The Gospel according to Disney's "Tangled"

Image: from Finding Corona
(This post contains spoilers. Go watch "Tangled" before you read it)

Based on all the things I've written about "Frozen" in this blog, you might guess that "Frozen" is my favorite movie - But it's not. I obviously like it a lot, but my favorite movie is "Tangled".

Why do I like "Tangled" so much? Well, some movies are good, and some movies are bad. You can generally find out which is which by reading reviews. But then, there are the movies that are meant just for you. These are the transcendent movies - the ones that I cannot review at all, because I cannot possibly do so fairly. It's as if you've been test driving cars and one starts to fly through the air - was that a good car? How are you even suppose to answer that?

I think "Tangled" is a pretty good movie - it received some good reviews and did decently well at the box office, and is sometimes credited with starting a second Disney Renaissance. But I don't care much about all that. The reason I like "Tangled" is not for any of those things. My reason is difficult for me to explain - my experience with the movie may be something unique to me - but I will nevertheless attempt it.

My reason comes down to a single moment, one second in one scene in all one hundred minutes of the movie that somehow contains the whole movie in itself: when Eugene cuts Rapunzel's hair.

As a reminder, this is the lead-up to that scene: Rapunzel realizes that she's the lost princess, and openly rebels against Mother Gothel. Eugene realizes that Rapunzel's "mother" is a danger to her, and rides to the tower. But upon his arrival, Gothel already has Rapunzel in manacles, and fatally stabs Eugene. As he's dying, Rapunzel declares that she will never cooperate with Gothel unless she's allowed to heal Eugene, and seals her declaration with her unbreakable promise. Gothel consents, but Eugene insists that Rapunzel can't do this - that she can't give up her freedom for his life. Rapunzel counters that she can't let him die.

Just as Rapunzel is about to heal him, he momentarily stops her - then cuts off her hair.

From this one supreme moment, we can directly reason out the following chain of truths in its entirety:

He cut her hair.
So it will lose its power.
Then she can't heal him.
Therefore he will die.
And she will be free.
He is aware of all this.
Yet he still chose to act.
This means that he loves her, sacrificially and therefore truly.

Somehow, I subconsciously understood this whole chain of reasoning in the brilliant flash of that single moment, while my conscious mind was caught completely by surprise and left simply reeling. I only remember being slammed by a magnificent sense of epiphany, overwhelmed by an ineffable feeling of significance. I could never recapture that moment fully; that is as it should be. By the time that my brain had caught up to my subconscious realizations (as Gothel was falling out of the tower), I was saying to myself, "This may be my favorite movie of all time" - for if you surprise me with an act of love, then you have my love forever. I don't expect others to have shared in my experience as I've just described it - but for me, no other movie has come anywhere close to delivering the feelings I had in that one moment.

But it doesn't stop there; this moment only gets better upon further reflection. In it is contained all the wonder and beauty of the movie. Every idea, every theme in the movie is brought to bear in that one second. Everything before it leads up to it, and everything after it stems from it. It ties the whole movie together, as if all one hundred minutes of the movie exists for that one second. Consider the following:

The haircut is the ultimate proof of Eugene's love, righteousness, and worthiness. Eugene and Rapunzel begin the story by deceiving, coercing, and manipulating each other. But they slowly grow closer over the course of their journey, until they finally "see" each other during the floating lanterns ceremony. Here, Rapunzel gives Eugene her crown, and because of her inherent innocence and naivety, this is enough to convince us that she really does love him. But Eugene had earlier been characterized as worldly, greedy, and even treacherous, and until the haircut, he doesn't do anything dramatic enough to fully reverse that characterization, or show that he really loves Rapunzel. It's true that Eugene had been caring, but what is that worth in this story? How do we know that Eugene wasn't simply taking care of a pretty girl who's in love with him, in the same sense that Mother Gothel was taking care of a walking fountain of youth? Or perhaps he loves her only for her hair and her powers, like so many others in the story? Though Eugene may appear to love Rapunzel, apart from the haircut - apart from the sacrifice - there would be no ultimate substance. In this one act Eugene demonstrates his love for Rapunzel and his transformed character, and thereby becomes worthy to take Rapunzel as his wife.

