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On the Moral Magic of Disney's Musical Model

In the fourth chapter of Disney & the Moral Imagination (Book II in the Disney & Apologetics duology), Jeremy E. Scarbrough and D.J. Culp Jr. consider the moral magic of Disney musicals. After investigating the significance of Disney’s historical contributions to music and animation, we ponder the aesthetic allure of Disney’s animated features. The essay observes the significant coalescing of art music and pop music in Disney’s Broadway style and explores the aesthetic importance of musical enculturation, but also a need for striking a balance between the familiar and the foreign—a balance akin to that necessary between complexity and simplicity. We consider how music may contribute to moral deliberation and suggest that Disney’s approach to music may serve well as a guiding metaphor for how apologetic dialogue should proceed if it is to have the greatest impact.

Scholars have noted the power of artistically challenging an audience’s perspective without frustrating them. As explained above, simplicity and complexity, and especially unfamiliarity, can potentially hinder aesthetic appreciation. Consider, for example, songs which many viewers consider to be dark, suspenseful, or creepy—such as “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Dumbo, “Savages” from Pocahontas, “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Winnie the Pooh, or “Hellfire” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Now, contrast these with the soundtrack from The Black Cauldron. Although the latter was well-composed, the former examples were more musically accessible for many viewers because they were presented in song with pop-like hooks, catchy rhythmic passages, or clear and enjoyable melodic and bass lines discernable even amidst passing dissonances and chordal tensions. Might this be why The Black Cauldron tends to be a lesser celebrated film, though still an appreciated part of Disney lore? While its soundtrack did contain melodic content, it did not strike many as a significant part of Disney’s musical heritage. Yet this is not because the soundtrack was instrumental; the magic seems not to lie in “song” per se, but, rather, in song-like musicality. Thus, one wants to “sing” along (in jazz-scat fashion) to the theme song from Pirates of the Caribbean. So too, moral dialogue often calls for a sort of conversational finesse in speaking with charity and conviction, in acknowledging our agreements while also addressing our perspectival differences. In a sense, because of its palatable presentation, Disney can teach us to bear patiently with aesthetic differentiation in order to come together and enjoy the points of aesthetic unity that we share.

Many Christians and budding students of apologetics would do well to keep this in mind as they approach differences in perspective and pop culture. Is there nothing we can acknowledge as good or understandable within a perspective with which we disagree or an art-object or story we do not prefer? Let us learn to begin with what we share--deep convictions concerning the objectivity of truth, goodness, and beauty--and then work our way towards a discussion concerning points of difference and disagreement. If our message comes across as drawing lines of difference only, with no sense of accessibility, this will only, likely, reinforce the divides between us, rather than building dialogical bridges. On the other hand, when the gospel is revealed to be accessible--when we help others to see and understand that it speaks profoundly to our deepest convictions and enfolds many of the stories we naturally tell--then others will be more likely to consider, at least, what we have to say. Charity encourages the accessibility of anyone's message, and as any arts educator understands, accessibility is key to appreciation--which, often, precedes consideration and deeper understanding.

["Savages" is a song that raises moral questions, in itself, but the point made in the passage above has to do with the fact that even songs that may be considered intense or scary for some children are still presented by Disney in a musically accessible way. Contrast the pop song-like character of this example with the following instrumental example from The Black Cauldron. But the issue is not lyrical accessibility, as the final example from Pirates of the Caribbean shows].

 

This post is meant simply to offer a glimpse into our Disney & Apologetics project. Excerpts alone, however, cannot stand for an entire chapter, nor can they stand as representative for all the other ideas to be explored and arguments to be made in this 500-pp, two-volume work. There is much more to ponder within these pages! If you want to think more carefully about morality, about using the formative artifacts of pop-culture to approach Christian apologetics, and about the connections between imagination, aesthetics, and theology, buy this book! You can see what others say about it here and here.

 

Jeremy E. Scarbrough holds a PhD in music (emphasis in philosophy, namely concerning the intersection of aesthetics, ethics, and education) from the University of Mississippi, an MA in Christian Apologetics, an MA in Theological Studies, an MME in Music Education, and a BA in Music (Vocal Performance). He has taught music and philosophy at the high school and college levels. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Philosophy for Pasco-Hernando State College, just north of Tampa, FL. He has contributed a chapter on heavy metal in Music, Theology, and Justice (Lexington Books, 2017) and a chapter on Marvel Comics’ Venom in Theology and the Marvel Universe (Lexington Books, 2019). His teleological philosophy of music (and its connection to our deep-seated convictions of justice) has been published (2022) in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, an international journal of interdisciplinary and interfaith dialogue.


D.J. Culp, Jr. holds a PhD in Music from the University of Mississippi. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Music of Instrumental Music Education at Union University in Jackson, TN. He conducts the symphonic band and percussion ensembles, teaches percussion studio lessons, conducting, music theory, courses in music education, and observes student teacher interns. He has presented music research across Southern and Midwestern regions of the US. Dr. Culp also maintains an active performance agenda as a jazz and rock drummer and performs as a percussionist with the Jackson Symphony.

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