Mickey Love at the Magic Kingdom

[1] At the close of the 2003 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, a video introducing the site of the 2005 Assembly in Orlando invited Lutherans to attend by using images drawn from Walt Disney World. This may have been an innocuous enough bit of marketing. In American popular culture Walt Disney is practically synonymous with “innocence,” and millions of Lutherans have already visited Walt Disney World, or its earlier incarnation at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Perhaps the church was even shrewd to link an invitation to its own assembly to the powerful icons of the Magic Kingdom. After all, as anthropologist Stephen J. Fjellman has suggested, “Walt Disney World is the major middle class pilgrimage center in the United States.”1

[2] But that language of “pilgrimage” might give us reason to pause. Perhaps a trip to the Magic Kingdom is not merely an innocent bit of tourism.2 Indeed, as I will suggest here, and as I argue more fully in my forthcoming book, Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place, a trip to Walt Disney World subtly implicates each visitor in a theology of glory.3 In this theology, human consciences are bound (and wallets grabbed) in a lust for profit that stands in stark contrast to the liberation from conformity and coercion that ought to characterize moral practice informed by an authentically Lutheran ethic. Few visitors know it, but the corporate practices behind the “magic” of the “Magic Kingdom” contradict the carefully crafted Disney image of innocence. Even more, every visitor to the Magic Kingdom is invited to “experience” this place in a way that offers her a bogus “salvation,” a rebirth from middle-class complacence into ecstatic Mickey-love. There are, no doubt, private pleasures aplenty at Walt Disney World. Lutherans who want to be amused at Disney attractions in 2005 surely may do so-God’s grace is sufficient even for those who succumb to worship of a golden mouse. But the ELCA would do well to have nothing to do with Disney icons in its public theology, lest Lutherans (and others) confuse the kingdom of God with a “Magic Kingdom.”

The Theocentrism of Lutheran Ethics

[3] At the center of Lutheran ethics is the freedom of God.4 In The Bondage of the Will, which I take to be Luther’s most important ethical writing, he insists that “free will cannot be applied to any one but to God alone.”5 It is from this assertion of divine freedom, and the way it throws into question the intimate link between sacred and secular in the medieval world, that the so-called Lutheran ethic of the “two-kingdoms” follows.6 God works through ordinary means of church and state, to use two customary examples, but these institutions do not exhaust God’s agency, and indeed, the strength (and danger) of Lutheran ethical reflection is to recognize the limits of all human constructs. Unfortunately, this awareness of limits is difficult to sustain, and it is easy through language to reify human efforts at articulating God’s grace or justice and to imagine them as eternal forms. For Lutherans, an ethic may be “better” or “worse” as a way to articulate God’s intent for people to live loving and peaceful lives. But the greatest danger of any ethic (or institution) is that it might be applied in a way that ironically undercuts the freedom of God, and substitutes human pretension in its place.7

[4] Such has happened frequently in history, in remarkably subtle ways. Often, God’s power and human power have been confused and conflated. Out of this confusion came, for instance, the arrogant (but quite reassuring for church professionals) presumption that the “church” (or sola scriptura, the “Word Alone,” or any other human effort to articulate the comfort of the gospel) is equated with God’s “right” hand. Even more troubling has been how, out of this confusion of divine and human power, came the quietist heresy within Lutheranism in which the “state” (or any other human effort to articulate the accusing and ordering work of the law) was equated with God’s “left” hand. But this conflation of divine and human agency is to confuse what Luther called the masks of God (or God’s clothing) with God’s living presence. Human beings are inescapably mediating beings. We’re stuck with language. But God incarnates God’s self in a Word that became flesh with a freedom that surpasses and constantly surprises human media-indeed, that even surpassed the state’s imposition of crucifixion, and the human limitation of death.

[5] In history, the consequence of this confusion of the projects of human imagination with the divine intent is called idolatry. As Luther famously puts it in The Large Catechism:

A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.8
[6] In contemporary American culture, idolatry arises less over confusion between the realms of church and state-although there are problems there, too, than between the realms of church and market. Walt Disney World joins many products of corporations that represent themselves as, and serve for millions in fact, as icons of a “refuge” to which people look for “all good.” People trust the Disney Company. Such trust is understandable, but largely misplaced.