So, the haircut is fundamentally an act of love. It ties together the whole of "Tangled" as a love story.

The haircut is also the price of dreams, the cost to be counted before pursuing them. Consider the sacrifices made; Of course, the haircut costs Eugene his life. He gives up on his castle, his enormous piles of money, and his new dream of being with Rapunzel. But also for Rapunzel, it costs her everything she has. In that one second she loses her hair and her powers, and therefore a large part of her identity. It costs her the only mother she's known, and the man she loves.

Weighed against all that cost, the haircut gives Rapunzel only her freedom - the freedom to run after her new, true identity, her royal heritage. Although this identity seems distant in the moment of the haircut, it is in fact the antitype of her dream, the solid reality of which the floating lights were mere shadows. Contained in this meager-seeming gift of freedom is the most important thread in the story, the fulfillment of Rapunzel's dreams.

Eugene counts the cost, and decides that his life, along with Rapunzel's old identity, powers, and peace, were all worth sacrificing - all for the sake of her freedom. He therefore does what she could never do for herself, and cuts off her hair. But in this act of sacrifice, he uncovers the very heart of the story - that their dreams are connected to something much larger, something they could have never even dared to hope for. That everything they wished for and more, and even everything they sacrificed, will be given to them. That their dreams, and the dreams beyond these dreams, will become their new identity.

So in the haircut is all the sacrifice, and all the restoration, of Rapunzel and Eugene's dreams beyond dreams.

For even Eugene's resurrection is foreseeable from the haircut scene: the drop of sunlight falls from the heavens, and there grew a magic flower. The flower is uprooted and plucked, and made into a miraculous medicine. The medicine is consumed, and a princess is born with magic hair. The pattern is the same each time: the old seed perishes, and it bears new fruit. How could Rapunzel's haircut have resulted in anything but the greatest working of the Sun's power? It was all foreshadowed from the beginning, from the very first line.

So the haircut points towards the resurrection, and through it, the whole epilogue. Once it is done, there are no other possibilities for the ending; the remaining story is set in stone. Not only does the remaining story lead out from the haircut, the whole story also leads up to it: it's the heart of Rapunzel and Eugene's love story. It defeats the villain as a side effect. It's the moment their dreams meet reality, when their dreams die and come true. It's the only possible resolution to the story.

So in a singular, irreversible act that irrevocably achieves Eugene's will, every major theme, foreshadowing, and plot in the story collides and is resolved with the haircut. It is all finished.

At this point, I hope it's clear why this post is titled "The Gospel according to Disney's 'Tangled'", and why I have set this movie above "Frozen", despite the latter's clear Gospel parallels: it's because Rapunzel's haircut reminds me of the crucifixion, in some small ways that I've attempted to detail above.

There are other Gospel parallels besides the haircut scene: "This is the story of how I died" are words that can begin any Christian testimony. "It starts with the Sun". Rapunzel is the lost princess, unaware of her royal destiny. The lies of this world are like Mother Gothel's lies - 'The lights are just stars. You are not meant for the world outside. Stay in this tower'. Flynn and Rapunzel are baptized in the dark, watery cave, undergoing death and rebirth, transforming Flynn to Eugene. The lights of Rapunzel's dreams were always the light of unfailing love reaching out for her. She has always been royal, a true daughter of the king and queen, of a kingdom that's not confined to her tower. The truth sets Rapunzel free, and allows her to stand up to Gothel.

All these parallels are worth noting. But the cross of Jesus Christ is the central mystery of Christianity, and in the haircut scene, "Tangled" illuminates a bit more of that mystery for me. And if you surprise me by revealing God's love in a new way, then you have my love forever.


