Walt Disney’s Theology of Hope, pt. 2

Read Part I here.

I truly believe Walt Disney was one of the great visionaries of the American landscape. I would locate him in a rather small handful of great minds that include Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Howard Hughes, Hugh Hefner, and Steve Jobs – each of whom are what we might call “futurists” because they saw a different world and created the architecture necessary for another to live into it. I carry around the image of these men, as well as their names, in a little black notebook to remind me that creativity and genius are everywhere if only we are able to see and reassemble the pieces around us. While Disney was arguably the least serious in the lineup, I don’t see that as a discredit to him. Hughes was able to see the future of aviation, Jobs technology, and Disney entertainment. His genius was not just “kiddy stuff” but a forward-looking glimpse into the possibility of animation and film. As the years went on, his attention turned to documentaries. We owe nature films and the aquatic research specials of Jacque Cousteau to Disney believing that people wanted to be entertained and educated. More, Walt was a diplomat and cultural attache to South America during WWII. When he returned, he proceeded with his work on Disneyland. Many biographers believe that his tour of South America broadened his view of the world even more. His innovation helped move forward animatronics, robotics, simulated-intelligence interface and architecture. For a poor boy who grew up in Kansas and wasn’t all that great as an artist, Walt’s life is evidence of an intelligence bordering on the polymath.

Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom (1994), a collection of essays published by the American Film Institute, states that

Disney might be better understood in relation to another type of American cultural icon, the systems builder… That is, like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford [who were] celebrated for individual artifacts, Disney was actually the master of vast “technological systems,” to use Thomas Hughes’ term. Those systems involved “far more than the so-called hardware devices, machines, and processes,” but also the “transportation, communication, and information networks that interconnect them,” and the array of employees and regulations that make them run. Like Samuel Insull, Frederick Taylor, and Ford once again, Disney imagined his systems as blueprints for a future based on efficiency, conservation, and communal living.

Yet for all of this, perhaps because of this, he remained elusive and misunderstood. He was a man who invested his entire self into his work, into building something, in giving the full measure of himself and his talents to his work only to be seen as overbearing, reclusive, antisocial, obsessive, and a domineering perfectionist. Neal Gabler, Sr. Fellow at the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society at USC and author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (2006) said that

There are many themes that run through the life [and] work of Walt Disney. But I think the most powerful theme is the idea that we can impose our will on the world. Because that’s exactly what Walt Disney did. Walt Disney imposed his will on the world in terms of animation. And when you think of it, what is animation after all? You take inanimate objects, drawings, and you bring them to life. It’s a very powerful and empowering kind of medium. And there are only two entities that I can think of who have the power to take the inanimate and bring it to life and that’s God and Walt Disney. And believe me Walt Disney saw the affinity between the two. But he also taught us that idea throughout his life: that the mind can impose itself on the world and recreate the world in the image of one’s own dreams.

In a way, this “prophetic imagination” (to borrow from Brueggemann) is what compels us to practice acts of tikkun olam, charity, and zakat. We believe the world can only be better once we set our own hands to the plow and in this way goodness and godhead are made manifest. But an emerging field of biblical studies is the way that we construct the mortality of our prophets. Earlier this week, the LDS Church finally acknowledged that founder Joseph Smith married a 14 year old girl – one of his recorded fifty brides. Who are these people that we follow, whose words we believe and believe in? And if Disney is a prophet as I propose, what kind of a man was he?

Cont. in part 3

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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