Moana and a Missional Church

First of all, Moana was LIT!

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Second, yass kween!

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Third, werk!

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Having said all of that, can we also talk about how Disney’s 2016 computer-animated blockbuster preaches? Like it preaches! I know I am late to the Moana show, but I am full-fledged Moana-stan. This soundtrack has been on straight up repeat for 24 hours and, even though I don’t know all the words yet, I could easily be a part of the chorus on “We know the way.” For real, this movie was deep. I am not sure what clergy person they had on the development or writing team, but whoever is responsible for this plot knows something about mission. In fact, there were parts of the movie where the conflict between Moana and her chief-daddy, Tui, had me feeling a way. As a priest in charge of a local congregation, I was actually feeling very attacked.

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Let’s be very clear: the Church in the global west has not had a very good past few years if you were to measure that goodness by traditional models that assess congregation size, wealth, and cultural importance. I won’t bore you with all the details. I quick Google search will reveal an overabundance of commentators and pundits discussing what all this means. Instead, I want to talk about what we might learn about mission in our context from a badass, Polynesian princess-voyager. There are so many connections that I could talk about: the help of encouraging ancestors, journeying with divine beings, caring for creation, appropriate boundaries and engagement with power. Alas, this is a blogpost and I know the saints have short attention spans. As such, I will only explore four clear connections between Moana and mission. Also, while it is not my intention to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, you’ve been warned. Spoiler alart.

Motunui: All You Need?

In one of the movie’s opening scenes, Moana’s chief-daddy, Tui, uses music to explain to Moana her relationship with the village she will one day lead as chief. A constant theme of this musical lesson is that everything the village needs is found in the village. Sounds good, right? Except that what it has looked like in the village is growing complacecy with the way things have become even as the world is dying around them because of misplaced power. It’s navel gazing as the world burns (or disintegrates into powdery blackness).

Talk about “feeling attacked.” I cannot tell you the amount of times I have been around clergy gatherings in my American Episcopal context and the theme of most of the conversation circles around budgets, attendance, and programs. It isn’t that these things are unimportant, but there doesn’t seem to be a strong undercurrent of missional engagement. Budgets exist to support institutions, attendance is the thing we like to brag about the most, and programs seem to take the place of actual, ministry engagement in the pew and in the wider community.

As the coconut crop becomes blighted and the fish supply becomes depleted within the safety of the reef, Moana wants to venture further out unto deep water, but she runs up against the tradition of the village, a tradition that is fundamentally couched in fear. Fear leads the village leaders to look inward when it should present them with an opportunity to look outward, to venture into uncharted waters, and, to borrow a phrase from the Gospels, to “cast the net on the other side of the boat.”

There is, however, a way in which the idea that Motunui has everything they need can be spun in a positive direction. Oftentimes, when churches actually make the pivot towards missional engagement, they are often faced with a new set of realities, namely money and resources. Churches have the tendency to engage in mission from the scarcity standpoint that looks at all the things they don’t have. What might happen if our faith communities looked right under their noses, recognized the abundant gifts currently alive in their contexts, and organized those gifts towards mission beyond themselves? What might happen if resources drove mission? If we believe that each individual faith community is empowered by the Holy Spirit, then it follows that the Holy Spirit has resourced that community with what it needs to fulfill the mission God is asking of it. Our work is to discern what that work is and to recognize the gifts we have to accomplish it. Motunui had everything it needed: a “village crazy lady,” Moana, and a chicken named Hei Hei. Recognizing gifts and turning them loose is what saved their lives.

Voyagers: Progress with the past in mind

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I need to pause here and let you know that I used to live in Hawaii My family and I lived in Honolulu for several years in my early childhood. This does not make me an expert at all in Polynesian culture, but I do have a general awareness of the cultural pride of native Hawaiians. Just from a geographic standpoint, there is nothing near Hawaii at all. Like, seriously. The closest major landmass to the Hawaiian archipelago is Alaska, some 2,200 miles away. The fact that early Polynesian explorers navigated the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean without modern equipment and maps is astounding. They literally launched out into the ocean on faith that something else was out there.

Moana picks up on this cultural story. Her grandmother, a subversive badass in her own right, brings her to a bricked up cavern where Moana discovers this proud voyager history. They had come here many years ago and there was an intention that they’d continue, except that they didn’t. They stayed. Soon they simply forgot who they were and their identity became a faint, nostalgic, cultural memory. As Walter Brueggemann says, “prosperity breeds amnesia.”

