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I had another Disney experience last week. Someone heard I was in Florida and said something like, “You’re kidding! Rod and Gwen do not seem like Disney people.” I assure you, they are right. But I sure met a lot of “Disney people” while I was away. One nice family from Kent had a plan for ten days in the parks! Ouch!
I do not go to Disney for Disney. I go for five-year olds. We committed to take each grandchild to Disney when they turned five and I have not regretted that decision for one minute. I just got back from a trip with the half-Elsa and half-Minnie pictured below. This is the same birthday girl who was jumping with delight to see Elsa on her Festival of Fantasy parade float and whose birthday badge was spotted by her hero, who then mouthed, “Happy birthday” right at her! Papa got choked up.
I always learn a lot on my “field work” excursions out of my blue, Northeast bubble (where it is quite a bit colder, btw). This trip was no different. When I was not thinking about where to find restrooms in the Magic Kingdom, I was in wonder that this many people have enough money to do the wildly expensive Disney experience.
The economy did not send people to Disney
My new, unexpected, best pundit friend, David Brooks, recently gave me some reasons for why the parks near Orlando are so crowded. He says, “We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The G.D.P. is growing at about 3.5 percent a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history… If you were born in 1975, you’ve seen the U.S. economy triple in size over the course of your lifetime. The gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled….The median usual weekly earnings for workers who didn’t complete high school shot up by 6.5 percent over the past year.”
The “recovery” should be making people feel great, right? Bill Clinton was famous for having a motto that helped him win the White House: “It’s the economy, stupid.” He wanted to remember to maintain his personal sell out to capitalist bondage as he was helping to teach our children to sell their souls as well. His winning strategy has been key to all the political playbooks ever since. As a result, we are up to our necks in economic microdata and even prominent Evangelicals defend Trump’s inaction on the Khashoggi murder by suggesting the country needs to protect its business deals with the Saudi’s other magic kingdom rather than protest assassinations!
But Brooks accurately notes that the economy is hardly what normal people care about the most, Clinton notwithstanding. A few minutes on the bus to Disney will prove that people will spend whatever it takes to get what the economy has ruined: relationships. Disney has discovered how to package up the relationships people want and sell them to us. I think we might have an experience similar to the day we bought at a Disney park at Fern Hill Park. But it was exciting to have my little Elsa creating the “snow” (so she said) that Disney Hollywood pumped out for the “holiday” show. We need to be together.
Money is not, again, making us happy or holy
People have more money, for the moment, but they are far from happy. The economy won’t make you happy! Jesus did not add “Stupid!” But I suppose he could have. Because we humans, in general, have a history of being rather stupid when it comes to what we think will save us. The U.S. Empire promised our big, fat, rapacious, world-dominating economy would save us. But it seems Trump has finally convinced many people such a promise is as faulty as they suspected.
Brooks notes that “about 60 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country. Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago. As the recovery has advanced, people’s faith in capitalism has actually declined, especially among the young. Only 45 percent of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010, when the country was climbing out of the Great Recession.” That’s not a big surprise: college debt, gig economy, unpaid internships, hugely expensive health care, high housing costs, tax cuts for the rich – Thanks “economy!”
The crisis we feel is not just the economy (I will not add the contemptuous “stupid.” and if you hear it in your brain, you should resist). The bigger problem is the crisis of connection. The following has become common knowledge (except, maybe, in Congress). Brooks says, “People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.” That’s the crisis.
“And they are dying.” Last week, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives. And yet here we are — a straight-up social catastrophe.” It is a crisis of caring and sharing, led by the most immoral president ever and his collaborating Senate, characterized by a flood of opioids, guns and video games ready for purchase by eager teenagers.
