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The Liturgy of Mickey Mouse

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 BY BENJAMIN R. LEE, Associate Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian  

     Earlier this year Maggie and I took our boys down to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom for a couple of days in February. And I have to tell you, it was awesome! It’s hard to describe the joy that comes to a parent when your kid’s eyes light up as you first drive beneath the Disney arch at the entrance to the complex and see Cinderella’s Castle for the first time. We made some great memories on Goofy’s Barnstormer and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I’ll never forget when our oldest son, Graeme, bowed when he met Cinderella, or when Haddon got to be the pilot of the Millennium Falcon on Smuggler’s Run, or when Teddy met his hero, Buzz Lightyear. At the end of those two days, the magic had worked and we were tired (and broke), but filled with happiness.

     I’ve been to Disney World a few times now over the years, and each time I leave wanting to go back. But the more I go to Disney World one thing has become glaringly obvious to me. It’s something that leaves me with uncomfortable misgivings that are hard to shake. The more I’ve been to Disney, the more I’ve come to realize that Disney World is inherently religious. If you look at it closely everything about Disney, from the park’s design down even to the rides, is religious in nature. When you walk through Disney’s gate onto Main Street USA you are entering into a liturgy purposefully designed to catechize you into the gospel according to Disney. I’ve dubbed it The Liturgy of Mickey Mouse. Let me explain.

     Disney’s gospel is not really hard to spot. In fact, I bet if you’ve seen a Disney movie or two you probably already know what it is, even if you’ve never heard it called a “gospel” before. But a gospel it is. You hear it right away in the park’s motto. Disney is “the happiest place on earth.” Disney understands that the world is a dark and broken place filled with suffering and evil, and it offers a vision of the good life meant to combat the world’s (and our) brokenness: a life filled with happiness. Disney World is a Mecca where weary pilgrims will be instructed in the ways of true happiness. As pilgrims participate in Disney’s liturgy they hear the good news that, as their 50th Anniversary theme song states, “Doesn’t matter where you are / ‘cos the spark is in your heart / wherever you go you can have it / ‘cos you are the magic…Just believe it and close your eyes.” “Hear the words of Walt Disney and believe,” their heralds proclaim. “The answer to evil and suffering is inside of you. You are the magic that will give your life meaning and happiness.”

     The religious character of Disney World is what philosopher James KA Smith calls a “cultural liturgy.” Cultural liturgies are the rituals and practices we participate in that form something in us, and Disney has perfected this liturgical art.

     Consider the many rituals and practices of Disney World. As pilgrims approach the sanctuary, I mean park, they make an offering that purchases their entrance and right to worship. Then they journey down Main Street past the primary alter, Cinderella’s Castle, where they prepare their hearts for the day’s activities. It’s Disney’s holy of holies wherein only the select few may enter. The average worshipper is kept well back from the inner sanctum of that sacred space. From there the faithful proceed to various auxiliary alters, each attended by acolytes and altar servers, where they venerate the icons, not of gods (the participant is god at Disney). Here they venerate Disney’s Saints such as Peter Pan and Mickey Mouse from whom they may learn the habits of happiness: let your heart guide the way, follow your dreams, and so on. Throughout the day these icons pass by in processional parades singing the songs of the faithful. After venerating an icon a pilgrim may enjoy a ride like “It’s A Small World” which gives them a vision of what a world filled with happy people would be like. Remember that final room in the Small World ride where everyone is dressed in white and no longer living in distinct communities, but are together as one people? It’s the Disney vision of a new heaven and earth. Pilgrims may opt to participate in one of Disney’s many sacraments, like a stop in at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique where catechumen dress in the garb of their most revered icons. Finally, at the end of the day worshippers gather together back at the Castle for a corporate service filled with fireworks and lights shows where the gospel according to Disney is proclaimed as the congregation sings with one voice: “Let your heart guide the way / And all your dreams will follow / Doesn’t matter where you are / ‘Cos the spark is in your heart.” Worshippers are then sent out of Magic Kingdom back to their homes to spread the gospel according to Disney World in Orlando and to the ends of the earth.

     Yes indeed. Disney World is an inherently religious place with a liturgy designed to catechize us into its gospel. It’s not just Magic Kingdom. It is another kind of kingdom, a competing kingdom: the kingdom of the god of self and Mickey Mouse, its messiah. Mickey isn’t just the conductor of Mickey’s PhilharMagic. He is the prophet, priest, and king of Disney’s gospel.

