Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Beauty and the Beast and the Tale as Old as Time

What Beauty and the Beast Can Teach Us
I am a Christian, and that affects how I do everything, including how I watch movies. Watching Beauty and the Beast, I was floored by how it illustrates, subtly and beautifully, some beliefs that I hold dear. When I saw Disney’s 2017 Beauty and the Beast, I was reminded of how God, perfect and beautiful, has lifted a curse off all of us, beastly humans as we are.

The Beast
The Bible teaches that all people are under a curse, a curse which we received as a consequence of our own actions. This curse caused us to lose the beauty we once had as perfect creatures, what the Bible calls being, “made in the image of God.” In Beauty and the Beast, the prince lives in a castle filled with riches, and ample resources to spare. When an old woman comes to him, seeking shelter from a storm and offering him a gift in respect, he spurns her, and dismisses her out of his castle, because he finds her ugly. If there is anything everyone can agree is morally wrong, throwing an old woman out into a cold storm is on that list. Intuitively, we agree that the prince should be punished. Later, Beast sings of how he, “never needed anyone.” Mrs. Potts informs us that while still human he lived very selfishly. Really, the curse only serves to make him look on the outside like he was on the inside all along: a Beast.
Left alone in his castle, Beast devolves into savagery. As he lives apart from true beauty, he grows only worse, dressing in rags and lapping up soup form his bowl. Left to his own ends, he does not improve. While we may not think our crimes as cruel as Beast’s, we know that we often behave selfishly, even at the expense of others. Though we do not have the horns and fangs, really, we are Beasts. This does not mean we are worthless or scum; it just means that we, at the last, have some bad built into who we are.
It may still be surprising to think of ourselves like the Beast. We think we are not so bad as that. And most likely, you have never done a thing so obviously terrible as he did when he threw the old woman out. But this is just another way we are like the Beast. When Belle objects that her father should not be given a life sentence for a rose, Beast counters, “I was.” But he is mistaken. He thinks he was given his curse because of that once incident, and particularly the part about the rose. But he was cursed for his extreme selfishness, which flowed through his whole life in many ways he didn’t think of. We, like the Beast, often imagine our misdeeds as fewer and smaller than they are.

Belle
Beast is not left in this miserable condition. The story picks up when he meets Belle. When she sacrifices for her father, getting him out of prison, Beast cannot understand this kind of unselfish behavior. He calls her foolish and shuts her away. However, he knows she might be the only way out of his curse. He begrudgingly commands her to come to dinner, which she refuses. He commands that she get no food unless she eats with him.
In some ways, Belle’s relationship to Beast parallels God in his relationship to us. Many people try to approach God the way Beast Approaches Belle. They know they need something from Him. They are not interested in changing their behavior; they just want out from under a curse. When God refuses to meet them on these terms, they think to make demands on God. They offer an exchange. Beast offers food; many people offer a change in some of their worse habits, or money, or church attendance, or lip service. One thing that is different about God is that he does not need anything from us; the whole exchange idea will not work.

There’s Something There That Wasn’t There Before
Before things get better for Beast, they get worse. Belle flees the castle because she cannot stand to be around Beast and his rage. But when Beast wounds himself protecting her from the wolves, she recognizes his unselfish act and his attempt to change. Again, here there is a difference. God would not be in any danger apart from us; the wolves are no problem for him. The parallel is in how Belle’s return is voluntary. She could have left Beast to freeze. In fact, when she is dressing his wounds, and Belle graciously thanks him for protecting her, Beast tries to leave the blame on her for running off. She sets the record straight, that the whole thing is the result of his bad temper. He ceases to defend himself, accepts thanks, and even thanks Belle.
Belle and the Beast now get on the right foot. Belle catches him reading the equivalent of a romance novel; belying his rugged and beastly character. Beast admits to being moved by the poetry Belle is reading. Some people have difficulty relating to God because they will not allow their facades to fall away. For some, they hide behind cynicism, and others hide behind skepticism. Before Beast can begin to grow, he must drop his fa├žade of rugged, individualist, cynical thinking.
It is worth noting that these characteristics only become facades as he is changed by Belle’s presence. He spent years in the castle sullen, angry, and bitter. But even a little exposure to Belle proves that these traits are not really him; they are as much results of the curse as his horns and fangs. Similarly, some (though not all) of the bad about us has been added on. We explain this when we apologize after an outburst by saying, “I don’t know what came over me.”
Beast gives Belle the library. He shows her the magic book that takes them away to Paris. Beast learns to drink his soup in as civilized a method as his features allow. Notably; Belle does not change. She is already beautiful, but is now helping Beast to become less ugly. They dance, and the song Tale as Old as Time always hits me right in the feels, but more on that later. At last, Beast allows Belle into the sanctum of his curse, where he hides away and nurses the wound that has made him who he is. He lets her see the magic mirror. All is well until…
Belle spoils the moment. She says, “It’s hard to be happy when you aren’t free.” What’s more, Belle’s father is in trouble. Beast knows what he should do; he lets Belle leave to protect her father. It is a beautiful reversal of his crime. He was cursed for keeping an ugly old woman out of his house, and now he releases a beautiful young woman. What’s more, this beauty was his one chance to cease to be a beast. He knows she won’t come back; he knows she shouldn’t. He is ugly; she is beautiful.