The economy can’t sell us a solution to the crisis
Circle of Hope was designed as an antidote to the sociological, psychological and spiritual decay that even pundits are starting to talk about. Just call us a “tribe of covenant partners in Christ” and you can see, in every rarely-used word in that phrase, that we supply quite an alternative. As Brooks notes, many young people are bereft of the support structures they need to persevere in school and get the skills to help them survive — we provide them as a matter of course. The natural, organic system of our church provides the so-called “soft skills” that Brooks says the economy can’t locate: leadership, communication and collaboration. The society is awash in technical capacity but people can’t bring themselves to answer personal email (I know, I write them!). We can figure out how to program our phone-app-run thermostats but rarely listen to our voicemail, if anyone still records one. We are sold a lot of ways to connect, but many in the society are having a terrible time getting connected.
Brooks concludes by saying, “Conservatives were wrong to think that economic growth would lead to healthy families and communities all by itself. Moderate Democrats were wrong to think it was sufficient to maximize growth and then address inequalities with transfer payments. The progressives are wrong to think life would be better if we just made our political economy look more like Denmark’s. The Danes and the Swedes take for granted a cohesive social fabric [that hygge] that simply does not exist here.” The country is experiencing a lot of wrongheaded stuff! We all need a “cohesive social fabric” — but the “economy,” as presently dominated, won’t give it to us even if we fight for it, mainly because it is not interested in cohesion, society or even fabric, unless it is being sold by the bolt.
We know all that. We are among those people who are more alone than ever, as well, of course. We struggle to know our anonymous neighbors and have a tough time “volunteering” for our own church and sharing with our own covenant partners in Christ! We are not immune to the social catastrophe the “economy” continues to exacerbate. Lord save us! — the “economy” is dithering about whether it should sacrifice profits to save the world from climate change disaster!! We know all this and we are all this, to a degree. But we are also bravely on the front lines with whatever gifts we have to build an alternative.
OK, I was on the “front lines” in Orlando last week. The big disaster I faced was when they cancelled the last, giant show they had planned for 3000 of us, or so, because of technical difficulties. But, in the middle of waiting for that catastrophe to be announced by a pre-recorded message, I played a lot of rock/paper/scissors, with a giggling five-year-old. It’s not the economy, it’s the relationships. It is not the money, it is the love. It is not the magic kingdom of the American dream, it is the kingdom of God represented by normal people filled with the Spirit. Those truths are easier to hang on to when a child is hanging on to your hand or a cell mate is hanging on to their faith for dear life in your living room. There is an alternative being created in us every day.
In preparation for dinner Saturday, I turned on the Pandora “Hymns” channel. Soon we were listening to American Idol runner-up David Archuleta singing “Be Still My Soul” (complete with his Mariah Careyesque trill on various long notes). He sings it sincerely. It has been a comforting song since the 1850’s and I was comforted.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
David is 26 now. He’s got a little more depth since he’s returned from his Mormon mission in Chile. He’s already had a long career. He started singing since at ten when he was inspired by a recording of Les Miserables (he later sang some of it for soldiers in Afghanistan). He was runner up for American Idol ten years ago — Utah was disappointed he did not win. His father was banned from the Idol backstage, then he was caught in a prostitution sting and then he was divorced. So David has faced some Utah-sized disappointment of his own. Spending most of your life in a Disneyfied atmosphere would be difficult enough.
He’s popular in the Philippines and other Asian countries. An interviewer there says “Helping and inspiring others, particularly those who are undergoing depression, has become a big part of David’s purpose in life. He admits that he himself went through a phase when he was depressed due to being bullied in school.” He told her, “Even when I was little, I’ve always had self-confidence issues. I got bullied and I was known as the quiet kid. I sat by myself during lunch and I would be made fun of. I was socially awkward. I think feeling good enough was something I always wondered.” Sometimes he gets on stage and looks like he is being bullied — most of the time, not so much.
We’re all disappointed sometimes
So even though he can sing like an angel, David Archuleta carries some disappointment with him and fears more of it, just like us. And like Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, and us he’s looking forward to a time “when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone, sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.”
Jesus followers look forward to a time when God
“will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
Some of us were ten-year-olds who become entranced by Les Mis and grew up to become talented optimists — most of us didn’t. We need God to save us from disappointment. We need to find some exultation, like Peter expressed when he wrote,
“In his great mercy [God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3-4).
