The Gospel According to Snow White
A little over a year ago, I wrote a post referencing the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty and how its depiction of dragon-slaying and the victory of goodness over evil is quintessentially biblical, reverberating with the sweet harmonies of Jesus’ grand story. We now must turn to Snow White…
I brought home the movie a few weeks ago for my daughters to watch. Toward the end of the film, I was struck by the sheer power and depth of the story in displaying both the dilemma of death and the transcendent beauty of redemption, culminating in the glorious resurrection of all things. Indeed, the Bible teaches that Eden most certainly will be restored, and, to quote T.S. Eliot, “all shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well” (The Four Quartets). In his Revelation, John declares with valiant sureness, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new'” (Rev. 21:5).
It should be no surprise that the gospel can appear in the unlikeliest of places with the unlikeliest of transformative power. After all, all truth is God’s truth. Tolkien showed us this in his epic tale of a halfling saving all of Middle-Earth. Who can forget the disbelief, the skepticism many shared that the responsibility for the One Ring should fall to a lowly hobbit? Or that the salvation of all the Jews could rest in the hands of Esther, one who attained her royal position “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)?
Even more directly, Chesterton writes in his essay “The Ethics of Elfland” of the glorious beauty and wonder that fairy tales hold in presenting the most dynamic truth in truly astonishing ways:
“…We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales because they find them romantic…This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water…We have all forgotten what we really are”
Chesterton is right; fairy tales jolt us awake to the absolute vibrancy and wonder of God’s True Story. Indeed, these stories we tell are numinous, bathed in sunlight; we merely need eyes to see them. The world and its millions of stories, trickling through every pore of reality, are diaphanous, “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins). Just as Plato described the awakening of man’s reason to see the light beyond the cave, for these are mere shadows before us, Lewis believed the resurrecting of man’s imagination drew us “further up and further in” toward the dawn of True Reality to see the glory of God’s story in living color. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ – this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus” (“In Bright Shadow”).
So, we must turn to the truth and beauty of Snow White not to be merely entertained but to equip the eyes of our imagination to see more clearly the truth and beauty of God’s Story.
The Bliss of Eden
When Snow White arrives at the dwarves’ cottage, we see a warm and inviting portrayal of Eden: there are chores and tasks to be done (to the blissful tunes of whistling while you work, of course), there is community and fellowship, and the cottage is alive with song and dance. Merriment abounds. The story presents this way of life as a perfect balance of duty and desire; each person has a role to fill, and he or she fills it gladly. Sneezy is the one who sneezes, Happy is the one who is happy, Grumpy is the one who is grumpy, and so on.
At the center of this pure and enchanting home is the image of Beauty herself, the ideal virtue incarnate in the character of Snow White, the proverbial “fairest of all.” She is undistorted by the seductions of the mirror, and she is elevated to the right position of a bride and mother, for the prince seeks her hand in marriage, and the dwarves seek her loving and affectionate arms in biblical domestic motherhood. She is the mother of all the living, and the eventual bride of the prince. The stage is set for the great Drama.
The Dilemma of Death
Edenic paradise, God’s story tells us, is subject to the rebellion of man. It was only a matter of time before Snow White would face the choice to fall from the warmth and glory of her perfect home. And fall she does as she fills her mouth with the false deliciousness of the Queen’s poisoned apple and succumbs to the deep sleep of death. Yet, this sleeping death is no individual affair; the effects of her sin are not limited to her lifeless body. Indeed, all of nature is bent by her fall, and when the dwarves encase the body of Snow White in the glass coffin, all of creation attends to mourn the death of Beauty. It is a truly eerie scene in the film; Snow White lies beneath the numb sheet of sin and death, quiet and still, as her dwarves weep softly around her and all of the woodland creatures draw near to see and to mourn. In their sorrow, they know that ultimate Beauty has died and their perfect world has been damaged by darkness and evil. All of creation feels the sting.
The Kiss of Life
In this bleak moment of despair and sadness, the sleeping bride is powerless to rise from her bed of death. She needs the sweet kiss of a savior, the arrival of her great prince to bring her back to life. She needs resurrection, not only for her but for all the grieving world. Mourning must turn to morning.
And so arrives the great prince, ready to unseal the curse of death with the kiss of life. I challenge anyone to watch this scene and not whisper “amen” at the moment their lips touch, for this is truly our story. This is our greatest need. We are the sleeping Bride of Christ, desperately in need of Christ’s resurrecting power. Hear the old song:
“Long lay the world, in sin and error pining,
Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth,
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”
Indeed, our Prince has come to kiss us wide awake. Savor the beauty and the power of the Story.
Tolkien writes it this way:
“‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’
‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”
Amen. May it be. A great Shadow has departed, and everything sad is coming untrue.
All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
We all live happily ever after.
The God of Great Feasting (The Joy of the Lord Is Our Strength)
In an age of rampant cynicism, intense narcissism, and deep defiance toward absolutes such as truth, goodness, and beauty, the ache for passionate and rich festivity must burn ever more feverishly in our hearts. This sour world, lost in the mirrors of its vanity and drowning in the white noise of feeds, posts, snaps, and late-night binges, is in dire need of a good feast, what Tolkien saw as an evening by the fire, filled with boisterous laughter and great dancing. Or, as Lewis saw, what greater way to herald the breaking of winter than the carousing of creatures at the coming of spring? The promise of resurrection is a great promise, full and strong, breaking like the tide against this screen-drunk land.
I am fond of saying Christians, by definition, ought to be the most celebratory, revelrous, festive, merry, jubilant, glorious, and passionate beings on Earth, for we are little Christs, microcosms of the cosmos-Creator. We are followers of the Maker of laughter, the Author of baby-babble, the Sculptor of forestry, and the Inventor of the taste of s’mores. We are disciples of the One who ringed Saturn, spoke light, and lulled the raging seas. We serve the God who made music and poetry, and as we behold His glory, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor. 3:18). As we become more and more like our wondrous Creator, the world ought to see us laugh as He laughs, forgive as He forgives, dance and sing and shout. He is the prodigal Father, excessive and exuberant in His splendor. Indeed, as His cup overflowed with His grace, so must our cups overflow with His praise, held high in joyful cheer and strong power.
The psalmist declares, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Ps. 4:7)
—“Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).
—“Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations” (Ps. 57:8-9).
In Isaiah, “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Is. 55:2)
In Ecclesiastes, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Eccl. 9:7, 9).
In Romans, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
In Thessalonians, “Rejoice evermore” (I Thess. 5:16).
And from Nehemiah, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Prince Caspian and the Honourable Shame of Humanity
Toward the end of Prince Caspian, after the decisive battle for the Narnian throne against the usurper Miraz, Aslan relays to Caspian the story of his heritage to explain his rightful place as the true king of Narnia. His tale, however, is not filled with accounts of glorious kings and queens or daring adventures on the high seas (though Caspian will see plenty on the Dawn Treader). Rather, Aslan recounts stories of thieves, murderers, drunkards, pirates, quarrelers, and fierce tyrants. As Aslan describes this history, the young man’s face sinks into a deep sadness:
“Do you mark all this well, King Caspian?”
“I do indeed, Sir,” said Caspian. “I was wishing that I came of a more honourable lineage.”
What follows from Aslan is perhaps one of the most striking and insightful passages from the whole of the Narnia series:
“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”
This keen and penetrating truth strikes at the heart of young Caspian, instantly quieting him (the next sentence simply states, “Caspian bowed.”). And, if we are reading correctly, it instantly quiets us. One can almost feel the warm, yet powerful breath of the Lion as he commands us to “be content.”
It is true that humanity is characterized by both the responsibility and privilege of bearing the very image of God. We are unordinary. Yet, in this account, we encounter the unbelievably weighty tension between being the jewel of God’s creation and being depraved sons of disobedience. We are both diamonds and dust. Being human is an honor and a shame.
