The Disney-ization of Faith

This is from by Chaplain Mike, my favorite watchers of all things post-evangelical. This offers further thoughts on the role of culture and relgion. How much of Centrism, year in Israel or kiruv – Is to provide magic moments? How much is heart-tugging sentimentality? How much is the state of Israel views as a theme park? And how did the super cognitive Rabbi Soloveitchik create a rabbinate of sentimental kitsch? Did the acculturation into Evangelical America override anything else? How much of the visions of Torah circulating have mawkish origins far from anything in the Talmud or classic Biblical commentaries, let alone the classic of Jewish thought? Why do we can this shallow frumkieit a form a Torah? At least, the Gra and his followers would reject the folk relgion of the prostaks. It seems we are not Litvaks anymore.

Disney does not fool me into thinking what they do is great art containing profound insights into life and the human experience. I accept and enjoy them for what they are, no more. Their artists and animators are first class and what they do, they do well… They take stories that are classic because of their universal themes and dumb them down so that the kids can enjoy them with mom and dad. They remove all the messiness, complexity, nuance, and grit from these tales and sanitize them for a G or PG-rated modern entertainment audience. They are enjoyable, but as subtle as a punch in the face; as deep as the puddle in my driveway after a light rain.

Unfortunately, many American Christian leaders seem to think the Disney way is the way forward for the church. I could write a long book about all the examples of this across our land, from the many ways we market Jesus in books, music, and media, to the kistchy excess of the televangelists and the corporate “excellence” of the megachurches, to iconic monuments like the Crystal Cathedral. So much of it represents the “Magic Kingdom” mentality.

In the cartoon world of contemporary American evangelicalism, it’s all about bigger, better, and simpler. Help folks think their dreams can come true. Create “moments” for people in the congregation that they will never forget, that will “bless” families in safe and sanitized settings. Remove the messiness and reality of day to day life. Instead, put a sentimental, heart-tugging version of life up on the screen and make people feel it. Embrace the possibilities.

The Creation Museum near Cincinnati has decided to expand and build an 800-acre theme-park style complex featuring a replica of Noah’s Ark. The project will cost an estimated 125 million dollars and is projected to open in 2014 in nearby Williamstown, KY.
Some have questioned whether it is legally permissible for the state of Kentucky to fund a religious theme park. I raise another question: Is it appropriate for Christians to “Disney-ize” their faith like this?

They know what they believe already. And believing, they have set out to shape reality according to that image and make a new “dream come true.”

• Noah’s Ark. The Ark will be the park’s central attraction. Guests will take a tour of the structure so that they may “gain an understanding of how it could have been built, and how Noah, his family, and all of the representative kinds of land animals were cared for, and then survived on board for 370 days of the Flood and its aftermath.” Given the fact that Scripture says nothing about any of this, one wonders about how “Biblical” these “themed presentations” will be. The highlight of each day will be a spectacular show “featuring the ‘parade of animals’ and the dramatic ‘eruption of the fountains of the great deep.’” Will there be re-enactments of sinners drowning and crying out in hysteria and panic? Carcasses of dead, bloated animals floating on the surface of the lake? A nearby ravaged landscape? Will the greatest historical example of God’s wrath and judgment being poured out on the earth be “fun” and “exciting” or will it communicate anything at all about the actual fear of God and the reality of Divine judgment?.

Please. I will respond as clearly and directly and forcefully as I can—this project has nothing to do with Biblical Christianity.
This is cartoon faith. It represents the “Disney-ization” of the Biblical story. I mean, seriously. Christian people are going to waste $125 million building this travesty, and then undiscerning American believers will spend countless millions more to be indoctrinated, wowed by spectacle and a thoroughly sanitized version of the Biblical story. Bus-loads of young people from entertainment-seeking youth groups will be “educated” in a “Biblical” interpretation of the Flood that had its “genesis” not in the Torah but in the visions of Ellen G. White, whose “inspired counsels from the Lord” guided the 19th century sectarian Adventist movement.

Those visions will come to life in true Disney-like fashion—with overwhelming kitsch, mawkish sentimentality, a thin veneer of credibility, and, most importantly, the absolute conviction of unwavering belief in spite of any contrary evidence or countering interpretations. This project is fundamentalism at its creative worst. Read the Full version here.

