Problems with Easter and How Moana is Helping

The scene from the climax of Moana keeps playing over and over in my mind, particularly right now with Easter just two days away. That might seem like a strange connection, but it’s actually a redemption story that I’m finding very life-giving right now at a time when the traditional Easter narrative is deeply troubling for me. It’s this incredible scene when Moana finally realizes that the lava monster, Te Kā, and loving and life-giving island goddess, Te Fiti, are actually the same entity, and Moana crosses over to meet her, singing:


I have crossed the horizon to find you
I know your name
They have stolen the heart from inside you
But this does not define you
This is not who you are
I know who you are
(who you truly are)

I’ve had this scene on a playback loop in my mind ever since we saw Moana several weeks ago, and, given that Lily is obsessed with the soundtrack (okay, I am too), I’ve heard this incredible song countless times since our first viewing.

This scene is a vision of restorative justice that transforms and heals because it sees the goodness and love inside someone—Te Fiti in this case—who has been hurt and violated and is acting out of that place of trauma. And it’s Moana reminding Te Fiti that she knows who she really is inside that calls this goddess back to her true self. Being fully seen and loved, even in her violent and angry state, is what transforms Te Fiti and brings her back to her generative, life-giving power. 

Her heart was stolen, but it’s still good. She is still her loving self that brings life to all she touches. She just needs to be reminded of that. To me, that is what the Divine does, maybe sometimes directly, or maybe more often through others who also have that imprint of the divine image of love and life-giving goodness. This is redemption.

But the traditional way in which the Easter story is told in Christian spaces does not view redemption in that way. The traditional view (which was not always the dominant one but is currently) sees the human heart, even the hearts of babies and children, as fundamentally sinful and utterly unable to be trusted. The blood sacrifice of an innocent Jesus was required so that we can choose to accept that sacrifice and be judged by God as if we were Jesus and not ourselves. 

To extend this analogy a bit further, it’s not that Moana could remind Te Fiti that she is an infinitely loving and unselfish giver of life and goodness on the inside despite her fiery and vengeful exterior. It would be that Moana would needed to help Te Fiti accept a new heart altogether. That would have been the good news though, that it’s possible to accept the heart of someone who is truly good and loving instead of our own sinful one that can’t be trusted.

For those of you who have not have wrestled with a faith deconstruction/reconstruction and are quite content with the Easter narrative the way it’s commonly taught in Christian spaces, this isn’t a post for you. I’m truly happy for you and am not at all trying to be evangelistic here or convince you to see things differently. In fact, I’ve wished mightily before that I could have a simple faith walk without the multitude of questions, doubts, and cognitive wrangling that still defines my faith journey. 

But that just isn’t my experience, and it’s exhausting to try to pretend that I don’t have huge questions and doubts about the very foundational elements of it all. I think Easter brings all those questions into sharp relief because I’m aware of how I don’t want to celebrate Easter with my children, but we’re still working on what we are leaning into other than bunnies and Easter eggs, and any ritual or larger narrative requires a community to make it sustainable and meaningful in a more transcendent way. 

I told a friend last night that Easter and all of the accompanying assumptions and traditions make me realize that I’m barely in the house of Christianity these days (or at least the dominant house, the big one on the hill). It’s more like I’m camping off of a back bedroom, possibly in one of those hanging tents that serious rock climbers use while they are scaling enormous cliffs. It feels very precarious right now, and there’s some hard core work to do to build a new foundation.

I’m actually pretty terrified to write this post because I worry that my being honest about my questions and current spiritual journey will hurt people I love who find deep comfort, hope, and purpose in the traditional Easter narrative. At a minimum, I know they’ll worry about me (and my children) and where all of these questions will lead, and I don’t want to burden them. I also worry that my honestly will hurt some of the credibility we have as advocates for a more inclusive, loving, and just church because I’ll be read as such a heretic that the people whose incredible hearts we’ve been privileged to share will be unfairly conflated with my questions, my heresy, and my (perceived or real) slippery slope—and the idea of my journey hurting someone else is deeply painful to me. I suddenly got tears in my eyes just writing that last sentence, and it’s probably why I’ve put off writing about this for the last two Easters. 