One day, the joy we have experienced in flashes will be the light in which we live. But even now we know our hope is not in vain because Jesus has delivered the first fruit of our future by rising from the dead, as we will.
I was inspired by the great hymn, by David, by John and Peter (and a little by Les Mis). So I am reminding us to hope. We have all experienced disappointment. Some of it has been severe, lately. Divorces depress more people than just the partners divorcing. Being cut off by former friends hurts. People have resigned their covenant with the church. Some people refuse to reconcile. We have not succeeded in all our goals. No amount of Disney-like happy talk or Archuleta pop confection will overcome what we feel for long. For the long–haul of difficult lives, we need Jesus.
Feeling better is not all up to you
When I say that we need Jesus, many Christians interpret that to mean, “I need a trust upgrade.” They have been taught that if they feel something or suffer something it denotes a lack of faith. They must want something more than Jesus. The idea is: Jesus is our treasure and if we want something else, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. It is no wonder so many church people are so controlling, they are supposed to control their behavior so they will feel good! They need to get some treasure and protect it! There is something to be said for that strategy, but not much. It is true that if we keep doing dumb stuff, things won’t work out well. If we never get mentally and spiritually healthy, life will be difficult. If we are self centered, we will get ourselves and that’s it. But we’ll never be smart enough or healthy enough to avoid our share of disappointment, failure and grief. Stuff has already happened and more is coming.
If all you want is to be the American Idol and you don’t win you’ll lose hope. (99.99% of singers beware). You might even blame God for not giving you the desires of your heart, as supposedly promised. If you are responsible for making Utah feel better because you win the contest, you might even feel responsible for a great deal of disappointment in the world. In Circle of Hope, this can be translated: people got divorced, people left the church, people were fighting, I/we/God must suck.
I am so taken with the Lord’s vision for the world, I face disappointment every day. I am working with Jesus for transformation and it hasn’t happened just liked I wanted, has it? I keep allowing myself to be flabbergasted by the sin and death at work in the world, even though another load of it will be delivered in the news tomorrow, fake news or not. What do we do when the sorrow hits? When friends desert us? When we are not so smart? When our plans don’t work out?
I don’t think we should get smaller until we think we can keep things under control better. I think we should be as big as we are in the Spirit and start again right now, in resurrection hope. It is an everyday thing.
Six ways to deal with disappointment
Here are some things I collected for my journey after I bumped into David Archuleta on Pandora. If you are disappointed, there are some things you can try.
Singing is a perfect way to pray. It reorients body, mind, heart and soul in a common direction toward our source of hope. Try David’s hymn. Sing along, or just be still and know God is with you.
- Talk to someone.
That’s what David Archuleta tells depressed Malaysian teenagers to do. He’s right. If you are 35-50 and you think you should know better, have lost the friends you used to talk to, are feeling marriage strains, you must not stay alone. Take a risk and talk about how you feel. A psychotherapist could help.
- Visit the Bible again.
You might just be on the endless loop of yourself inside. Just meditating on the two portions of the Bible quoted above might throw a wrench in the works and put you on a different track. If your spiritual disciplines seem to have failed, they might just need some deepening. Try something else. Take a day off and ask some deeper questions than you usually have time for. When you’re done reading this, blank out the screen and turn your face towards God.
- Listen to your suffering.
My experience has taught me that disappointment is a great teacher. If we are going through a seasonal (not chronic) depression, resisting it or anesthetizing it with something won’t get me anywhere. If you are blaming someone (or something, like injustice or Trump) you’d better reel that in and meditate on your own development in the safe place you have with God.
5. Let the past go and start from here.
This is the exciting news Peter was so happy about when he wrote his letter. He has a famous role in the story of the last days of Jesus. He was disappointed and distraught by the Lord’s death. He was disappointing, too, because he did not have the stuff to face his fears. But he got restarted after the resurrection.
