Frozen II, Regnerative Agriculture, and Discipleship into the Unknown!
One of the joys of being a youth ministry researcher is going to the latest animation blockbuster in the Christmas holidays with my nieces and nephews (aided by my teenage and adult children to maintain safe adult:child ratios). It’s a double bonus: I get brownie points for looking after the children for an afternoon, and I avoid having to admit that I’d happily go and see Frozen II on my own!
My children know well enough that if they go to the movies with me they need to be prepared to ‘book club’ it immediately afterwards. It’s not that I can’t just settle back and enjoy a film; rather, one of the things I enjoy about watching movies is reading the cultural narratives that are being offered to us through this imagined world. Alongside the catchy music and adorable snowman, the enormous popularity of Frozen II is in some part due to its underlying message resonating with the spirit of the age. Moving from cultural analysis to missional engagement then, my question becomes, how might we speak the good news of Jesus into this kind of world?
Ecology in search of a Mythology
It would be hard to miss the environmental message in Frozen II: the way of the future lies in cooperating with the elements of fire, wind, water, and earth, not by fighting against them. Perhaps I should have offered a spoiler alert, but it’s a fairly predictable message.
It’s also no surprise that a Disney movie majors on feel-good ideas rather than hard science—it’s a children’s movie, not a research paper afterall. But the ideas do resonate with a fascinating book I read recently on regenerative agriculture: The Call of the Reed Warbler: by Charles Massy.
Dr Massy is a scholar and a farmer. He is a research associate at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University, and has managed an 1820 hectare sheep and cattle property on the Monaro plains in New South Wales (running an average 8,000 to 10,000 stock units) for 40 years. He’s an academic with considerable practical experience; or a practitioner with significant academic credibility. Based on recommendations from two independent sources, I ordered his book online without realising that it was a massive 530 pages! When the book arrived I thought I’d just read the first and last chapters and skim the contents page, but instead found myself engrossed in what is at times a hauntingly poetic, and at others, deeply technical account of the regenerative agriculture movement in Australia.
In short Massy describes the four key landscape functions necessary for agricultural health:
The solar-energy cycle (primarily aimed at fixing as many plant sugars as possible, via photosynthesis); the water cycle (primarily by improving the soil and vegetation ecology so as to store and recycle as much water as possible); the soil-mineral cycle (through having healthy living soils that contain and recycle a rich lode of diverse minerals and chemicals); dynamic ecosystems (through encouraging maximum Biodiversity and health of integrated ecosystems at all levels). (p.9)
Sun-water-earth-animals, four interconnected systems of the natural world. Restore one, and we restore all four. Yet beyond these four functions in nature, Massy adds a fifth: ‘the human-social component (through humans working in harmony with—not against—nature’s functions so as to enable landscape regeneration)’ (p.9). All of the natural systems are ultimately at the mercy of human choice and action—choices and actions that are far more socially influenced than rationally conceived.
As Massy describes the inter-dependence of the natural systems with the human dimension as the critical factor I heard a scientific and experiential reflection of the creation account in Genesis 1.
The creation account offers us God’s gift of an interdependent natural system. In Genesis 1 we find a poetic description of a complex system involving light, water, earth, plants, and living things, which all come together to be the very good environment within which human beings are intended to flourish.
Massy is a scientist not a theologian (and I wonder perhaps if he shares the familiar critique of Christianity’s doctrine of dominion as the root cause of our ecological crisis). Yet his analysis of the human-social element is unavoidably theological. Here’s part of his conclusion:
I believe that love is the essential ingredient in human and human-Earth relationships. It is clear that pouring herbicide on the earth is not an act of love, nor is aggressive ploughing, clear-felling healthy forests or the simplification into monocultures of complex creative systems, nor locking up animals in confined cages and feedlots and stuffing them with food and additives they were not co-evolved for. (p.498-99)
If Love is the essential ingredient then Christians ought to have much to contribute! To have dominion over this good creation is to receive the natural world as a gift, and in imitation of its creator, to give ourselves to the work of loving, careful stewardship. Unfortunately the church has not been good at demonstrating the true beauty of the doctrine of dominion. Both Frozen II and Charles Massy seem to associate human dominion with control and self-interested exploitation rather than harmony and flourishing. I suspect many Australian young people think the same.
As the credits rolled on Frozen II I was left wondering what it would look like if the church could step around or behind or away from the political warzone and share the true beauty of the biblical doctrine of creation, and the gift of dominion for human flourishing? If we fail to realise we have good news to share with an ecologically-concerned culture, and if we fail to communicate that message with winsomeness (and repentance), we’ll continue to struggle to engage.
Discipleship into the Unknown
However, while the ecological message is the outward adornment of the story, underlying it all is a story about growing into adulthood. Those who pay more attention to details (i.e. the good folk at imdb.com) tell us that the sequel is set around three years after the first instalment. It’s been six years since Elsa and Anna’s parents died, making Elsa 24 and Anna 21 years’ old. Stepping on from the ‘be true to yourself’ message in the original film (‘Let it Go!’), Frozen II asks how you navigate adult life now that you’ve cut yourself free from the ‘rights, wrongs, and rules’ of the past?
