By Jeremy E. Scarbrough
This is the continuation of a two-part reflectionon themes that stood out to me after viewing Raya and the Last Dragon when it debuted. In Part I, I pondered the worldview-nature of narratives in general and Raya’s fascination with the human condition in particular. I also considered the significance of sacrifice in the film. In Part II of this article, I consider how the film stresses the significance of an encounter with a mystical being, and I explore themes of faith, redemption, and charity.[i]
ENCOUNTERING THE SPIRITUAL
As a minor observation, I appreciated the awe that was given in relation to the power of an encounter with a dragon, presented herein not as an embodiment of evil, but rather a mystical one—i.e. an encounter with the spiritual. There is a deep sense of reverence, appreciation, empowerment, and understanding within both Raya and Namaari when they gaze into the eyes of Sisu. Having encountered such a being, the power of such a being’s sacrifice becomes the catalyst for growth in character and a newfound strength to enact change. C. S. Lewis similarly presses into the significance of encountering the great Aslan, in his Narnian tales. The encounter with a being-to-which-no-human-can-compare is one that either moves us to seek to imitate the goodness reflected from that being—a goodness which transcends the oppressive chains of our human condition—or else it brings to light the moral deficit within us.
No Pixie Dust Here
I also appreciate how “Faith” is not misrepresented in this film. Rather, it is appropriately rendered as “trust.” While some may take issue with the fact that it is faith in us and not explicitly faith in God, and while others might point out that the greater emphasis in the tri-unity of faith, hope, and love, should appropriately be upon love, there is still much to be gleaned from the emphasis upon faith-as-trust. I do not have faith that Disney will produce a sequel to this film, because (1) I have no reason to think such a thing and (2) I have nothing currently invested in Disney’s business and future-production plans. When I grab a bottle of water from the refrigerator and take a sip, however, I do take a step of faith in choosing to believe that what I am putting in my body is actually safe and will not hurt me—that what was sold to me as pure/clean water is actually pure/clean water. This film depicts faith as a complex intersection of trust, hope, and even love.
Raya has to learn to have faith in others, and she struggles with what exactly that means. In many ways, faith is an act of love. It is an act of trust, but it is also, at times, an act of love—seeking to take a difficult step in vulnerability because the potentially resulting community is in the best interest of others (as well as oneself). Yet, Raya understandably asks of others what my daughter once asked of God: how can I love/trust someone that I do not know? Raya rightfully understands that she has no reason to trust blindly in people, given her experiences with people and with taking steps of trust. This is why Disney takes us on Raya’s journey; it is the journey which gives us the perspective to see more about the reasons people might choose to act as they do. They may be just as desperate as we are to fix the world or secure themselves (and their own communities) from the suffering that has become commonplace to those around them. With perspective comes understanding; with understanding comes reason; with reason we can find hope; and through hope we can find the justification for taking a step. Faith is still a step beyond what can be completely controlled by the exhaustion of knowledge. But it is not a leap into the dark. Raya’s faith is a reasonable step based upon an understanding that we were meant for more than this, that we are all desperate to know restoration and escape our condition, but also that we need one another in order to endure the impact and withstand the destructive possibilities of our condition.
We all have faith in the reality as defined/described by and the narrative of our worldview. Faith is thus not the sort of thing that only religious folk have. Our worldview shows up in our ethics, and Raya presses into this. Ought we to trust that there is any hope for the world or that we must do what we need to in order to survive? Ought we to trust that others actually have our interest at heart, or that they are likely doing whatever they need to do in order to survive? At every moment, there is a step toward an object or objective of faith. Raya is betrayed when she places her faith in the ideal that people are naturally good (and even the presumption that infants are naturally innocent—there’s an Augustinian question there), and so she places her faith in the view that people are only out for themselves—and this shows up in her ethics, in the ways in which she interacts with others.
In addition to Disney’s correct portrayal of “faith” as “trust” and not wishful thinking, or blind hope, or an inexplicable magic that you just have to experience for yourself—like pixie dust—Disney rightly presses into the redemptive power of trust/faith and its role in salvation and restoration. This is where the film offers a number of beautiful gems. While Raya is blinded with rage and revenge, we see her friends—most of whom we first met as antagonists—working hard to do whatever they could to save those who were supposed to be the enemy. When Raya finally sees this, it pricks her heart with conviction, and she leaves the path of revenge to join her friends on a path toward the redemption and restoration of community.
Redemption & Restoration
This film is rich with redemption motifs. These include redemption for humanity, redemption for community and family, but the most moving motif is the redemption for the betrayer—and with it, upon the restoration and redeemed reputation for the foreign/unfamiliar/other. While this aligns with many religious teachings and worldview sensitivities, it resonates profoundly with the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
The film presents no element of salvation as involving justice in light of human guilt (an element central to the Christian scriptures—though the biblical narrative tempers God’s justice with an emphasis upon his lovingkindness). Still, there is an appropriate emphasis upon the setting right of a broken humanity, and its connection to a step of faith which empowers others to believe as well. There is a vulnerability in trust, to be sure, but also a deep and redeeming goodness to be experienced when an opportunity for trust is extended even in light of recurrent betrayal.
There is a deep longing in this film for the Kingdom-Ever-After (a recurring motif in the Disneylore canon). In this film, the kingdom was united, but the sickness divided the kingdom before slowly devouring it. The kingdom-ever-after is presented as Kumandra, a sort of heaven on earth wherein community is composed of faith, hope, and love. While the greatest of these may be love, this movie raises an appropriate question as to whether the greatest step in seeking the kingdom of love is not faith. (Perhaps it is also worth noting the symbolism in the fact that the redemption which follows the final sacrifice—a sacrifice of hubris—involves a sort of spiritual baptism, as it is water which inevitably washes away the human sickness—allowing the “cursed” to be, so to speak, born again).
