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[Russell Johnson] Walt Disney Presents “Martyr’s Mirror, or The Bloody Theater”

Another essay from the festschrift, from the co-editor, Russell Johnson.  Russell is a 2nd-year MTS student at Duke Divinity School

And They Died Happily Ever After, Or: Walt Disney Presents “Martyr’s Mirror, or The Bloody Theater” 

Russell Johnson

This essay is inspired by Amy Laura Hall in four ways. First, it stems from an insight that formed the backbone of the class “Love in the Christian Tradition,” namely, the fact that our imaginations are fed much more by stories than by arguments. Thus, if we want to think about ethics, that we have to look critically at the narratives that have shaped and continue to shape us. Second, the essay treats on some “Hallian” subject matter: Disney movies, the raising of children, and the complicated relationship between happiness and brokenness. Third, this project began as an essay and ended as a sermon, reflecting the blurring of those two categories that Professor Hall encourages and in some ways embodies. Fourth, the essay is exploratory rather than authoritative. When her students write essays, Professor Hall encourages them to begin not with a thesis statement, but with a burning question. The way to write theology is like the recommended way to see Venice: get yourself horribly lost and then try to find your way around, taking the time to soak in everything you encounter. There’s a conclusion, but it’s far from conclusive. Interestingly enough, the same could be said about the lives of martyrs…

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A nervous writer smoothes his hair, adjusts his glasses, breathes deeply, and opens the door to the executive conference room in Disney Studios. The president of the company, sitting at the head of the massive table in front of a seven-foot Mickey Mouse painting, gestures him toward the chair at the opposite end of the table.

“Come on in, have a seat, Tom.”
“It’s Tim, sir.” the artist politely corrects.

The president glances censoriously at his personal assistant, then says, “Tim, of course. I have a tee time in forty-five minutes, but I understand you and the other writers have a new proposal for our next A.F.” The abbreviation “A.F.,” Tim gathered, meant “animated feature.” The president, Tim assumed, must be too busy for all of the syllables that everyone else uses.

“Well, yes, we’re quite excited about it,” Tim began, “We’re interested in getting back to Disney’s roots.” The president nodded once in agreement, and Tim continued, “It’s based on a true story, preserved in a seventeenth-century Dutch storybook that has been loved by children for centuries. It’s called The Martyr’s Mirror, or The Bloody Theater.” The president narrowed his eyes, and Tim immediately inserted, “But, uh—we’re working on the title.”

He continued, “The story is about a man named Dirk Willems, who is being persecuted for his beliefs. Even though he’s done nothing wrong, he’s being chased all over the Netherlands by a thief-catcher who wants to kill him.”

“And meets wacky characters along the way,” the president interjected, and motioned for his personal assistant to record it.

“Yeah, sure, of course, lots of them,” Tim added quickly, making a mental note to think up some wacky Dutch characters. “He’s chased all over the country, and in the climactic scene, in the dead of winter, the thief-catcher is pursuing him over a frozen lake.” The president leaned back in his chair, smiling faintly to himself while picturing the scene. “But then the thief-catcher falls through the ice,” Tim continued, “and our hero has a choice. Either he can run and save his own life, or he can go back and save the life of the man who has been trying to kill him. Just when we think he’s going to finally be safe, he runs back out onto the ice and rescues the thief-catcher.”

“Stop right there,” the president said, “I know where this is going and I like it. The thief-catcher is moved by the hero’s gesture, has a change of heart, and helps him ride off into the sunset and escape to…”

“Um, well…” Tim gulped.

“Geneva,” the personal assistant added, showing off his Berkeley education.

“Geneva. I like it,” the president said, “It’s very ‘The Fox and the Hound,’ but with a historical twist. History’s ‘in’ right now, you know.” His assistant nodded enthusiastically.

“Well, sir, actually, in the story the thief-catcher hands him over to the burgomaster, who has Dirk killed.”

“Did you just say killed?” The president asked, suddenly looking right at Tim.

“Yeah, um, burned at the stake, but we can do a different mode of execution if that’s not ‘G’-rated enough.” Tim squirmed beneath the executive’s gaze. “It’s just… what happens in the story.”

The president abruptly stood up, announced, “I have to golf,” and walked out of the room past Tim. His personal assistant followed faithfully behind, and on his way out leaned over Tim’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, “Change it.”