We don’t know exactly what is going to happen. The future is always foggy. But we have the risen Savior with us, and that is our security. No matter what we have done, or what has happened to us, today is a beginning with Jesus. It will always feel like things are in the way, but there is no good reason, at least, not to take a first step again.
6. Bless the people who leave you on their way.
As a church, we prize our community and we let people into our love. So we get hurt — a lot. Some people get hurt and solve the problem of feeling bad by restricting or shutting off their love. We try not to do that, even when it is tempting. We hope we can suffer with Jesus and gain a resilient heart that can keep following in his way until the end. Even though our numbers are growing, people are always leaving, and it never feels good. We get connected. It is tempting to shut our doors, so we never have to feel left.
I think Jesus is an open door/open tomb kind of person. He blesses those who curse him. I think we should always keep the back door open to anyone we have loved. They might return. Besides, getting even or cutting off is not what we do. (I’m not talking about unrepentant people who have abused us, or people on whom we are unhealthily dependent). Slamming the door in self-protection is not what Jesus does to us, even though we aren’t the best of friends for Him.
But even more than managing our back door, we should turn toward the front door. There are six million people in the metro, a few of them, no doubt, would love to be invited into your life. We are never just our past, we are always looking with confidence into the future. The past is gone, the new has come, and is coming. Look for the people who are new to you with the wisdom you are carrying now, as the person you have become, and move into the next phase of your life.
Making six points about something makes it look easy or predictable! Our future and our feelings are not going to be easy and they are seldom predictable. But the love of God in Jesus is evident and permanent. And the promise in the old song, sung by a young man, and often heard in our meetings is consistent:
Be quiet and listen for the assurance.
It won’t be long until we receive in full what we know in part.
One day disappointment, grief, and fear will be gone;
the tears will be wiped away and our living hope will be kissed by joy.
Be quiet and listen for the assurance.
Change and sorrow will be part of the journey
but we will arrive home safe and blessed.
We’ve got to do better than Disney thinking in a disintegrating world. I know, I been to Disney World.
Disney World is such a theological place! It recently set my head spinning again. Simba, Aladdin, Pooh, Peter Pan, etc. were all trying to teach me lessons — and everywhere, it was “Have a magical day!” which is like a liturgical response to everything for people from the Magic Kingdom. With Disney, the basic message is relentlessly, “Find the dream in you and follow it” and there is always a choir to tunefully follow up the message, like the famous song from Cinderella (below) that sums it up:
After the song, we all go ride the rides that give a little jolt of experience that proves the magic is real. A little magic, a large group of fellow-worshipers, a promise of more (if you buy a ticket) sounds like religion to a lot of people. It is, in a way. But it is religion that resembles what N.T. Wright calls present-day “gnosticism” more than it resembles the way of Jesus, as N.T. Wright warns:
Gnostic-like thinking says, “Whatever you need is in you, you just need to find it and unleash it.”
- Some people go for that with gusto, “I believe I can fly!”
- Many more wither under the responsibility of self-creation in an uncaring world.
The world is confusing right now.
There is a lot to say about what is happening to the world and how people are making sense of it, and I hope we will say a lot, because Jesus is the ultimate meaning maker. It is an opportune time to see what is going on right now, since it is an election year and the beliefs of the masses get up to the surface and we get a chance to see them again — and we get a chance to make sense of them (if the pundits don’t steer us completely). How do we keep discerning the way when there is so much shouting from either pole? A lot of people I’m talking to are quite confused, how about you?
I think we can keep our heads on and our love intact if we stay somewhere in the middle and keep moving toward Jesus. Jesus is not a stance or a platform, but he is the way and a destination. I often find myself trying to steer a middle course among the people of the world, and, unsurprisingly, between the poles I often see in the church. It is something like what Paul teaches when he says I must not be, “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).
- On the one extreme we have people who preach that “your dreams are a wish your heart makes,” just keep believing — and for many a traumatized person in Philadelphia, to do that would be a brave step out of the disaster they have experienced their whole life.
