Moana is Disney’s latest adventure that follows its new pattern of spinning narratives of female empowerment that appeal to growing mainstream feminist thought. We have a film without a single white person that tells the story of a young woman whose goal in life in no way, shape, or form includes romance with a man. She cares only about adventure, finding her purpose, and ultimately restoring her people’s lands and their sense of their own history. By itself, Moana presents viewers with a strong, ecofeminist message and portrays the meeting of the human feminine with the divine feminine as restorative. However, the film’s Disneyfication of Pacific Island cultures presents some issues when attempting to discuss feminist theology in its narrative (and in this piece I’m intentionally avoiding Christianizing this theology as the story uses a non-Christian/pre-Christian spiritual framework).
In the moments after I finished watching Moana, I was filled with “warm, fuzzy, feminist feelings.” I had just experienced a quite inspiring and empowering story that ended with restoration for a community and for its deities. In the beginning, the fatherly expectation of Moana isn’t that she marries, but that she assumes her proper place as the chief of her people and swears to protect them just as all the previous chiefs have. Essentially, she is to continue the system as-is once it’s time for her to step up. No one questions that she’ll lead or doubts that she should lead. The problem comes from her desire to travel the sea and return the heart of Te Fiti to prevent her lands from dying. This desire goes against the rules previous generations established to keep their people safe from the dangers of the unknown world.
But Moana later learns that this rule is not eternal and that there’s a sort of collective amnesia about it. With help from her grandmother, she discovers giant rafts from her people’s ancient past and discovers that her people used to travel the sea all the time. Remembering and embodying this forgotten and hidden aspect of her culture gives Moana the determination (and equipment) necessary to successfully make the journey beyond the reef. It’s a powerful testament to the role of collective memory in a culture and women’s place as orators of this memory in history and post-colonial fiction.
So Moana leaves her island with a clear mission to find the demigod Maui, who is responsible for stealing the heart of Te Fiti in the first place and unleashing the destruction that’s gradually killing the other islands. It is this male demigod’s greed and desire for power that began this desolation of the environment–the ecofeminist message is pretty clear here. Therefore, it is Moana’s responsibility to compel him to return the heart of Te Fiti and restore what he ruined.
Yet in the end, it’s Moana who restores the heart, not Maui. This squarely places femininity as the agent of restoration. Additionally, we learn that the lava monster Moana and Maui believe they need to destroy to get to Te Fiti is actually Te Fiti, showcasing how masculine greed taking something vital from a feminine deity–her very heart–causes destruction.
However, the restoration does not stop with Te Fiti and Moana. It ultimately extends to Maui as well, who by now has changed as a result of his journey with Moana. When we first meet him, he is arrogant and egotistical. He refuses to teach Moana the art of wayfinding and spends a good deal of time trying to trap or deceive her. We also learn that he is burying his feelings and running away from his past. He creates for himself a seemingly strong front, free of negative emotions just as toxic masculinity would have men do. But by the time Maui is face-to-face with a restored Te Fiti, he has not only dealt with these emotions, but also stepped aside to trust Moana’s leadership. Finally able to push his own ego out of the way, Maui is restored when Te Fiti gives him a new cane that’s even more powerful than his old one. In Moana, restoration really does extend everywhere–the human and the spirit, the individual and the community, the environment, the feminine, and the masculine.
For a western, American audience that earnestly wants better stories about girls, especially girls of color, Moana resonates and its messages have no doubt had a positive impact on little girls (and little boys) everywhere. However, no Disney rendition of anything has been without its problems, especially when those renditions depict non-white cultures.