You may next want to read:
The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen"
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Elsa's facial expressions during "Let It Go", in Disney's "Frozen"
Another post, from the table of contents

The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen"

Image: back cover of "A Sister More Like Me"
(This post contains spoilers. Go watch "Frozen" before you read it)

First, a disclaimer: "Frozen" is not an explicitly "Christian movie", like, for example, "The Passion of the Christ" is. The creators didn't sit down and say "hey, let's make a movie that tells the story of the Christian Gospel". It doesn't make any definite statements about God or Jesus or salvation. Like other great works of art, it can be - and has been - interpreted in many different ways, ranging from insightful to ridiculous, and it has different meaning for different people. You don't have to see it with a Christian interpretation. But if you would like to look into this deeper layer of meaning, it's there, infused throughout the whole story. "Frozen" is the story of perfect love casting out fear. It is a telling of the Gospel story, told like this:

(I'm taking a page out of the "Frozen" book "A Sister More Like Me", and using different colors to tell different parts of the story. Paragraphs in blue describe the movie, and they're in red when they talk about the Gospel in real life.)

Princess Elsa was born with an awesome power - her ability to generate snow and ice. It is part of who she is, part of her birthright. It's a beautiful and powerful ability. But precisely for these same reasons, it's also dangerous, capable of causing disasters.

We are Elsa. Like her, humanity was created to be awesome - made in the image of God and meant to grow to become like him. This is our amazing destiny. But precisely because of our incredible potential, we can also fall into sin, with devastating consequences.

After Elsa accidentally harms her sister Anna, she's given some rules to rein in her powers: conceal it, don't feel it, don't let it show. Limit her contact with people and keep her powers hidden. Here's the thing about these rules: they're severe, but if Elsa actually follows them, they really will keep Elsa and everyone around her safe from her powers. Elsa just has to follow them perfectly.

Like with Elsa, humanity was given God's law to teach us what he wants from us: have no other gods before God, honor your parents, do not steal, love your neighbor as yourself, etc. If we just followed the law, we could theoretically be righteous before God, completely freed from sin, and live perfect lives in perfect societies. We just have to follow them perfectly.

Of course, Elsa can't follow these rules perfectly. It's too much for her to hold everything in. To add to the tragedy, she comes to rely on the rules as her only way to deal with her powers. But they were never meant as a permanent solution; they were only supposed to guide her until she could control her powers. Further adding to her misery, she's warped these rules to "conceal, don't feel. Don't let them in, don't let them see, be the good girl you always have to be", leading her to fear making "one wrong move", because then "everyone will know".

Humanity has Elsa's same problem: we can't follow the law perfectly. No one is good enough to meet God's standards. To add to the tragedy, we have come to rely on the law as our only definition of what it means to be a good person, although the law was never meant to and never could make anyone righteous. Further adding to our misery, we've warped the law into a way to work up our own self-righteousness. This leads us to be judgemental hypocrites, constantly in fear of others discovering that we're not the good boy or girl that we always pretend to be.

So in Elsa's attempt to follow the rules, she utterly fails. The harder she tries the worse her fears and failures become. Her fears cause her powers to go completely out of control during her coronation, and all that she's tried so hard for comes to naught. Her kingdom is enveloped in a sudden winter, and she is cut off from Anna: her only sister and family, and the only person she has a real relationship with.

Humanity's attempt to follow the law also utterly fails. The harder we try, the more clearly we see that sin infects our whole nature and separates us from God. For all that humanity has accomplished, our kingdoms and civilizations are still steeped in sin, and these will all perish with the passage of infinite time. Critically, sin cuts us off from God himself: our only father, and the source of all love and goodness.

Elsa's problem is not something that she can fix herself; she cannot simply try harder, or follow her rules better. She's trapped in a wretched, evil condition that's beyond her ability to control. She says so herself multiple times, in some of the most tragic lines in the film. She sings, "Couldn't keep it in / Heaven knows I tried", and "I'm such a fool, I can't be free / No escape from the storm inside of me / I can't control the curse". She also says, "Don't you see? I can't." when Hans asks her to stop the winter.

Our problem with sin is also not something that we can fix ourselves; we cannot simply try harder, or follow the law more closely. We're trapped in a wretched, evil condition that's beyond our ability to control. Apostle Paul expressed this clearly when he says "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out" - words that could have easily been Elsa's.

Anna, however, loves her sister and will not let Elsa stay in her "kingdom of isolation", even if Elsa herself has abandoned Anna and Arendelle, and given up on "that perfect girl". Anna pursues Elsa to her castle in the North Mountain to bring her back. But in the ultimate expression of Elsa's fear and lack of control, while screaming out "I can't!", Elsa strikes Anna in the heart with her power. 

