If anything, Disney represents the modern religious landscape. “God” is about wish fulfillment and personal journey. Disney’s beliefs, his “theology” is similar to poet Buckminster Fuller’s claim, “I see God in the instruments and mechanisms that work reliably.” The Disney system is one that rebuilds the world as it should be, zeroing in on those elements that are most idealistic and affirming.
Another thinker whose ideas are evidence of Disney’s influence is Stewart Brand, a participant in the early sixties LSD studies in Palo Alto and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand’s underlying philosophy was that technology could be our friend – the creation could be a friend of the creator. In the first issue of the magazine, he writes, “A realm of intimate, personal power is developing – power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” The cover of the first issue, a shot of the Earth from space, was chosen to symbolize what the magazine stood for – a belief that a shared sense of destiny and the “adaptive strategies” of humankind would somebody forge us together towards a common cause and eventual utopia. Brand’s philosophy of possibility, ingenuity, and technology, is what inspired people like Steve Jobs to later use technology to its natural limits… and then invent something beyond it. Walt Disney’s fascination with technology and innovation is well-chronicled. Epcot is itself a testament to this – Walt, quite literally, wanted to create a new world and saw himself as an instrumental visionary in the architecture of a New World.
The parallel nature of religion and technology naturally predisposes us to assume that one has nothing to do with the other. We have come to believe that religion inhibits creativity, inventiveness, ingenuity, and seminal thinking for tradition and the old prescriptions of a former civilization and context. It is surprising to many that the Middle East, and Israel in particular, shows a high degree of intellectual capital in software and technology, agricultural development, architectural stability, and medical research. For some reason, the message persists that religion and technology are incompatible.
It has only been recently that we have begun to question that assumption. Buddhism was terribly important to shaping Steve Jobs as a person, a professional, a designer, and as a visionary. For years, conservatives and liberals have argued over whether the Founding Fathers of America were religious and, if so, to what degree their faith helped shape the America they established and foresaw. Many argue that religion and creativity, inventiveness, and ingenuity are incompatible. Thomas Edison, for example, was a known atheist – arguably a nominal deist, as was socially appropriate for his time. This same argument has been used repeatedly to diminish the references to divine providence in the writings of the Founding Fathers – the Founders were using common parlance, but were not themselves especially religious. Nominal deism was, and remains, the religion-of-no-religion among those whose names are carved into history for, as we know, God would never be involved in the successful affairs of humankind.
Part of this thinking ironically comes from Evangelical exegesis of Genesis 10, where either Cush or his son Nimrod begin the movement of human civilizations towards technological advancement. Their progress culminates in the construction of Babel (Gen. 11). The “Tower of Babel” narrative serves as an example of a “mirror tale” – as the tower goes up, the goodness of the people plummets in the eyes of God. Put another way, the construction of a tower (symbolic of technology) is also the destruction of the people. As they build upwards, they are also digging their own (metaphysical) grave.
This is, I strongly assert, an incorrect reading of Genesis 10 and 11, even if it is present in Talmudic commentaries and prevalent in Evangelical teaching. Technology is discussed in scripture as an instrument of human ingenuity without moral judgment. Tools are discussed in Gen. 4:22, for instance, without any particular morality to them. Further God (the same one many believe got so angry when humans were evolving and building things) is reported to have said in Exodus 31:
The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him.
Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent— the table and its articles, the pure gold lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand – and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, and the anointing oiland fragrant incense for the Holy Place.
Further, the Christian Scriptures (again, speaking in broad strokes) begin with a garden and end with a city. this might clue us in to new readings of scripture that affirm art, technology, and innovation.