If our feminism aims to be intersectional, then we have to understand the real-world effects of the creation, distribution, and marketing of these stories on indigenous people. Two major problems arise with Moana in this regard:
The question of cultural authenticity
White people’s use of a living culture’s actual deities for profit-making endeavors that harm the environment, thereby undermining the film’s ecological message
In the first five minutes of her video essay on Pocahontas, Lindsay Ellis does an apt and humorous comparison of Pocahontas and Moana, highlighting mainstream media’s tendency to portray indigenous people in palatable ways to white people. This inevitably leads to inaccuracies, missed details, and messages that, after some digging, aren’t as positive as they seem.
Sticking the film’s portrayal of Maui on a jet plane is ironic, and not in a good way. Are the Polynesian people to whom Maui belongs benefiting from this marketing effort? Other than those individuals directly involved in the creation of Moana, I’m not sure. Additionally, using someone’s deity to encourage tourism and make a few bucks isn’t considerate of whether that culture’s theology even allows for such a thing. In the case of Maui, everything I’ve read has said “no,” especially since that increased tourism causes more pollution and funnels more money into tourism that has drastically changed how indigenous people live their lives.
On a more positive note, a Maori translation of Moana has had a positive impact on indigenous Polynesian people who probably for the first time are seeing themselves on screen and hearing their language spoken in a major film.
In highlighting a feminist theology in Moana, I intentionally avoided Christian language because as a Christian I always attempt to be cognizant of my faith’s colonizing past, especially regarding indigenous cultures. To me, being careful of this is part of loving my neighbor. Restoration and re-memberment within a community are most certainly experiences we discuss in the Church all the time. So in a very general sense, Moana speaks to a familiar theological reality to me. At the same time, many Christian churches and denominations are quite concerned with damage to the environment and being good stewards of the Earth. At General Synod, the United Church of Christ passed an emergency resolution about environmental stewardship. The UCC has also shown increased solidarity with indigenous people over the years, such as renouncing Manifest Destiny and standing with Standing Rock.
In the end, I do think we can celebrate good, powerful messages in fiction when we see them while also contextualizing our reception with real-world effects. Coming short of this would leave us with a rather incomplete feminist theology.
Music is a huge influence for my writing. The songs and bands I listen to every day seep into my subconscious and work their way into my projects. This is especially true for my fiction–I have playlists in my iPod for several different projects.
While creating the poems in Forgive Us Our Trespasses, I often listened to mewithoutYou, one of my all-time favorite bands. So, here’s a list of their songs that, to me, connect to the vibe of the poetry collection.
“Carousels” is a chill jam that I connected to The Legend of Korra in this post a few years ago. If you pay attention to the garbled back vocals in the verses, you’ll hear, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” At church, we had a period where we’d end our monthly communion/spiritual formation nights singing this line, and I made use of it in the poem I shared last week.
“My Exit, Unfair” is hard yet soulful. It’s reflective and sorrowful yet somewhere in there are admiration and questions for God, which is characteristic of all of mewithoutYou’s music.
“The Sun and the Moon” has some more overt allusions to Biblical figures (Daniel, Peter, and Job), yet also blends the speaker’s own experiences of shortcoming and desire for forgiveness.
“In a Sweater Poorly Knit” feels like a journey from earthly concerns to God.
“Seven Sisters” is yet another song that addresses pain and shortcomings at God.
I referenced “Paper Hanger” a couple times in the sermon I preached at my church. In addition to being one of my favorite mewithoutYou songs in general, “Paper Hanger” plays with Biblical imagery to create a new, powerful message.
“Four Word Letter pt. 2” transforms “Down in the River to Pray” into something that blends doubt with togetherness in God.
“Messes of Men” has this vibe of navigating doubt, vice, and insecurity while God is still present anyway, somewhere. It’s honest and real, which is how vibrant faith life is, in my opinion.
I hope you enjoyed listening to some awesome music–Forgive Us Our Trespasses comes out NEXT WEEK. Buy it here.
I first heard the Lord’s Prayer in the Catholic church my mother brought me to every week when I was in elementary school. Sometimes, I liked going. The lady who usually sat in the pew in front of us always smiled and waved at me. I liked trotting up to the marble altar at the point in the service where the children left the sanctuary to receive our own lesson, which I always found interesting.
But sometimes, I hated going and only trudged through it when my mother promised to take me to McDonald’s afterward. I didn’t like being the only kid not “officially” in the Sunday school and therefore not knowing anyone else. I didn’t like kneeling on those plush pads for long, silent prayers. Most of all, I didn’t like that I wasn’t allowed to partake of the bread and the cup because I hadn’t had my first “holy communion.” I didn’t know what that was, but I did know that not having a “holy communion” meant I couldn’t have a cracker like everyone else.
Many aspects of Catholic church were a mystery to me. Why was an entire book called “The Word of God?” Which word in the book was God’s word? Why did the people lighting the candles at the altar dress like ghosts and sit in chairs that looked like they belonged in a castle?
Why did we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”? The only other time I’d ever encountered the word “trespass” was in those signs posted on private property that said, “No Trespassing.” No sneaking in. No jumping over the fence in the dark of night, which I often imagined when we prayed the Lord’s prayer.
Throughout middle school and high school, I was part of a non-denominational (evangelical) church where I learned that “trespasses” were “sins,” but we rarely prayed the Lord’s Prayer anyway because it was a bit too Catholic, a bit too traditional, and a bit too structured for a church culture that claimed to just teach the Bible without all that extra doctrine.
In college, I was surrounded by people who knew a lot more about church and Christian tradition than I did. Many of my friends and classmates had come from mainline Protestant churches or from some other denomination that rooted itself, in some shape or another, to a very long and ancient history–not to mention that many of these kids seemed to know a lot about social justice and Christianity. By that point in my life, the Lord’s Prayer was the only traditional thing I knew–the only “Christian” thing I could recite in whole, from memory, if asked. I had never been the type to memorize entire Bible chapters or Psalms.
So when I found myself standing in a prayer circle after my first excursion with my college’s homeless feeding program, I felt a little more comfortable when the leader asked us to pray the Lord’s Prayer. I knew this one, and I wouldn’t feel silly in front of all these people I didn’t know plus the person I had a crush on.
Then, they threw me two curve balls. First, they said “debts/debtors” instead of “trespasses/as we forgive those who trespass against us,” throwing off the rhythm I’d grown accustomed to. It sounded so…financial. Second, they added, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen.” I had never heard this addition before.
Yet when I started attending my current church and I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with the congregation for the first time, I paused and waited to hear which version this church would go with. Were they trespassers or debtors? Turns out, they’re debtors and I rolled with it. I still do, even though I like the cadence of “forgive us our trespasses.”
So I chose that phrase as the title for this poetry collection. In just four words, it invokes grace and ownership of our wrongdoings. It is a gentle request and acknowledgment of our flawed state. It is traditional language tied to a contemporary style of poetry.
Forgive Us Our Trespasses engages with old language and often transforms it to mean something new. This is my favorite aspect of applying the blackout poetry form to an old text. Pre-order the collection here.
To celebrate the upcoming release of my poetry collection Forgive Us Our Trespasses, I’m running a blog post series about it, starting with the most basic question:
What the heck is “blackout poetry”?
Blackout poetry is a form of poetry where you take a newspaper article, a book, or some other pre-existing material, box off certain words, and cross out the rest to create something new. Rather than writing new words in a blank document, you take an existing text and remove everything you don’t want.
It’s like plain old editing, but artsier and with a hipster aesthetic.
Blackout poetry falls under a wider category called “found poetry,” where you create poetry from words and phrases you encounter out in the world like billboard signs and postcards.
I first heard of blackout poetry back in 2010 when Austin Kleon popularized it with his book Newspaper Blackout. I spent a good portion of my summer break from college that year cutting up newspaper articles and inhaling the tantalizing scent of sharpies as I got the hang of this visual form.