- And then on the opposite extreme, we have people who can’t say the word “Disney” without an ironic inflection, who think a material “reality” is all there is so make the most of this mess and spend your efforts getting yours and loving your friends — for many people moving in to Philadelphia, to say such a thing might be an honest step away from the delusions that they can no longer believe in.
Is there a way to relate to people in the middle of the turmoil?
Here we are in the middle of the polarization: Spirit-indwelled people, living in a tangible community, persistently telling the story of our resurrection with Jesus and our future as world-redeemers by his side. We have our work cut out for us if we want to have any conversation at all.
Let me try to demonstrate how to think in a way that isn’t at one of the poles or merely disagreeing with it. Take one subject that makes Christians at odds with most structures: WAR.
- The one side might just let people decide whether being a pacifist is “right for them.”
- The other side might use all the power at hand to keep what is theirs, as long as they are safe and don’t have to do anything too dangerous.
What does a Jesus-follower do? I don’t think Christian peacemaking is the same thing as political pacifism, but since they always get lumped together, let’s just use the word. What is the middle way in thinking about war? – and I mean what is thinking as a Spirit-indwelled person, not just a spirit trying to escape a body or a spiritless body trying to prolong life as long as possible?
To begin with: pacifist is not passive. Not being pacifist is being pacified.
That sums it up. Proactive peacemaking is a lifestyle, not a leisure-time activity. Loving others, including enemies, is a character trait, not an application of theory. I say (and I think Jesus does too) that if you are not “pacifist” you are pacified. You may think you have love in your heart and that’s enough, or you might think you are not required to address the subject of loving people at all, but those are just more ways to be under the sway of the powers Jesus came to upend. Being disembodied is not an option.
If you want life coursing through your body as you proactively make peace on earth with Jesus, I think there are at least three important reasons to think about forging a third way that is moving toward Jesus rather than getting stuck bouncing between the prevailing poles of arguments looking to make you an adherent.
- There is only so much time.
We should make the most of our time. So many of us like the election cycle because it is a big overdose of arguing that lets us off the hook from deciding. As long as we can find a reason not to choose, we feel a strange lack of responsibility that we like. I was just with five-year-olds for a few days. They were adept at pretending they never did anything they feared might be construed as wrong. Ever. No lie was too big to get me to swallow in that cause. We’re all like that a little, I think. If we can avoid it, we will. But our minutes matter. The clock is ticking and the life Jesus offers is being wasted if we are not telling the truth we know.
Donald Trump said: “In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people. … I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” There is no time to wish that away and no time to lose by merely avoiding. We need to choose Jesus.
2. Faith is public.
The idea of a public faith is heresy to most Eurocentric people. They think faith is private. We are taught in any number of ways to be autonomous beings responsible for ourselves. And we believe the law protects our private beliefs (until those beliefs go against the powers that write the laws, of course). So we are furious at poor people for not getting richer and furious at rich people for taking all the poor people’s money — people should fulfill their potential and no one should take that possibility away. Even when it doesn’t happen, the prevailing authorities can’t think of anything else to do but blame individuals for not being good enough, since they are sure the world is an economy run by an invisible hand and people get to do whatever is in their heart.
Nothing in the life of Jesus or anyone else in the Bible, for sure, would imply that faith is anything but a life one lives in public, in view, unashamed, assuming one’s life matters as part of the whole. “Privacy” is the luxury of being complicit with some power that protects one’s capacity to go unnoticed. Meanwhile, Jesus is enduring a public execution. He tells his executioner that he will not use his power to participate in a war that might save him from the acts of evil he came to share and overcome. That is about as public example of pacifism as possible. There is another way.
Orthodox Christians tried to root out gnosticism in the 200’s and 300’s, but the spirit of it was well-preserved in the meditation teaching of my cherished monks, I have to admit. By the 20th century, they realized that Buddhism, Sufism and all sorts of religious people long to leave the body for complete union with God. These days, mindfulness and irreligious yoga instructors teach the out-of-the-body mindfulness without any spirit at all.