Evermore
Then, in my second favorite song, Beast tells us what it is like to see the beauty and hope go away. He recalls the entirety of this story so far. Let’s take it verse by verse.
I was the one who had it all / I was the master of my fate / I never needed anybody in my life / I learned the truth too late.
Beast says he had it all, was the master of his fate, and never needed anyone. But he knows these are lies. The story tells us so: He did not have a mother, an enchantress ruined his fate, and he needed a huge staff to take care of him and a town’s economy to support him. He learns the truth, as Belle changes his way of thinking.
I'll never shake away the pain / I close my eyes but she's still there / I let her steal into my melancholy heart / It's more than I can bear
His experience with true beauty will never go away. His cynicism and bitterness were ruined, and now his heart is broken as he only now begins to realize the depth of his beastliness all this time.
Now I know she'll never leave me / Even as she runs away / She will still torment me, calm me, hurt me / Move me, come what may
He knows he can’t go back to how he was. He has seen true beauty. What Belle taught him tormented him as it revealed how ugly his curse was, calmed him as she loved him despite it, hurt him as his pride was sapped, and moved him to admit to all of it. He accepts this, even with its sad results.
Wasting in my lonely tower / Waiting by an open door / I'll fool myself she'll walk right in / And be with me for evermore
He must remain alone, accepting his fate. He desperately wishes she’d come back, but he knows he’s fooling himself. The Beauty has no reason to have anything to do with him, now that he’s let her go.
I rage against the trials of love / I curse the fading of the light / Though she's already flown so far beyond my reach / She's never out of sight
Love has brought him great pain; he now knows his hopes have faded. But even though the Beauty has departed, he knows he’ll never stop seeing it.
Now I know she'll never leave me / Even as she fades from view / She will still inspire me, be a part of / Everything I do
The effects of Belle upon his personality will never leave, even though she does. Her sacrifice, love, and unselfishness inspire him. She has elevated him from some of his beastliness, and now everything he does is different.
Wasting in my lonely tower / Waiting by an open door / I'll fool myself she'll walk right in / And as the long, long nights begin / I'll think of all that might have been / Waiting here for evermore!
He accepts his lonely fate, but still wishes things might have gone otherwise. He knows he cannot lift the curse, and will remain a beast, forever.
Some people, at least somewhat aware of their own ugliness and beastliness, try to escape that curse by keeping Beauty prisoner with them. They try to change their behavior to make Beauty more comfortable to stay with them. They may try a religion’s rules or doctrines to chain down God and use him to escape their beastliness. But even as Beast shares the library, the grounds, the food, and the West Wing, learns good manners and learns to appreciate poetry, he’s still a Beast. He is now well groomed and rather nice, but still undeserving of love from Belle. When Beast let’s Belle leave his castle, it is like admitting that our own codes of ethics and our own good deeds cannot make us good enough for God. We are beasts; He is not.

The Mob’s Song
When Belle returns to save her father, Gaston recognizes the threat the Beast poses. He desires Belle, and imagines himself worthy of her. But what do we know about Gaston? From his own song, we know that he is especially good at spitting. His other claims to fame are excessive size, excessive force, and cruelty. He proves himself to be as selfish as can be when he leaves Maurice to die in the wilderness.
The Bible teaches that God, and humans, have an enemy who embodies selfishness. We know him today as the Devil, but these days that word creates a lot of confusion. Many tall tales have featured the devil, and he is the subject of many jokes. People often picture someone in red tights with a pitchfork when they think of the devil. But the Bible teaches none of these, only that the devil is a murderer and a liar, and works through everyone who does the same.
When I see Gaston whipping the town into a frenzy over tall tales about the Beast, and convincing them to lock Belle and Maurice away, I am reminded of how the Bible says the devil blinds the eyes of those who might otherwise see God. For the townsfolk, the best possible end is that Belle and the Beast come together. It will mean the reunion of families and the return of livelihood and prosperity to the poor provincial town. But just when they are about to get what they really need, Gaston convinces them it is the worst possible fate.
In the same way, the devil has used many false religions, false churches, and false philosophies to convince everyone that the God Christians believe in and which the Bible reveals is their worst enemy. Gaston is right. When threatened, in fear the people will do just what he says, and if he succeeds, they will miss out on the best possible life.
The angry mob breaks into the castle, but Beast does not go down to defend them. While earlier the Beast would have happily chased them all off or killed them, now Beast is different. He knows he is a Beast and the people are misguided. He does not even defend himself. Just when Gaston would have got him, Belle returns. She does not return because she needs the Beast to save her again. Her father and she have escaped on their own. She comes back only because she wants to save the Beast.
Then Beast has Gaston by the neck, hanging over a deadly fall. Then Beast proves his change of heart. He refuses to kill Gaston. He has every right to; he’s already bleeding from the wound Gaston inflicted. He will not become a murderer himself. He leaps to Belle; she’s all he wanted anyway. But Gaston is a murderer from the beginning; he makes good on his boast of sneaking up behind animals in the hunt, and shoots the Beast in the back.
But the Beast breathes his last, and the last petal falls. The Beast can change, and even learn to love Belle, but this is not enough to lift the curse. Even his greatest acts of unselfishness, releasing Belle and releasing Gaston, have not broken the curse. He must be loved by another.
Happily, he is, and the curse is lifted. Even more happily, so are we. God, the source of all true beauty, has chosen to love us, beasts as we are. Not only has he loved us, he has pursued us. He has lovingly, slowly, exposed us to more and more of Him, helping us to change. When we acknowledge that our own efforts cannot earn his love, he comes back just when we need it most, and gives to us a whole new life.  In receiving his love, the curse comes off, and we can be made beautiful as well. The Beast is made into the Prince, the royal love of Beauty itself, and made happier than he has ever been.

