If you’ve not seen Moana, it is the story of (you guessed it) Moana, the daughter of a village chief named Tui (the film makes a couple of jokes as whether or not this makes her a princess), a Polynesian girl who longs for the open ocean (indeed, her name means “ocean” in Hawaiian). Her beautiful island home is beginning to show signs of decay and so she sets out on her own to find the demigod Maui, who is needed to restore the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, in order to stem the tide of oceanic decay and save her people.
The film plays with a mixture of various versions of Polynesian myths and is meant to offer a story about an actual period in history, when the Polynesian way-finders abruptly returned to oceanic exploration after a 1,000 year period following a sudden cessation of all long-term sailing activity. The film presents a mythological take on the events, saying that the Polynesian peoples remained on their islands for that millennium due to calamity on the high seas that resulted from Maui stealing Te Fiti’s heart—an event which lead to the unintentional rise of monsters and a spreading darkness throughout Oceana.
Moana is also the story of a young woman trying to find herself, making it a coming of age story. As the daughter of the village chief, she is next in line to inherit her father’s throne and the film shows, early on, how she’s being raised to administrate the island’s affairs and to care for her people. But she also harbors an inexplicable call to the ocean and has made numerous attempts during her young life to venture out on her own “beyond the reef” to see what else is beyond the horizon.
Moana’s oceanic longing is assisted by her grandmother, who reveals to her a shocking truth: her people were once voyagers who sailed the open sea and discovered new islands and learned to read the stars and currents and winds.
The tension in the first part of the film is between Moana and her father, Tui, who once harbored a similar ambition as his daughter’s, but one which led to the death of his best friend. He is a man profoundly afraid of the ocean and, in his role as chief and protector, has continued a tradition of staying close to shore.
This central tension is summarized in the lyrics of one of the early songs, as Tui is beginning the process of shaping his daughter for her role as chief and trying to keep her eyes away from the ocean. He sings, “this tradition is our mission.”
And, now, this finally brings us to what I’m really writing about in this piece: tradition.
Moana is a film about tradition, which is something that is discussed a lot, and in a number of ways in our society. In many cases, “tradition” carries a negative connotation, where “traditional” is code for “out-dated.” At the same time, we love tradition—family traditions, social traditions, etc. We have a complicated relationship with the concept, is what I’m trying to say.
The song “How Far I’ll Go” could very easily be understood as a fairly by-the-numbers “go where my heart takes me” example of liberal individualism, with Moana being true to her individual impulse, following the beloved liberal saying “to thine own self be true.”
But the thing about Moana and her story is that she demonstrates something really remarkable for popular Western culture: she is a traditioned person and her impulse to sail on the high seas is not rooted in individualism. Rather, Moana comes to realize that the world she’s been raised in, the world to which her father has expected her to conform, is the outlier—that world is not actually the “tradition” of her people.
The music of Moana makes much of cultural identity—and far less of individual identity. Moana is not an island unto herself. Rather, she comes to understand herself in the broader continuum of her people’s history. “We are descended from voyagers” she sings at the film’s climax, in the truly remarkable song “I Am Moana,” where she wrestles with who she is in the grand narrative of her people.
In the end, Moana helps her people understand who they truly are—which is consistent with the values that her father instilled in her, in looking out for her people. As chief, it is her job to preserve cultural memory and to guide her people into being precisely what they are supposed to be. The millennium of living comfortably on an island was not the truth. The tradition carved out in that idyllic village was a novelty, an innovation, developed as a result of fear. Moana came to know about a tradition that was greater than this and she served to remind her people of this truth.
A similar situation faces us as Christians in America.
We tend to forget that Christianity did not begin in 1776, nor did it begin in Europe. Ours is an Asian faith, born in the political turmoil of the Middle East in the first century—indeed, a faith fostered in many ways in opposition to the West (remember, the Romans represented Western Civilization, the Jews did not).
The faith did not begin with the Reformation, nor did it cease to exist during the High Middle Ages. There is no “dark age” between the Apostles and Luther, despite what many would like to believe. Yes, the Church became corrupted at that time, but when hasn’t The Church dealt with some kind of corruption (just read First Corinthians if you need proof)?
Our survival as a people is dependent on us recovering the grander Christian tradition, not simply the “tradition” that we’ve grown accustomed to.
Since we’ve been reading The Benedict Option, I’ll make a note about that book here. Rod Dreher offers us a vision, but it’s a vision that doesn’t go far enough. Dreher thinks Christianity exists to maintain Western Civilization. This is the “island tradition.” That tradition is, properly, only a stop along the way.
Maintaining Western Civilization is, to allude to another recent blog post, imperial thinking. It’s wrapping up the gospel in a particular context and using the language of The Kingdom to defend the existence of a specific cultural identity that may not be consistent with what Jesus has freed us for.
We are recovering the grand tradition of The Church. We see the reviving of ancient practices and the embrace of ancient liturgies—even as we adapt those liturgies and their language for new contexts.
Like Moana, we cannot be satisfied with island life. Instead, we need to follow the call to the voyaging life, the life that is more true to our people.
We are to better know the gospel that leads to freedom so that we can carry it to “the uttermost parts of the earth,” not so that we can export Western Civilization. But so that the whole world can know the liberating truth of Jesus’ salvation.
But, here’s the scary part: living into that grander tradition will mean a willingness to let go of what is comfortable and familiar. To give up the surety of island life. It will expect us to encounter “the world” as it is, and to actually live within the world—not apart from it in our own religious enclaves.
At the same time, living in the world is not capitulation to the world. Indeed, the grand tradition of the Christian faith is something that stands unique but is also compelling to the wider world. Our society has seen the failures of the West with our decadence and inequality, with our tendencies toward subjugation and oppression. It’s not all bad, of course. The West is, at its best, intellectually open and innovative and has fostered some of the greatest positive technological and cultural changes. But the Western Church has largely become irrelevant to Western people—and this is because much of the Western Church has embraced the island life tradition of self-maintenance and preservation.
But, again, there’s a greater tradition. A spiritually rich and innovative tradition situated in the person of Jesus Christ and carried through His apostles, a continuing and coherent thing that transcends particular “islands” while taking root where it is planted. This is a tradition defined by the beauty of ritual, eloquence in prayer, in silent meditation, and in exuberance in song. And this tradition is translatable to different contexts and places.
The island will always be there when we need it. However our tradition is not confined to the island. The island is comfortable and secure (for now) because it is familiar. But we are robbing ourselves of much beauty and an awareness of our true Christian selves when we think of ourselves as being made for the island.
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are
We set a course to find
A brand new island everywhere we row
We keep our island in our mind
And when it’s time to find home
We know the way
We are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders
In a never-ending chain
We know the way
--from “We Know the Way (Reprise)” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Tavita Foa'i