     You may wonder why I decided to write this blog. Depending on the tone you caught as you read those paragraphs you may have interpreted them as a curmudgeonly take on a theme park, or maybe as a joke. I can assure you they are neither. I decided during our Disney trip that I wanted to write about this not to come down on Disney, but to point out how the world is constantly trying to form us. It’s constantly pointing us toward some vision of the good life it believes we ought to pursue. And Disney’s vision is powerful. They have, perhaps better than any other organization in the world, captured the spirit of the age. The human heart loves to believe it is the source of its happiness and the answer to its problems.

     The news coming out of Disney World in recent weeks, however, made me think more deeply about the formative power of Disney’s liturgy. Businesses like Disney have made no secret in recent years of their support for the LGBT agenda, but the passage of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill led to a promise from Disney both to push for the bill’s repeal, and to fast track the LBGT agenda in its children’s programming.

     Here’s why this matters: the logic of Disney’s gospel (the magic is in you) inevitably leads to the rejection of Biblical ethics. If a child believes the answer to her problems is inside of herself, then she will pursue what is inside of her, whether it’s fulfilling a disordered sexual desire, or changing her name and taking cross-sex hormones in an attempt to find happiness as a boy. Imagine then the significance of the Disney executive who recently pledged to incorporate more LBGT characters in movies. This is ultimately what Disney wants to catechize us, and specifically our children, into. They are trying to make disciples, just not Christian ones.

     How then should we interact with Disney? Just as happened many years ago, I’ve heard of Christians who’ve vowed to cancel their Disney+ subscriptions and never to go to Disney World again. That is a legitimate option. Who knows? If Disney’s embrace of this false gospel becomes so obvious to the point that my kids can’t watch a show or be in Disney World without being force-fed that gospel, maybe that’s where I’ll land. But I think a more measured response is also appropriate. I hope to take my kids to Disney World again someday, and I’m sure we will watch new Disney movies. But I’m doing it with my eyes wide open. If we are going to go to Disney or participate in any cultural liturgy, we must understand what is happening. You cannot go to Disney under the illusion that Disney just wants you to relive 1900s Americana when you walk down Main Street USA. It’s not a spiritually or morally neutral place. We are not wrestling against flesh and blood here. They are trying to preach to you, and if you are not careful to observe what is happening, you, and maybe your children, will be discipled right into the spirit of the age.

     If you are going to do what I’ll probably do in a few years and go pretend to be a Jedi on The Rise of the Resistance, then you need to be ready to point out those cultural liturgies and other gospels. Then you need to show why Jesus is better. Learn to dissect the messages contained in Frozen and Elena of Avalor and give your kids (and your own heart) a gospel that far surpasses what Disney has to offer. It’s a gospel that points us not inside, but out to the person and work of Jesus who by his life, death, and resurrection has won the battle over evil, suffering, and even sin and death. Through him all those who believe will live forever in perfect peace, not in “the happiest place on earth,” but in the happiest earth – a new heaven and earth completely remade in perfection and glory.

     When it comes down to it, it’s not going to be merely avoiding Disney or anything else that keeps you and your kids from embracing the spirit of the age. It can only be Jesus. What we need more than to avoid secularism is to catechize our own children into the gospel of Jesus. We need to participate in our own liturgy of corporate worship wherein we receive God’s ordinary means of grace (the Word, prayer, and sacraments) that work to form Christ in us, and us in Him. Then and only then can we find something outside of this world to be the Mecca of true happiness: that place where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.

Posted by Rev. Ben Lee with

Why do we baptize infants?

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  ASK THE PASTOR BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     Question: “Why do we baptize infants? Shouldn’t baptism only be given to those who make a profession of faith in Christ?”

     Answer: People often misunderstand the meaning and purpose of baptism because they do not understand what a sign of the covenant is. When God gave His covenant promise to Abraham, He also gave him a sign to accompany the promise: "This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised...and it will be a sign of the covenant between Me and you." (Gen. 17:10-11). By God's instruction, this sign of circumcision was to be applied to every male (8 days and older) in Abraham's household. Because Abraham, the head of the household, believed God's promise and it was credited to him as righteousness, everyone in his household was considered under God's Covenant. From that time on, that would be true of every household in Israel. Circumcision was a sign that this household was a part of the Old Testament. church, the visible people of God. However, it didn't mean that every member of that household had necessarily put their faith in the promises of God and were therefore justified like Abraham.

     What did circumcision mean? In Deuteronomy 30:6, the Lord makes it clear that it was a picture of the change of heart which is necessary for salvation, "And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live." (Cf., Ezekiel. 11:19-20). In Jer. 4:4, 14 we see that circumcision represents repentance and cleansing from sin, "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your hearts...O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you might be saved." In Romans 4:11, Paul says that circumcision represented justification by faith alone, "... [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also..." So, God's Word teaches that circumcision represented regeneration, repentance, cleansing from sin, and justification by faith alone.