But a friend reminded me that I’ve spent years now listening to people’s stories of coming out as LGBT, (almost all within religious families and faith contexts), and ultimately honesty and authenticity foster a space of freedom and growth, not just for the individual coming out but for others too. There are always other people who think they are the only ones, who need to be reminded that they are not alone because we humans can face almost anything if we know we aren’t alone. And so, if you resonate with my questions about the traditional atonement model and story taught at Easter in most Christian spaces, this post is for you.

A few years ago, I learned that the currently traditional Christian atonement model wasn’t always the dominant one, and it isn’t a core part of Jesus’s teaching but comes to us through Paul, who didn’t actually meet Jesus (except in what he believed were visions) and the early church fathers (particularly Augustine). It was liberating to realize that there are actually other options.

In the vast majority of Christian churches, the substitutionary atonement model is the bedrock foundation of every other message, song, prayer, and outreach activity. As a reminder, this model views each person (even children) as full of original sin with a heart that can’t be trusted. This sinful nature requires a blood sacrifice to appease the requirements of a God who must exact a price for sin because those are the rules of the universe God created. The good news is supposed to be that anyone who accepts the sacrifice of the innocent Jesus can be judged in the eyes of God as Jesus and not themselves. 

The impact of this atonement model is everywhere, from parenting that sees children as filled with sin and needing to be disciplined accordingly, to the sort of judgmental and exclusive attitudes that are associated with modern-day Christianity. If this is one’s view of the Divine, it follows that one would treat others in a similar manner. Particularly with our films and focus these last several years on the LGBT/faith intersection, I’ve realized that for many people who view God in this manner, it’s entirely natural that treating people they believe are violating God’s law harshly (couched in “tough love” terms) to wake them up is actually the kindest thing to do to save someone from this God’s judgement and wrath. We emulate the attributes we ascribe to the Divine. 

I remember Lily once hearing a sermon that focused on our “heart defect.” She was only three. I didn’t even realize she was absorbing anything from the sermon as she was playing with toys and crafts in the pew through the whole service. But later that day, she kept asking if she was going to die soon. We weren’t sure why she was suddenly worried about dying. But then she said at one point, “Well the man talking today in church said I have a problem with my heart.” It suddenly clicked. She had had a baby cousin die very shortly after birth due to genetic condition that caused many organs to not develop fully, but the way we had explained it to Lily was that the baby’s heart didn’t work like it was supposed to. My three-year-old had deftly picked up on the central idea of modern-day traditional Christianity: that we have a heart defect. This is usually followed by the good news that we can accept the death of Jesus on our behalf and have his heart be what is judged by God, not ours. If we choose not to accept that sacrifice of Jesus, we will be lost (and, depending on the particular denomination either tormented eternally in hell or consumed by fire all at once).

I’ve never been at peace with this idea as it doesn’t feel much like free will or love. Especially once I became a parent, I couldn’t square the idea of an eternally loving parent, usually seen as a father, requiring the death of his own child or destroying his children who don’t accept this sacrificial gift. A meme I see once in a while sums it up well. It shows the classic picture of Jesus knocking at a door, which is meant to illustrate the idea of a verse that says he’s always knocking with the hope of being invited in but would never force his way. 

The meme shows dialogue from the occupant on the other side of the door and the knocking Jesus:
“Who is it?”
“Jesus.”
“What do you want?”
“To save you from what I’ll do to you if you don’t let me in.”

This meme rather bluntly critiques the concept of the Gospel that is presented in the majority of Christian spaces right now. It’s never felt like good news to me or free will. Rather it feels manipulative, a violent lover telling me he won’t hurt me if I do what he says I should, and on top of that, I should be grateful he’s so good to me when I’m actually worthless inside, unable to be trusted. 

Whew. It’s very hard for me to write those words in the last paragraph because I know the traditional imagery and salvation framing that Easter usually represents means so much to many, many people I love deeply. Again, if that model is working for you and is helping produce kinder, more just, and more loving actions in you, then I’m really happy for you. I am not in any way trying to change your mind by sharing my current perspective which is still actively being reconstructed in a messy process. I share this because I suspect I’m not alone in my questions and deconstruction work. And it’s incredibly hard work to do at all much less alone. Even in our marriage, it was deeply de-stabilizing but then eventually bonding to realize we were wrestling with similar questions (it was Stephen beginning to have questions and deconstruct that prompted a lot of this journey for me, but that’s his story). 