Anna is the Christ-figure. Jesus loves us and will not let us remain in sin, even if we have already turned our backs on him and lost sight of our divine destiny. He pursued us down this world to bring us back to him, coming to us as a man, as one of us. But in the ultimate expression of our sin, in our ignorance and pride, we crucified and killed the Christ, the very Son of God.

When Anna then insists that things could still be set right, Elsa desperately asks, "How? What power do you have to stop this winter? To stop me?" But Anna actually does have that power, the only power that can save Elsa. For there was always a way for Elsa to control her powers, apart from following the rules: by experiencing an act of true love. In fact, Elsa freezing Anna's heart is precisely what allows Anna to perform this act of love. 

We also are in desperate straits. There is nothing we can do to escape our sins. As Apostle Paul says, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" But what is impossible with humans is possible with God. For there was always a way for us to be good before God, apart from the law: through Christ's love. In fact, the very catastrophe that was the crucifixion is precisely what allows Christ to demonstrate his love for us.

What is love? As Olaf says, it's putting someone else's needs before your own. So in the climax, Anna, in her weakness and frailty, displays the kind of love that can keep loving Elsa even after Elsa strikes her in the heart. She chooses to sacrifice herself and freezes to solid ice, to save her sister's life.

What is love? As it is written, "Greater love has no on than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends". So at the cross, Jesus displays the unconditional love that continued to love his sinful enemies even while we crucified him. He took on all our sins and their consequences, sacrificing himself and saving us.

If, after all this, Anna remained frozen, all hope would have been lost for Elsa. She would have remained trapped in her fear and her kingdom would have been doomed to an eternal winter. But the deep truth in the "Frozen" universe is that an act of true love will thaw a frozen heart. So Anna sacrifices herself, but she's then thawed and restored. By this act Anna and Elsa's relationship is repaired, and Elsa finally becomes the "perfect girl" that she never even dared to dreamed of: freed from her fears, beloved queen of her kingdom, in full control of her powers, and truly sisters with Anna.

Likewise, if Jesus had remained dead, we would have no hope. We would have remained in our sinful condition, and we and all our achievements would have been doomed to perish. But because Jesus humbled himself even to his death on the cross, God raised him from the dead. So Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, but on the third day he rose again from the dead. Through Christ's death and resurrection, we are restored to God; we are fully freed from our sins and fears, adopted as his children, heirs to his incomparable riches, and truly members of the family of God.

That is the story of "Frozen". As you may be able to tell at this point, I was somewhat facetious when I said that "Frozen" is not a "Christian movie". It's true that its makers didn't sit down and say "hey, let's tell the story of the Christian Gospel". They merely told the truth that underlies the whole universe, like all art is supposed to do. But in doing so - in expressing this truth well - they managed to tell the one and only story in the whole universe. So "Frozen" is in fact a Christian movie - in the sense that all good movies are. After all, there is only one story in the universe.


You may next want to read:
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
An analysis of "Let It Go" in Disney's "Frozen"
The Gospel according to Disney's "Tangled"
Another post, from the table of contents

The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 3)

The previous post of this series ended with John 3:16, which states that whoever believes in Christ will not perish, but have eternal life.

That finally brings us to "Christ", the first and the most important word in my simple summary of the Gospel, "Christ saves sinners". If I had to condense those three words down to one - just one word to describe the Gospel and therefore all of existence -  it would be this word. Jesus Christ is God himself incarnated as a man. In God's act of true love for us, Christ came - God came as a man - to fulfill the plan for our salvation. For what power does anyone else have to stop the course of sin? To save us? To reach us, he humbled himself down to our level, and took on the human form that he first granted us. Like us, he was conceived, born, and raised, and became a man familiar with our sorrow, who experienced our pain. Despite being fully human, he remained morally perfect, so that he could serve as the perfect example for us. Moreover, this was necessary for the next key part of the plan: his crucifixion and resurrection.

I do not understand Jesus' death on the cross. There are theories of how it worked, but I doubt we have anything close to the full picture. This is only expected: the cross is nothing less than the intersection of all of existence - things on heaven and earth, visible and invisible, life and death, good and evil, sin and righteousness, God and his creation, story and Author - they all collide here. I think that a complete understanding of Christ's death and resurrection would require nothing short of the entirety of the mind of God. My telling of the story is utterly insufficient for it - nevertheless I will proceed.

Through Christ's great love for us, he became one with us. As he became part of humanity, we became parts of Christ's body. We can see this happening to a small degree between humans: people become one to the degree that they love one another. Thus an individual's loss or gain, their grief or joy, their ignorance or knowledge, and even their guilt or righteousness, are all suffered or enjoyed by their family and friends, to the degree that they've become one in love. But Christ is God, and God is love. In his perfect love for us he became perfectly one with us, as only God himself, as only love itself can.

In being united with us, he took upon himself all our sins and its consequences during the crucifixion. Because of his perfect love for us, the transfer of our sins is also perfect: we truly bear them no more, as if we had never sinned. Conversely, Christ truly carried our sins, and became truly sinful for us. There on the cross, he suffered all of sin's consequences. He was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities. The infinite separation from God that was our due was laid upon him, and he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" God himself had never before experienced this separation - this sundering of his own being - because the Trinity had existed without sin in perfect fellowship. No human has ever experienced it, because Jesus took it upon himself instead. The fullness of Christ's passion is therefore incomprehensible to us and incomparable to any of our experiences.

The cross is also the demonstration of God's love for us, the proof of that love in sacrifice. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. That's how we know he loves us. And because he first loved us, we can love him back. That's what allows us to believe in him and participate in his plan of salvation. In loving him, we thereby become one with Christ just as he became one with us, thus participating in his suffering and death. Like the sin transfer, our perfect oneness makes this participation perfect: we are truly crucified with Christ and truly die with him. Some think that becoming a Christian is trivially easy; that one can simply plan to "repent" after a lifetime of sin then "get into heaven". In reality the closest analog to becoming a Christian is dying: you must take up the instrument of your execution and follow Jesus to his death.

Thus at Calvary I find myself identifying with nearly every party in the passion story. I am the mockers, deriding Jesus in my disbelief. I am the women, devastated that my teacher should suffer such agony. I am the centurion, saying "Truly this was the Son of God". I am Pilate, waffling between my need for justification and my cowardice. I am the disciples, overcome with fear and unable to understand. I am the thief on the cross, asking to be remembered. I am chanting "crucify! Crucify!", for this Jesus is a sinner, full of my sins, and he must be crucified. And I am with Jesus - crucified, dead, and buried, as punishment for my sins.

So we must be crucified and die. This is difficult - impossibly so. How could we do any of this? Wasn't the whole point of all this that it was supposed to be easy? How could we share in Christ's suffering and death, and not be defeated by it? Would we not be crushed by the penalty for our own sins, the very same penalty that we could never bear ourselves?

But what is impossible for man is possible with God. We are not on our own: we are united with Christ in love. He first loved us, he bears the burden for us, he enables us to love him, he enables us to have faith, he makes us one with him, he does everything. What can separate us from the love of Christ? We will not be crushed or defeated while he still stands. If God is for us, who can be against us? In Christ, we are crucified, dead, and buried for our sins - and yet we live.

The resurrection is the proof of Jesus's perfect victory over sin and death. If Christ was not raised, that would mean Jesus failed in bearing our sins, and they would have then crushed us in turn. God himself would have been defeated, our faith would have been falsely placed, and we would be pitiable above all humanity. But by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus demonstrates that death has no hold on him, that his power exceeds the power of sin, that both sin and death have been ultimately nullified.

The same power that raised Christ from the dead now works in us, for we have been made one with Christ by loving and believing in him. His victory is our victory. If we died with him, we will also live with him - yet not us, but Christ who lives in us. Therefore, we who are in Christ are a new creation - dead to our old selves and made new to be like Christ. Death and sin have no power over us, no more than they have any power over Jesus. The resurrection therefore demonstrates that this whole plan of salvation worked.

