In the last installment, we talked about the utopian aspects of Raya and the Last Dragon and how true unity and peace can only be found in Christ. Here we will talk about the deeper religious aspects of this film and what that implies about our own culture.
Though our culture tries to escape it, mankind is inherently religious. We desire to have something to worship. We live by rituals and traditions, however minute they may be. And we desire a Savior, someone to perfect us, make us clean. While Raya and the Last Dragon claims that a utopia can be achieved by human means, we know this isn’t possible. Even without discussing all I did in my previous post, just a cursory observation of human nature makes that fact evident. We are not perfectible by our own means. But we look for that renewal, though often in all the wrong places. That desire remains in us, a longing that is at the center of our being. And even in a culture hell-bent separating itself from God and the truth of His Word, we still find ourselves going back to those tales literally as old as time, finding ourselves strangely close to the truth yet still missing its crucial mark.
A Common Narrative
To begin this discussion of faith in Raya, I want to start with history. While creating a fictional world with its own history, the writers of Raya have found themselves falling into the same mythos and historical narrative that the ancients did. Though looking like the aftermath of a game of telephone, the writers here created this common narrative: creation, fall, flood, return to evil/division, long period of miserable history, new baptism, unity. Look familiar? So, we don’t get an actual creation story. We being in media res. However, we do have a Garden-like perfection. Everything is beautiful, making is perfect, and the beasts lie down with defenseless creatures. Suddenly, a destructive force (sin) enters the world, turnings everyone to stone (dust/death). Then a stronger, seemingly supernatural force enters and cleanses the world of the immediate consequences of this destructive force (sacrifice/expulsion from the Garden/more awful history/flood). Sadly, people continue in discord (division or Babel/miserable history) until the world is on the brink of destruction, being consumed by fire and ash until everything is washed clean (new baptism/end times/unity). And I know. I might be reading a bit into the narrative, and the writers combine some things that don’t make the plot fit into a perfect biblical narrative. But the elements are close and there nonetheless.
And why is this? Perhaps many of these writers are writing the narrative of our own world history subconsciously. After all, it is a tale as old as time. Cultures across the world have this same basic plot to their own historical narratives, with no less fantastic elements than Raya has (complete with talking, magical animals). There’s a perfect creation, rebellion, a flood, a breaking of communities, long miserable history, and a desire for salvation. Nearly every culture has longed for that cleansing. Thankfully, it has come, though not in the way most imagined. At the heart of it all, whether the writers realize it or not, this tale is deeply religious, even hinting at our Christian roots and our longing for a deeper spirituality.
Rituals of Humanity
Despite a great number of people claiming that traditions are bad for the sake of tradition and rituals are for the “less evolved” cultures, you cannot enter any culture without finding rituals, traditions, or elements that bind humanity, including our own. Here is one that is very old that still finds itself in the present and this film: gift-giving. In the past, gifts were a sign of trust. You gave a gift as a sign of hospitality, and the traditional host-guest relationship was sacred. Breaking such trust only resulted in misery. We see this displayed in Raya. For one, Namari gives Raya a gift, then breaks her trust and her role as a guest by betraying the gem to her people. Raya then sees no point in offering gifts again because they have only symbolized a breaking of trust for her. Today, we still give gifts as a sign of community and peace. Betraying that trust, either by theft or Trojan-horse-style, causes discord among us.
We have other rituals and traditions as well. We have birthday parties, weddings, funerals, and even graduation ceremonies. These are all traditions, along with their various rituals, that bind us together in culture, time, and community. Raya does not leave out traditions and rituals. Among them are the fellowship of eating together, the circle that they raise as a sign of respect, and even the reverence towards and symbolism of Sisu and the other dragons.
One ritual that I noticed during a late watching was the ritual Raya performs to being Sisu back. This sort of symbolism and attention detail is rarely shown in most films, let alone a children’s movie. She lays out a sacrifice, pours water, burns intense, and sings a traditional song. (Although what language it is in is beyond me. One odd element of the film is that some phrases, and this song, are done in a different language that no one commonly speaks.) Of course, wrapped up in all of these traditions is the narrative of the story itself. The reason all the people act the way they do – the mistrust, the circle, the gem, the eating, the nature of who they are – comes down to their history and their understanding of it. It is what binds them together, and ironically keeps them apart.
Even so, the elements of traditions and rituals bring us together. They are also highly religious in nature. We don’t do these things because we have to. There is no materialistic reason for us to hold to traditions or perform certain rituals. There really is no “reason” exactly for us to do them at all. They do, however, connect us to other people in ways that simple trade or material purposes do not. We are bound by the signs and seasons, our gatherings and celebrations, our history, and what we rest our faith on. The people of Raya do these things, even their awful actions, because of their faith in the dragons, and even what the world used to be. I think including these elements highlights that longing is us today. We desire a connection deeper than daily tasks. And we long for something to rest our faith on.
What is Faith?
As far as I could tell, the word faith is never mentioned in the entire film. And yet, it is one of if not these central elements of this movie. So what is faith? In essence, it is trust, and this is central to this story. Everyone has faith in something. Even babies have faith. Yet this movie shows our need for a faith or trust in something beyond ourselves.
Early in the film, Raya’s father talks about how the tribes need to start trusting each other before they tear each other apart. This is true. A lack of faith, mistrusting everything, will only bring fear and discontent. The movie largely focuses on trusting other people. The theme of gift-giving relates here. And yet, no one ever brings gifts (or at least, not without the element of betrayal). No one trusts anyone else either. Not until the end. So what do these people trust in initially? They trust in their wits, their “might makes right” abilities, and supposedly in the dragons. That’s why they all want to gem in the first place. And yet, striving after all of these things only brings more discord.