I appreciate the reality and the feelings of contemplative prayer. But I am mindful to meet Jesus in prayer, not just my own capacity for contemplation. Just because I am doing spiritual things doesn’t mean I am connecting to the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What saves me from the self-absorption so popular these days is remembering Jesus in history and meeting the risen Lord in my own history: spirit to Spirit, heart to heart, mind to mind, strength to strength. From the peace I experience in prayer, I make peace.
There are ways between the poles:
- Keeping my eyes on my minutes rather than wasting hours on political redundancies and absurdities, as if they were as breathlessly important as the CNN would like us to believe.
- Keeping my faith public rather than being driven into privacy or giving up on making a difference.
- Keeping my spirituality looking to Jesus rather than just “spirituality” or just my on physical sensations.
Being actively on the way, connected to Jesus and his people, allows me to be a pacifist, to choose to love, to even risk the danger of brazenly escaping the clutches of the powers in their own backyard. They don’t have me pacified because I left reality for my dream and they don’t have me pacified because I have gave up my need to be a personal alternative and to create an alternative society, the church. Jesus has me, right in the middle, making a peaceful way through.
Original version appeared on Circle of Hope’s blog.
We took our five-year-old granddaughter to Disneyworld. We enjoyed it. Our Princess Tiana room had headboards that sparkled when we pushed a button. When our plane got snowed out, the resort took us back at the Priceline rate, no extra charge. I missed the major snow storm while I was laying by a pool. I learned things. Good, good. I hope my granddaughter did not learn too much except that we really love her. But I learned a lot.
Hospitality and branding
Let’s be positive first. Disney knows hospitality. That is something to learn. If our church were as ready for visitors as they are, we would have more visitors at our meetings. The “cast members” are so well trained! — a little robotic as a result, but I am being positive. They gave my granddaughter an “It’s my birthday” pin to wear and fifty people must have noticed it! — get a corn dog and get special recognition from your waitperson! During the Mummerlike Festival of Fantasy parade, a dancer actually interrupted her routine to lean down and wish her happy birthday – it choked me up.
Disney connects people to their brand. That’s also something to learn. We met a family on the plane who were going to Disney for their daughter’s spring break (that is what she wanted to do). It was their thirtieth trip! In Downtown Disney (a shopping and eating village) there is a giant store devoted to Disney everything. People buy it and wear it. Witness the pink crocs with a Mickey Mouse logo lighting up when you see my blonde descendant. We should connect people to Jesus so effectively.
Ubiquitous, Mormon-like philosophy
Then there is that other stuff, like the entire insidious philosophy behind the place. There’s a LOT to learn there! For instance, the welcome show is a good example of getting a dose of philosophy right off the bat. We got to the entrance early because we desperately needed to go visit Elsa and get our autograph book signed. (For the uninitiated: yes, you heard right). We did not know there was a welcome show planned for the several thousand people waiting for the gates to open. The essence of the welcome show is: “Today is going to make a memory you never forget!” The hidden message for your grandchild is: “Life is like an autograph book filled with the memories of getting something you really want and like. Those moments are what we work for, even what we live for. — You can make them today! It is up to you.”
We visited Tinker Bell, too. She is the most obvious example of the “dreams come true” mantra one hears all day at Disneyworld. I think Disney thinks they are a dream come true, so look no further. But the idea is: “If we just believe, our expectations will be met.” I think more people might believe this “positive” piece of theology from Tink than believe Jesus is their Savior. I would not be surprised if many people who believe Jesus saves them thinks he does it because they believe it. My daughter-in-law sent me a clip from the Book of Mormon when I was marveling at Orlando [listen to the theme song]. She reminded me of how prophetic that musical is. Mormonism has the same foundation as Disneyworld – stories of sorcery and fantasy turned into a theme park in Salt Lake City. They believe.
