Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
— T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets
Note: This article contains potential spoilers for Moana.
I somehow missed Moana, Disney’s latest animated feature, until just recently. My daughter saw it in theaters as part of a birthday party, but it wasn’t until we were babysitting a friend’s child that the film made its way onto our home screen. Part of this was simply ambivalence regarding the Disney animated brand. I enjoyed Tangled and Zootopia well enough, though hardly with ardent enthusiasm; Frozen was fine but gratingly over-hyped and over-marketed. So I sat down to watch Moana expecting a similar experience, a pleasant two hours or so of entirely adequate Disney entertainment.
I was thus wholly unprepared for how much I enjoyed Moana. It may be my favorite Disney animated feature since the original Beauty and the Beast (which is near and dear to my heart). The storyline itself is a deft weaving of mythic story patterns. The titular heroine (Auli’i Cravalho) knows her father Chief Tui (Temeura Morrison) will one day pass the leadership of their people to her. This succession is never in doubt, but Moana’s father and their people insist on remaining on their island of Motonui because a darkness has spread across the broader world.
Moana herself feels a call to the sea, which responds very literally to her presence and, spurred on by her mischievous grandmother Tala, she sails alone to find the trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). She and the reluctant Maui face many trials on their journey as they seek to avoid the monstrous Te Kā and restore to the island goddess Te Fiti her mystical heart, which Maui had stolen a thousand years prior.
Superficially, Moana could’ve been just another generic “follow your heart” children’s movie in which the spunky princess heroine defies unreasonable authorities to achieve her dream. Those plot elements are present, but the film’s far too thoughtful for such a simplistic trajectory. Unlike so many comparable movies, Moana suggests that our true identities represent a synthesis of our own individual desires and the people and traditions which shape us. And by recognizing tradition as a long, substantive, and dynamic force, Moana provides a surprising and powerful parallel to the experience of many younger evangelicals like myself.The contemporary stereotype of tradition — which Moana so beautifully subverts — is that it’s static and deadening.
I cringed inwardly during the early stages when Moana started talking about “the voice inside” that called her to the sea. Meanwhile, Tui’s insistence that the tribe remain on Motonui was looking a little too close for comfort to the domineering caricature that is The Little Mermaid’s King Triton. Thankfully, however, Moana doesn’t settle for caricatures.
Tui wins some audience sympathy by never talking down to his daughter (her gender isn’t even an issue) and the song “Where You Are” exuberantly presents the appeal of life on Motonui. Moana’s response isn’t rebellious or even passive-aggressive. She’s legitimately torn between her responsibilities to her people and her seemingly unique relationship to the sea. This tension is beautifully voiced in her first big musical number, the colorful, sparkling “How Far I’ll Go” (perhaps the moment that Moana won me over).
Moana frets because she’s caught in an apparently insoluble dilemma: should she find her identity in the traditions of her people or in her own desires? But happily, Moana collapses this dilemma as a false dichotomy when Moana learns of an older tradition. Moana first finds this tradition embodied in Tala, who recognizes Tui’s caution but also affirms and shares her granddaughter’s personal connection to the sea. It is Tala who reveals to Moana the truth, that before settling on Motonui a millennium ago, their people had been a race of seafarers. So we learn that Moana’s stirrings to set sail are not mere teenage rebelliousness; they are the rediscovery of a tradition that predates the rituals of Motonui and finds a link in Tala.
Only when Moana learns this truth is she at last prepared to voyage herself. And if we needed any assurance that her journey is more than simply a saccharine “find yourself” teen odyssey, we find that in her encounter with Maui. A powerful, shape-shifting jack-of-all-trades demigod, Maui’s initial character becomes manifest in his big number “You’re Welcome.” Like him, the song is boisterous, playful, and energetic; also like him, however, it is relentlessly self-centered, a rattling off of his accomplishments before he attempts to steal Moana’s boat. Maui is entertaining but not entirely admirable; his almost child-like arrogance is a fitting counterpoint to Moana’s initial tentativeness.