Private Pleasures

[7] I have visited the Magic Kingdom three times, and was a devoted fan of the Mickey Mouse Club as a child. I have experienced the pleasure the place can convey, and the lure that draws people to it. There is no reason to despise these pleasures; indeed, Lutherans can affirm them. There’s fun to be had at the Magic Kingdom. On my last visit, in 1992, I was accompanied by my wife, Lisa, and our two sons, Justin(5) and Nathan(3). Over the course of our day-long visit, I was converted from cynical dismay at Disney social control to apparently innocent awe at the Disney “magic.” Our visit ended, as all of the tour guides suggested, with the “Main Street Electrical Parade.” This event (since modified) was quintessentially American-complete with flags and bands and all the trappings of the high holy days of the American civil religion. By the time this show began, we had walked for miles, stood in line for hours, experienced maybe a dozen different attractions, and spent a small fortune on food, drink, and souvenirs. We were tired and ready to be amused. It was a pleasantly cool evening, so we had bought sweatshirts for the boys. We cued up with the growing crowds to a place on the curb, grabbed a seat, and the parade began.

[8] A deep, soothing male voice welcomed us to the “greatest parade on Earth,” and music began to play over loud speakers hidden in the buildings behind us. One by one the floats of the parade passed, with gleaming images we had never seen before, but which still seemed familiar. They were recognizable, yet alien; warm, yet dangerous. And light was the key theme throughout, borrowed from the imagery in every religion on the globe, and of course from nature, but now presented in such a dazzling spectacle that our senses could not possibly encompass it all. So we were disoriented. We searched for some meaning in the chaos of bodies, sound, and light, as strange image after strange image turned the corner and struck us.

[9] And then there was one body, any body, but probably a young woman, waving to us from a circle of light, up on a pedestal. And then there was another body–Cinderella! She smiled and waved to us from her carriage, safe now from poverty and abuse, since we know how the story ends–she’s a princess! I joined the pilgrims around me in devotion, a Ph.D. in religious studies reduced to uttering simple “oohs” and “aahs” as the fairy tale figures passed me by. I could scarcely think, and even more, didn’t want to. And then the music crescendoed, timpani rolled, snares rattled, trumpets blared, horns declared–all electronically recorded and synthesized–that something special approached. We were bombarded by the fanfare, and disoriented again, but anticipated an arrival. And, then, there he was: shrouded in a golden halo, the icon of all Disney icons, the image around which all this spectacle was centered. “There he is,” I exclaimed to my boys: “It’s Mickey!” And we all worshiped in delight

[10] Now, as I look back on my experience, it’s clear to me that what happened was something common in the history of religions. The Disney Company gave me an “ecstatic” experience. I was invited (for my entrance fee) to leave behind the mundane world of ordinary middle-class work and worry, and to be “lifted up” into the “small world” of Mickey-love at the Magic Kingdom. That this “magic” was carefully controlled and orchestrated did not matter a bit: my delight was real, and church leaders need to be able to appreciate its power. There’s nothing inherently sinful about pleasure, or about the joy of experiencing, with one’s family, a cartoon-figure parade on a cool Florida evening.

[11] Nevertheless, the way Walt Disney World meets people’s expectations for a sacred space, in a society where religion is supposedly a private matter, is what gives it its power. The god of the Magic Kingdom is a god of private pleasure-the “joy” of being together as a family, of being able to afford to enter the sacred confines, and of being able to “experience” the “magic” of the place. These are desires that call for a pastoral response, and not simple denunciation. The church has too often jumped on anti-pleasure bandwagons of one kind or another. This is not one of them. The problem with Walt Disney World is that the “pleasure” it offers is a commodity that must be purchased. Walt Disney World pleases its patrons with a prostituted grace: an indulgence that invites guests to be “born-again” not into the public love of God or neighbor, but the private pleasure of worship via a corporate product. We buy this “pleasure” because we have been sold its truth, and feel compelled (having paid so dearly for the experience) to appreciate it. The point must be repeated: there is unmistakable private pleasure available at Walt Disney World-for those who can afford it. But a pleasure equal and far less costly could be found almost anywhere, in places we so often take for granted, since God is all in all.9 It is only the failing of our imagination-and our trust in the Disney imagineers-that keeps us from seeing grace in the midst of the most ordinary places. The harm to ourselves, to our neighbors, and to the environment as a consequence of this confusion between the kingdom of God and the Magic Kingdom-is incalculable.

