Disney and I have had a love/hate relationship over the years; although I’m confident Mickey is unaware of my irrational emotions. As a child, I loved watching Lady’s puppy dog eyes radiate pure devotion to Tramp over my favorite food group; pasta. But I found Fantasia slightly boring and likely took a nap during the Nutcracker Suite. Still, the popcorn was delicious. It was the good ole days when theatres used real butter, and I enjoyed a Saturday afternoon at the movies (you’ll likely recognize the carb theme embedded in my memories). Herbie the Lovebug inspired my life-long devotion to the Volkswagen Beetle. It was my first car (orange), it is my current car (red), and somewhere around middle age I had one I named Balue.
As a young mom with three toddlers under the age of four, I found myself utterly dependent on the Mouse to keep my kids quiet and entertained at least once a day. As a matter of fact, Mickey is successfully calming two of my grandchildren as I write this blog. Our family knew every word to the songs in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast by heart, and that we would accomplish anything if we just flyed together: Ducks Fly Together – Leadership 101.
As the kids grew, Saved by the Bell seemed harmless enough: six pubescent kids navigating their way through the trials of life, high school, and love. The problems with their worldview didn’t appear in our family until my youngest kids got to high school and couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t that one popular group they fit in. They found that painful relational conflicts didn’t wrap up quite as neatly as on TV, and that the cool guys didn’t even know they existed.
Shouldn’t life imitate art?
By the time Disney purchased Pixar, my family was grown and starting families of their own. I could easily ignore Wall-E’s subtle messages of environmentalism and childhood obesity, instead appreciating Pixar for its exceptional creativity. That’s why, when I went to see Inside Out, I was initially disappointed: it felt (emotional pun intended) like I was watching My Little Pony. So much fairy dust on the soundtrack and all of those rainbows…
Has anyone else noticed rainbows everywhere these days?
Anyway, what bothered me most was the subtle way in which this movie will influence future generations: future Christian generations. But instead of leaders in the Reformed community alerting church-going viewers to journey to the center of the Disney psyche with extreme caution, publishers, influential leaders, and respected biblical counselors are baptizing Pixar’s psychoanalysis with statements like; “the first truly outstanding film in half a decade,” and, “a richly layered vision of human emotion [that] challenges the idea that one can suppress sadness merely through the assertion of ‘positive thinking’,” or, “it powerfully portrays the relational heart of the gospel.” I don’t get it. I think Inside Out may just be the most dangerous Disney picture to date. The theology of emotions in this movie does not communicate an accurate understanding of the mind as created and redeemed by God, and that message has potential to negatively influence our children’s growth in holiness. Because of the commercial influence of Disney films (watched repetitively by kids—ad nauseam), the worldview portrayed in this movie is simply too persuasive to overlook. God has given parents the awesome responsibility of instilling a biblical worldview in our children. An accurate understanding of how He created the inner workings of ‘headquarters’ is essential to how we interpret the things that happen both to us and around us.
I can appreciate why Disney/Pixar tackled the psyche as a topic. Direct to consumer marketing by pharmaceutical companies contributes significantly to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in this country and, as one of my professors likes to say; follow the money. That’s not to say Disney and pharmaceutical companies collaborated on this film; however, it is interesting that a whole new generation of young people will now adopt the message intrinsic to the movie (it’s alright to feel sad), and potentially later in life have a talk with their doctor about adding Abilify to their current meds.
Although there is no evidence of a link between the pharmaceutical industry and Pixar, the science behind the Inside Out control center was developed by secular professors of psychology Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman. As consultants on the movie, these psychologists were excited to share results they have discovered in their years of research at the University of California. It was an honor for them to help Pixar illustrate “how emotions work inside a person’s head and at the same time shape a person’s outer life with other people.”
In God’s common grace, he enlightens the minds of even those who reject his authority. Therefore, by concentrated observation, these psychologists have learned significant truth’s that accord with Scripture. For the sake of time and space, I’ll leave those accurate observations for a different author to identify. Important to this discussion, however, is to understand that secular psychology’s approach to human thinking and emotions is from a wholly observable perspective. There are no blood tests, brain scans, heart scans, or tissue samples that can definitively prove their conclusions. Only the Creator knows the inner workings of humanity (“for you, you only, know the hearts of the children of mankind” 2 Chron. 6:30), and without revelation from Him, there can be no further insight than what one observes. With this in mind, the theology of the control central these consultants conveyed to Disney/Pixar includes, but is not limited to, the following theories:
- According to science, personality can be principally defined by one particular emotion.
- “Emotions organize—rather than disrupt—rational thinking.”
- “Emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past, and even our moral judgments of right and wrong.”
- This emotional guidance is capable of enabling effective responses to current situations.
- “Current emotions shape what we remember of the past.”
- “Emotions organize—rather than disrupt—our social lives.”
- “Emotions structure (not just color) such disparate social interactions as attachment between parents and children…”
- Sadness helps “clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.”
How that belief system plays out in the movie looks a little like this:
There is a scene when Riley and her parents are seated at the dinner table and her mother asks how school went that day. Riley, a typical 13 year-old, doesn’t quite know how to respond. The scene cuts away to the inside of her mother’s head and mom’s emotions immediately try to discern what is happening. This is the organizing factor, where emotions seek to guide the mother’s perceptions. The mother’s emotions come to a conclusion and “enable [an] effective response to the current situation” by prompting mom to signal dad. Cut away to Dad’s control center and we view his emotions (typically male?) ‘checked out’ thinking about sports. This, by the way, is one of a few negative stereotypical portrayals in the movie. I digress…
Dad’s emotions perk up and organize his thinking by running through a list of possibilities for what might be wrong. Dad’s emotions finally figure it out and he also asks Riley how school was. Mom’s emotions react and determine Dad has made a blunder. This is more evidence of guided perceptions; this time apparently based on memories of other blunders Dad has made considering Mom’s emotional response. Riley is bothered and, again typical 13 year-old, responds with disdain. Dad, instructed by his emotions, makes a show of force.