Behold furthermore what lavish love God has given to us in Christ: we are not only freed from sin, but made the children of God! We are given Jesus's righteousness, adopted by God, and made co-heirs to God's glory, all on account of being resurrected and made new in Christ. Jesus is the Son of God, so we also become the children of God. We are in Christ, and Christ is one with God. This, finally, is the fulfillment of our destiny, the plan for which God first created us.

So, this is my story: Christ saves sinners. It is a small telling of the one story, the only story in the universe. Although we have a royal heritage, sin has long kept us from it, in darkness. But Christ comes to us, and at last we see the light - that by loving, believing, and thereby becoming one with him, we can fully become a part of God's family.

I hope that you, too, will tell this one story as your story. The promise of salvation is for absolutely anyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone can thereby have life in his name.


You may next want to read:
Orthodoxy vs. living out the Gospel: which is more important?
How is God related to all other fields of study?
Another post, from the table of contents

The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 2)

The previous post of this series ended with: "Who shall save me from this wretched body of death?"

We thus reach the second word in the three-word summary of the Gospel ("Christ saves sinners"). What can we do to be saved from our sins? Sin is alienation from God, so our sin distances us from goodness itself. Sin is wickedness, so our evil makes us objects of God's rightful wrath. How shall we save ourselves? What righteousness, what achievement, what works of good deeds can we offer God, to convince him to take us back? Or what discipline or self-improvement can we undergo to empower ourselves and work our way back to him? We have none of these things, because God is the source of all such goodness and the very nature of our predicament is that we have strayed from him. There is nothing we can do. Any good we think we have is his to begin with. Even the first desire to repent would need to come from him, for we don't have it in ourselves.

So there is no hope in any kind of equivalent exchange. We have nothing good apart from God: nothing to give, nothing to exchange, nothing to bribe God with, and nothing to improve ourselves with. This actually points the way to the solution: we need a nonequivalent exchange - no; an unmerited, outright gift - in order to be saved. We need a transcendent class of help that does for us what we could never do for ourselves - like lead being transmuted into gold, a wooden puppet becoming a person, a fictional character becoming real, or the dead coming back to life.

If God provides such help, it would not be because we deserved it, but because he simply loves us. Not because we are good, but to enable us to do good. Not because we're worth it, but to make us worthy. We could do nothing to contribute to our salvation, but only accept it, trusting in the help God provides. Trust, or faith, would therefore be the mechanism of this salvation in us. Note that faith, of itself, will not save you: a strong faith in a faulty climbing rope will kill you, whereas a weak faith in a good rope will keep you safe. It's the object of faith that's all important: thus we must place ourselves in God's hands. So faith is merely that act of trusting God - an expression of our understanding that it is God alone who does all the saving, including giving us that very faith to accept his salvation.

Furthermore, if God would provide such help, it would not merely be a one-time course correction; rather it will take us all the way from our creation to our destination. Otherwise we could simply sin again. Don't think that God first created us as "plan A", then saw us going wrong and rescued us as "plan B". God foresaw our fall before he created us, and his plan to make us his children has always been to save us from our sins, once and for all time. This plan includes everything: his breath of life that made us alive, his own image in which he made us, and his foreknowledge and predestination for us before all time. In addition, he rescues us from our sins, restores our broken relationship with him, sanctifies us to make us holy, gifts us his own righteousness, and keeps us from falling, until he finally fulfills in us our destiny - to become like him as his grown children. This plan is everything good that God has for us, which is everything good, period. This is not "plan B", it is the complete fulfillment of God's eternal plan. This is our salvation.

He who began this good work in us will surely bring about its completion. We therefore no longer speak of what God would do, but of what God has been doing since before the foundation of the world, and will continue to do until our faith is made perfect. But what gives us this confidence? And how will God accomplish all this? For that matter, what about other questions like when, where, why, and who? All these questions have their answer in a single sentence: for God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son (Jesus Christ), that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

The next post of this series will at last discuss that first word in the three-word summary of the Gospel, "Christ".


You may next want to read:
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 3) (Next post of this series)
Science as evidence for Christianity (Summary and Conclusion)
How physics fits within Christianity (part 2)
Another post, from the table of contents