Applied Ethics: Extending Charity Amidst Dialogue and Diversity
Now I began this reflection by comparing the narrative motivic progression of setting—conflict—resolution to creation—fall/human condition—redemption/restoration. Of course, not everyone agrees upon the fact of creation, fall, and restoration. Still, we do share universal convictions concerning something not quite as it ought to be and a deep desire to see things get better. This is why Raya and the Last Dragon can speak so deeply to anyone of any worldview—because the problems of the human condition and of evil/suffering in the world are problems with which all of us must deal.
Seeking unity amidst diversity is a beautiful ideal, but it is also an ideal, unlikely to be achievable in actuality so long as the world remains broken. It would be naïve to think that our world’s (and our own) problems come down simplyto trusting in one another. For one needs reason to trust, and what reason do we really have for thinking that all will play along and not stab us in the back when we are not looking. I encourage the reader to look up the prisoner’s dilemma, in order to understand the egoist’s perspective here. One of the most difficult questions my Moral Philosophy students face in their term papers—which argue for one ethical theory (e.g. utilitarianism) over another (e.g. egoism)—is that they usually cannot satisfactorily answer the question: what obligates me to act in the interest of another person when doing so is not in my best interest, or when it conflicts with my conscience? Left to ourselves, with no higher appeals to ground our ideals (or even when higher appeals clash), one group’s “justice” will always be another’s “injustice.” So, the film’s ideal of unity—however appealing it may be in drawing out our yearning for a Kingdom-Ever-After—seems too idealistic to be practical while we remain throwninto our human condition.
Still, there is something else here—something very practical—that we can take away from this film even if we disagree on worldview narratives (whether, e.g., we are sick, or just ignorant; whether we are the proper object of faith, or whether our faith in one another must rest upon a deeper foundation). It is something I strive to teach my philosophy students in seeking healthy and effective dialogue. Progress—both in dialogue and in community—requires charity. (Of course, it also requires logic, and there is a humorous moment of logical wisdom in the film as well, when Sisu calls out Raya’s fallacy of division; when Raya insists that all is well because she still possesses a pieceof a now-shattered magical gem which represents the hope of Kumandra, Sisu insightfully asks whether a “big chunk” of a lost puppy is as useful as having the whole thing.)
The Principle of Charity is an attitude and approach wherein you seek to understand another’s perspective in its strongest form, or best representation, before assuming a position of critique or rejection of that perspective. When we can acknowledge the strengths or understandable reasons behind another’s perspective, we build a foundation of credibility with one another—even amidst our differences and disagreements. Charity can show up in a number of ways, but it is all built around a position of trust—an effort of good faith in assuming that “others” are not trying to deceive us or cause us harm or hindrance.
When we paint the complexities of perspective and context in black and white terms, it becomes difficult to avoid seeing ourselves in terms of the us/them, the good/other. If, on the other hand ,we consider that we are all in this together, and the more we see the better we can see it, we might approach difference with dialogue and dialogue with charity—assuming the “other” might have a perspective that can help us, together, to get a bigger and better picture of our problem and a possible solution.
Now, some people try to apply this line of thought to morality, holding that there is no overarching moral narrative to which everyone has access now, but that morality at the end of all things will have amounted to a coming together of perspectives. To be clear, this is not what I am suggesting here. I am not speaking to metaethics or even normative ethics per se(I have reason to believe there are in fact moral truths to which all perspectives have access). I am speaking to our applied living even when we disagree—doing the best we can to get along together and seek one another’s interests, even when trust is difficult or perspectival tensions are palpable. Even when it seems as though hope for a better world is unlikely; even if it seems as though we will never see eye-to-eye with those with whom we greatly disagree on moral and sociopolitical issues; we have to have enough faith in one another to take the first step of charity—in the way that we treat one another and in what we presume about one another. And dialogue is the first step; it allows us to explore one another’s perspective and intent enough to begin laying the foundation for trust.
Should we judge people based upon where they are from, or what we think we know about them (as exemplified by Raya)? Or should we invite them to dinner—as they are, not once they appear more like ourselves—and feed them (as exemplified by Raya’s father). Both pride and fear can perpetuate discord. Extending charity is a liberation of perspective, as it allows us the freedom (from our own chains of desire and anxiety) to see that that all of us want a better world (even if we disagree on how that world should look). Nevertheless, we have this in common: we want the human condition to get better; we want to know an end to suffering; and we want to see the community-ever-after. If seeking charitable dialogue is the first step toward taking a chance on faith in one another, and if so many people really want to bethe change they want to see in the world, then who shall take the first step?
If you are interested in pondering more deeply some of the prominent moral and theological themes presented across a plethora of classic Disney films, or if you wish to consider further how Disneylore can serve as a doorway to moral, theological, and even apologetic dialogue, be sure to check out our forthcoming volume on Disney and Moral Theology, to be published later this year by Lexington Books!
Jeremy E. Scarbrough holds 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.
[i]I do not pursue it here, but I did find it coincidentally symbolic that Disney happened to present us with the story of a masked protagonist and a pandemic that destroys human community, just as we were emerging from the pandemic-induced 2020 quarantine. There is certainly something there worth pondering theologically, and I encourage others to draw out that dialogue—considering the extent to which we were made for community; the emotional and social impact of quarantine; and the extent to which Raya serves as an effective approach to such dialogue. It might even be worth bringing C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce into the conversation to compare Raya’s broken world, our own experience with a world-wide pandemic, and Lewis’s artistic depiction of hell as a psychological torment resulting from one’s own self-imposed quarantine, so to speak. I could not help but think of Lewis’s work when the film revealed how the Tail chief’s hope-hoarding and self-concerned sanctuary became her very ruin and tomb.