 

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There is something fundamentally strange about Anabaptists. For starters, they read a book with the daunting title, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who Baptized Only upon Confession of Faith, and who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660. Not only do they read it, but they often give it as a wedding gift and read it to their children.

As anyone who has flipped through the book can attest, this is either a form of profound catechesis or a form of child abuse. Despite the eager, sometimes borderline chipper, tone of author Thieleman J. van Braght, the book records in gruesome detail the lives and deaths of hundreds of Christian martyrs over the centuries. The book features different accounts filled with drama, but no suspense—all of the endings are the same. The overall message of the book seems to be: If you do good things and be courageous, then you will die brutally. Why would anyone want children to hear these stories?

The martyrologies stand in stark contrast to the narratives that have shaped American children since 1937. Disney movies have been more than commercially and critically successful, they have been a major voice in the way childhood and children’s storytelling are seen in American culture. These stories, too, are filled with drama, but no suspense—all of the endings are, for the most part, similar. After a string of adventures and close calls, and with the help of a wisecracking sidekick, the good guys beat the bad guys one hundred percent of the time, and learn a valuable life lesson in the process, usually about not judging others or having confidence in yourself. Do good things and be courageous, and you will end up happy (and probably married). Isn’t this exactly the sort of message children need to hear?

The discontinuity between these two sets of stories presents an interesting question to the Christian theologian. What, as Christians, should be our attitude toward happy endings? I will present two competing pressures, and then attempt to reconcile them.

It seems at first glance that Christians should enthusiastically embrace the Disney paradigm, after all, it has deep biblical connections. The message of the book of Proverbs is that good things come to the wise and the righteous, and many of the prophets echo this moral calculus. Job persevered through difficulty, and was rewarded. Moses courageously stood up to Pharaoh, and saw victory over the Egyptians. Jesus lived a good life, and ultimately came back from the dead and ascended into heaven. Most tellingly, the eschatology of the Book of Revelation, for whatever else it may say, announces that the good guys win and the bad guys lose. Thus, even the righteous who meet with suffering in the rest of Scripture are all ultimately rewarded in the long run.

Additionally, depicting happy endings for the virtuous characters is a time-honored strategy of moral formation. One of the reasons we tell these stories to our children is to develop the firm belief that the good consequences they desire can only be brought about by lives of compassion, diligence, and courage. It’s difficult to imagine inculcating these values any other way.

On the other hand, there is something profoundly artificial about only telling the stories in which the good guys win and the bad guys lose. There is so much evidence in the “real world” to the contrary. Disease and natural disaster strike indiscriminately, and take the lives of the just and the unjust without prejudice. Those our society deems successful are not successful due to their moral virtues, in fact the opposite is often the case. We have phrases like, “No good deed goes unpunished” and “Nice guys finish last.” In my childhood alone, Mister Rogers got diagnosed with cancer, Jim Henson died young, and the Yankees won the World Series four times. There are some things that are genuinely tragic, and it seems wrong in our storytelling to utterly shelter children from this aspect of the human condition. If Christians tell these optimistic stories, however noble our goals for moral education, we are in a sense creating a fantasy world dangerously unlike the real world. If Christianity is, as it claims, a faithful account of reality and not a fanciful coping mechanism or Freudian wish-fulfillment, how can Christians tell their children “Justice, justice” when there is no justice?

This charge has been laid against the Christian idea of providence over the centuries. Charles Taylor writes, “A very common objection of unbelief to Christianity has been that it offers a childishly benign view of human life, where everything will come out right in the end, something which the really mature person cannot believe, and is willing to do without, having the courage to face reality as it is.” [1] He goes on to say, “It is all too pat, and seems to deny the tragedy, the pain, the unresolved suffering which we all know is there.”[2] Taylor notes that the most famous occasion for this objection to Christianity was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed tens of thousands of people. In the immediate wake of this disaster, Voltaire penned his scathing satire Candide, or Optimism, mocking the belief that a just God rewards the faithful and punishes the wicked. Centuries later, no other book is more commonly brought forward to testify to the un-Disney-like nature of the tragic world, and many have followed Voltaire in rejecting the optimism of the Easter faith.