If the contemporary reconfiguration of the Church has any silver-lining, it is found in our rediscovery of who we are without the trappings of Constantinian Christianity. In my humble opinion, the Church on the margins is the Church as Jesus would’ve envisioned it. The Church on the margins in the Church where Jesus was and is. No matter how much we desire earthly and political power, our true power is found beyond ourselves. If we are to make the Church relevant and real for a rapidly changing 21st century world, we must rediscover who we were twenty centuries ago when our message was so counter-cultural and compelling that people couldn’t help but be baptized – by the multitudes. We have to rediscover what it means to be missionaries, not in the colonial sense of being tools for western imperial expansion, but as a people sent by God (apostles) on a divine, world-altering mission.

What is important for us to keep in mind is that we don’t simply throw the past away when we move forward; rather, we move forward in historical continuity with the past. We are not a movement onto ourselves, but people of God in the the same mission of the Apostles who received this mission from Jesus Christ himself. As the my favorite song from the Moana Soundtrack, “We Know the Way,” says:

Aue, aue,
We are explorers reading every sign.
We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain

Called by the Water

In Moana’s themesong, “How Far I’ll Go,” she talks about being summoned by the water to go on this mission. In fact, at the very beginning of the movie, there is a scene where an infant Moana goes out into the water and the water appears to withdraw from her, like Moses in the Red (or Reed) Sea or Joshua in the Jordan River. This scene almost serves as her inauguration into mission, even if it takes her a few more years to figure out what all this means. In fact, there are parts of the movie where Moana is helped by the water, like the time the ocean wakes her up right before she is overtaken by a storm or the time Maui, the demigod, attempts to leave her on an island and a friendly (sassy) wave launches her on board. In fact, water is so powerful in the movie that the antagonist, a lava-demon named Te Ka, cannot actually enter it.

Call me deep (da dum psh), but I couldn’t help but connect that to Holy Baptism. Far from being an opportunity to parade newborns around the parish, Holy Baptism is literally our commissioning the join the mission of God. To be baptized is to be deputized. Everywhere we go, everything we do, every person we meet is to be engaged through the context of our waterborne initiation into the life and death of Jesus Christ. As I preached in a sermon years ago, Holy Baptism is such a significant moment in Christian practice because through that holy water we are connected to every other source of water in the world: the waters of Creation, the waters in the Red (or Reed) Sea, the waters in the Jordan River, the water in Flint or Standing Rock. To be baptized is to be called out into the deep and to see a fundamental, interconnectedness between all human conditions and life experiences.

Restoring Life to a Disordered World

If you haven’t seen Moana, you might just want to stop reading now because I am about to tell the end of the movie. The plot of the movie revolves around a disordered creation. In the beginning there was only ocean (sound familiar) until the island goddess, Te Fiti, creates a bunch of little islands. She shares power with the world. Then apparently, she goes to sleep (come on, y’all…). Maui, a demigod whose divine portfolio includes wind and sea, steals her heart in order to give this power to humanity. This disrupts the created order and unleashes a lava-demon named Te Ka. The disrupted creation seems unable to continue to support life, which is why Motunui’s fish population decreases, raising the anxiety in the village. Moana goes on her quest to return the mystical heart to Te Fiti and restore the right order to Creation. Towards the end of the movie, we discover that Te Ka is actually Te Fiti without her heart. Moana’s quest was essentially one of recognizing Te Fiti’s fundamental identity and restoring life. In one of the most tense, yet touching, scenes from the movie, Moana faces Te Ka and sings:

I have crossed the horizon to find you
I know your name
I may have stolen the heart from inside you
But this does not define you
This is not who you are
You know who you are

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The Church doesn’t exist simply to house AA groups, or sponsor daycare organizations or scout troops, or even to provide concert venues with amazing acoustics. Other organizations can do that work far better than we can. We exist to do something quite different. We exist to bear witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and to continue his work of restoring life to our fracturing world by reconciling the world to God’s self. Any conversation of mission that is to be authentic to the Christian witness must keep this in mind. That is not to say that we proselytize everyone we meet and coerce people into relationship with God. Witnessing to our faith might entail sharing our faith in a direct yet respectful way. It also entails amplifying the voices of those who feel voiceless, advocating for systems that respect human dignity and allow for human flourishing, bearing witness to God’s grace and love at every turn. We are not called to vanquish our enemies. We are called to transform them by exposing them to the love of God. The question that we must ask ourselves is if we really know those whom God is calling us to engage.

Call me deep, but I appreciated Moana on so many levels, including on a spiritual one. I’m not saying that someone around the Moana table at Disney Studios is terribly interested in what it means for the Church to become missional, but I am suggesting that this way of seeing and engaging the world is in the atmosphere. Institutions are changing generally; the church is not alone in this. We seem to be at a pivotal moment in our history and how we move forward and engage the unknown is something we seem to be seeking more globally. It seems that the world is interested in these conversations, and this is a conversation the Church can actually participate in with some authenticity.

Also, the movie was just LIT.

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