mv5bmji4mzu5ntexnf5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzy1mtewmdi-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_One of the more attractive elements of grace-based living is that it removes (in doctrine, anyway, if not always in practice) the pressure to discern every decision correctly. Both the roughing-it-through-the-grind and seeking-the-horizon are both valid and acceptable approaches to life. This stance contrasts with FOMO-driven media in both the general and Christian spheres. Such movies, books, sermons, etc emphasize the importance of striving over settling. Persistence involves driving forward toward goals, not simply making it through.

Mbird contributors (and, I think, readers) have diverse views on theology and practice, but we are mostly united in our skepticism of the ever-striving-forward mandates that saturate American life. Therefore, the latest Disney masterpiece Moana could be easily misinterpreted by those of us who seek solace and calm to counteract the frenzy we are driven by and towards. Its beauty, charm, humor, and rootedness in the natural world should disarm some objections.

Moana transmutes the beauty of Polynesia into its visual, vocal, and musical aesthetic (the latter two, notably, accomplished by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i of Te Vaka). The humor comes in from various sources–Dwayne Johnson’s performance as Maui and Jemaine Clement’s as Taratoa the shiny crab, a pair of obligatory animal sidekicks, a quick-witted Moana, an ocean that provides most of the physical comedy. Finally, and most profoundly, Moana displays both staying and voyaging as admirable and necessary–a reflection of the homebound but exploring Polynesian societies. While these can be considered universal themes and not necessarily Polynesian, I was happy that the filmmakers tried to communicate some of that beautiful culture (via Disney tropes) in this beautiful film. Moana is certainly a tale of striving and struggling, one that combines important elements of both Disney’s filmmaking approach and Polynesian culture to create moments of grace, comfort, and rest.

The basics: the eponymous hero of Moana is the daughter of an island chief (not, she insists, a princess) who is compelled to sail into the Pacific alone. A spiritual and physical darkness has spread throughout the Polynesian islands because the demigod Maui removed the heart of Tefiti, an island goddess. Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) finds Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and persuades him to return the heart that he stole (physically, a small, luminescent, green stone). They fight monsters, disappointment, and self-doubt as they make the long voyage to Tefiti.

As a self-trained amateur scholar of Hawaiian (not so much Polynesian, alas) culture, I found the early contrast between staying and voyaging to be insightful about Pacific Island life. The connection between Polynesians and their homeland–and I mean down to small units, not just whole islands–is intense and, all too often, hotly contested. Setting aside the political battles over Polynesian land (as Moana does by setting the story a couple millennia pre-contact), though, one can discern gratitude for the islands’ arability. This is expressed in Moana by a lively song in the beginning of the film entitled, “Where You Are”:

Chief Tui (Moana’s father): Moana, make way, make way
Moana it’s time you knew
The village of Motonui is all you need…
Consider the coconut…
Consider its tree
We use each part of the coconut, that’s all we need

Sina (Moana’s mother): We make our nets from the fibers
The water’s sweet inside
We use the leaves to build fires
We cook up the meat inside

Tui: Consider the coconuts
The trunks and the leaves
The island gives us what we need

Moana: And no one leaves

Moana commits to staying and succeeding her father as chief by the end of the song (which also serves a montage from her birth to adulthood). The tone of the song and the scenes afterward indicate that while Moana is pulled toward the ocean, she intends to live and work at home. This is not an October Sky situation wherein the young person is told they cannot leave the destitution of a West Virginia coal mining town. Moana is, like her family and community, happy that their island provides for their life. They feel glad to be in a vibrant, beautiful place, and everything in Moana–the animation, the music, the vocal performances–points to the almost edenic existence of Pacific island life.

What drives Moana to voyage beyond her village is an example of the decidedly non-edenic component of Pacific island life. Her voyage, and the remainder of the film, are driven by the discovery that the ocean’s pull is part of a centuries-old practice of exploring the vast Pacific for new homes. The stirring “Where We Are” accompanies the memory of Moana’s ancestors setting out and discovering new homes:

We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high
We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze
At night, we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are

Aue, aue
We set a course to find
A brand new Island everywhere we roam
Aue, aue
We keep our Island in our mind
And when it’s time to find home
We know the way

The point of the ensuing action is not, as Barney Stinson might say, that “new is always better.” The particular quest she undertakes with Maui is a restoration of the natural order. Maui, we find out, stole the heart of Tefiti so that he could bestow on humanity the ability to create new life. His hesitation throughout the voyage–he gives up and complains right up until the end–reflects his guilt over creating so much chaos and his self-denial of responsibility for his actions. Moana also wavers, disbelieving her inward call to save her people, a classic self-pitying avoidance technique that some of us know all too well.

Both find their way, movingly, by recognizing their inward pain and leveraging it to reach out to the hurting and the lost. I won’t give away the ending except to say that vulnerability and forgiveness, not violence, constitute the means by which Moana and Maui complete their quest.

And then Moana goes home. Yes, both exhibited all the perserverence of a Disney-film hero, but their progress was halting; they accomplished what they needed to by submitting to their own brokenness and recognizing it in others. And, again, then they went home to live and voyage some more.

Polynesians could, for the most part, live for generations and centuries on a small island that provided for all their needs. But they also established an astonishingly sophisticated practice of wayfaring that allowed them to settle islands across a vast expanse of ocean. Reducing this often misunderstood culture to, say, a ukelele beach-bum song or a multicentury, long-distance canoe race would diminish the underregarded faith involved in resting in an island’s provision or risking one’s life on an open ocean for a thousand miles. Moana therefore serves as a reminder to me and all other FOMOaholics that both our resting and our striving can come from the halting, uncertain living of a repentant sinner.

Thank God for the blessing over our daily life, whether we are just going to work and returning home or seeking more than we have, and for the Spirit’s guidance when we try to seek or give comfort.