The answer is not, ‘wait until you know exactly the right way to go.’ Olaf the snowman sings his ‘When I am Older’voicing the mistaken belief that adult life means having all the answers to all your questions. ‘This will all make sense when I am older… I’ll have all the answers when I’m older… When I’m more mature I’ll feel totally secure.’ Clarity and certainty is a naïve dream.
Instead, adulting calls us ‘Into the Unknown. Into the UnKNOwn. Into the UnKNO-O-O-Own!’ Welcome to Let it Go for the new decade!
Stepping into the unknown is career guidance in an expressivist key. For Elsa it means overcoming her fears and following the voice of a spirit calling her to the mythic land of her ancestors. For today’s Disney generation the call might come from some other source. But for both, the voice can be identified as that which ‘knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be.’
In one scene Elsa interacts with a montage of scenes from the first film including a glimpse of her singing the iconic ‘Let it Go.’ Elsa cringes at the memory the way you recoil at photos of the novelty bow ties and puffy taffeta sleeves at your year 10 formal. By the end of the original film Elsa has already taken some steps away from the self-focussed assertiveness of that song; but there’s no real critique of the culture of expressivism here. Another nice insight from IMDB is the observation that Elsa’s hairstyle reflects her journey into freedom:
In Frozen she indicated she has ‘let it go’ and moved past the restrictions of her previous life when she pulls down her neatly pinned up hair into the flowing braid and messy bangs. In Frozen II she further releases herself from the confines of her life as queen when her braid is undone and her hair flows completely free. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4520988/trivia?item=tr4845290)
Frozen critiques isolationism (there’s no real future in cutting yourself off from the world, including your family, and hiding in a massive ice castle), but Frozen II is still deeply immersed in expressivism (find your own true calling) and individualism (make your own choices free from obligation or expectation).
So seeing the world through the lens of Frozen II continues to present some significant challenges to Christian discipleship. And yes, there is much to critique in the ‘Be True to Yourself’ mantra of expressive individualism (see Brian Rosner’s excellent study of identity, Known by God). But let’s not miss the opportunity to highlight ways that our Christian story engages with the deep longings of an expressivist mindset.
It strikes me that in discipling a Frozen II generation we could do more to emphasise Christian life as a bold and challenging adventure into the unknown: The kind of discipleship that calls Abraham to leave his home in Ur and go who-knows-where as the Lord leads him (Genesis 12:1); the kind of discipleship that calls people to leave their fishing nets and follow after a homeless master (Matthew 4:18-22); the kind of discipleship that sends disciples out with the message of the Kingdom, without money or supplies, and with no way of knowing beforehand whether or not they will receive a welcome (Matthew 10:5-15); the kind of discipleship that sends us into all the world with the good news of the risen Christ (Matthew 28:19).
There has often been a desire in youth ministry to make the Christian life as straightforward and easy to comprehend as possible. I guess the aim is admirable in that we don’t really want to freak young people out just as they’re trying to work out whether or not to throw their lot in with Jesus. We know that the Bible is a long, old, and oft-times intimidating book—but that’s ok because we can summarise and simplify its message into easily digestible sound-bites! And we know that church life is often full of weird and unfamiliar practices—so we create experiences stripped of anything that might make an outsider uncomfortable. And if life presents us with more and more, and bigger and bigger challenges, all we need to do is trust God, read your Bible, come to church, and pray! Less complex, more straightforward, and less unpredictable; but more control, more unrealistic, and less adventure.
And yet experience is often quite the opposite. The older I get, the more experience I have of the challenges of this human life, and the more familiar I become with the intricacies of the scriptures, the more I realise that easy answers are hard to find. And the easy answers on offer are usually not overly satisfying.
In recent days my two daughters have been caught up in the bushfires in Mallacoota. Carefully laid out plans for beach mission were overturned and replaced with sheltering from the fire front in the local cinema, helping to provide relief to stranded holidaymakers and devastated locals, and evacuation back to Melbourne by the navy. As I’ve spoken about all this with friends I’ve noticed two ways of describing the experience: some have responded by saying, ‘What an ordeal!’ While others have said, ‘What an adventure!’ And I guess both are true.
In Proverbs 22, on the one hand there’s a warning about not ignoring danger: ‘The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty’ (v3). But on the other hand, there’s v13, ‘The sluggard says, “There’s a lion outside! I’ll be killed in the public square!”’ Yes it’s good to guard ourselves and our young people from danger. But let’s also be wary of imagining so many dangers that we end up too afraid to ever go outside.
Frozen II has reminded me that the Christian life is in many ways a grand and mysterious adventure. It’s a calling into the unknown. But not in the sense of entering a dark and meaningless void. It’s about finding the confidence to step into an uncertain future because we know our lives are tethered by the goodness, and kindness, and mercy, and enduring faithfulness of God. One of the great paradoxes of Christian faith that we are offered full assurance of what will happen on the great and final day, but very few details of what will happen tomorrow. Which is of course what we ought to expect of a life impelled by the Spirit of God who, like the wind, moves in ways that we can neither predict nor control (John 3:8).
Frozen II, just like its predecessor, ends with Elsa inviting us all to join her in an adventure with the words, ‘Are you ready?’ Could we call young people to follow Jesus with the same tone of expectancy? Jesus says, ‘Come, follow me.’ We get to invite young people to take up that call: to be restored in God’s image and discover our role as stewards of this creation, to go as his ambassadors in a complex world. To follow him into the Unknown!