Do we Disney-fy the Bible?

Stephen Ferguson explains the importance of not skipping the hard bits.

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Disney vs Grimm and others

I think most of us are young enough to know and be influenced by Walt Disney’s myriad of stories. What some of us may not be aware of is the fact that Disney did not invent most of these tales. In most cases, Disney simply copied and adapted much older legends.

The best known examples of this are the various Disney adaptions of Grimms’ fairy tales, originally known as the Children’s and Household Tales. This is a collection of fairy tales from German academics Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, two brothers who published some 86 stories in 1812.

Readers may be interested to know how Disney altered these original Grimm stories. For example, in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the evil Maleficent curses the King and Queen’s child, Aurora, because Maleficent is, well, evil. However, in the original Grimm version, there is more nuance to Maleficent’s actions—she is bitter on account of the King and Queen claiming not to have the money to extend her an invitation. It doesn’t justify what Maleficent does, but it helps us better understand her motives.

In Disney’s Snow White, the wicked Queen quietly dies by falling off a cliff. In the Grimms’ version, the wicked Queen is made to attend Snow White’s wedding to the handsome prince and forced to wear red-hot iron shoes. She is literally tortured with fire until she dances to death!

In Disney’s Cinderella, Ella is essentially an orphan bullied by her stepmother and step-
sisters, but saved by a handsome prince when Ella squeezes into a magic, glass slipper. In the original Grimm tale, Ella’s father never dies but rather lets his new wife and stepdaughters brutalise Ella. Moreover, the two wicked stepsisters try to squeeze into the glass slipper by cutting off their own toes and heels. Finally, in the Grimm version, the two sisters eventually have their eyes pecked out by doves.

"We treat the Bible as some PG-13 puff piece, when many of its parts are rated R."

Disney has made changes to a range of other stories too. I think it fair to say that Disney’s general approach seems to tone down the violence and torture, to make the stories less morally ambiguous, and make the characters less nuanced or complicated. We might call this the “Disney-fying” approach.

The problem with Disney’s interpretation is that it takes away from these stories. Perhaps it doesn’t prepare children for the real struggles of life, as the Grimm brothers’ version did. Perhaps Disney’s approach suggests people are a simplistic dichotomy of being either good or bad; whereas we know all supposedly good people are terrible sinners, and all terrible sinners can be redeemed. And if recent ratings are anything to go by, the Disney approach just seems more boring that a full warts-and-all tale.

Are we likewise Disney-fying the Bible?

Walt Disney was perhaps not the only person Disney-fying old stories. There is a strong case to be made that we Christians have, for too long, done the same to the Bible. Especially with the biblical tales we tell our children.

For example, we often tell our kids the story of David, who struck down Goliath with a sling and stone. But how often do we then go on to explain how David took Goliath’s sword and cut off Goliath’s head? Is this appropriate to tell children or not? I suspect Walt Disney might say no, but the Grimm brothers might say yes. What might God say, given He is the one ultimately responsible for this being written in His book?

It isn’t just children who engage in this Disney-fying. We adults do it all the time. We treat the Bible as some PG-13 puff piece, when many of its parts are rated R. And at God’s own insistence.

How often have you spent time in a Bible study, Sabbath school class, listening to sermon or in private study, discussing the sexual sin of Onan (Genesis 38:8-10)? Or Elisha’s curse on children who made fun of his baldness, resulting in God sending forth two bears that mauled 42 children (2 Kings 2:23,24)? Or Noah’s drunkenness after God saved him from the flood (Genesis 9:21)? Or the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, not to some pagan deity, but to the God of Abraham (Judges 11:39)?

Seeing the Bible in its complexity and nuance

I think it is important not to skip the hard bits of Scripture. When we get into the habit of doing this, we lose the ability to see the Bible in all the complexity God intended. Far from helping to somehow protect our faith, I suspect it makes our faith brittle and easy to challenge by others. Sometimes reading the Bible—warts and all—makes us see the nuances behind God’s plan for humanity.

To take a perhaps extreme example, the prophet Samuel gave the following message to King Saul:

I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:1-3).

Not only was Saul called to kill the women and children, but even the cattle and sheep!

This passage has confounded scholars and ordinary readers alike for generations. Is God justifying genocide? Did He want murder?

I admit no answer is totally satisfying. Yet there is nuance if we read the Bible in totality. For example, God had earlier told Moses:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way (Exodus 23:27,28).

When we read the Bible as a whole, we see God’s original plan was not mass murder. God had probably planned to send hornets to drive out the Canaanites in terror by more natural means.

Nonetheless, it never happened. Again, if we read the whole story—including the hard parts—we know the children of Israel did not remain wholly faithful. At the entrance to the Promised Land they had to stop, turn around and go back into the wilderness for another 40 years.

The Israelites wanted a king, they wanted a physical temple and they wanted war that went with those things. And God gave it to them.

The Bible is a very big book, if not a collection of books. This might entice us to be lazy. This might make us self-censor. But we should remember God had these words—these horrible events—preserved for a reason. It is up to us to discover why.


Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer who attends Livingston Seventh-day Adventist Church in Western Australia.