The point is not to say that urban sprawl is divine, it is to say that Disney’s efforts to build a set-apart place were indicative of something curiously quasi-religious. Walt assembled a team of Imagineers whose mission was to build something where everything had a deeper meaning. Children could of course see Peter Pan or even (if they were so lucky) shake hands with Mickey Mouse and have it be just that – seeing their favorite character and shaking hands. Nothing more. But I would aver that was never Walt’s intent. We’ve all been in situations that, years later, we realized were more profound than they seemed in that moment. When I wrote a short story in 4th grade, I would have never imagined that I would later take up writing as a profession. In 5th grade, when my homeroom teacher pulled me aside for fighting and – quite angrily – told me that “your parents divorce doesn’t have to define you. I know you’re angry, but you can’t let that anger consume you,” I thought we were speaking about the fact that I had punched a boy and sent him to the hospital. In that moment, it was about that moment. But years later, I have come to see that as a defining moment and one that I refer to periodically even as a grown man. I believe that Walt intended the Disney theme parks to embody something, to pass on a message, to instill in a new generation a particular vision. The theme parks and characters, in short the entire Disney enterprise, was not about making cartoons or protecting a sense of wonder. It was about rewiring the American landscape.
Italian novelist Umberto Eco once called Disneyland “America’s Sistine Chapel.” In an article for the April 1980 issue of Anthropological Quarterly, Alexander Moore described Disney World as “bounded ritual space” and a “playful pilgrimage center.” But perhaps it is theologian Thomas Ryba who said it best. In 1998, he delivered a paper to the American Academy of Religion (conveniently, the conference was held in Orlando that year – wink, wink) where he stated, “Walt Disney has succeeded in creating an architectural and mechanical artifact by means of which millions of visitors (both Americans and foreign nationals) are introduced to the logic of American hope.” Building off of Ryba’s work, Michael R. Real posited that the “lands” found in Disney parks are something akin to morality plays of “stations” by which visitors are ushered to a new awareness. Calling the exhibits or activities in the parks “stations” might find fertile ground among those familiar with the Stations of the Cross to be found in Catholic teaching and architecture. For Catholics, the stations serve as a bridge of sorts to the events of the Crucifixion of Christ and the hope that his resurrection brings to believers. Might there be something more to Jimmy Cricket’s soft croon that when we wish upon stars (if we only believe – Matt. 21:22), it makes no difference who we are (for grace is sufficient – II Cor. 12:9), everything our heart desires will come to us (for God knows our needs before we ask and is looking for us so that He might bless us – II Chronicles 16:9 and Matt. 6:8)?
There can be no question that Walt intended for his lands (and later worlds) to captivate, inspire, and instill his message of hope and possibility. And though one would be hard pressed to combine all of scattered sayings into a book – or even four books – and create a coherent theology, the impact of his “teachings” live on, influencing possibility thinkers and teachers even today. To listen to popular ministers like Joel Osteen, even Oprah, is to hear echoes of Walt’s teachings. They are not particularly novel. In point of fact, many working in theology tend to point to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and especially Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking as the premier texts of the earlier Twentieth Century that changed the American religious landscape. But they were not alone. Walt, Dale, and Norman were each bathing in the same zeitgeist – Oral Roberts, E.W. Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin, and in many profound ways instrumental members of the LDS Church were all absorbing the possibility thinking of German philosophy at the turn of the century. A forgotten page of American history is the way that the Great Depression was a “dip” in extreme peaks. At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, Americans were riding high with a booming stock market. F. Scott Fitzgerald is an excellent chronicler of the excess of the affluent and middle-class. But with the Stock Market Crash of 1929 (“Black Tuesday“), things changed. Rather than changing gears and sobering up en masse, many Americans held on to their dimming hope. Movies were idealistic. Dance competitions were in almost every community, radio shows and nickelodeons featuring Charlie Chaplin all helped keep crushed spirits from dying out. Is it any wonder than the men who grew up in that era and who knew the power of hope would create a theology out of it, and construct theme parks as a testament to the power of hope?
While Walt may not have been aware of the particulars of his contemporaries who were intentionally making theological movements, he certainly joined with them in developing a theology of hope which continues to this day. To visit a Disney park or watch a film in the comfort in your home is to participate in the belief that everything is possible to those who have faith… or have a bit of pixie dust.