The loving parent needs to do some brain-unpacking if their child shows signs of thinking the Disney myth has a basis in reality, don’t they? There is a witch behind every bush at the park. Boys are pirates and girls are princesses. Pretending it is normal to exist inside a giant machine that makes everything magical is considered OK there. Saying “have a magical day” is something people do. Stealing the essence of cultures by stereotyping their character and then making a movie and a theme park ride out of them is considered nice.
The empire mentality, just for fun
Let’s spend a little more time on that last one. Disney is the crown jewel of an empire mentality. You don’t need to visit the far reaches of the empire to experience “otherness.” It is collected, like thoughts in a thought zoo, in the theme park. The theme is, “We have stolen your identity and reduced it to Aladdin or the Princess and the Frog, then we sell it back to you.” (Isn’t that magical!) They even melodify our epidemic of isolation and solve the problem by advising we live “free” in an ice palace we created with the special power we use to hide. Our faithpushers have caught on to this technique and have constructed their own megachurch theme parks. Disney pushes this tourist view of the world with an Animal Kingdom and Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) in which they reproduce the exotica of far away lands that are safely caged in Disneyesque surroundings.
Disneyworld is hugely philosophical. The most redundant teaching has to be: in a “world” full of stories, the end is always boy gets girl (or now, vice versa), never child meets God. The place is scrupulously scrubbed of Jesus. What does a child make of that?
What is a Christian who lives in a Disney world to do? I am a pilgrim moving through. I can taste the sweetness of a well-intentioned “cast member” without becoming one. But I will have to have some healthy dialogue about every piece of propaganda that gets into my house. Most of all, I will need to build an alternative that makes more sense than Disney as it incarnates the living God.
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Do “gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people” (whatever that might mean)? And what does Jesus think and feel about that? Let’s mentalize about it.
The other day one of our pastors, Jonny Rashid, posted an interesting article on Facebook about which I have been thinking ever since. It was a potpourri of commentary on changing Eastern cities in reaction to the new mural Amtrak and the National Endowment of the Arts have commissioned Philadelphia’s famous Mural Arts program to oversee. They want to do something to beautify a bit of the ride from 30th St. Station to the usually-deserted North Philadelphia station. Sarah Kendzior labeled the whole project an example of The Peril of Hipster Economics and Aljazeera printed her thoughts. Her criticism was in direct response to a Wall Street Journal article called Fighting Urban Blight with Art by Jessica Dawson.
Among the many colorful and true things in Kendzior’s article was this incendiary gem: “Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.” She did not define the term aesthetics, which was probably a good idea, since people are having trouble doing that. The term generally refers to the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty. What she really meant to say, probably, was that “hipsters tend to see people in relation to their aesthetic.”
It is a rare talent to be able to sell nothing. I have always admired the weavers in the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Emperor’s New Clothes because they had the talent. Selling nothing might be the most-valued talent in U.S. society today. Our industries for manufacturing tangible goods may have all moved to Mexico or China, but we are still #1 in making things that don’t really exist. I know this for sure because I was just in Orlando. The Disney Corporation (#66 in the Forbes 500) must be the best at selling things that don’t and probably shouldn’t exist. If Disney decided to sell us new clothes that were invisible, we could get them with mouse ears and see them parading on their umteen TV channels; we would be invited to parade them ourselves in their five theme parks.
Our taste for nothingness is fed by the powers who seek to control us. The Bible is frank about this fact:
Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).
We know that these powers are “nothings.” But, like the emperor, we have a taste for nothing. We tend to believe that if we eat enough of it, we will get something. The powers use that faith to lobotomize our resistance.
Screen time pacifies
We were in a bungalow at one of the resorts surrounding Disneyworld (and they mean “world!”). On our TV I think the first ten channels were Disney channels, the next seven belonged to their daughter company ESPN. Priorities. TV is one of the ways the corporatocracy eases us into compliance and herds us down their vision of main street USA.
