The Theology of Moana

The Theology of Moana

I literally cannot watch Disney’s Moana without weeping. That I identify with Moana is a huge understatement. The entire movie is wonderful, but it is the music that undoes me every time. I was raised in conservative Christianity that had very specific categories for who I could be. There were expectations for what my priorities should be, and there were rigid boundaries dictating where I could not go as a girl, who I could not be. Like Moana, it was always a struggle.

Early in the movie, Moana sings “How Far I’ll Go.” It’s her song of longing. She knows that she is a square peg in a round hole trying desperately to fit into the role she’s told is hers. Everyone on this island has a role on this island, so maybe I can roll with mine… I’ll be satisfied if I play along, but the voice inside sings a different song… what is wrong with me?

The water still beckons her. Her gut knows what her head has not yet comprehended – she belongs in the sea. It seems like it’s calling out to me, so come find me and let me know what’s beyond that line. Will I cross that line? There was a moment around 5 years ago when I just… left the shore. I resonate with the excitement and terror of Moana’s first venture into the sea, the wild joy of freedom followed swiftly by fear that it was all a terrible idea.

On this journey, like Moana, I discovered competency, passion, and true friends. However,  there was still a feeling like I might be breaking the rules. I did not want to go back to the land – no, never! Yet I felt somehow guilty for my freedom. What I realize now is that I was struggling with questions of identity. Why did I feel called forward? Was it rebellion or a refusal to do anything conventionally? Was I dishonoring God by taking up my own space?

Before the climax of the movie, Moana sings a truly beautiful song, “I Am Moana,” mentored through the process by the spirit of her grandmother. Her grandmother asks, “Why do you hesitate?”  “I don’t know.” Moana admits. The grandmother continues,  “Moana, do you know who you are?”

Moana turns and begins to review what she has discovered since she first left the shore. I am the girl who loves my island and the girl who loves the sea, it calls me… We are descended from voyagers. They call me. Her deep knowing that she belongs at sea is not isolated. It is not just about her. She stands on the shoulders of her ancestors who too were people of the sea. I have been similarly blessed by “grandmothers,” both living and long dead, who have asked the right questions at the right times, helping me sweep out the rooms of my heart to discover what was in there all this time. Knowing there are some who bear witness to my own self-discovery reminds me that it is real. Knowing that others have made similar journeys gives me courage to press forward.

 The call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me... I am Moana. This declaration isn’t arrogance. When we understand that we are God’s beloved, uniquely and perfectly made, called to the wildness of his sea, there isn’t much left to do but walk in that knowledge. It changes everything. It empowers us to do what feels absurdly difficult. It allows us to live beyond ourselves for the good of others. It gives birth to joy and peace and love.

The consequences of a woman who has been freed and who knows who she is and where the source of her power lies is gorgeously depicted in the song “Know Who You Are.” The entire movie is about Moana’s mission to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess, who had unleashed a plague on the islands. When Moana finally makes it to the island of Te Fiti, she finds the goddess gone and in her place, a hideous, fiery demon. Moana’s companion, the muscular demi-god Maui, prepares to do battle, but Moana interrupts him with incredible courage and insight. She recognizes that the demon is Te Fiti, changed beyond recognition when her heart had been stolen.

Moana slowly, bravely approaches this demon.  I have crossed the horizon to find you. I know your name. They have stolen the heart from inside you. but this does not define you. This is not who you are. You know who you are.  With those words, Te Fiti’s fire is extinguished. Moana’s gentleness and the ability to recognize her own experience in another’s was transformational. Only because Moana had been able to declare I Am Moana was she able to see deeper into who Te Fiti actually was. Only because she had gone through the same process was Moana able to challenge Te Fiti to seek the truth about her own identity. It was not a battle to fight against Te Fiti, it was a battle to fight WITH her for her heart.

Like Moana, we gain the ability to see others for who they truly are when we are able to see ourselves clearly. Moana’s wise grandmother told her that the journey may leave a scar, but scars can heal and reveal just where you are. This is a profound truth. We can see the wounds of others only if we have been able to authentically acknowledge our own. We become safe people for others when we are able to be vulnerable with the longings, fears, and dreams that we hold in our hearts. We are able to call out the image of God in others only after we have lifted our eyes to see our reflection in the loving eyes of Jesus.

Who am I? I am Dalaina, daughter of God, worthy and beloved, called to serve according to the gifts that the Spirit has placed inside of me. I am carried on the shoulders of courageous women and men who beckon me forward to cross the arbitrary human-made lines in radical pursuit of a Christ-centered life toward those who do not yet know who they are.

4 thoughts on “The Theology of Moana

  1. I don’t know you but I loved reading this. As it happens I lead a youth group in England and on Friday night I will be sharing a very similar message to what you have written here. I’m hoping it will be powerful for them.

    1. I am so glad that you enjoyed it! And I hope that your kids are blessed to know their own identities as beloved. Have you encountered Henri Nouwen’s work? He has a wonderful sermon “I am God’s Beloved” you can find on youtube It’s bookmarked for me.

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