     What does baptism mean? A study of the New Testament shows that it represents the same things. It is a picture of our regeneration: Titus 3:5-7 says, "...He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us.” It is a picture of repentance: Acts 2:38 says, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." It is a picture of cleansing from sin: Acts 22:16 says, "Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord." And it is a picture of our being united to Christ by faith alone:  Romans 6:3-4 says, "Or do you not know that as many of you as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." So both circumcision and baptism are signs of the Covenant between God and His one people, and they represent the same inward, spiritual changes that the Lord brings about in our hearts when He saves us. Baptism represents the circumcision of the heart.

     When Jesus Christ came to fulfill God's promises to His people, many of the shadows and rituals of the Old Testament were fulfilled and done away with. However, the Lord instituted two sacraments for the Church, both of which were based upon and continuations of Old Testament practices. In the place of the celebration of God's deliverance from slavery in Egypt in the Passover, our Lord instituted the Lord's Supper as a celebration of our deliverance from bondage to sin and death (See Paul's comparison between the Lord's Supper and Passover in 1 Corinthians 5). And in place of the Old Covenant sign of circumcision, our Lord instituted the sacrament of baptism. In both cases, the outward form changed, but the essential meaning remained the same.

     There are two passages where Paul shows us that baptism has been given in the New Testament to take the place of circumcision as the sign of the Covenant. In Galatians 3:27-29, Paul says, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ...and if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Notice the connection between being baptized and being Abraham's seed. But even more to the point, Paul says in Colossians 2:11-12, "In Him, you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." Paul says that the circumcision of Christ is baptism. Baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the Covenant.

     This truth is vital to understanding what happened in the early church as it is recorded in the book of Acts. When Jesus told the church to "Go therefore and make disciples, baptizing them...,” the question would immediately come up, "To whom should this sign be applied?" The church was thoroughly Jewish at the beginning. If baptism was the new sign of the Covenant, taking the place of circumcision, then should it be applied in the same way that circumcision was, to believers and their households? If this was not to be the case, then the Apostles would have needed to make that abundantly clear. We would expect a statement something like this: "Under the Old Covenant, the sign was to be applied to your whole household, believing adults and children, but now, under the New Covenant, there is a big change. The sign of the Covenant must now only be applied to believing adults." If this were the case, then you would expect to see repeated warnings and instructions given throughout the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles not to apply the sign of the Covenant to infants, since that had been the practice among God's people for centuries. But, on the contrary, there are no warnings or instructions to that effect. In fact, there are many statements which show that the baptisms were applied to believers and their entire households (which undoubtedly often included small children and infants). For example, Acts 2:38-39 says, "Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ...for the promise is to you and to your children..." Acts 16:14-15 says, "Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us...The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized..." Acts 16:31-33 says, "So they said, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household...And immediately he and all his family were baptized."; 1 Corinthians 1:16, "Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas." The language used is consistent with the Old Testament practice of applying the sign of the Covenant to believers and their children.

     This practice of household baptism helps to explain one passage of Scripture that would otherwise be mystifying. In 1 Corinthians 7:12-14, Paul tells a Christian who has a spouse who doesn't believe to stay with him or her, "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy." Of course, this doesn't mean that unbelieving children or an unbelieving spouse are in any way made actually righteous because of the Christian's faith. Paul is saying that, because there is one believing parent in the household, that household is considered a part of the Covenant community of God. Therefore the children ought to be baptized, because they are "holy" or set apart to a holy purpose and considered a member of a holy community.

     Baptism is a sign of God’s entire work in saving us – from election to glorification, not merely a sign of our faith response to His work. It is a picture that points to the inward work that the Spirit of God must carry out in order for a person to find forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ: regeneration, renewal, repentance, and justification by faith. It is only an outward sign, whether it is applied to a believing adult or to an infant, the act of baptism does nothing to that person's heart. For the believing adult who is baptized, the sign points back to that moment when he or she was converted by God's grace. For the infant child of believers, the sign points forward to the conversion that God must bring about in that child's heart if he or she is ever going to experience forgiveness or new life in Christ.

     The sign doesn't guarantee that the child will be converted or saved, any more than the adult's baptism would guarantee that they were truly converted in the past. The sign marks the child and it says to the world that this child belongs to the visible Church, the Covenant Community of God. This child will be raised among God's people, will be taught the Word of God, will enjoy the privileges of living in this community of believers, and will be held accountable to fulfill the responsibilities that go along with being a member of that community. A child who grows up in that community and then rejects Christ and His church becomes a "covenant-breaker," and is therefore under greater condemnation than those who were raised outside of the church. "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more." Luke 12:48

Posted by Rev. Dan Kiehl with

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