Public Problems

[12] But the problem is not just personal. Disney is a political enterprise-a corporation whose track-record is anything but innocent, because it fuels the greed that threatens to destroy American democracy.10 Few pilgrims know it, and for some it wouldn’t matter, but well before Enron established new standards in greed and corruption, Disney CEO Michael Eisner quietly set the corporate record for cashing in on company stock options-to the tune of $570,000,000.00. Needless to say, such a “private pleasure,” described by one critic as a “CEO Pay Ponzi scheme,” has public consequences.11 The greed of Disney’s executives has contributed to the increasing gap between rich and poor in the U.S. over the past three decades. This gap is evident in the growing disparity between the salary of the CEO of a typical U.S. corporation and the salary of the average worker in the same company, as listed below:

[13] CEO Salaries vs. Average Worker Salaries, 1968-1999.

1968: 25 times larger
1988: 93 times larger
1999: 419 times larger

[14] Such concentration of wealth is not only out of line with corporate profits over the same period, but also has posed a serious historical threat to democracy, as Kevin Phillips has shown.12 Consequently, the ELCA, in its 1999 Statement on Economic Life: “Sufficient Sustainable Livelihood for All,” called for “corporate policies that lessen the disparities between compensations of top corporate executives and that of the workers throughout an organization,” and for “corporate governance that is accountable.”13 By drawing upon images of Disney in inviting participants to attend the 2005 Churchwide Assembly, the ELCA opens up its own accountability gap, as if confirming a recurrent public complaint about ecclesiastical hypocrisy.

[15] But the public problem with worshiping at Walt Disney World is (if possible) more serious than the systemic economic injustice one supports by contributing to the Disney coffers. Disney imagineer Walter Hency once described the essence of the Disney magic as follows. At Walt Disney World, he disclosed in an interview, “what we do here is to throw a challenge at you-not a real menace, but a pseudo-menace, a theatricalized menace-and we allow you to win.”14 This experience of a “win” over a “menace” is evident in ride after ride. Take, for example, the ride known as “The Haunted Mansion.” In it, one travels through a darkened tunnel, where you are “frightened” by “ghosts” and other “goblins” that jump out at you, until you emerge at the end into the bright Florida sunshine. For a second example, on “Splash Mountain” one rides a “log” on a roller-coaster through yet another darkened tunnel, only to emerge into the light after an adrenaline-inducing drop of fifty feet. Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, and most of the rides follow this familiar pattern. Theologically, the structure of the rides is not difficult to perceive. Each takes visitors into a symbolic encounter with death, and allows them to win. Call it a theatricalized rebirth, or a pseudo-conversion. Through its rides, the Magic Kingdom invites pilgrims to be reborn into the community of Mickey-love.

[16] Literary critic Jason Isaac Mauro explains the crucial Disney logic in a way that makes its theological implications further apparent: “I am certain,” he argues, “that Disney World maintains its position as the Mecca of vacationers because its competitors . . . have misconstrued the real power of Disney’s rides. . . . Disney provides for each of its rides a narrative frame, a fiction, that houses our terror within a salvational vital lie.”15 Mauro’s language of a “vital lie” here is particular, and refers to a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Ernst Becker entitled The Denial of Death.16 According to Becker, psychologically humans must avoid facing our own mortality, and in order to do so will construct, or acquire, a “vital lie.” People are usually unconscious of how this “vital lie” works to gain them symbolic immortality or salvation. That’s why it’s called denial. In the church, however, and especially in Lutheranism, denial is itself denied. The cross is a vivid reminder of human mortality, and an invitation to trust for our ultimate salvation not in human power (no matter how cleverly packaged) but in divine grace.

[17] But at Walt Disney World the desire of people to deny death and be “reborn” is packaged and sold to pilgrims in a way that exploits our desire in exchange for our cash. It’s a simple process, as old as indulgences. Who wouldn’t want to experience, in exchange for a little cash, the joy of spending time with their family on “fun” attractions at a safe place where threats are easily overcome simply by jumping on a ride? Who wouldn’t want to free the soul of a relative-or their own soul-from the suffering of purgatory, simply by purchasing a piece of paper? The logic is identical in any event. In both cases, pilgrims buy their “salvation.” The theology of Walt Disney World is a theology of glory-a subtle invitation to trust in human ingenuity, or the human ability to buy a little comfort.