I now view Easter through a non-violent, non-substitutionary atonement lens where the death of Jesus happened because his message and view of God’s priorities were deeply threatening to the political, religious, and economic systems of his culture and community. He was executed for these views as a criminal during a very violent era under an oppressive empire. He didn’t have to “die for our sins.” In fact, even if one embraces the traditional substitutionary atonement model and believes Jesus died as part of a bigger redemption plan, that is not why he was executed. He was executed because his message was destabilizing to all of the power structures of his day. Just a quick re-read of the Sermon of the Mount is a reminder of just how radical his teachings were even by today’s standards. 

To follow Jesus is a radical and possibly dangerous way of living with the values of power and wealth turned upside down and the marginalized given priority. It’s not a path to an easy life, but Jesus’ message has largely been co-opted by Empire ever since Constantine adopted Christianity. It’s been very helpful for me to remember that the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus are two different things. Jesus would likely not recognize the vast majority of what is marketed today as Christianity.

The story of his resurrection, to me, is now a vital concept that ultimately love wins even when all hope seems gone, that new life can spring forth from even the deepest and darkest of times. It’s a message that somehow a bigger plan and a transcendent power affirms the message and ministry of love, truth, justice, and service that Jesus’ life modeled. In many ways, that concept of new life and resurrection can be rather nicely connected to the other Easter traditions that celebrate fertility, spring, and new life. It’s a season when the death and bareness of winter gives way to bright spring flowers and brand new baby birds and animals reminding us of new possibilities that come after the cycle of loss and death. 

But it is really, really hard to navigate that view of Easter, particularly with my children (well, only Lily is old enough to understand any of this). I’ve been rather scared of church services on Easter weekend the past few years because of what I know will be said or modeled. Most of it will be drenched in a blood atonement sacrifice model, and the explicit and implicit messages to children is that their sins were why Jesus had to die because they are full of darkness on the inside and can’t trust their own hearts. I find that message deeply damaging and hurtful now, and I don’t want my children exposed to it.

This is where I come back to Moana as a deeply moving redemption model that evokes the same themes as my current understanding of the Jesus story does. The beautiful scene of redemption and restorative at the climax of Moana teaches me that this world is unjust. Life is hard, difficult, and often violent. We are tempted to resort to basic survival mode, to look out only for ourselves. It’s a “me first” attitude of scarcity and competition rather than abundance and generosity. (I also realize the writers of this film might not have had these ideas in mind at all, although redemption narratives are one of those archetypal stories found throughout the great stories of every world culture--it's one of the stories we tell. This film can also be enjoyed purely as a gorgeous hero's journey with a female protagonist without a hint of romance plus a splendid soundtrack.)

When life inevitably hurts us, often in deeply unjust ways similar to how Maui stole Te Fiti’s heart to use for his own purposes, we often respond by becoming angry, violent, and vengeful. Our hot lava erupts and burns everything and everyone around us. We become disconnected from our own true selves, the true self that is actually part of the Imago Dei.

And so we need to be redeemed from the violent, angry, and selfish state that life often has driven us too. We need to be reminded of who we really are in the same way that Moana powerfully and compassionately reminded Te Fiti of who she really was.

I have crossed the horizon to find you
I know your name
They have stolen the heart from inside you
But this does not define you
This is not who you are
I know who you are
(who you truly are)

When someone sees our true selves in such a redemptive manner that we can have a perspective shift back into loving generosity, it’s miraculous. And the ripple effects are life-giving to all in the same way that Te Fiti’s life-giving power was restored and new life and resurrection sprang forth from everything she touched with her heart and true self restored.

I still don’t know how to incorporate this into our family Easter narrative though. And it’s still really hard to navigate a 2,000-year-old ritual with so much history and meaning when I feel like such an outlier at the moment. I need a tribe of other parents (in person, ideally) to help model this view of redemption together with our children. I need my own heart restored and to be fully seen and loved so I can in turn offer that gift that redeems and restores. In the meantime, I might put another family viewing of Moana on the docket for this Easter Sunday. We humans clearly need the medium of story to connect to the bigger themes that give us purpose and meaning, and Moana is a redemption story worth re-telling.

Moana and Te Fiti after redemption (image from http://bit.ly/2oz1SmX)

Moana and Te Fiti after redemption (image from http://bit.ly/2oz1SmX)