I kept experimenting with blackout poetry throughout the rest of my college years and afterward. As I got more comfortable with it and figured out my own style, I thought it’d be neat to create a collection of blackout poems from the same book. I first tried it with my high school Dover Thrift Edition copy of Pride and Prejudice, a book whose intentions I appreciate but whose purposefully detailed and trivial prose I just can’t get through (sorry, Jane Austen fans). I’d called the thing Ride and Dice, and had gotten through all of five pages before I realized that I couldn’t weave a cohesive narrative among the poems, nor could I digitize them in any legible way. So, I set that project aside permanently.
A couple years later, I found an old daily devotional booklet and decided it’d be both hilarious and fascinating to make blackout poetry out of each entry. While that booklet is not the source text of Forgive Us Our Trespasses, it opened up to me the intriguing possibility of making a blackout poetry collection from a religious source text.
That intrigue led me to consult my good friend Project Gutenberg, whose free, public domain ebooks I rely on constantly in my day job. I searched “Christianity” or “theology” or something along those lines, picked a random title, downloaded the PDF, and started making poems.
Blackout Poetry and Copyright
Now, you might be asking yourself, “Does making this type of poetry out of someone else’s work violate copyright laws?” While I would argue that blackout poetry changes the source text so much that it no longer resembles the original and therefore doesn’t infringe (e.g., it’s a transformative work), I am not a legal expert nor did I want to be living with that uncertainty in publishing my own collection of these poems. That’s why I chose a public domain book as the source text. When a work is in the public domain, you can reproduce it, edit it, and make derivative works without giving attribution, paying licensing fees, or worrying about copyright infringement. You can create new works based on public domain works that are copyrighted to you, but you don’t have rights of the original work you used.
But aside from making myself sleep easier at night, using public domain works offers tons of creative potential. Since blackout poetry for me depends on finding the most captivating words and phrases, I discovered that these books with a lot of old, religious language create so much vivid imagery. It’s fun to repurpose that language and draw out or change the tone it has in its original context.
How I Made the Poems in This Collection
Most blackout poetry is made by physically altering a printed page with a pen or marker and then scanning it into a computer. I did this for the first several pages of my source text, using a freeware Mac version of Paint to add the simple coloring that I wanted. This got tedious when I realized that going through the entire 250+ page book would take forever, so I switched to taking screenshots of each PDF page. This saved me a ton of time from printing out a few pages only to mark them up and scan them back into the computer. It was much easier to get through the entire book using only digital tools.
A handful of poems incorporate artwork that I found on Pixabay, a stock image website where everything is in the public domain via a CC0 license. I cropped and edited them as I saw fit. Last but not least, I hired an old friend of mine, Corrie Liotta, to design my book cover. Working with her was fantastic and certainly saved me a ton of trouble trying to throw something decent together in my freeware programs. That, in a nutshell, is how these poems came to be! Be sure to preorder Forgive Us Our Trespasses so you can enjoy the entire collection.
Hello to all of my supportive and patient readers! I am stoked to announce that on October 3rd, 2017, I’m publishing my first poetry collection as an ebook on Amazon! The collection is called Forgive Us Our Trespasses and the poems are in a form called blackout poetry. Check out the book cover below, created by the phenomenal Corrie Liotta.
This is a collection of religious poems that waver among guilt, conviction, grace, and bittersweet comfort. They wholeheartedly embrace doubt, joy, and the tension between them.
Right now, you can preorder Forgive Us Our Trespasseshere.
So, secure yourself a copy (please)! Tell your friends! Tell your coworkers! Tell a stranger with a cool t-shirt!
I appreciate all of your support over the years on my pop culture analysis ventures and hope you’re just excited as I am that I finally have some creative writing coming out! Share the cover art on your own blog or social media pages, but please link to Corrie’s website. She deserves the love and recognition for the wonderful job she did on the cover.
Stay tuned for more posts about Forgive Us Our Trespasses over the next few weeks!
