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The gospel according to Disney

LATER THIS month, America's Muslims will take their plea for tolerance and understanding to some unusual venues: movie theaters in nearly 40 US and Canadian cities, including Revere. Their vehicle is a full-length, animated film called "Muhammad: The Last Prophet," and the limited run will mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Islamic leaders hope that children, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, will watch this film, which recounts the birth of their religion.

Communicating religious faith and moral values can be a tough sell in a media environment like ours, saturated with irony and toxic sexuality. Still, much of what young people know about these subjects is coming from a pretty unlikely source: cartoons. Their source material may range from "King of the Hill" to "The Simpsons" to "South Park."

There is a reason for this. Often, when young people sit in a sanctuary or a lecture hall, listening to talk about faith and values -- much less theology -- a veil of skepticism descends over their brains, filtering out ideas and concepts that may be too complicated or troubling. By contrast, when seated in front of television and movie screens, watching animated entertainment, they may drop their guard and relax enough to suspend some of that disbelief.

For better or worse, cartoons can shape our understanding of religion. But this is nothing new. The Walt Disney Co. has been teaching young children about faith and values in its full-length, animated feature films for nearly seven decades. Mickey Mouse rivals Jesus as a recognizable worldwide figure. With the advent of video and DVD technology, repeat viewing has only magnified this message and its impact on impressionable minds.

It is fair to ask, then, if there is a consistent canon that constitutes a "Disney gospel." Of course there is. Ask any child or, better yet, any parent. It is deceptively simple. Good is rewarded and evil punished. Faith is an essential element -- faith in yourself and, even more, faith in something greater than yourself, some nonspecific higher power. That is, faith in faith. Optimism, combined with the Calvinist paradigm of hard work, is unfailingly rewarded with upward mobility.

Disney presents all of this in a context that vaguely implies Western Christianity. Yet, curiously, this is a largely secular scripture, a gospel almost wholly without God or Jesus. This reluctance to make organized religion a significant part of the fabric of film mirrored Walt Disney's early commercial concerns: fear of offending and fear of excluding audiences in the United States and abroad. It also reflected Walt's unhappy experience of growing up with a rigidly fundamentalist father who soured him for life on organized religion. Thus the Disney empire, by its founder's designation, is a kingdom of magic, almost totally without reference to any kingdom of heaven.

While Christianity is assumed, especially in the early features, there is relatively little in the way of explicit religious symbolism or substance in all the years of Disney's beloved animated features. This approach is most recently displayed in the studio's new, straight-to-video holiday release, "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas," which makes scarce reference to Jesus, the reason for the celebration.

To some, the Disney gospel sounds a lot like secular humanism, a term that has become a pejorative in America's recent decades of culture war. For good reason. A 1954 Time magazine cover story on Walt Disney described him as "the poet of the new American humanism." Since 1937, viewers of the studio's animated features have been receiving a message with recognizable, if watered down, values. I call this Disney gospel "secular 'toonism."

Ironically, Walt's "godless" theology is conveyed through a manifestly theological vocabulary: words such as faith, believe, miracle, blessing, sacrifice, and divine. Evangelist Tony Campolo sees in Mickey Mouse an almost biblical presence, "a purely innocent creature. And he's never done anything sinful in his life. He's Adam before the fall."

This is not to argue that Disney's animated features -- or any cartoons -- are a viable substitute for worship or Sunday school. They aren't. But they can be useful, reliable tools in building general, moral sensibility among children, and in reinforcing parental and religious values.

Mark I. Pinsky, religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is author of "The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust" and "The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family."  

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