"Untangling" the Fairy Tale of the Gospel

March 31, 2011

There are some images that stick with you for life.

I was with my wife Janet, our 4-year-old daughter Ariel, and our 1-year-old son Xander, and we were in the movie theater watching the new Disney movie Tangled. Xander was drugged out on milk and fast asleep, just as we timed it, so he would not squirm and we could focus on the movie. Ariel was next to me, watching the screen along with me.

In the middle of the film there came a scene where Rapunzel visits the castle for the first time, and participates in a grand celebration and a dance. The music in this scene is amazing, with that classic medieval flute sound, and the images of the dance are ones of absolute joy. It is an incredible sequence and I was thoroughly enjoying it....and then I glanced over at Ariel's face, the flickering light from the screen highlighting her tiny features. The wonder...the delight in her smile, and her eyes. I cannot describe it and will never forget it.

A few moments later, and there was the scene of Rapunzel and Flynn sitting in a boat waiting for the lanterns to be lit by the entire kingdom in honor of the lost princess. Other friends who had already seen the movie had previously posted comments on Facebook about tear-jerking moments, so we were expecting them...but that did not stop us. It was like an image straight from Heaven itself. I was a goner, and Janet too.

Frederick Buechner once wrote, "Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you the secret of who you are, but more often than not of the mystery of where you have come from and are summoning you to where you should go next."

...and meanwhile, the lyrics during this musical scene in Tangled play on through the character of Rapunzel:

All those days watching from the windows
All those years outside looking in
All that time never even knowing
Just how blind I've been
Now I'm here, blinking in the starlight
Now I'm here, suddenly I see
Standing here, it's all so clear
I'm where I'm meant to be

The rest of the film played on from that moment, and eventually during the climactic chase scene, Xander woke up to find a giant white horse flying through the air and uttered, "Whhooooaaaa!!!!!"

Now we have Tangled on DVD, and this time during the dance sequence, Ariel took advantage of the freedom and space of our living room to literally join in with the dance, all the while brushing the long hair of her Rapunzel doll. After the movie was over, she wrapped her own long hair around her sleeping baby brother's hand and pretended to heal him (just like a scene from the film itself).

Mike Cosper suggests about his own daughter in his article Are Fairy Tales Finished?..."It’s like there’s something genetically encoded in her to love fairy tales, ballroom gowns, castles, and rescue stories." I'd say this is true of Ariel too, and many of her friends.

So why is this? What is behind these stories that invoke these dreams and emotions in us?

Cosper continues, "One thing I’m certain of: the fairy tale isn’t finished. Even if Disney isn’t telling the story, it will continue to be told. A beautiful bride will be held captive, and at the cost of his life, the prince will rescue her." He goes on to suggest that this story resonates with us because it's true.

But how can a "fairy tale" be true? If you are wondering this, re-read the quote from Buechner above and keep it in your noggin for a moment.

Rapunzel is a real princess who is living her life according to a lie, imprisoned in a tower by an evil being, Mother Gothel. She puts her trust in Mother Gothel and doesn't usually think twice about her existence there, because it is all she knows. Yet there is something burning inside her that makes her question if this is all there is...or as she puts it in song, 'When Will My Life Begin?' She is given clues that something more is out there, as she paints on her walls and ultimately wonders about why the floating lights in the sky appear each year on her birthday.

The problem is, she missed the prologue to the movie, which explains the kingdom from whence she came and the betrayal that led to her imprisoned life. In his book Epic, author John Eldredge suggests that "life, for most of us, feels like a movie we've arrived to forty minutes late....for when we were born, we were born into the midst of a great story begun before the dawn of time. A story of adventure, of risk and loss, heroism...and betrayal."

What if we have missed the prologue to our own movie?

What if we are all royalty and living our lives imprisoned in a tower, with some sort of ache and inkling that there is another world out there where we really should be living? What if an evil being was feeding us lies about where we come from, and allowing us to doubt that there really exists a kingdom ruled by a King who loves us?

Hold that thought.

Through circumstance, story, and a thief named Flynn, Rapunzel escapes from the tower and experiences a glimpse of the kingdom and the life she truly belongs to...but through another betrayal by Mother Gothel she ends up being brought back to the tower to live the false life she has always been enslaved to.