8 responses to “The Disney-ization of Faith

  1. “ did the super cognitive Rabbi Soloveitchik create a rabbinate of sentimental kitsch?”
    Year-in-Israel-as-theme-park (something that was true even 10+ years ago) works culturally (in terms of the Kimsitz-y Religious Zionism and the visits to the Kotel/Mahane Yehuda/Random Tisch in Me’ah She’arim, etc.), but it also works intellectually.
    Centrist Orthodoxy prides itself on asking the “tough” questions or “struggling with tension between x and y,” but never really considers the possibility of not having a pat answer (Genesis and the Big Bang is sort of a theme park in book form, obviating the need to read Genesis in any spiritual or theological way and rest assured that the “right” answers are pre-coded, readable while sitting in the recliner on a Shabbat afternoon, and largely irrelevant to how we live our lives) or having that tension disrupt a normative suburban lifestyle (contrast the issues that trouble The Lonely Man of Faith with the major issue facing our communities, namely, the affordibility of private day schools).

    From his blog post. (site owner)

    First, the idea of Israel-as-theme-park is hot these days, after being forcefully raised by left-wing Zionists such as Peter Beinart (see last week’s Jewish Week). Disney-ification means only focusing on happy, uplifting facts and narratives, and ignoring what may lie beneath the surface. The sunset over the hilltops, Carlebach music, Eim HaBanim S’meicha, and all that are great, but over 20% of the country and 35% of children live beneath the poverty line, mostly Israeli Arabs and Haredim. That’s obviously not part of the reality for the American in yeshiva there, but it should be part of the awareness.

    Second, in terms of magic moments, this could also be part of the discussion of experiencing Chanukah as a Maccabeats YouTube video as opposed to a discussion about globalization (where the US plays the role of the Greeks). Disney-ification means thinking about familiar themes (latkes, dreidels) in a familiar, fun medium (pop music video) as opposed to thinking about the larger themes of the story and what they might mean for us (here’s a funny take on someone doing a similar type of thing to the Disney Princesses). This is the equivalent of focusing on the cutesy animals walking into the Ark and ignoring the sinners drowning below.

    Third, even if Centrist Orthodoxy doesn’t build theme parks pe se (probably because we’re too busy paying tuition), we are very good at building intellectual theme parks. For example, as well-researched and thorough as books like Genesis & The Big Bang might be, they’re essentially doing the same thing as the Noah’s Ark exhibit. Reading Genesis as a metaphor for modern science means that we get to know the answers at the end – or at least we get to know that the answers are there, just as soon as science discovers them. As we read our book on Shabbat afternoon leaning back into our recliners, we know there’s a neat resolution in the end – Science and Faith get married and live happily ever after. The tension and apparent conflict is really only a narrative device; if anything, it only makes the experience more fun, and, in the end, we get the satisfaction of knowing that we were right all along.

    Upon reflection, how many of the other built-in “conflicts” that Centrist Orthodoxy likes to grapple with are pre-packaged with pat solutions or dodges that don’t really get in the way of our comfortable, acculturated existence?

  2. “And how did the super cognitive Rabbi Soloveitchik create a rabbinate of sentimental kitsch?”

    Who said he did? Rav Soloveitchik admitted that he had no real “hashkafic” influence over his talmidim. The “rabbinate of seentimental kitsch” is not a creation of Rav Soloveitchik.

    • The idea of sending kids to experience something authentic and immersive that cannot be found in Centrist America is not unlike the Rav’s sentimental hearkening back to the formative experiences of his childhood where religiosity was inculcated in an immersive culture of simple faith and learning Torah appeared as engaging in mythic struggles.

  3. Pingback: Intellectual Disney-ization: Happily Ever After « …VaAni B'Sof HaMizrach

  4. “It seems we are not Litvaks anymore. ”

    “We” never were. Not biologically, and not emotionally – most American Orthodox Jews aren’t Litvaks.

  5. Pingback: Peter Beinart, Jewish Establishment, and Disney « …VaAni B'Sof HaMizrach

  6. Kudos to AS and Avraham Bornstein for their incisive comments . Even if you are a parent who is visiting a child in a yeshiva or seminary for a year or so, you cannot help but notice the contrast between Israel as a lofty religious reality that hopefully provides MO post high school students with a sense of profundity and a message that is missing in their homes, schools and communities and the sociological/economic realities that are basically a quick walk, taxi or bus ride from any luxury hotel room or apartment. The real issue remains how much of the year in Israel experience translates into genuine religious growth in the Bein Adam LChavero and Bein Adam LaMakom spheres.

  7. Pingback: 21st Century Religion « …VaAni B'Sof HaMizrach

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