And yet, one passage stands out as strikingly familiar. Voltaire narrates a shipwreck that befalls the Anabaptist Jacques, the only unambiguously good character in the book:

Half of those on board, struck down, dying of those inconceivable agonies that the rolling of a vessel conveys to the nerves and to all the fluids of a body when it is shaken in opposing directions, didn’t even have the strength to worry about the danger they faced. The other half cried and prayed aloud; the sails were torn, the masts broken, the vessel took on water. Those who could work did what they could; but they were all at cross purposes, and no one took command. The Anabaptist lent a hand; he was on the prow; a furious sailor hit him hard and laid him out on the deck; but the blow was so hard that he lost his balance and fell overboard head first. He was hanging upside down, caught up in a section of the broken mast. The good Jacques ran to his assistance, helped him get back on board, but in his struggles he slipped into the sea himself, in full view of the sailor, who left him to drown without even bothering to watch him go down. Candide ran to the side, and caught side of his benefactor, who came to the surface for a moment before being swallowed forever.[3]

There is a definite irony here: the story Voltaire tells to ridicule Christianity is essentially the same as the story Thieleman J. Van Braght tells to proclaim Christianity. This disconnect points to the fact that there must be, for Van Braght at least, an aspect of the gospel that goes beyond the Romantic, Disney optimism Voltaire excoriates. For Van Braght and for the countless Anabaptists who have passed along his work, there is a way to proclaim the resurrection while fully embracing the reality of senseless tragedy.

The name the Church has for this practice is Holy Week. If we understand Holy Week as solely an advent countdown for Easter, we fall dangerously into fanciful Disney optimism. On the other hand, an entirely different story is told if the disciples of today enter imaginatively into the shoes of the disciples of Christ’s day.

On Palm Sunday, we feel the triumph of our Lord’s power on this world. His royal procession is magnificent, and we acknowledge our desire to sit on his right and left when he ascends to his earthly throne. Our dreams are coming true, our commitment is being repaid, our hopes are becoming realities in the here and now. Justice reigns— the bad guys (our Roman oppressors) are finally losing, and the good guys are finally winning.

On Maundy Thursday, we feel the pain of betrayal and we deny ever having hoped in the first place. We, with Peter, announce that we never really thought Jesus was the answer, we testify to realism of a warm fire in the courtyard rather than the idealism of the insane Galilean. We express only reasonable expectations, and call down curses on those who suggest otherwise. Justice is a joke—hope only ends in shipwreck.

On Holy Saturday, we feel the confusion of real tragedy. We shudder in darkness behind locked doors, feeling discomfort and pain we try and push out of our minds for the sake of Sabbath. Something terrible and unexplainable has happened. He was the Son of God, and somehow he had to die. Justice is inaugurated—and yet it does not look the way we thought it was going to look, it does not feel the way we thought it was going to feel.

In the process of Holy Week, the Church moves from Disney’s naïve optimism to Voltaire’s bitter pessimism, through to the tragic awareness that doesn’t fit with either. It is on Holy Saturday that the voice of the martyrs speaks to us. As we enter into communion with those who mourned Christ, so too we become one with those who mourned Dirk Willems and countless others. We reckon with the fact that the past doesn’t quite make sense, the present hurts, and the future is uncertain, and yet we persist. Our persistence, holding out in the midst of tragedy for one more day, leads us into that inconceivable miracle, that magnificent surprise that loses its meaning when it becomes an expected outcome.

So, then, where do we go from here? Do we allow our children to absorb the Disney message of “they all lived happily ever after”? Or do we tell them to be realistic, repeating with the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Life is pain, Princess, anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something”? Or do we read to them from Martyr’s Mirror about “those who pressed through the narrow gates with such force that they left their flesh on the posts”?

If we cling to an Easter Sunday that does not trivialize or relativize Good Friday, we have to acknowledge that all of these impulses persist and we cannot neatly privilege one over the others. For our children, like us, are on a journey that ends in resurrection but proceeds toward it one day at a time.[4]

Russell P. Johnson is an M.T.S. candidate at Duke Divinity School. He will soon be getting his PhD in something impractical from somewhere prestigious, and will pursue a life of trying to convince atheists and Christians not to be tools to one another. Given the futility of that enterprise, he will be content with telling jokes and reading Wittgenstein (his two spiritual gifts).

 



[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 318.

[2] Ibid., 317.

[3] Voltaire, Candide and Related Texts, ed. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 10-11.

[4] I owe the idea of “dwelling in Holy Saturday” to Casey Elia, and my reflections on martyrdom were influenced by the work of Tripp York.

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