Jesus liked to tell stories too. He told a story about a farmer who went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. He goes on to explain what he means, that some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. (Mark 4:3-4, 15)

Rapunzel's predicament is similar, in that the evil Mother has taken away this word, this truth that has been sown in her. But having been given this glimpse of truth, she realizes back in her bedroom that within the paintings on her walls, she has been painting the royal emblem of the kingdom her entire life. She now realizes the truth of who she really belongs to, and how Mother Gothel has betrayed her. But she is not able to defeat this evil Mother on her own. She needs a rescue.

Enter Flynn Rider to the rescue, and then... Mother Gothel smites him by stabbing him in the side, but Flynn breaks the spell she has over Rapunzel by cutting Rapunzel's golden hair, and Mother Gothel plummets to her death. Flynn, a would-be thief, sacrifices himself for the princess out of love.

Where am I going with this?

The plight of our human condition, as the Genesis story explains, is that we were deceived into separation from God by the evil one and have since lived a life of imprisonment. So what God did was to enter our human world through His son Jesus, to rescue us. Through his death on the cross (which happened to be between two thieves), the evil one may have thought he was victorious, but in essence the spell was broken. As Flynn cut the hair of the princess, so too was torn the curtain in the temple that signified the separation between us and God, and evil was defeated. "A beautiful bride will be held captive, and at the cost of his life, the prince will rescue her."

But what then, of the prince?

In our Story, death is defeated at the cross and Jesus indeed resurrected from the dead. In Tangled, Flynn too is resurrected by the last teardrop of magic left in Rapunzel. Animation Director Glen Keane explained this scene from his own perspective: "The story started from a spiritual base. At the very beginning, you see a drop falling from heaven. James 1:17 says, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights." That truth is this amazing source of life and beauty and transformation [in Rapunzel]. In Tangled, Rapunzel has this amazing source inside, and even when she feels like she's lost it, love is the thing that unlocks it. There is a deeper connection. In my mind, it's still that connection to the drop that fell from heaven. Rapunzel's tear at the end was the same teardrop that fell from the sky at the beginning, and it was a gift to the world, and gift to Flynn. That element was why I wanted to see the story made."

What is also interesting about Flynn's resurrection is how the physical manifestation of the healing power comes from his side, where Mother Gothel had stabbed him. Again referring to the Genesis story, God created the first woman Eve from the side of Adam, fashioning her out of his rib. It is a beautiful picture and symbol of the love between man and woman which God intended. In fact, in the final showdown of the film, both Rapunzel and Flynn are willing to essentially give up their lives for each other.

I would say that Flynn goes through a revelation of his own imprisonment as well, as the culture around him has fed him images of the dashing heroic thief who battles evil and wins the hearts of women for his own personal gain. He tries to form a false sense of identity around this, until he finds out there is more to life (especially a princess with a magical gift), and he finds out there is something else worth fighting for, worth dying for, and learns what being a hero truly is all about.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. -Romans 12:2

All of these elements in the story point us to pictures and glimmers of the restoration of God's kingdom, where Christ is sent to bring his bride, the church, into a glorious wedding banquet. The ending of Tangled paints a similar picture of love, family and reunion, and a celebration.

The point is not that Tangled or any other fairy tale is always an exact re-telling of the Gospel story, but if we look closer and un-tangle it, we open ourselves to what it sparks in our hearts towards this Story we were made for.

Our culture may tell us we don't need to be rescued, or that all that we see and touch is all there is...or we may hear whispers that we don't really belong to any fanciful Godly kingdom outside this "tower" of a life we find ourselves in. But then....why do our children dream of being princesses, why do we weep at images of floating lights, and why do we discover royal emblems on the walls of our lives?

Frederich Buechner, again, says, "It is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight. It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too. It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive. Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his true name....That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still."

and at last I see the light
and it's like the fog has lifted...

On June 5th 2011 I gave a sermon based on this article at Cedar Park Church, which you can view here:

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful review; an epic telling and re-telling of the ultimate story and its transforming power in our lives. Well done Ken!
    Dave E.