Intersectionality is growing as the preferred approach to unpack identity and justice. I heard the Church discuss this term much more than I expected during the Open and Affirming Coalition gathering and General Synod.
The United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming (ONA) movement is celebrating 45 years of diligent work to change the Church from a hostile space for queer people to an affirming space. Currently, 1,400 UCC churches are officially open and affirming.
Every year, the Coalition holds a national gathering and this year it happened in the days before General Synod. Through personal connections and powerful workshops, Coalition ended up being more transformative than I expected.
New friends made the experience richer with shared meals, long conversations, and local beers. I had volunteered to help at the gathering and didn’t expect to do much more than work, but I ended up experiencing much of the programming, much of the relationship-building that is still ongoing.
Aside from that, I found space and permission during Coalition to more publicly own my latina identity and to feel less ashamed of my broken Spanish. I didn’t expect Coalition to meet me at that level either.
Perhaps the most powerful meeting of all my identities in my own House of worship was the presentation of a quilt depicting the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. I heard the story of the woman who weaved it with heavy details that I don’t think I have the right to relay, yet they revealed and confirmed to me that to be latinx is to feel deeply.
That quilt is now in the Smithsonian. But it was presented at Coalition on its way there. Know that many of the victims were Puerto Rican (as am I). Know that some of them were not out to their families. Know that some of their parents refused to claim their bodies.
On the last day of Coalition, I read the benediction in my broken Spanish, and I relished in thinking of the Church as a place for me to be imperfectly bilingual, because I’m so used to slipping comfortably into white, American culture.
The meeting of my intersections continued at General Synod, where one night I accidentally ended up at dinner with a segment of the United Church of Christ with an opposing philosophy to Open and Affirming.
It began innocently enough. I roomed with an older lady who needed some help getting around. She spoke like Lorna Morello and was a minister like Sister Ingalis. She often got her details confused, so when she invited me to dinner one night with “these very nice people” she’d had lunch with, I agreed.
I had known this conservative faction of the UCC existed–Faithful and Welcoming Churches, they’re called, or ECOTs (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, traditional)–but I never intentionally sought them out. However, the day before this accidental meal, I had genuinely wondered aloud to some friends why such a group is even in a denomination as progressive as the UCC (especially in the national setting of the church) when they could easily have more of a voice and more community among those who agreed with them in more conservative denominations.
I didn’t actually expect an answer to that question.
Yet I walked in to that private dining room in the restaurant wearing a Kill la Kill shirt and pronoun buttons on my sleeves (English and Spanish). I introduced myself in an impeccable two minute blurb where I named my conference, my association, my church, its ONA status, and its three main ministries.
“Do you know who we are?” the gentleman hosting the dinner asked me from across the table, his face serene.
“An ecumenical group?” I said, repeating what my older!Morello roommate had told me.
“We are Faithful and Welcoming Churches, and we formed in response to ONA.”
Cue a mixture of nerves and divine humor settling in me, as well as a quick blessing that poise, diplomacy, and reserve are my defense mechanisms in uncomfortable situations.
Yet overall, the dinner wasn’t nearly as terrible as it could’ve been. In fact, it was oddly comforting revisiting my evangelical roots for a couple hours. Of course, only the people around that table heard of my alma mater and even knew several key figures associated with it (Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo).
Despite the fact that I would never feel wholly welcome in any of their churches, this group made sure I clearly understood that I was invited to eat with them and that they were paying for my meal. As we waited for our food, they each spoke for a couple minutes about why they’re in the UCC, answering the very question I had asked the previous day and had considered rhetorical.
Most of the people around the table stay with the UCC because it is their denominational home, or they strongly believe in social justice in most other spheres (though they cannot extend their ideology to affirmation for every marginalized group). Some were welcomed in the UCC whereas in other denominations, they had no voice.