[18] Now, I realize that most visitors to the Magic Kingdom don’t understand their experience in these terms. For most, the trip is a simple vacation. But many feel compelled to visit the place, or are drawn to it for reasons they don’t fully understand, and some positively get possessed by it. Take, for example, Roger Reiger of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Reiger, a balding and paunchy fifty-something, has been to Walt Disney World over two hundred times, as profiled (ironically) in a recent issue of Modern Maturity magazine. In true pilgrim fashion, upon every arrival within the sacred confines, Reiger kneels and kisses the holy ground. “There’s so much junk going on in the world,” he offers, “This is one place you can go where there are no problems.” Of course, going to Walt Disney World itself can create problems, and Reiger himself has created some “junk.” In the course of his two-hundred pilgrimages, Reiger has racked up bills in excess of $750,000 on collectibles, and has suffered through five failed marriages. He remains convinced, however, that he is “living the childhood I never had,” and to prove it to himself he has emblazoned his body with more than 1,100 Disney tattoos, and filled his “Disney-themed home” with over 15,000 collectibles.17 My wife’s comment when I shared George’s story with her was simply: “That’s pitiful.” She then went on to add: “But I suppose it’s no different than a religious fanatic.” Which is, of course, my point exactly. Walt Disney World is not a religiously neutral place. It fuels greed.

[19] Disney critic and Penn State Professor of Education Henry A. Giroux puts the problem well:

In the popular mind, Walt Disney, the man and the company, has become synonymous with the notion of childhood innocence. . . . [In fact, however, none of the Disney attractions is really] about the power of the imagination . . . On the contrary, Disney offers a fantasy world grounded in a promotional culture and bought at the expense of citizens’ sense of agency and resistance, as the past is purged of its subversive elements and translated into a nostalgic celebration of entrepreneurship and technological progress.18
[20] Walt Disney World has become the major middle class pilgrimage center in the U.S. because it offers pilgrims a vital lie-the illusion of childlike-innocence, a pseudo-conversion, in the guise of a corporate product. The Magic Kingdom gives middle class folks a respite from ennui and anxiety: a spectacle that lifts us out of the (apparently) mundane habits of suburban living. But few people leave the Magic Kingdom motivated to care more compassionately for their neighbors. Mickey-love is a self-contained “small world,” and therefore is a poor substitute for the love of God and neighbor, which turns love outward toward the healing of the world. That Lutherans continue to be drawn to the place, points far more to the failure of the churches and ecclesiastical leadership than it does to the guilt of those who participate in Disney-devotion. Still, such devotion is part of the larger threat to American democracy posed by the concentration of wealth in corporate hands, and a challenge to the churches to come clean of our own often unwitting complicity with such injustice.19

[21] Mickey-love is, at least, love, and therein lies its saving grace. I would never urge Lutherans to boycott Disney products. The Southern Baptists tried that a few years ago, in protest of the relatively enlightened Disney policy of providing health and survivor benefits to gay and lesbian domestic partners.20 It failed miserably. Self-righteousness usually meets a bad end. As always, a positive presentation of the beauty of the gospel will prevail over the pure accusation of the law alone. I won’t visit the park in 2005, and I trust many other Lutherans who visit sunny Orlando in 2005 will also find more pleasurable ways to spend their time. For, finally, the love of Mickey can’t compete with the pleasure and satisfaction that follows from living a life of love for God and neighbor. But I do hope that the ELCA will not again use Disney icons to promote the Churchwide Assembly. At stake is the integrity of a Lutheran ethic for economic life, the agency and participation of citizens in a democratic society, and the difference between a theology of Christ crucified and an American theology of glory. It would be good for our public witness if we Lutherans clearly articulated what a pale substitute for amazing grace the banal spectacle of Mickey-love makes. Ecstasy at the feet of a cartoon rodent is trivial compared to the feast to come in God’s gracious and abundant embrace.

More by author Jon Pahl:
Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place
Coming, December 1, 2003 from Brazos Press

Jon Pahl traces American devotion to Walt Disney World, shopping malls, and the suburban home, especially domestic sanitation and lawncare, as signs of a “dislocation” of God. Pahl recommends an alternative theology of place that metaphorically “clothes” the sacred in “places of promise,” such as living waters, the light of the world, and cities of God. Weaving together cultural critique, biblical exegesis, and autobiography, the work is an “honest, challenging look at America’s real religion,” according to Temple University’s Rebecca Alpert.

