Rightly Dividing the Popular Culture: TGC Fumbles Frozen II

Once upon a tyme, in the cold, dark for’sts of New York and Quebec, a pair of well-respected Reformed theologians did found a Coalition to advocate for and restore trust in the biblical Gospel. ‘Twas to be “a fellowshipe of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.”

Alas, there was soon trouble ado, for but fifteen years later, a pastor in the dark, dreary harbor town of Annapolis, Maryland, wroteth:

“LOL WUT?” exclaimed Reformed Twitter. “Whate smokest thou?”

As much as it’s fun to dump on such an outlandish quote, more is going on here with implications for our own cultural engagement and how we raise our children. In this article, we’ll first dig in to understand Joey Tomassoni’s article at TGC, as painful as it might sound. You might even read the article (gasp!) and listen to the song from Frozen II to which the article refers. Second, we need to examine the plot of Frozen II, on which I will not spend twenty dollars but will gladly read a few presumably reliable wiki articles. Finally, and most importantly, we need to understand a bit about Acts 17.

Listening to the World’s Art

Tomassoni opens his TGC article by expressing surprise at the lyrics of a song in the credits of Frozen II. (I am only including partial quotes in this article. You can find the full lyrics here.) In “Into the Unknown” performed by by Panic at the Disco, the singer progressively describes “whispers” from “the unknown.” His initial reaction is willful ignorance.

There’s a thousand reasons I should go about my day

And ignore your whispers which I wish would go away

Willful ignorance soon turns to denial and fear. This isn’t a voice but just “a ringing in my ear.” Or maybe it is something external. What if what’s behind these whispers is real and disrupts my way of life?

Everyone I’ve ever loved is here within these walls
I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls
I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you

By the end of the third verse, the singer’s fear turns from fear into wonder and longing. The singer even wonders,  “Don’t you know there’s a part of me that longs to go…into the unknown?” Tomassoni then puts forth his thesis statement, quoted in the tweet which everyone criticized, and he then begins to explain that Paul was sensitive to “the Greek art of his day” as he is described in Acts 17. Tomassoni then explains what he hears going on in the song:

As I listened to “Into the Unknown” in Frozen 2, I heard the prayer of a coming generation—not of a 30-year-old millennial munching on popcorn in 2020, but of the 3-year-old who will one day come of age in our current cultural milieu, wondering if there is something more than the shallowness on offer. I heard a questioning of the prevailing 21st-century Western belief that we are a random amalgamation of chemicals with no meaningful beginning or ultimate end. I heard a gasp for the pure air of transcendence in the oxygen-deprived world of existential boredom. I heard a prayer to know an unknown god.

A bit of research reveals that the reality of Frozen II is less flattering.

King Agnarr with his young daughters, Elsa and Anna. (Image: Disney) 

Everything Your Parents Taught You is Wrong

In Disney Wiki’s article on Frozen IIwe learn that the movie opens with a flashback to the childhood of Elsa and Anna, the protagonist and her sister. Then princesses, they beg their father, King Agnarr, to tell them a bedtime story. The bedtime story is about King Runeard, Agnarr’s father.

King Runeard, founder and first king of Arendelle, establishes a treaty with the woodland Northuldra tribe, building a dam between Arendelle and the Enchanted Forest, home of the Northuldra. However, a fight between the two armies occurs, killing Runeard and many of his men. The four elemental spirits of earth, fire, air, and water, which inhabit the forest, become enraged due to the fight. [Remember this for later.] The spirits disappear, and a thick wall of mist encases everyone in the forest. No one is able to enter or leave, and the contents of the forest become preserved in time. Runeard’s son Prince Agnarr barely escapes with the help of an unknown savior. Queen Iduna is seen smiling at this part, possibly showing her connection to the story. As King Agnarr finishes, Anna exclaims, “Whoa, Papa, that was epic!”, clearly showing her delight in the story. As Queen Iduna tucks the girls into bed, she sings them an old lullaby taught to her by her mother, “All Is Found”.

“All is Found” is a song of tradition, a song from a parent to a child about remaining within one’s boundaries and resting in the old wisdom and truth. In part, it sings:

Where the north wind meets the sea
There’s a river full of memory
Sleep my darlings safe and sound
For in this river all is found
In her waters deep and true
Lie the answers and a path for you
Dive down deep into her sound
But not too far or you’ll be drowned

King Runeard is thus a folk hero, a strong man who died for his Kingdom (remind you of anyone?) and upon whom the tradition of Arendelle is thought to be rightly founded. Rest easy, child, in this truth, but not so deeply that you begin to figure out something is awry.

Indeed, not all is well. Back in the present day, Queen Elsa begins to hear voices and must face her lingering doubts. Elsa, not the lead singer of Panic at the Disco, sings “Into the Unknown” within the main body of the movie, and longs for what is beyond the traditions taught by her parents. Unlike with the lyrical video which Tomassoni embeds in his article, the way this is visually depicted within the body of the movie makes this much clearer. I do encourage you to watch this with critical eyes and ears.

So what is this unknown? I’ll spoil it for you. King Runeard was actually a racist, tyrannical villain. He built the dam between Arendelle and the Enchanted Forest in order to keep the threat of the indigenous Northuldra tribe and their connection to magic out of his kingdom. This is what enraged the elemental spirits mentioned earlier: earth, fire, air, and water. And note here that the first Frozen had largely been about the apparent need for Elsa to suppress her magic. Now, everything Elsa once knew about the foundation of her kingdom is false.

It also turns out that there is a fifth elemental spirit that will unite humans and nature. Who or what is this fifth elemental spirit? Elsa. Elsa, a daughter of both Arendelle and Northuldra, herself is the fifth elemental spirit who will mediate the humans of Arendelle and nature (the Enchanted Forest). Elsa went on a journey and found herself to be special and important, perhaps even a goddess, and her traditions to be full of lies, corruption, and patriarchy.

Old, white men bad. Tradition bad. Young women and rule-breaking good. 

Thus, Tomassoni’s first error is interpreting “Into the Unknown” to be seeking an unknown god who is ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ as in Acts 17. For the audience of Frozen II, this unknown is arguably best described as a sense of self-centered, cosmic purpose. Hold onto that thought.

Tomassoni’s second error is paralleling his own uncritical appreciation of the movie with Paul’s engagement of the Athenians in Acts 17.

The unknown god? (Image: Disney) 

The Unknown God

In Acts 17:16–34, the Apostle Paul is in Athens. His spirit was provoked upon seeing so many idols, and he engaged in conversation with Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, and in the marketplace. Even Epicurean and Stoic philosophers wished to engage with him, and they bring him to the Areopagus.

So Paul stood there in the middle of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I see you are very religious in every respect. For as I was passing through and observing carefully your objects of worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed, ‘To an unknown God.’ Therefore what you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you—the God who made the world and all the things in it. This one, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands as if he needed anything, because he himself gives to everyone life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of humanity to live on all the face of the earth, determining their fixed times and the fixed boundaries of their habitation, to search for God, if perhaps indeed they might feel around for him and find him. And indeed he is not far away from each one of us, for in him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said: ‘For we also are his offspring.’ Therefore, because we are offspring of God, we ought not to think the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by human skill and thought. Therefore although God has overlooked the times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness by the man who he has appointed, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Now when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed, but others said, “We will hear you about this again also.” So Paul went out from the midst of them. But some people joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Acts 17:22–34 LEB

Now let’s put Tomassoni’s well-hated quote in context.

Artists are antennas, prophets, even intercessors, expressing unspoken longings that are hard to articulate. To love the world around us we must learn to listen to her art.

Consider Paul’s sensitivity to the Greek art of his day in Acts 17 at the Areopagus. Paul observes the art on the walls in Athens, quotes their poets (v. 28), and begins to winsomely explain that the longings expressed in their art find satisfaction in a personal God they haven’t yet known. By taking note, in love, of the art works of the pagan culture, Paul could identify their “unknown god” as one who could become known in the person of Jesus, the Messiah.

The quote in context is not as bad as it sounds by itself. The descriptions “antennas, prophets, even intercessors” are unnecessarily outlandish, but Tomassoni’s point here is that artists speak in a unique way on behalf of their culture. In order to engage a culture, we ought to understand its art. That’s actually okay. In fact, we’re already all about this in the context of world missions. We just don’t have returning missionaries showing us foreign-language movies during their mandatory slideshows in adult Sunday school “because art.” What Tomassoni did not just advocate is, for example, finding the “Gospel Theme” in the filthiest, trashiest movies and TV shows in order to find an excuse to watch them for pleasure or even use them as sermon illustrations. But we can’t just stop there.

Discernment in Art

In my post where I reviewed The Trojan Mouse: How Disney is Winning the Culture War, I wrote:

The kinds of people who read Things Above Us are mostly the kind who know how to find bad theology in sermons, books, tweets, and even songs. We find wonky tweets, screenshot them, and poke fun at them. As far as movies are concerned, we’re probably good at shielding our children from objectionable content like bad language and Ariel’s bikini top (you do object to that, right?). But the overall message of a “clean” movie is something we might completely skip over, even when we’re watching a movie for our own entertainment as well.

In the case of the Frozen franchise, the strong emphasis upon magic may already set off the alarm bells for a sizeable number of Christian parents, but I suspect that has more to do with fearing, as many did with Harry Potter, that our kids would begin to get soft on new-age theology or witchcraft, not that children would come away with a worldview that opposes authority and Western traditions. It turns out that children’s entertainment is filled with underlying themes within its stories.

In the case of the Frozen franchise, magic is hardly the actual point. Referring to how it is a heavy modification of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Samuel Lively, author of The Trojan Mouse, wrote this prior to the sequel’s release:

Frozen replaces the central role of the fairy tale’s Christian elements with the woke social religion. In the woke Revolutionary universe, evil is synonymous with straight white males seeking to maintain power, in this case Hans and the Duke. Their evil extends beyond their own agendas, polluting the atmosphere with oppressive norms that lead Elsa to suppress her true nature and push Anna into folly. Goodness reigns when the empowered Elsa establishes her matriarchal rule and exiles her male rivals.

Woke ideology couldn’t ask for a more effective vehicle. Frozen went on to become the world-leading box office smash of 2013 and its impact extended further still. Given a second life through the ubiquitous play of its theme song, the omnipresence of its merchandise and the fastest selling digital home video release of all time, the story and its values have saturated the culture at a level not seen since Snow White. Its presence and influence on the present generation of young families, especially those with young girls, is unparalleled.

So long as we live within this culture, understanding its art is a good thing. We don’t have to like it (often we should not), and we most certainly should not shut our God-given brains off for two hours and allow ourselves (and our children) to soak in a message that contradicts scripture.

And yet, we should also recognize that the gospel is sufficient. The emphasis of the Athens scene in Acts 17 is not how Paul studied, loved, appreciated, enjoyed, and cherished pagan art. He certainly understood it as a Roman citizen, he was able to engage with it, and he knew that the gospel is the power unto salvation for all who believe.

And while those who look “Into the Unknown” for self-centered cosmic purpose largely are not seeking the Triune God, the gospel remains the sufficient answer, the answer that even puts our selfishness and doubts to death.

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