Faith is only as good as what you have that faith in. While the movie portrays the main character’s trust in each other as the saving grace for the world, everything else in the movie leading up to that moment (not to mention reality) evidences the opposite. We cannot trust each other enough to bring about our own salvation. Nothing in this world actually unifies us, let alone presents itself as great enough to rest our faith, our trust, our salvation on. Nothing, of course, except Christ. He is God made flesh who came into this world to suffer, die, and rise again for us. Better yet, He came without our prompting, without our ability to give a gift first or in response, without our ability to trust at all. We were dead, and He made us alive. He washed away our hearts of stone, and we now have faith in Him and His promises. And that leads me to the last prominent religious symbol of the film: Baptism.
Baptism along with water is the most enduring symbol throughout the film. There are various individual references to water and its important nature, such as the teams of endearment used by parents. But the baptism imagery starts from the beginning of their historical narrative.
First, Sisu mentions something about halfway through the story: dragons bring water and life to the world. Second, the gem is not only formed by two water-like dragons, but once the gem’s power unveils, rain washes the people made into stone. Third, when Raya becomes the guardian, her father pours the water surrounding the gem over her. There’s an argument for a fourth moment when Raya’s father sacrifices himself to save his daughter by throwing her and the gem in the life-preserving water (and in away, she is turned into a different person). Finally, at the second renewing of the world, rain comes again and fills the world with water (which seems to have been drying out even before Sisu’s death). These symbols of baptism and water also appear in other places in the film. People travel on water, the Druun are repelled by water, and even the fact that Sisu is a water dragon is important. I know that she says “It could have been any of us,” but the writers didn’t. I think the fact that water was a key element to the film was central to the plot as part of the deeper symbolism.
So what is baptism? For starters, the word itself comes from a Greek word meaning immerse or to dip in water. But with Christianity, the word now has come to be understood as one of the Means of Grace bestowing salvation for our sins. In this, Christianity is different from other regions. We do not save ourselves. Christ has done this. So to, we don’t baptize ourselves. It is not something we do or choose for ourselves. Instead, it is done to us, cleansing us of our sins by water and the Word while we are dead and helpless. So what does this have to do with what happens in Raya?
Although there is some question to be had on whether it was their trust that made the gem work or the gem working on its own, a baptism still happens at the end of Raya. And though the who is under debate, the what is less so. Look at what happens when the Druun overcome a person. They prowl about, seeking someone to devour. Once they find someone, they consume what gave them life, and the person is turned to stone. And so are we before our baptism. Our sinful nature had consumed us, making us dead in sin, helpless to save ourselves.
Now look to how the characters remain. All except for a few of the people are frozen in a suppliant manner. Their heads are bowed, their arms outstretched, their hands open as if to either give or receive. While gift-giving is repeated throughout the plot, this stone has nothing to give. Their hands are empty. They offer nothing. And turned to stone, lifeless without their soul, they can offer nothing. They are dead.
Yet at the very end, what happens? Raya’s hands fill with water as the rain falls, passively receiving the life-giving rain. It is grace. The rain washes away the stone, making them clean, giving them life. This baptism came not from their own actions. They were still dead. But the rain washed them to life. Everyone once turned to stone now has come back to life.
Fiction Reflecting Reality
We cannot ignore the discord in our world. Total depravity is evident, even from when are small children. Not even the movie tries to dissuade us from that fact! And yet, we still think we can purify ourselves, and the world, by our own actions. We think we can perfect mankind. But we cannot even stop ourselves from sinning. We can’t even save ourselves, dead in sin as we are. But the movie is right about a couple of things. Sin is the result of human discord or rebellion with God (though they miss the God part, which is neither unsurprising nor insignificant). The wages of sin is death, and to dust we rerun. Our sin makes us impure, unable to stand before God, living in a heart of stone. What’s worse, it’s a living death of our own making. Who would sacrifice for us after all we had done?
Such a question is asked at the end as well. None of the characters trust one in particular because of her betrayal. How could they “After all that she’s done?” And yet, trust was given. They sacrificed after all that they all had done, after what the world had done to make it crumble. Now, the analogy is not perfect. This movie strongly relies on work-righteousness, even if they wouldn’t say it like that. People need people to be able to save themselves in this film. Despite evidence to the contrary, we still think we can save ourselves. This film evidences mankind’s longing for both forgiveness and faith. But it also shows how people still ignore the One who freely gave us both.
Thankfully, we have forgiveness and faith. Sadly, people still refuse to accept that God is who saves us. Surly our works, our plans can bring that concordia. For if it is only God, there are a lot of other consequences and implications that come with such a belief. But we know mankind needs to be saved. We know that we need faith in something greater than ourselves. We know that we need to be made clean. And we already have that. Christ has already come into the world to save us. We can’t make Heaven on Earth, we can’t save ourselves. But the Kingdom of God is already at hand. God has already forgiven us despite all that we have done. And in baptism, we can be made clean and alive again.
So, I love this movie. I love dragons, and history, and a fleeting glimpse at a culture still showing signs of its Christian roots. But it also makes me sad. Because like so many other stories, it places all that weight, responsibility, and guilt on ourselves, and we can do nothing to lift it. And yet, like most stories found in a post-Christian culture, they are so close to the true answer, and the Truth will set you free.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig