Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful you do them too
Children will see
Tamper with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free
Careful before you say
“Listen to me”
Children will listen
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen
(Lyrics from the musical “Into the Woods”: ‘Children Will Listen’ by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine. If you would like to hear the entire song from the musical, you can click here: Children Will Listen/Finale of Into the Woods)
Into the Woods and Out of the Court
The timing of things can sometimes be uncanny. After only a half a year after the release of the movie adaptation of the musical ‘Into the Woods’, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling concerning marriage; an institution that predates our country’s existence. The final song of the movie comes after a father begins to share the story of what just transpired to his infant son that he now carries in his arms. The song is sung by the witch, which is played with relish by actress legend, Meryl Streep.
The musical as a whole is all over the map when it comes to the messages it is communicating. I wouldn’t even say the musical is meant to be seen or even understood by children even though it was Disney who released this movie. Some of the movie’s messages seem to directly conflict with some of the warnings conveyed in the final song (see lyric excerpts above). The interaction with the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding hood seems to convey the message that the only way to learn about truth is to experience the lies and temptations offered by the enemy and to buy into what he is offering.
But, I am intrigued by the subtler messages offered concerning the children characters in the movie. What is common to them all is the lack of healthy parental figures willing to relate to their children and communicate truth in a personal way. You never see Little Red Riding Hood’s parents but she sings about the warnings of her mother and these warnings are spoken of very generally and impersonally. The boy Jack, (from Jack and the Beanstalk) has what one would call a verbally abusive mother. She hits her son in the head frequently and calls him foolish.
The Witch is also portrayed as a mother figure but one that is both distorted and disturbing. Her daughter is one she stole from the Baker’s father (and this daughter is the Baker’s sister and is the character of Rapunzel). The Witch as a mother figure is the opposite extreme of the parents of Jack and Little Red Riding Hood. Instead of being absent, dismissive or abusive, the Witch is overly protective. She is the one who has locked Rapunzel up in a tower. She keeps Rapunzel from experiencing the world because the Witch believes the world is a corrupting influence that will ruin her innocence and purity.
The Baker (an original character not borrowed from any other tale), is the one person that you could see as being a good father. But, we learn that his own father ran away and abandoned him when he was a young boy because he didn’t think he could raise him. (Spoiler Alert! Skip to next paragraph if you don’t want a major story moment revealed)
One of the moments in the movie that rings most true is the interaction the Baker has with his own father at the end of the film. The Baker’s wife has died and he is left with their newborn child. The Baker leaves the child with Cinderella and says he doesn’t have what it takes to be a father without his wife there for support. The Baker encounters the ghost of his deceased father and expresses anger at his father for abandoning him. His father expresses genuine remorse for his failure and challenges his son to “do better than me!”. The Baker returns to his infant son and decides to raise him and be his father.
What is most interesting to me in all these images of parenting or the lack thereof is how it truly communicates what challenges parents and children face in today’s families. More children than ever are growing up in families where parents physically abuse or neglect their children. One truly horrific report from this past year was about a single father who suffocated his infant child to death because the child’s crying was interrupting his video game playing. With the pervasive acceptance of contraception and abortion by our society, children today are often received or rejected as an inconvenience or a property to be fought over in the case of divorce. With children no longer widely seen as the ultimate gift that comes about from the stable and permanent relationship between a man and woman within the sacred union of marriage, it is no surprise to see the Supreme Court seeing children as perfunctory with regard to its ruling on marriage.
There has been a flurry of articles written about the marriage ruling. Many have been helpful in showing that this ruling is the fruit of a fifty-year loss to the inherent meaning of marriage (Click here for a great example). The courts are merely a reflection of the trends of our culture. Some have wanted to argue that the courts are meant to be an apolitical body that only can interpret the laws of congress and not create social policy or ‘find’ rights for individuals that the constitution speaks nothing about. While I sympathize with this view of the court’s role, it is one that is more founded on patriotic idealism and not historic realism. The court has come to many rulings over the last 239 years of our country’s existence which have supported unjust laws. A great example of this is the Dred Scott decision before Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln strongly opposed the decision and would go on to appoint five supreme court justices during his presidency. He had this to say during his first inaugural address:
“If the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions, the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.” (Click here to see how Lincoln responded to ‘Dred Scott’ and how we can respond today)
These court decisions came out of the ideologies of the times when those justices were appointed. From a Catholic perspective, we have the long view of history to reflect on and we can remember how many times Catholics have been treated with injustice not only in the United States but in just about every country under the sun. Many governments have tried to blot out the faith from the face of the earth and have had a consistent record of failure. For a great reflection on the Catholic historical perspective on this ruling, Father Robert Barron offers a great analysis here:
The reason for this is that the Catholic Church is not merely a human institution like a political body, but is the Body of Christ. Christ promises to be present in the Church through all time until His return and the Trinity promises to not allow even Satan’s diabolical forces, let alone the inferior ones of men, to triumph over it.
What do we do now?
So, what should Christians do going forward? We should do what we have always done in every century since the ascension of Christ. We should bear witness to the truth of God’s love by what we say and how we live. This means that Christian young people should listen to their parents if they are well formed in the faith and seek their wisdom in forming relationships centered on the love of God.
