Theology & The Church

Beauty and the Beast and Boycotts

Stephen Woodworth

Editor's note: TC is a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The denomination's position statement on homosexuality can be found here.

Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast would have gone largely unnoticed by me if not for a miniature controversy that has sprung up around it. It seems that some Christians are troubled enough by one possible element in the film that they’re calling for a Disney boycott.

In a recent USA Todayarticle, Jonathan Merritt notes that the boycott, spearheaded by evangelist Franklin Graham, came about after word spread that Beauty and the Beast featured a gay supporting character. Graham considered this an attempt to “push the LGBT agenda into the hearts and minds of your children.” While I cannot speak to the movie’s messaging or merits given that I, like Graham, haven’t seen it, I can speak about the call for Christians to boycott.

Without dismissing the legitimate concerns one might have about messaging in children’s movies, I must say I’ve been struck by the utterly uncreative response of the church in instances like this. I have written previously at TC about the limits of this strategy, and I think the cultural landscape has shifted in a way that makes boycotts even less effective now than they were then. The church must be willing to abandon outdated rules of cultural engagement if it desires to minister within what is quickly becoming a post-Christian nation.

Historically, the American church has enjoyed the luxury of playing a leading role in shaping the conscience of the nation by embodying biblical values and traditions shared by a majority of its citizens. In recent decades, such influence has been eroded by denominational splits, theological liberalization, mission drift, and the changing views of a new generation who considers themselves “spiritual,” but not religious. In this new environment, old paradigms simply become unworkable, including boycotts. By their very nature, boycotts are only successful when they are conducted by those who hold power and influence. This is why, for example, you seldom see Haiti calling for sanctions.

The church must abandon outdated rules of cultural engagement if it desires to minister to a post-Christian nation.

Regardless of the pragmatism of boycotts, the church needs to wrestle with the theological and ecclesiastical implications of reducing our influence in society to economic coercion. As Alan Noble wrote at Christ & Pop Culture, “Whether it is through votes or dollars, coercing someone to accept our position is nihilistic: it suggests that real change—-change of heart and mind—-is impossible, or unlikely, and so the safest bet is to make it profitable to adopt our beliefs.” Furthermore, as Merritt notes in his USA Today piece, boycotts are often used as a quick solution to a complicated problem, a posture of reaction which “diverts energy from a more worthwhile effort: teaching Christian children to coexist in a pluralistic society.”

Last year I found myself gripped by the FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson. Of particular interest to me was not the outcome of the trial (which we already knew), but the brilliance of O.J. attorney Johnnie Cochran. I could not help but be impressed by his ability to free a man who, by every conceivable measure, appeared undeniably guilty. Cochran’s advice to the defense team: “Our job is to tell our story better than the other side tells theirs.”

If the church desires to maintain influence in a post-Christian world, we must tell our story better than others tell theirs. If Christians believe that same-sex marriage is not what God intended, then we must tell a better story about what God offers us within the boundaries of traditional marriage, rather than boycott any hint of homosexuality whenever and wherever it appears.

When the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage to be legal in all 50 states, evangelical leaders wrung their hands, lamenting the loss of the culture wars. What many failed to notice, however, was that the seismic shift in cultural thinking about same-sex marriage came about largely through the use of narrative—personal stories about the gay experience. While the church continued to rely on propositional truth, the rest of the world was wooed by storytelling.

My fear is that during the previous age of influence, the church grew lazy and out of shape. In contrast to the millions of believers around the globe who have flourished as minorities under oppressive governments and punitive legislation, the church in the West has not been forced to exercise the muscles of creativity and cultural engagement. We have always been able to merely lean on our power in numbers. As those numbers dwindle, the church is now facing an epoch in which capturing the hearts and minds of people is an enterprise shaped largely by whoever can tell the best story, not stage the most effective boycott.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Church, News & Politics, Media