I listened, because despite how much I say when I write anything of any sort, I’m a good listener. I get a feel for any new group I’m in before participating in the conversation. I chose to see their intersections rather than whittle them down to an ideology that, at best, doesn’t know what to do with me in the church and, at worst, would rather I change before being among them. It’s harder to view a person as mere rhetoric when you’re looking them in the face and hearing their voice. I’d like to think they experienced this, too.
And I told them so, though not in those exact words. Surely, we were all blessed because only God could make such a meeting an occasion of radical hospitality. Anyone in the UCC or anyone who calls themselves a Christian at all ought to be theologically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to practice radical hospitality in spite of and because of our intersections. The presence of conservatives in the UCC tells me that this church is serious about its progressivism. I am not confident that a more conservative denomination would allow its progressive churches voice in the national setting or give them a table at its gathering. If progressivism means a wider inclusion, then when I am face to face with people who may not see my intersections at all or consider them valid streets, I prepare myself nonetheless to take communion with them at the church on the corner. Yet I cannot do this perfectly this side of the eschaton, for if a bigot comes at me in the street with a torch and a clenched fist, I will either run or block and land a finger strike to the eyes. How far can I extend this ideal to those who have lost any semblance of their humanity?
Some may find my position weak or coddling, but the dogmatic progressive and conservative ideology I see all over social media would have us become ever more siloed and fearful. This doesn’t mean we have to willingly associate with those who harm us, but it does mean that we receive the bread and the cup together and attempt, albeit imperfectly, to live out their implications.
Additionally, I have held for several years now that some white people will only listen to other white people discuss racism, some men will only listen to other men discuss sexism, some straight people will only listen to other straight people discuss homophobia, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It shouldn’t be this way because theoretically we should all listen to each community itself, but that is not the reality. So likewise, there are some conservatives who would only listen to other conservatives talk about a church like the UCC. For the people around that dinner table discussed how remaining in the UCC has caused them to reflect and change in positive ways (their words, not merely my interpretation).
All of this said, I now more strongly encourage LGBTQ people to make sure a church is officially ONA (or any equivalent in other denominations) before visiting or deciding to join. At the very least, ensure that your prospective church is not Faithful and Welcoming (here is a list of such churches). You should be able to bring all of who you are to Jesus and do so safely or else you won’t grow.
The UCC cannot and should not force every local church to be as progressive as it is in the national setting. This is, at times, frustrating and means that marginalized groups still have to exercise some extra caution when looking for a church. But believe me when I say that there are affirming churches out there and being part of one has spiritually enriched me in ways I never would’ve imagined.
One of those ways is the stark imagery that Rev. Traci Blackmon provided in her sermons during both Coalition and General Synod. At Coalition, she preached about Paul’s shipwreck and our movements for justice. So long as we stay on the ship together, we will make it to the other side. The ship may not, but we will. At Synod, she preached about wheelbarrows, tying the imagery to a performer in the early 1900s who crossed a tightrope over Niagra Falls. He would ask volunteers from the audience if he could carry them across the water and they’d say he was crazy, but he’d always make it. Once, he asked a volunteer to get in a wheelbarrow and he’d push the wheelbarrow across the tightrope over the falls. This is the connection Rev. Blackmon made to Jesus, and since her election as the Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries at General Synod, Rev. Blackmon has been living into this in a big way. She was arrested for protesting the GOP healthcare bill, and as of this writing has become a strong voice on the front lines of the Charlottesville aftermath, for white supremacy has no place among the people of Christ.
Lastly, I’ll mention a few resolutions that passed at Synod. I’ve already written about boycotting Wendy’s, but the UCC took a stance on several other justice issues at General Synod.
The UCC has much more to say about so many other issues. Like everything else in this world, it will never be perfect this side of the eschaton, but this church makes me proud–this community makes me proud. In so many spheres in so many sectors of society, we do work that attempts to make the gospel good news for everyone.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
-Micah 6:8 (NRSV)
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah