Detangled and Whole: What Disney Can Teach Us About Poverty Alleviation

Author of this post - Detangled and Whole: What Disney Can Teach Us About Poverty Alleviation

By Angela Tawfik

Director of Creativity | Simple Charity

Detangled and Whole: What Disney Can Teach Us About Poverty Alleviation

During this season of quarantine—a season that has extended even into this new year—jokes on Twitter abound about how we’re all turning into Rapunzels, locked up in our towers. Maybe our hair is even starting to look like Rapunzel’s. Incidentally, Rapunzel’s kingdom is even called Corona.

Tangled is more than just a link to the present times, though. It actually embodies the gospel—the ultimate in timelessness. Moreover, it provides a wonderful framework for applying the concepts from Brian Fikkert’s Becoming Whole, a book that has quickly become a Simple Charity all-time favorite for its Biblical approach to poverty alleviation.

Whenever I watch any Disney movie (or any movie), I can’t help but scour it for theological underpinnings. I believe the gospel is an objective truth, echoes of which can be traced in the most enduring stories throughout time. You may not realize it when you’re consuming these stories, and the story writers themselves might not necessarily be conscious of it, either. But, the Story is there. You just have to have the eyes to see it.

(If you haven’t seen Tangled—proceed no further. *Massive spoilers ahead.* Go watch it.)

(If you haven’t read Becoming Whole—you should. But, don’t worry, you can read this first.)

Tangled as a Parable of the Gospel

We are all lost princesses, having been separated from our Father, the King, and trapped by the devil in darkness. Rapunzel’s father, the king, loves her immensely and longs for her return. He even releases lanterns every year on her birthday as a sign of his love. So too does our heavenly Father long for us to be reunited with him. Mother Gothel, like Satan, the father of lies, does everything in her power to prevent that from happening, keeping Rapunzel in the dark and twisting the truth.

Yet, even in our captivity, our kingly Father does not leave us without a sign. Even the devil can’t prevent the light from peeking through. Rapunzel instinctively feels that the lanterns are calling her personally. She can’t shake the longing for something more. Similarly, everyone has a longing for home—the dwelling place of God. It dawns on Rapunzel, in a moment of revelation, that she had subconsciously been painting the sun, the kingdom’s insignia, into the frescos on the tower walls her whole life.

Flynn Rider (ok, this isn’t a perfect allegory) is a Christ-figure, breaking into Rapunzel’s world, rescuing her from the devil’s snares and leading her to her true home. Ultimately, he sacrifices his life—being pierced in his side—to set her free, defeating Satan and breaking the curse. And as if the parallel couldn’t get any more apparent, he’s even resurrected. Eventually, all are united in the kingdom of light, where everyone’s dreams come true and even the rogues from the Snuggly Duckling are redeemed.

The film’s end is reminiscent of Revelation: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10). In the end, we will be restored “priest-kings,” as Brian Fikkert notes in Becoming Whole. And, as Fikkert explains, we are called, as believers, to extend the reign and worship of the King in the here and now.

Tangled and Poverty Alleviation

So, what does all of this have to do with poverty alleviation? Everything. Poverty doesn’t just mean economic deprivation—it can also mean relational deprivation. Brian Fikkert in Becoming Whole argues that humans are primarily relational creatures. Specifically, we are wired for four key relationships: God, self, others, and the rest of creation. Our relationship with God is the central relationship from which the other three flow, and if it is broken, the others will also be dysfunctional.

The Four Key Relationships: God, Self, Others, and Creation

Tangled presents us with two examples of characters, Rapunzel and Flynn, who experience different types of economic poverty. Rapunzel is materially well-off, even while living in her tower, whereas Flynn is poor, stealing to make a living. Yet, both experience broken relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.

It starts with the relationship with God: Rapunzel’s abduction from her father’s house, an event which lay beyond her own control, causes all of her other relationships to unravel. She cannot meet people (relationship with others), and even when she meets Flynn, she sees him initially as purely a means to an end. She can’t even touch the grass (relationship with creation). Because she has been lied to, she is at war with herself, unable to reconcile her love of sweet freedom with her disobedience to a woman whom she calls “mother” (relationship with self).

By contrast, Flynn’s relationships are severed by his own choosing, not unlike Adam and Eve, whose deliberate sin got them banished from the Garden. He steals from the king, making him a wanted criminal (relationship with God). His self-obsession leaves him friendless, and he initially sees the princess in purely Machiavellian terms (relationship with others). He abhors Maximus the horse, and the feeling’s mutual (relationship with creation). Unlike Rapunzel, who is lied to, Flynn lies to himself and to others, relying on a fabricated persona, “Flynn Rider,” to boost his self-esteem and his image (relationship with self).

But as Rapunzel and Flynn approach the kingdom—God’s dwelling place—they begin to change. Fikkert notes, “The foundation for being restored to wholeness—both for the materially poor and non-poor—is to be returned to the presence of God Almighty” (p. 223). Starting the journey is the first step, and Flynn is loath to take it at first: “No can do. The kingdom and I are not exactly ‘simpatico’ at the moment.” But from the instant he and Rapunzel dare to set out on that journey, restoration begins for them both. They start caring about people and animals. They grow honest with each other. Flynn even reveals his true identity: orphan boy Eugene Fitzherbert. Ultimately, they are reconciled to and reunited with the king. Similarly, as we start the journey of following our Father, as our relationship with God begins to be restored, all of our other relationships start to heal as well. And when the healing begins, so does the giving.

It Comes Down to Sacrifice.

Fikkert argues that sacrificial giving is central to human flourishing—and not just in the sense of giving to the poor to alleviate poverty. It’s more than that: even in our poverty—regardless of the kind of poverty it is—we must give, because sacrifice is the key to what makes us whole. Eugene and Rapunzel’s healing culminates, ultimately, in their willingness to give up everything out of love for one another. Both, in order to gain the kingdom, had to lose that which was most precious to them: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). Rapunzel was ready to enslave herself permanently to Mother Gothel in order for Eugene to live. And Eugene walks away from the crown he had originally been seeking, but ultimately, he gives up even more than that—his very own life—out of love for the princess. Giving up our desires out of love for Him who is far more precious loosens the devil’s grip on us.

And the princess, in order to completely flourish, had to lose something too: her beautiful long golden tresses, which have the power to heal. Her hair was the thing that made her valuable, unique, and attractive to others. But it was also entangling (in both senses of the word). It was the thing that gave the witch power over her. It was keeping her in poverty—and the devil loves poverty. For this reason, Fikkert argues that poverty alleviation is nothing short of spiritual warfare. So, the hair had to go. But Rapunzel did not give it up—it was taken from her by someone who loved her for her, and not for her hair. Similarly, sometimes we give up the things we love that are keeping us in poverty…and sometimes Christ just has to take them from us, for our own good.

Interestingly, though, even after losing her hair, Rapunzel is still able to heal. She—also a Christ-figure, in a way—resurrects Eugene after his death, not with her hair, but with her tears: signs of love. Even Jesus wept before raising Lazarus from the dead, causing people to murmur, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36). The flower’s radiant healing power is actually inside of Rapunzel, not just in her hair. We can also say that Rapunzel represents the church, for we, as believers, have the light of God inside of us: love. But, as Rapunzel says, “it doesn’t just glow”: it heals.

Christianity—and, consequently, poverty alleviation—is about dying to ourselves, just as Christ gave himself up to death for the life of the world. Pulling this concept out of the realm of the cliché requires actually putting it into practice…which is So. Incredibly. Hard.

But, in the end, may we all be able to say, as Eugene says at the film’s start,

“This is the story of how I died.”

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