Fast forward to what is happening in Riley’s head. Anger, seated at the control center, is watching Riley’s father and the actions he is making in response to the emotions in his own head. In a confrontational show of sheer infuriation, Anger flips his switch (double throttle), and Riley explodes at her parents.
I’ve counseled people who think they have an anger switch in their head.
The practical implications of a Disney theology of the brain suggest that emotions organize, guide, shape, structure, and enable responses based on the current dominant emotion of a person’s personality.
At this point I’m hoping you’re getting a little uncomfortable in your chair.
My intention is not to debate these conclusions point by point. I am not a scientist and have not spent nearly the same amount of concentrated observation of human emotion as these psychologists. What I do know, however, is that the God who created human emotions has something to say about how his creation should use them. However, it is also not my intention to claim authority as a theologian. I am simply a Seminary student who should be writing a paper about Martin Luther, not Mickey Mouse. But if you’ll bear with me a few more minutes (I’m lying, it’ll be longer) perhaps we can glean from Scripture the workings of the psyche from a biblical perspective.
In 1965, respected pastor and theologian Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones compiled a series of sermons into a book entitled, Spiritual Depression, It’s Causes and It’s Cures. This is a very helpful book for any Christian navigating the emotional life. In the chapter called Mind, Heart, and Will, Dr. Lloyd-Jones focuses on the workings of the inner man, and does so by way of exegeting Romans 6:17:
But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.
The principles he tells us can be drawn out of this verse are:
- You were a servant of sin
- Thank God, you are no longer
- Because you obeyed from the heart
- Obeyed what?
What this verse indicates is key to our understanding of the progression of the workings in the inner man. First, the Apostle Paul is concerned with a whole, balanced Christian life. This verse addresses the Christian’s will, in that he obeyed. It addresses the emotions, as the sensibility of the being. And it addresses the mind, in the form of doctrine; which is focused on our thinking. “The whole man is involved; the mind, the heart, and the will.” Truth comes to the mind and is enlightened to us by the Holy Spirit. Having heard the truth the Christian loves it. It then moves his heart.
Truth. Love. Moved. Desire.
Second, this passage denotes the preferred order in which the Apostle teaches our inner man operates. The mind, the emotions and the will must function in this right order; truth is always first. Also, one aspect of the inner man is not addressed apart from the other. The heart is never to be approached directly. The will is never to be approached directly. “The heart is always to be influenced through the understanding.”
Lastly, Paul emphasizes the beauty of this process. “God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin.” While bondage to sin confuses the workings of the inner man, Christ’s work on the cross makes it possible for our inner man to operate once again in a God-created way. The gospel touches every part of our being. Lack of balance in mediating this way is one of the most frequent causes of discord in a Christian.
Of course it is important to feel our emotions; the Psalmist did! The intention of this assessment is not to dismiss emotions as, well, too emotional. However, as David exemplified in the Psalms, we should mediate those emotions with truth. Emotions are there for our benefit. They alert us to what is amiss, and are beneficial if used constructively. But emotions, biblically, are not a catalyst; they are intermediaries.
Well what’s the big deal? Inside Out is a colorful movie and young children will enjoy the likable characters. If I may (I’m going to do it regardless of your permission), let’s play this out in real time.
I imagined my grandson seeing Inside Out. He is a good little boy and a big help to his mom and dad and sisters. However, sometimes his little sisters take away the toy he was enjoying and he gets angry. In this situation, Micah has a choice to make. He can aggressively grab the toy back, or worse; hit his sister with it. Or he can do as his father and mother have instructed him; think about the right thing to do. They’ve given him several options for responding to a situation like this, so he can recall to mind an appropriate reaction and choose accordingly. Basically, he can mediate his emotion (anger) with truth (right and wrong) and choose to do the right thing (will). But if Micah watches Inside Out fourteen times he will be conditioned to believe that there is a little red guy in control center making calls for which he is powerless to control. He will immediately give in to anger, like Riley did in the movie, without a moment’s consideration of truth.
Sinful little ‘selfs’ believe they can do what they want when they want to. Christian parents try to eradicate that willfulness by appealing to the law that is written on their children’s hearts “as the God given adjudicator of right and wrong.” This wisdom then helps them determine how they should respond in any given situation. Inside Out disconnects emotions from truth and portrays our feelings as though they were subservient to one another. This type of theology is not alarming coming from Disney/Pixar. But it should be if it comes from our children.
PS Ironically, in the forward to Spiritual Depression, Lloyd-Jones writes that he compiled his sermons because he believed that “the greatest need of the hour is a revived and joyful Church….Unhappy Christians are, to say the least, a poor recommendation for the Christian Faith; and there can be little doubt but that the exuberant joy of the early Christians was one of the most potent factors in the spread of Christianity.”
One can almost picture Joy drawing a circle and Dr. Lloyd-Jones telling Sadness to go sit in it.
For further consideration:
What does the Bible teach about personality?
How does Scripture refer to emotions?
What guides moral judgment of right and wrong?
What determines a Christian’s identity?
 Martin Lloyd-Jones. Spiritual Depression, It’s Causes and It’s Cures. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1965.
 Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart. Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 1995.
 Martin Lloyd-Jones. Spiritual Depression, It’s Causes and It’s Cures. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1965.