A Film of Undeserved Grace, the Holy Law’s Goodness, and the Heaping of Coals: Cinderella (2015)

by Josh Radke

The last thing I expected was for this film to charm me, let alone edify aspects of my Christian faith. I suppose there is ample opportunity for criticism for Cinderella’s Kinkade-esque presentations, and the saccharine sweet opening scenes of the family. But this criticism would not come from me. For just as there is more to many of Kinkade’s art works beneath the supernal veneer, so also Cinderella, which pulls out the comfy rug from beneath your feet before you might expect it.

By the time the first act is complete, avarice, disobedience, theft, abuse, duplicity, unbelief, despair, sickness and death reveal the true nature of this fantasy realm. These affect (if not are demonstrated by) even those presented as the purest and noblest. Cinderella is the victim of much of these, but she too falls to the temptation of stated unbelief at her weakest moment. Moreover, she falls into such a state that she cannot rescue herself from her predicament, nor even contribute.

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I could not help but see the glass slipper as a metaphor for one aspect of Christian Baptism: justification. Once the enchantment had worn off, the slipper becomes the only proof outside Cinderella of her declared worthiness by Prince Charming. It was the only part of the spell that was created completely independent of her or her property, which is why it did not disappear with the enchanted coach, footmen, driver, and dress. During the drama afterwards, if not for the glass slipper, none could have been certain that it was truly she that had been at the ball.

Cinderella becomes known to all by the slipper. She is able to receive all that is due her as the new king’s betrothed. All this by her belief that the slipper is indeed hers, despite that she appears unworthy. Likewise too, a Christian who, by believing in the efficacy of their Baptism into Christ, shall receive all that is prepared for them when the King of Glory returns for His people — despite that their sinful nature would otherwise appear to make them unworthy.

Moreover, the slipper is wholly a gift of grace. She received it, and the other gifts, from her fairy godmother despite her declarations of unbelief in her exasperated state. The slipper, as one of the many gracious gifts given her by her fairy godmother, renews her belief. She will look to it during times of uncertainty and trial as the queen; she will be able to point others to the slipper as well during the same within their vocations. Holy Baptism works much the same way, when the Christian is reminded of all its benefits through the right preaching of the Word and that preached Word is clung to in faith. Even when doubts threaten to crush us and we utter lines of unbelief during weakness, God, through our pastor’s preaching, reminds us of the gifts He has provided us for the sake of His Son, Jesus — not just in Holy Baptism but also in Holy Communion and Holy Absolution: forgiveness of sins, true holiness from Christ, fruitful vocations, increased faith, the resurrection of our glorified bodies for the world to come.

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Cinderella portrays its ‘good’ characters often acting with great virtue and quick understanding, especially when reflecting the Fourth and Sixth Commandments, and the general point of the second table of the Law — to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (including semi-sentient mice). The Arthuriad is also known for demonstrating good works of the Law to their highest extent when portraying the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table as well. (I am sure there are others but the Arthuriad are the stories I am the most familiar.)

Although it would seem to be an un-relatable weakness of a fairy story to present characters acting with such unswerving high virtue, I have always considered such contexts to be the Holy Spirit employing His “third use” of the Law: to illustrate for us why we glorify God’s Law as holy good; to show why our new man in Christ, through the receiving of the Word and Sacraments and Holy Absolution, is motivated to do good works for our neighbor according to the Law’s guidance; to give us a picture of how the new creation will be when it comes. Often these characters are referred to — either in-story or by the audience — as being “boy scouts” or “cheesy goody two-shoes”, but I believe this to be the knee-jerk reaction of our Old Adams (i.e. our sinful natures). These characters cause us to reflect upon our behaviour, and we discern we have not measured up. At that point we can either join in with our insecure, vain, begrudging Old Adam natures and mock these characters, or we can pray to the LORD in penitence that He would give us the capacity and will to continue to strive to emulate these characters for the benefit of our parents, spouses, children, and community.

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Finally, we have the film primary point: to have courage, and always be kind. The manner in which Cinderella displays this charge from her mother throughout the film reminds me of St. Paul’s exhortation to Christians in Romans 12:

9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. 10 Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; 11 not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; 13 distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.

17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Therefore

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

And does Cinderella ever illustrate verse 20 at the end.

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Disney’s live-action Cinderella is not a perfect film. Passing statements like, “I believe in everything,” (i.e. universalism) when referring to supernatural matters (i.e. spirituality) is unacceptable.

It was also disappointing to not hear any affirmations in the film of eternal life when death comes calling in the story (consider other stories — like Gandalf’s exchange with Pippin during the siege of Minis Tirith in The Return of the King); to find any reference one will have to seek out the “Getting to Know You” deleted scene in the bonus features of the digital edition — so at least it was fully intended to be somewhere in the final script.

Finally, the ending narration — “And Ella continued to see the world not as it is, but as it could be if only you believe in courage and kindness and occasionally just a little bit… of magic.” — is not sage counsel at all (see, for instance, I John 1:5-10); it serves the false notion that a worldly utopia is somehow possible through sheer force of human will and purposeful (and egregious) ignorance.

Yet despite these wince-inducing slip-ups (though not unexpected from a post-modern world film), there is much that is good about this live-action adaptation of Disney’s version of the story for Christian families to discuss and by which to be strengthened and take inspiration.

Josh Radke is a seminarian at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ont.) and a student in the Bachelor of Divinity international programme at the University of London. He is also the Author of Stitched Crosses: Crusade (with more to come!).

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