Once our two protagonists begin their journey together, the ensuing obstacles externalize the internal struggle that continues to pull at Moana’s soul. They first encounter the Kakamora, a race of tiny swarming pirate creatures. While they initially appear a random enemy, the Kakamora are in some ways an exaggerated version of the Motonui islanders. Visually, their appearance resembles coconuts, the staple diet of Motonui. Like Moana’s people, they operate collectively rather than individually, and their blow darts have a numbing effect, even as the soporific island life does. In the end, their collective tendencies doom them.
If the escape from the Kakamora represents Moana’s conquest of her submissiveness, the subsequent battle against Tamatoa reminds her that empty self-creation is not a superior alternative. The immense crab lives alone in his realm, collecting jewels to adorn his shell — “I’ve made myself a work of art,” he proclaims in his narcissistic song “Shiny.” Whereas Moana heeds the wisdom of her grandmother, Tamatoa claims to have eaten his. Moana seeks to return Te Fiti’s heart while Tamatoa would simply add it to his collection of baubles. And like the Kakamora, Tamatoa’s downfall proceeds from his vice. He ends up stranded on his back, with no one to set him right or listen to him.
Having navigated these two extremities — passive acquiescence and atomistic self-indulgence — Moana is almost prepared for the final stage of her hero’s journey. Even so, she initially fails because of her vacillations between pride and doubt. But when Tala’s spirit returns to Moana, we finally see her establishing a truly mature identity — one born out of the synthesis of her ancestral traditions and her innate desires. This is powerfully manifested in the climactic song, even down to its title: “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors).” When Tala asks Moana who she is, she replies:
Who am I?
I am a girl who loves my island.
I’m the girl who loves the sea.
It calls me.
I am the daughter of the village chief.
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world.
They call me.
I’ve delivered us to where we are;
I have journeyed farther.
I am everything I’ve learned and more;
Still it calls me.
And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me.
It’s like the tide, always falling and rising.
I will carry you here in my heart; you’ll remind me
That come what may, I know the way.
I am Moana!
The “call” here is certainly internalized and personalized. Yet these lyrics very carefully balance out the composite nature of her identity: her island and the sea, the village chief and the voyagers. The sea’s call may be “inside” her, but so too is Tala, the embodiment of the older traditions to which she is called to return. Thus, when she at last declares, “I am Moana!” she is asserting her particular call, yet it is a call that could not have come to her save through the acceptance of her ancestors and their traditions.
And so the Moana who emerges is not an innovator and even less a rebel, but rather a restorer. She restores the damaged Te Fiti to her true form by returning her heart (even as Moana’s own heart, beating with the heritage of the sea, has been returned to her, in a sense). And the ending suggests she’s restoring her people to their seafaring ways.
Even in doing this, she is not antagonizing or rejecting her father. Motonui’s islanders first chose to settle because of the darkness of the world around them, a darkness that only Moana herself was equipped to clear away. Simply put, Tui’s younger traditions were necessary; he was doing exactly what was right for his people at that time, just as Moana does when she recognizes her kinship to the ocean and allows her people to resume their venturing customs.
The contemporary stereotype of tradition — which Moana so beautifully subverts — is that it’s static and deadening. But while human participation in it can become stagnant, true tradition is anything but. We already see this in the Bible, especially in the figure of Christ himself. Pharisaical interpretation of Scripture had become calcified, but Jesus proved the ultimate twist by affirming the truth of Jewish law while transforming the people’s understanding of it: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
Perhaps the most pertinent example of this comes in Hebrews 7. Hebrews’ author is faced with an apparent quandary: he wants to establish Jesus as both the ultimate king and the ultimate priest. But in Mosaic law, kings arose from the line of Judah while priests were descendants of Levi. Theologically, how could the biblical author reconcile this seeming contradiction without defying the Torah’s tradition?
He does so in the end by invoking an older tradition. He looks to Melchizedek, a priest-king of Salem who appears centuries before the Levitical priesthood was established — appears, indeed, to the man whose great-grandchildren will include both Judah and Levi. The author of Hebrews wasn’t grasping at straws here. The distinctly Messianic Psalm 110 had also established the precedent of a Melchizedekian royal priesthood.