If their parents are not mature in Christian faith, then this is where the beauty of the Catholic Church comes in. The Church provides such a treasury of communion that young people can draw from. Are there many Catholics that do not live out their faith today? Of course. But this has been true in every century. There are also many Catholics who are living saints today. They are growing in the love of God and live virtuous lives. I remember when I first entered the Catholic Church five years ago in Grand Rapids I was blessed to make friends with Catholic young adults who were actively living their faith. It was such a joy to attend a particular couple’s wedding after seeing their relationship grow while centered on the love of Christ.
Witnessing the Good
Can the Catholic Church do better at bearing witness to the good of marriage? Absolutely. There are many Catholics who don’t realize the profound life of mission and purpose God has called them to. They have been drawn away from the depth of Christ’s love into the shallows of social media and consumerism. While communist countries sought to visibly and deliberately remove faith and religion from their societies through the burning of churches and the killing of priests, friars, nuns and lay ministers we face a much more subtler approach of the enemy in our culture but with the same intent. Faith has been lost in the milieu of noise and distraction offered in entertainment and material goods. The smart phone connects people to everything but the most vital connection: the God of love and truth. One of the first Christian philosophers, Blaise Pascal said centuries ago: All mankind’s troubles are caused by one single thing, which is their inability to sit quietly in a room. (Pensees, II, 139) To be quiet and present to God is something that every corner of our culture has been gradually snuffing out.
Even earlier in Christian history, the great Catholic Bishop, Saint Augustine, before becoming a Christian says in his Confessions: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
‘Created things kept me from you’ and ‘You were within me, but I was outside’. Many of us have lost the interior life of the heart and this is where God is softly trying to speak to us and draw us back to Himself. Christ’s Church is not silent. It is offering help to people. For those struggling with marriages and hungering to see its goodness being lived, there is a helpful website that you can explore here: For Your Marriage Going beyond help found on websites, get off your computer or phone and run to your local Catholic parish and find out what kind of ministries are offered for married couples. Or, if single and considering marriage, find out what kind of ministries are available to mature in faith and intimate communion with Christ. Your life with Christ will attract the right man or woman to you to spend your life with or you may discover that you are attracted to a vocation which calls for a special intimacy with God through life as a celibate man or woman.
The good news is that the Truth is both beautiful and good. It is compelling when it is genuinely lived. The lives of the Saints who have gone before and who actively pray for us now in heaven are lives of beauty. The building of houses of worship where Christ is worshiped during Mass and communed with in the Eucharist is one of the best places people can discover true beauty. While our culture becomes uglier and creates things for efficiency, the Catholic faith’s beauty becomes more and more of a contrast. I dare anyone to walk into a Catholic Cathedral and not come away with the profound sense that: “the purpose of this building is to convey a deep and beautiful communion of love that is being lived and experienced.”
The one line that grabs my attention from the lyrics I began with above is: “Tamper with what is true/ and children will turn /if just to be free.” The Supreme court attempted to tamper with a fundamental truth about human nature, sexuality, and the meaning of family, children and relationships. Just as the young generation after Roe v. Wade began to rebel against that decision, so it will also rebel against this one. The truth can never be totally snuffed out. Truth incarnate was killed on a roman Cross and Life itself came back on the third day and this Life has spread throughout the whole world. There is a slavery to tampering with truth. It confines people into a state of delusion and selfish desires that fail to consider long term consequences. That is why that final line, “if just to be free” is true. Children see through lies better than anyone.
A Cry For Family From Another ‘World’
Another movie recently came out that makes this point well. Jurassic World was basically a monster movie that has gone on to become one of the most successful films of all time. Right in the middle of that movie there is an interaction between two brothers concerning their parents. Many people dismissed this interaction as being unnecessary and forced into the movie. But, for what it was, it displayed the point made above. The younger brother, not quite a teenager yet begins to cry when he tells his older brother that he knows his parents are getting a divorce. The older brother tries to cheer the younger brother up and says that even if their parents do get divorced that means they get two birthday parties and two Christmases every year. The young boy sees through this comment and says he doesn’t want two of everything, he just wants his mom and dad to be together.
This boy expresses a response to all the lies being thrown at our children today concerning divorce and whether children are best when provided with the love of their mother and father. The child rejects the false alternative presented by the older brother who has been hardened by the messages he has heard longer than his younger brother. At the end of the interaction, there is a moment of silence between the two and you notice that the older brother is drawn to what the younger brother has expressed. The scene only plays for a couple minutes and sadly these characters could have been better developed throughout the movie, but I believe it provides an interesting response to everything that has transpired so far with regards to the family in our culture.
The voice of the children is what has been dismissed and drowned out throughout the past decades. This is what makes these decisions by the Supreme Court and other courts so egregious. It disregards the voices of children who yearn to be received in love by their biological father and mother. The voices of children who grew up raised by same sex parents have begun to express their remorse of never having the presence of their father or their mother in their lives. Some even went as far to write letters to the court expressing this concern before the court chose to make its decision.
As the Catholic Church convenes its synod on the family this fall, let us pray for our families and particularly ask for the intercession of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. May their prayers bring about great conversions in our families and may we become families who share an intimate communion with the Trinity and the family of faith on earth and in heaven.