How many of us, like Caspian, look around at our humanity and mourn our tattered lineage? How many videos of tiny fingers and legs in petri dishes can we stomach before we shake our heads in despair at what it has come to mean (or not mean) to be human?
But there, right there, Aslan instructs us to “be content.” In our vacillation between pride and despair, honor and shame in the human race, we must remember to be content. The Lord is sovereign. The Lord is King. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
Or, as Lewis would say, “Aslan is on the move.” Remember how The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe concludes: the winter is thawing and it promises to be a real spring. Or, as Tolkien would have it, everything sad is coming untrue.
So while we face dark days in our humanity, ruefully wishing our story were more noble, we must bow our heads like Caspian and be content, not in our strength to withstand the coming evils but in the power and certainty of Christ’s victory over all things. Aslan assures Caspian because he has the authority to do so. May we learn to trust the King of kings in our honorable and our shameful days, for He alone will make all things new.
Bilbo Baggins and the Bravery of Willingness
It is true that we are all characters in the great Story of God, called to our own journeys as we navigate the treacherous waters of a perilous world. It is also true that the dividing line between our actions in these journeys can be as thick as lead, the difference between noble Reepicheep, sailing into the majesty of Aslan’s country, and the self-absorbed Eustace, inching steadily toward the dragon’s den. Some are brave, some are weak.
So a natural question to come would be how we ought to prepare for the journeys we must take. What must I do to prepare for my task? How should I plan my journey? To the well-intentioned Christian, such questions seem righteous. Who doesn’t want to plan and execute an excellent journey for the sake of the Lord? Who doesn’t want to steel himself for the road ahead?
Yet, the answer to these questions is humbling and startling.
In the opening pages of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is set up quite comfortably in his cozy life at Bag End. He has a drink, a smoke, and a crackling fire. Out of his window lie the fair hills of the Shire. His breakfasts and second breakfasts are hot and delicious. Yet, it is at this precise stage of his life that Gandalf and a hoard of dwarves descend on his home and change his life forever.
Bilbo was overwhelmingly unprepared, and in one of the most illuminating passages of the book, the narrator claims:
“To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.”
The start of Bilbo’s incredible journey “there and back again” does not look like a carefully-scheduled trip with dried ink on the itinerary; Bilbo simply “found himself outside”, moving headlong into the mysterious dark ahead. Who are these dwarves? Where are we going, Gandalf? Will the road be dangerous? Will I live to tell about it? Questions flood his mind with no real assurances. Dwalin simply responds, “Don’t worry! You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.”
Unpreparedness, then, is the key note of Bilbo’s beginning, but it is not his readiness that is praised in the novel; it is his willingness. The remarkable quality of Bilbo’s journey is not in how excellently he mapped out his future but how bravely he faced it with a faithful willingness. Bilbo was not ready for his quest, but he was available for it.
If we were completely prepared for the journey we must take, would we be able to learn and see everything the experience could offer? Would our eyes be transfixed by the awe and wonder around us or would we lazily peruse our agendas and timetables for the next bulleted item? I imagine much of the significance and weight of our journey lies in the surprises in store.
So we, like Bilbo, must open ourselves to the bravery of willingness. We must reject the hesitance and fear that accompany so many of the plans we prescribe for ourselves. Bilbo was by no means prepared for his trek, but he was ultimately willing to accept it. He allowed himself to truly experience the situations he went through, concerned more with the nature of his path than the condition of his feet.
In my lifelong struggle to learn to pray, I pray that God turns my eyes away from self-absorption and worry to a noble willingness to see what He would have me to see and to take each experience with both hands, unashamed and unreserved. Such are the people that see the great things of God: the Moses that doesn’t stutter but shouts boldly, the Peter that doesn’t tread water but stands upon it, the Prodigal that returns for a job and finds a home, the Abraham that is called to a land he’s never known, and the Hebrews who must eat the manna of daily provision.
Though we may not ever be prepared for the turns our journey will take, we must be willing to step out into the darkness nonetheless. Just bear in mind we may have to leave our second breakfast half-finished.