a close connection between our stories concerning possible worlds and our desire to understand the story of our own world. As professor of English and philosophy James Sire put it, in his study on the nature of worldview, “All worldviews have at least some operative concept of the passing of time and its relation to both human and non-human reality. Folklore, myth and literature around the world from the ancient past to the present tell stories that put present human reality in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning. They act as orienting patterns…. stories by which societies interpret the universe and life around them.”
As many have observed, both fictional narratives and worldviews (both theological and a-theological) are built around a common (even if implicit) progression of motifs/questions (even if they are presented in a non-linear manner). These include:
- origins, or the idea of an original state—the initial setting and nature of the characters—which provides a sense of meant-to-be-ness, what things were like before the plot thickened;
- the conflict, the driving force of the plot, a search for something (even meaning and identity), or for the setting right of a past wrong;
- and the resolution—the setting right of all wrongs; the restoration to the balance of justice (just-as-it-ought-to-be), or else, in some tales, a coming to terms with what has been lost, and finding an appreciation for the ways in which the journey has changed the protagonist for the better or cultivated within them a greater sense of strength, self-confidence, or even community, for facing tomorrow’s anxieties. (Some postmodern narratives avoid reading too much into the origins and/or leave the resolution out, as the character continues to search for such a thing; narratives like this focus upon the thrownness of existential anxiety).
This is the same progression of ideas central to any worldview—and this makes perfect sense if narratives and art are expressions of human beings wrestling with various questions of worldview (including questions of perspective). In the language of worldview, the questions are such as these:
- Who are we? Why are we here? Do we have a purpose? Is there a right-order, a way it was meant to be? Are human beings basically good or bad?
- Is the world as we find it (thrown here, as we find ourselves to be) right and good or is it broken? If there is no way-it-ought-to-be, why does it often seem as though something is wrong with the world? That things are not quite as they ought to be? Is there such a thing as the good life? If so, how do we find it? To whom shall we look for answers? How should we live?
- Is the good life achievable? By human beings? Is true justice achievable? By human beings? Is there life after death; is there anything—some kind of ultimate goodness—beyond this journey, or is it the case that the only sense of meaning and significance achievable is to be found solely within the journey itself? Fairytales in general, and Disneylore in particular, often emphasize kingdoms and ever-afters. Kingdoms represent order, while ever-afters are usually meant to evoke a sense of ideal goodness, happiness, and flourishing—even tales which draw out the reality of suffering and tragedy do not conclude with promises of evil-ever-after. Even when our tales are tragic, we hold onto the belief in an achievable sense of ever-after-happiness (heaven, or heaven-on-earth).
Is there such a thing as a kingdom-ever-after? If so, what sort of citizens would inhabit such a place? Would it be the sort of place just anyone could inhabit? (If injustice persists wherever humans exist, then why think a kingdom-ever-after would be a good place… unlessit were the sort of place only meant for—supposing it to be possible—human hearts purged of injustice).
In theological language, this is none other than the creation-fall-redemption/restoration motif. In the words of Christian apologist Greg Koukl:
“When you think about it, every story, if it is a good one, has four parts. It has a beginning that sets the stage, telling you who the main characters are and how the story gets rolling. Then something goes wrong. There is a conflict that makes the story interesting. The main part of most stories tells how that conflict gets corrected how the wrong gets fixed. That solution brings a final resolution—writers call it the denouement—where The parts of the plot resolved themselves in a satisfying ending (“They lived happily ever after”). maybe you’ve noticed that the basic parts of a good story actually match the basic parts of a worldview : beginning (creation), conflict (fall), conflict resolution (redemption), and ending (restoration).”
Thus, any given narrative is already more closely connected to questions of theology than many realize. Different narratives press into or draw out different aspects of these worldview question, but many press into both a conviction (even if unknowingly) of a created order (a way-it-should-be) and our desire to see restoration. Still, the most central part of many narratives is the in-between. The plot is what drives the narrative; we long to understand, get the whole sense of the thing, to find resolution, restoration, or even redemption, precisely because this is the space amidst the grand narrative of humanity in which we find ourselves—whether thrown by absurd happenstance or purposefully created for exactly such a time as this. The motif of the human condition, then, is a powerful one.
The Fall: Exploring the Human Condition
Raya and the Last Dragon focuses on points two and three of this three-part motif—questions of the fall or the human condition, and restoration/redemption. One of the most powerful questions of the entire film (though there are many) is presented at the very beginning: How did this world get so broken? This question resonates deeply with all members of all worldview systems, and accordingly, this film could easily serve as a dialectical launchpad into the study of philosophy and theology. It is the right question to ask. Any satisfactory worldview must attempt to give an answer.