Tale as Old as Time
I promised more on the “Tale as Old as Time.” This song beautifully summarizes what I find deep, beautiful, moving, and true in Beauty and the Beast.
Tale as old as time / True as it can be / Barely even friends / Then somebody bends / Unexpectedly.
In our beastliness, we are barely aware of God. Our relationship is very forced, like Belle and the Beast. But then somebody moves closer. The Bible tells us God moves first in seeking us, and this is very unexpected.
Just a little change / Small to say the least / Both a little scared / Neither one prepared
This change may be gradual at first. The whole gap is not bridged. (Here the song does not parallel the truth. While we may be afraid of God and unprepared to meet him, he is not scared of us, and is ready).
Beauty and the Beast.
God is the Beauty, and we are the Beast.
Ever just the same / Ever a surprise / Ever as before / Ever just as sure / As the sun will rise.
Once you are caught in the Beauty’s love, the love never varies, but it is always a surprise to be so loved. Because it is God loving, and he is not sometimes good and sometimes selfish, but always good, the continued beautiful love is as sure as the sunrise.
Tale as old as time / Tune as old as song / Bittersweet and strange / Finding you can change / Learning you were wrong.
Being caught in God’s beautiful love and pulled away from beastliness is sweet, but also bitter, as we must admit to having the beastliness in us, learning we were wrong.
Certain as the sun / Rising in the east / Tale as old as time / Song as old as rhyme / Beauty and the Beast.
Tale as old as time / Song as old as rhyme / Beauty and the Beast.
This tale is as old as time itself; God has always been pursuing every person. For all of time we have told stories of the beautiful and the ugly, and how the ugly could rejoin the beautiful. We have done this because deep inside we know it is true, and we wonder how it can be. Beauty and the Beast helps me picture this just a little, if I look through the outer wrappings for what makes it such an enduring tale.
This is why I love Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. When I watch this movie or listen to its songs, I am reminded of how even though I am a Beast, the truest Beauty of them all has sought me out, is working to change my beastliness every day, has lifted a curse off of me, and promises me new life, that one day I will walk right into heaven and be with the Beauty…


Forevermore.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Beyond the Rim Installment 27

Oorgo clung to the knobby knee of Thurgod's immutable godflesh, as he watched his mother, sister, and father wave goodbye atop a journey cart. Thurgod watched the screws in the frame and the horses bits, and listened to the boys' sniffles.
"Why do they have to leave, Master?"
"For each person is his life, and for each life is a place, and work. They should go back to theirs, and you stay with yours."
"Why can't I go with them?"
"Because the Queen would not allow you to leave."
"Would you let me leave?"
Thurgod pointed his face at the boy. The crude belt buckle could not betray the boy's feelings, but the increasingly sticky mess accumulating on Thurgod's kneed did. "That is a question with no answer, for I am under the Queen, and you know her word."
"But if you didn't have to do what she wanted..."
"All within the Rim must do as she orders, for there is none stronger than her."
"Maybe she wouldn't notice me leaving."
"She would."
"But maybe she wouldn't care."
"She would."
Oorgo slammed his little fist into the back of Thurgod's leg, then clutched his arm and squelched a cry.
Thurgod squatted and caught the boys shoulders. "You must be careful with godflesh, or you will hurt yourself. It does not give to anything."
Oorgo looked up, then brushed his hand along Korlythe where it met Thurgod's forehead. "Anything?"
Thurgod whispered, "It gives to one thing."
"Is it stronger than godflesh?"
Thurgod's teeth chattered. "Yes."