Scripture would eventually be fully written down and established. But Church tradition would continue on in the subsequent millennia to provide guidelines and boundaries for interpreting Scripture and understanding how to apply it. However, Protestantism — and evangelical Protestantism particularly — has a complex relationship with this tradition.
In my own evangelical circles, “tradition” usually refers to events or figures of the past generation or two, and nothing beyond that. The phrase “traditional worship” means the use of a piano and/or organ, a few hymns (mostly old revival songs), a sermon, and an altar call. Underlying this terminology is a generational tension not unlike that which exists between Moana and Tui. Some of the youth in Christian congregations want to rebel against these “traditions” by calling for a radical rejection of these patterns, doing away with the songs and the service structures of their elders. However, like Moana, many younger evangelicals aren’t seeking to overturn their forebears, yet they still find something incomplete about the customs in which they’ve grown up.
The late Robert E. Webber wrote about this latter group in his 2002 book The Younger Evangelicals. Webber’s work contends that “the younger evangelical emerges with a new love for the past and a commitment to the notion that the road to the future runs through the past” (82). The supreme irony is that the earlier evangelical “tradition” had been to reject previous Christian traditions. These younger evangelicals “rebel” primarily insofar as they take interest in the older traditions of the faith.
Webber’s book may overstate his case, but it resonates with me because I am one of the younger evangelicals about whom he was writing. There can be an insularity to evangelicalism that resembles Motonui life, as Christ and Pop Culture’s own Wade Bearden and Kevin McLenithan observed in their discussion of the film. And so in one sense, the character of Moana deeply resonates with me. It’s not on the literal level: I frankly have no desire to set out on a solo journey across the sea in a drua. But when she emerges from the cave her grandmother has shown her, the cave where her ancestors’ artifacts and spirits remain, her palpable excitement feels familiar to me. It feels like the emotions I experienced when I began reading patristic Christian literature and studying the Church’s early centuries. Like Moana, I wanted to run around screaming, “We were voyagers!”
Tradition isn’t deadening — it’s quickening. “The dogma,” as Dorothy L. Sayers so memorably noted, “is the drama.” G. K. Chesterton famously called tradition “the democracy of the dead” (53). He did so in Orthodoxy, maintaining that our predecessors have valuable insights that may extend beyond their earthly lives. Chesterton’s own voyage to orthodoxy was a circuitous one, but he ultimately found himself in the creeds and doctrines of the distant past — and no one has communicated that discovery with more joyous enthusiasm. He begins Orthodoxy, appropriately enough, with a sailing metaphor, imagining a man who believes he has landed on distant shores, exploring their “delightful” and “fascinating terrors” with great élan, only to discover that he was in England all along (13-14). It was a storyline he would use in his novel The Ball and the Cross, and similar themes re-occur throughout his corpus in works like Manalive.
That is, Chesterton had returned again to a familiar country rejuvenated. “I am the man,” he declares, “who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before” (15-16). He found himself and his calling in the old traditions, and they were fresh and new to him. Indeed, it seems to me that the Christian writers who most endure, the authors we still love to read (e.g., MacDonald, Chesterton, Eliot, Lewis, Sayers, Tolkien, O’Connor) are, almost universally, also deeply conversant in Christian orthodox tradition stretching back centuries, if not millennia.
Many younger evangelicals who have joined me in reading the Church’s early writings may recognize a similar thrill. Our spiritual ancestors’ voices come alive in the pages, like Moana’s ancestors in the cave. “They call me,” she claims, and I know how she feels. Early Christian literature is invigorating — patristic writers were sailing uncharted doctrinal territory, mapping out doctrines and creeds like theological Wayfinders.
So I feel a certain spiritual kinship with Moana. I have no desire to desert my immediate evangelical community. Yet looking to the ancient teachings and traditions of our spiritual ancestors, the dogmas that silently but truly undergird our current beliefs, I find my own identity. “We were voyagers!” I want to shout, and then add, “And we can be voyagers still!”
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