It is the question seated at the heart of the existential problem of evil—the problem of pain and suffering. People have long understood that questions of suffering and the human condition are unavoidably tethered to the question of God. In the 1970s, Frederick Copleston wrote, “To ask whether human existence and human history have any meaning and purpose is [emphasis added] to ask whether God exists,” and John Bowker dedicated an entire work to examining the fact that the problem of suffering is the question fundamental to all religions throughout the world. There observations, almost five decades ago, are still ripe for dialogue. For all the talk about there being no universals, is it not true that there seems to be a universal conviction that things are not as they ought to be? For all of our zeal in advocacy and debate concerning justice and injustice, that is what justice is, is it not—a sense of things being as they ought to be? Why is our world so broken, what have we to do with its brokenness, and how is restoration to be achieved?
While the fact of suffering/injustice/brokenness in the world may reveal itself within a universal conviction, the nature of that brokenness or the source of that suffering is a matter of dispute. In the Christian tradition, it is depicted more like a sickness—something which began within the human heart, slowly corrupting a good thing (human freedom/free will) until it eventually became a curse upon humanity, as everyone continued to do whatever was right in their own eyes. And with the pride freely asserted from the self-seeking human heart, came increasing cases of injustices, oppression, abuse, and disregard for anything special about, or sacred between, human beings. So too, in this film, there is a plague that is derivative from a sickness within humanity—a proclivity to discord. This plague has become a problem of evil and suffering that has divided the united kingdom of humanity. It is particularly interesting that this sickness upon the world—the Druun; that-which-ought-not-to-be—literally turns the human hearts whence it came to stone and severs human community—thereby increasing enmity via fear.
A Tale of Two Sacrifices
I found it interesting that there were two tales of Sisu’s sacrifice. First, there was a great sacrifice resulting in salvation for all of humanity… Yet it wasn’t long before humans returned to their antipathy. Thus, this sacrifice was not good enough. It is ultimately human beings who must take the step (which does involve a sense of sacrifice) in order to actualize their own salvation. Herein lies a point with which some theists will take issue (depending on one’s theological tradition and how one parses out exactly what that might mean). Still, one thing that stood out to me about the first sacrifice was the fact that it reminded me of western history. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ was a game-changer in the course of history, to say the least. And yet, the appreciation for that sacrifice and its resulting passionate emphasis upon the goodness of Agape love/charity within community eventually took a backseat (though it continued to thrive) to the powerplays of rising human political institutions. Without going into all the contemporary debates over institutional injustices, I did find it striking that Raya presents us here with a picture of exactly what we would expect to see: If there is a sickness within the human condition, a sacrifice might make it better for now, but why think it would make it better for good so long as we remain as we are? Even though a remnant remains faithful to the meaning and power of Sisu’s sacrifice, the sickness stemming from human nature creeps back in. And if/when this happens, why wouldn’t we expect injustices within and between human institutions?
Sisu’s second sacrifice involves her actual death, and this is later followed with a resurrection motif, but my main interest in the second sacrifice is that it emphasizes the need for a step of faith—even when all hope seems lost—in light of one’s encounter with the sacrifice of another. A primary motif in the film is faith, but while the emphasis is upon faith in one another, it is significant to note that the motivation for taking such a chance on one another grows out of a previously planted seed of trust and inspiration depicted in Sisu. So too, for the Christian, Jesus calls us to love one another, but our love and trust in one another is grounded in the love of Christ—a depiction of God’s love for humanity and faith in the goodness of the human heart he created, and the goodness of the human community for which he made them.
Both Sisu, in her death, and Raya, in her sacrifice, might be seen as mediators calling us to take the step of faith toward the hope that love can reign.
Jeremy E. Scarbroughholds a PhD in music (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Mississippi, an MA in Christian Apologetics, an MA in Theological Studies, an MME in Music Education, and a BA in Music. He has taught music and philosophy at the high school and undergraduate levels. He currently resides in Tampa, FL, with his wife, children, and Chinese Cresteds, where he serves as instructor of philosophy, specializing in moral philosophy, for Pasco-Hernando State College. His research explores the intersection of philosophy (especially moral philosophy), theology, aesthetics (especially musical aesthetics), and pop culture. He has previously contributed chapters on heavy metal, lament, and theodicy (Music, Theology, and Justice 2017)and on sin and virtue in Marvel Comic’s Venom (Theology and the Marvel Universe 2019). Most recently, he has edited a volume on Disney and Moral Theology, which will be released later this year by Lexington Books.
James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as Concept (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004 ), 100.
See, e.g. Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment(Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 19-29; and Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality(Grand Rapids: HarperCollins, 2017), 27. Godawa also insightfully identifies a spectrum of discernment between the extremes of cultural gluttons and cultural anorexics. This distinction is helpful in both navigating culture wars relating to media and in pondering the value of worldview questions embedded within films/narratives. Whereas gluttons unthinkingly and syncretistically assumethe worldviews of art-objects the consume, the cultural anorexics reject all forms of pop-culture as either pointless or corrupting, and thus miss the valuable food for thought and dialogue that pop-culture art-objects and narratives may offer.
Frederick Copleston, Contemporary Philosophy (London: Search Press, 1979), 213.
John Bowker, Problems of Suffering in the Religions of the World (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970).