Tuesday, January 29, 2013

True Bravery

Pixar's 2012 film Brave (the likely winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Film) took a more traditional Disney approach to storytelling with yet another strong (feminist?) heroine at the center.[1] The film depicts the young Scottish princess Merida as adventurous, yet stubborn. She rejects the tradition that attempts to betroth her to her father's allied clans and openly defies it by not only competing against, but besting her suitors in an archery competition. Having previously warned Merida of the potential danger of her rebellious actions (by means of legend about a prince who brought destruction upon his own kingdom), Queen Elinor angrily confronts her daughter. In defiance, Merida wields her sword and tears the family tapestry that her mother had dedicated painstaking time and effort to weave. In retaliation, Elinor tosses Merida's bow in the fire. As one insightful commentator notes, "Both women have now destroyed what is most precious to the other. The bow symbolized youthful strength and independence, while the tapestry embodied the elegant embroideries of family and tradition."

In anguish, Merida flees and comes across the supernatural will-o'-the-wisps. Believing they will lead her to her destiny, Merida follows them and is brought to an old, wood-carving witch. In her confused and selfish state, Merida seeks a spell to change her mother. Stooping to trickery, Merida has Elinor eat the spell-induced cake provided by the witch. To both of their surprise, the cake literally changes her mother into a great black bear. They soon learn that the spell will be permanent upon the second sunrise unless they can "look inside and mend the bond torn by pride." They eventually decide that this refers to the wounded tapestry and, after several close encounters (and more bear transformations on the part of Merida's brothers), the tapestry is sewn. However, it becomes apparent is that it is the mending of their family bond that is required. The two are reconciled, healed (literally in the case of the queen and brothers), and the family is made at-one once more.

What is worth noting about Brave is that the entire story is set in motion by poor decisions largely on the part of Merida. She is certainly not evil. Far from it. Yet, her choices early on are selfish, hurtful, and short-sighted. There is a broader context of family and traditional pressures that seem to fuel her angst, yet ultimately her decisions are her's alone. With the will-o'-the-wisps supposedly leading characters to their fate, it is easy to interpret all actions (good or evil) as part of a predetermined cosmic plan. Yet, it should be remembered that Merida could have ignored the tempting glow of these entities and returned to make peace with her mother. She could have explained why she opposed the traditional mode of betrothal. It is quite possible that the decision to break tradition could have been reached through loving dialogue and discussion. Through this approach they could have achieved results similar to that of the bear fiasco. But we'll never know because this did not happen. Instead, improper choices were made and, consequently, the two struggled through much pain and suffering. What is important, however, is that they emerged triumphant on the other side. Despite evil and chaos, the two were able to make good. Not only make it, but become it.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep (Gen. 1:2).

This is the first inkling of creation: a formless, dark emptiness. The Book of Abraham describes it as "empty and desolate;" a place in which "darkness reigned" (Abr. 4:2). The temple ceremony calls it "matter unorganized": utter chaos. In other creation myths of the ancient Near East, order was brought about by the gods triumphing over the primeval forces of chaos. Similar themes of this older narrative can be found in the Psalms (along with the New Year Enthronement Festival they seem to suggest) and the Exodus. Once the struggle and effort is completed, God sees His creation as "good" (Gen. 1:25). It is easy to let our modern understanding of cosmic origins muddle the actual meaning of the text. Questions over the Big Bang or human evolution focus on material origins, of which the ancients had little interest. It must be understood that "people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system...[N]ot an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture...[I]t exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society."[2] "For example, in Egypt they considered the barren wilderness as nonexistent (though it was physically there)."[3] Out of darkness and chaos, God brought about good and established what one scholar calls a "cosmic covenant...The eternal covenant was the system of bonds which established and maintained the creation, ordering and binding the forces of chaos" (see Job 38:8-10; Jeremiah 5:22; Ps. 104:9).[4] "When the statutes and laws of the eternal covenant were broken," she continues, "the fabric of the creation began to collapse and chaos set in...When the covenant was restored, the creation was renewed and returned to its original condition of salom [peace] and sedaqah/dikaiosune [righteousness]..."[5] This imagery is fitting and the concepts can be seen in Brave: the rebelliousness of Merida not only literally tore the fabric of her family tapestry, but the threads of family bonds. This wound also had the potential to tear her kingdom's alliances apart, as similar events had done to that of Mor'du the demon bear. 

In a finding pertinent to Brave, anthropologist Mary Douglas concludes that "atonement" in Leviticus "means to cover or recover, cover again, to repair a hole, cure a sickness, mend a rift, make good a torn or broken covering. As a noun, [it means] integument made good...Atonement does not mean covering a sin so as to hide it from the sight of God; it means making good an outer layer which has rotted or been pierced."[6] In the midst of the consequences brought on by her selfish acts, Merida discovers a surge of selflessness; a true maturation that takes her from a teenage girl to responsible, loving adult. As she reminds the fighting clans,

The story of this kingdom is a powerful one...It was an alliance forged in bravery and friendship and it lives to this day. But I've been selfish. I tore a great rift in our kingdom...And I know now that I need to mend my mistake and mend our bond...I've decided to do what's right.

But Merida does not stop at mere reconciliation. Under loving guidance, she brings a blessing to others in the form of a new marriage tradition; a tradition earnestly sought and eagerly embraced by her suitors. In essence, Merida becomes the answer to their prayers. She took the darkness that had visited them all and instead brought about something they could all describe as "good." In the end, what makes Merida brave is not her love for adventure. It is her ability to take responsibility for her previous actions, look suffering in the face, and choose to move forward to create something good out of it. Each of these choices are hard and frightening. And each one requires true bravery. As Rev. Dr. Frank Marangos of St. John's University aptly put it

In the end, we must first learn to depend on a Higher Power to help darn the flaws and fractures of our respective inner character. Only then can we aim and successfully release the reconciling arrow of forgiveness. This, indeed, is the archery that defines true bravery.

1. See Colin Stokes' excellent TED talk "How Movies Teach Manhood" on the positive influence Hollywood heroines can have.

2. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), Kindle edition. "Proposition 2: Ancient Cosmology Is Function Oriented." For example, the sun did not exist because of its "material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas" (Ibid.). It was instead understood the provider of light, warmth, and agricultural life.

3. Walton, "Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Ancient Near East: Order Out of Disorder after Chaoskampf," Calvin Theological Journal 43:1 (2008): 57 (footnote #21).

4. Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 45. The chapter "Atonement: The Rite of Healing" can be found at Barker's website.

5. Ibid.

6. Quoted in Ibid., 45-46.

1 comment:

  1. I love re-reading this :) "Atonement does not mean covering a sin so as to hide it from the sight of God; it means making good an outer layer which has rotted or been pierced." That's one of my favorites.