There is not an agreement on how much media children are consuming, but the NIH and Nielsen seem to agree that young children watch up to 4 hours of TV a day. When you add on other screen time, they are spending 5-7 hours locked into the machine. My grandchildren just got turned on to old Donald Duck cartoons on the Disney bus from the airport; they are probably watching them on YouTube right now. Teenagers spend close to 45 hours a week in front of the screen. The fact that the content they consume is controlled by an elite group of corporations is horrifying enough. But the mere act of watching TV—regardless of the programming—is the primary pacifying agent that teaches the next generation to comply. They don’t even think about whether to resist; they are zoned out on the screen. As evidence, note that private-enterprise prisons have recognized that providing inmates with cable television can be a more economical method to keep them quiet and subdued than it would be to hire more guards.
Screen time is a dream come true for an authoritarian society. For one thing, those with the most money own most of what people see. But more, fear-based television programming makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, which is good for the ruling elite who depend on a “divide and conquer” strategy; and TV isolates people so they are not joining together to create resistance to authorities. Maybe most of all, regardless of the programming, TV viewers’ brainwaves slow down, moving them closer to a hypnotic state that makes it difficult to think critically. While playing a video game is not as zombifying as passively viewing TV, such games have become for many boys and young men their only experience of potency, and this “virtual potency” is certainly no threat to the ruling elite.
We need to keep an ear open to the call of the scripture, which demands that we not cave in to the relentless pressure of the world to conform to what is passing away, to its illusions of reality. When we resist,
We will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ (Ephesians 4:14-16).
The screens deliver the invisible goods.
The fundamentalist religion Marx named the “opium of the people” was long ago superseded by fundamentalist consumerism. Fundamentalist consumerism pacifies young Americans in a variety of ways. George Bush was famously accused of telling the country to “go shopping” after 9/11. Maybe he did not exactly say that, but he did tell us to go to Disneyworld: He said, “Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Getting back to normal means consuming and doing more of it.
A belief in consumerism destroys self-reliance, creating people who feel completely dependent on others and who are thus more likely to turn over decision-making power to authorities, the precise mind-set that the ruling elite loves to see. A consumer culture legitimizes advertising, propaganda, and all kinds of manipulation, including lies; and when a society gives legitimacy to lies and manipulation, it destroys the capacity of people to trust one another and form alternatives. Belief in consumerism also promotes self-absorption, which makes it difficult to ever get a taste for solidarity.
The TV delivers the messages that create the consumer society, along with, for instance, an epidemic of childhood obesity, depression, and passivity. It helps create the prisoners of tomorrow — the few who get out of line (after watching Wall-E, no doubt), who will be eagerly received by the prison-industrial complex. Can we stop the process represented by the Pennsylvania judges who took $2.6 million from private-industry prisons to ensure that juveniles were incarcerated?
My hope is that our message, and even more compelling, our demonstration of the message being lived out, will give the Holy Spirit many opportunities to expose how powers of the world are naked. There are seeds of resistance everywhere. They need to be watered. Without Jesus, many small acts of wisdom may do quite a bit to procure freedom and dignity. With their proper connection to eternity, they can offer transformation. Our mindset needs to match what Paul reveals:
What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir (Galatians 4:1-7).
We are not slaves to the spiritual forces of the world. In Christ, we are children of God who should act accordingly. In Paul’s language, we are all as good as adopted sons in a Roman household, men or women, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. We should exercise our dignity.
My negative view of society was echoed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844 when he observed: “All our things are right and wrong together. The wave of evil washes all our institutions alike.” That was why he was a reformer. I hope to be more than that kind of realist. My hope is in the spiritual reality made incarnate in Jesus Christ. The fact that the powers that rule us are fallen and need redemption is a basic reason why I am a Jesus follower. The society, coming at us through all screens that have nothing more to promote than the economy, gives us Disney and its “magical” embrace, gives us Harry Potter escapism, gives our children these “entry drugs” for the vacuous Game of Thrones. But God has come in the Son, born under those very forces that seek to subjugate us, that we might receive our true selves in relationship with God and no longer be slaves, but the heirs of reality.
One final thanks to Bruce E. Levine published in alternet.org