In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith writes about cultural liturgies and the effect our cultural practices have on our desires and our lives. He instructs us to ask the following three questions whenever we partake in any form of entertainment or education.
What vision of human flourishing is implicit in this practice?
What does the good life look like according to this cultural ritual?
What sort of person will I become after being immersed in this practice?
All three of these questions force us to think critically about what we consume and none of them readily provide answers. I’ve started trying to keep these questions in the back of my mind as I watch movies, listen to music, and read books, and the result has been a startling realization of my passive consumption of culture.
I want to look at Beauty and the Beast through the lens of these three questions. If you already saw the film, I believe this analysis will only give you a greater appreciation for the movie. If you haven’t seen the film, well, I’ll let you read on and then you can decide what to do for yourself.
The Vision of Human Flourishing
The answer to the first question resides in the transformation of Belle’s character. In the beginning, she represents the opposite of human flourishing.
Her frustration with her life in a tiny town, which is void of suitable suitors and discourages her self-education, is both justifiable and relatable. The audience easily resonates with the “small town girl living in a lonely world.” Her life appears stuck in a state of floundering, nowhere near the flourishing the audience wants to see for her.
Indeed, Belle must leave the oppressive town to have a chance to experience life to the full, but the next set of circumstances she finds herself in, trapped in a castle with a loathsome beast, may be even worse than her first.
Ironically, it’s in this prison that Belle begins to flourish. Similarities between Belle and the castle and Paul in prison are too obvious not to point out. But what is it that marks Belle’s flourishing?
It’s love. And that leads us to the answer to question two.
The Good Life
Like any good movie, Beauty and the Beast gives viewers a wonderful montage of Belle and the Beast slowly falling in love. They start in the library with books, then move outside with snowballs (from darkness to light, anyone?). And this, this is the good life. The jokes, the flirting, the laughter, the obvious yet fragile beginnings of true love.
Now, a passive participant in the audience may forget that despite the romance blossoming on screen, this is still a captive–captor relationship. Surely the good life is more than a prisoner falling in love with the guard. And yes, it is. Because the good life is not fully realized until the Beast sets Belle free.
And there we find the good life: freedom and love. Belle experiences both in the movie, but her life is not defined simultaneously by both until she loses her freedom to fall in love, and this love then has the power to set her free.
It’s nothing short of beautiful. But what does this mean for us?
The Sort of Person We Become
This movie encourages viewers to be the best characteristics of both Belle and the Beast. And these characteristics can be combined into one: selfless.
Belle’s love for the Beast is overtly altruistic. She looks at the heart of the Beast rather than to his outward appearance (see 1 Samuel 16:7). And the Beast shows his own selflessness in freeing Belle, despite knowing this choice would most likely force him to remain a Beast forever.
The sort of person this movie wants us to become is someone who loves others for their intrinsic beauty, regardless of how big or ugly or scary their external flaws may be. Sound familiar? That’s how God loves us.
We are the Beast, but God looks past our fangs and horns and loves us anyway. This movie shows us how to look at humans the same way the Lord does. It teaches us to be the type of people who love each other to the point where we help each other transform into who we were created to be.
A Transforming Love
I know Christians, myself included, are eager to look for Christian themes in modern movies, somewhat to a fault, but this movie is literally a perfect picture of God’s transforming love. The ultimate beauty of Beauty and the Beast is the transcendent love. Had the movie ended with Belle marrying a beast that wouldn’t quite have worked, right? She had to marry the prince.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.”
That’s how Belle’s love worked and that’s how God’s love works. God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way. If you want to know how to love people, that’s it.
I know the arguments against this movie. I’ve read the blogs. I’ve watched the rants. And as I’ve gone back and forth on how to approach this particular film, and how to approach culture in general, I’m left with only the example of Jesus.
And what I see when I look at Jesus is a man who, being in the very nature God, sought to transform those around him with his love. Jesus surrounded himself with beasts knowing the that their fur and fangs would fade away when met with his love.
If you chose not to go see this movie because of a perceived gay agenda, you missed it. If we keep stiff-arming culture, we’re going to keep missing it. And if all we do is point out the fangs and horns on everyone around us, no one is going to hear us when we speak about love.
We must love like Belle—like Jesus Christ, even—who knew better than anyone else that there is beauty in the beast.
Cover image by Scott Webb.