End Notes

1 Stephen J. Fjellman, Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992), p. 10.

2 The Reformers, notably Luther, had a decidedly unfavorable perception of medieval pilgrimage to sacred places, which are the indirect antecedents of current tourism. See on the continuity of pilgrimage as religious practice, Victor and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (NY: Columbia University, 1978) and Linda Kay Davidson and David Gitlitz, Pilgrimage: From the Ganges to Graceland: An Encyclopedia (NY: ABC-Clio, 2002). Thanks to my colleague Timothy J. Wengert for sharing many of Luther’s comments on pilgrimage with me, in what might become another, broader, article in the future.

3 The book is forthcoming from Brazos Press. The scholarly literature on Disney is growing rapidly, although little of it attends specifically to theology. See for instance Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (London: Blackwell, 2001); Karal Ann Marlin, Canadian Center for Architecture, eds, Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance. (Paris/NY: Flammarion, 1997); Arvad E. Raz, Riding the Black Ship: Japan and Tokyo Disneyland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999); Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997). Among the most theologically oriented works is David Lyon, Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern Times (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000).

4 I here follow an interpretation of Luther suggested by one of my mentors at the University of Chicago, James M. Gustafson. See most notably his Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective. 2 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981-88). Such an approach to Luther takes his The Bondage of the Will as the most important of Luther’s ethical writings-a position I believe is defensible both historically and systematically, although I am not prepared to engage in such an argument here.

5 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Section XLI, “Discussion. First Part,” online at http://www.covenanter.org/Luther/Bondage/bowpt1.html. For a discussion of the implications of this question in early American history, see my Paradox Lost: Free Will and Political Liberty in American Culture, 1630-1760 (Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

6 This has, understandably, been a recurrent theme in these pages. See for instance the reprint of Anders Nygren, “Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms,” in Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 2(8): August 2002, online at http://www.elca.org/jle/article.asp?k=366 and the reprint of John Stephenson, “The Two Governments and the Two Kingdoms in Luther’s Thought,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 2(7): July 2002, online at http://www.elca.org/jle/article.asp?k=368.

7 This is not to fall into antinomianism, but to recognize the contingency of law, in contrast to the freedom of God. On the antinomian temptation, see my “The Antinomian Age in America,” in The Cresset 52(September, 1989): 5-10.

8 Martin Luther, The Large Catechism [1529], in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, tr. and ed Theodore G. Tappert, et al. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), p. 365

9 I explore this prospect in the second half of my forthcoming book, where I develop biblical place metaphors for God (living water, the light of the world, cities of God) as “God’s clothing.”

10 I cannot explore here how Disney exploits young workers in its operation, or has had a deleterious effect on the local environment, but for a few details see my Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces and Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World/The Project on Disney (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), along with Richard E. Fogelsong, Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

11 Debra Lau, “Forbes Faces: Michael Eisner,” at http://www.forbes.com/2001/01/16/0116faceseisner.html , as cited 6/12/02. See also Holly Sklar, “CEO Ponzi Scheme,” at http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0412-10.htm, p. 2, as cited 6/12/02.

12 Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich (NY: Broadway Books, 2002). The chart is based on data Philips documents on pp. 152-3.

13 The Statement is available at http://www.elca.org/socialstatements/economiclife, as cited on 9/17/03.

14 Charlie Haas, “Disneyland is Good for You,” in New West 3(4 December 1978), p. 18, as cited by Mike Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), p. 138.

15 Jason Mauro, “Disney’s Splash Mountain: Death Anxiety, the Tar Baby, and Rituals of Violence,” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 22(1997): 113-117.

16 Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (NY: The Free Press, 1973).

17 Todd Balf, “Goofy for Mickey,” in Modern Maturity, 44(July/August 2001): 70-75.

18 Henry A. Giroux, The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), p. 55.

19 The Disney influence extends well beyond theme parks, of course. See on the reach of this corporation Carl Hiaasen, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World (NY: Ballantine, 1998).

20 Sean Griffin, in Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out (NY: New York University Press, 2000) traces Disney’s support for gays and lesbians primarily to economic forces, but also reads against the grain to find gay-friendly subtexts in a variety of Disney operations.

Jon Pahl

Jon Pahl is the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity at United Lutheran Seminary.