Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Anna Gets It Right: Disney's Frozen, C.S. Lewis, and the Primacy of Caritas

            Unless you have been living in a wilderness cave, by now you likely have seen Frozen, Disney's most recent animated movie; if somehow you missed the movie, you have at least seen the numerous videos circulating around the world of parents lipsynching songs or weathermen parodies. Frozen quickly became the highest grossing animated film of all time, grossing nearly $400 million in North America alone.
            On the surface, Frozen is about two sisters: Elsa, the elder of the two who has unwanted magical powers which she cannot hide; and Anna, the younger, more carefree and innocent of the two. Elsa, after years of hiding her powers and being what she calls "the good girl I have to be", finally gives in and embraces her magical powers: what humanists might call realizing "who she truly is" or the embracing the "real" her. Elsa, in a selfish emotional breakdown, forsakes the kingdom she is supposed to be leading and retreats to the mountains to live alone, leaving in her wake a land covered in an eternal and deadly winter. When Anna bravely treks up the mountain to bring her back, Elsa's self-indulgence takes a fatal turn and her magic freezes Anna's heart. In a race to save their friend, Kristoff and Olaf whisk Anna away to a troll shaman, who tells them only an "act of true love" can save Anna.
            This is the point in the movie where things get wonderfully relevant for Christians. Kristoff and Olaf immediately assume the shaman means "an act of amor" - that is, an act of romance - and as such they rush to Hans, Prince of the Southern Isles, the antagonist of the story, whom they mistakenly assume to be Anna's "true love". They deliver Anna to Hans, who reveals himself as a villain, confesses he never actually "loved" Anna, but feigned love to get to the throne of Arendelle. Hans leaves Anna to die of a frozen heart, and the situation for Anna looks bleak. Hoping to survive, Anna and Olaf the Snowman go out into the storm to search for Kristoff, hoping a kiss from him can thaw Anna's frozen heart.

            The climax of the movie occurs as Anna, near death, stumbles across the frozen fjord and spies Kristoff racing towards her in the distance. Out of the corner of her eye, Anna sees Hans about to murder an unsuspecting Elsa. In a moment of indecision, Anna is torn between hurrying to Kristoff and kissing him, securing for herself the "act of true love" that will save her, or rushing to save Elsa from Hans' deadly blow. Anna chooses to forsake her "true love" and any chance of saving her own life, and instead rushes to Elsa's aid. She throws herself in front of Hans' sword, freezing to the core at the last second, deflecting the blow and saving Elsa. When Anna's heart begins to thaw, everyone realizes the self-sacrificing act of Anna casting aside any chance to save her own life in order to save Elsa, the very person responsible for Anna's own death, is in fact "the act of true love" that Anna needed to save her. The movie closes as Elsa realizes that it is this higher, self-sacrificing form of love that can free the kingdom from the eternal winter. Elsa gets her kingdom, Anna gets the boy, and Olaf gets his summer.

            While Frozen is wonderfully animated, humorous, and full of songs endearing to young people, I think it resonates with viewers for reasons that transcend any of these: there is a deeper story in the movie that needs to be told. What is more, in this era of polarizing worldviews, the deeper moral of Frozen is one that can not only be embraced by Christians, but it is central to Christianity. The movie provides unbelievable context for presenting people - young and old alike - with the gospel and discussing another core tenent of the Christian faith: the primacy of caritas, or "divine love", over amor, or "romantic love".

            The plot twist of the movie works wonderfully because it exploits a mistaken idea that is at the core of the human condition: the tragically misplaced idea that what the Romans and Medievalists called amor, or romantic love, is the highest form of love in the universe. The examples and evidence of this idea in popular culture span centuries and are everywhere: from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Othello, to Jack and Rose from Titanic, to the sexual liberation movements of the last 50 years, to the current astronomical divorce rates worldwide. All point to humanity's willingness to sacrifice anything and everything on the altar of amor. When Anna and Kristoff are told that they need "an act of true love" to save Anna, and they immediately assume that means a kiss from Hans, no one in the audience thinks twice about it. I mean, why would they? What else is there?

          The failure of Hans to save Anna works splendidly to show the fragile nature of amor. It is inadequate to sustain or save Anna, even though all the characters, including Anna herself, assume it to be the most powerful force in the world. Amor is not the panacea, the end-all, cure-all that our culture holds it up to be. When people believe it to be, they are all too frequently dashed on the rocks of broken relationships, marriages, and families. Amor was never meant to endure forever; as Lewis points out, would we even want it to? Would not an eternal "newly-wed" stage only succeed in making us insane? How could anyone hope to sustain that level of emotion for years on end?  No, again looking to Lewis, amor is only the spark that is meant to get the engine of a marriage running; it must be sustained by something more.

          But unbeknownst to many Americans, thankfully there is something beyond amor. Amor is merely one of a small handful of what Lewis calls "natural loves", but something greater remains. For Christians, this reality is readily apparent: the higher form of love, far superior by far than even the most pure example of amor, is what St. Jerome called caritas. It is the divine love of God for us, a love unmerited and yet eternal. First shown by God towards us so that we might show it to others. Caritas is the love spoken of in Paul's famous treatise on love found in his first letter to the Corinthians:

"Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails."

            For audiences, the moment Anna chose to forsake amor and her love of her own self should be a moment of incredible clarity. The primacy of caritas is brought into sharp relief when we realize that "an act of true love" is not a self-indulgent pursuit of amor, but a self-sacrificing love, independent of all emotion, unfailing and eternal. As Paul wrote, it is the love found in Christ's death on the Cross while we were yet sinners. This is "true love". The writers of Frozen either knew this fully or stumbled into it. Either way the result is the same: Frozen is a movie that we as Christians can embrace and use as a context to talk to our children and others about caritas, the love that never fails.