The Pirates of the Caribbean as a Christian Meditation (Seriously!)
If you have ever been to Disneyland, odds are you’ve been on that classic ride, The Pirates of the Caribbean. I like many of the rides at Disneyland for the worlds that they create and transport us through, but I especially like the Pirates of the Caribbean because of its otherworldliness.
In fact, my favorite part of the ride is actually in the very beginning when you feel like your gliding through a Louisiana bayou on a still, starry night. And there’s that restaurant that you pass by, called the Blue Bayou. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night actually is, guests at the Blue Bayou “sit ‘outside’ in perpetual twilight, surrounded by winking fireflies and the soothing sounds of the bayou’s crickets and frogs.” (description from the Disneyland website)
Has any one ever eaten at the Blue Bayou? I don’t have much of a bucket list yet, but that is definitely on it.
So the last time I was at Disneyland, my 11-year-old son and I went on the Pirates of the Caribbean. He was admittedly, under whelmed, and about halfway through the ride he said, “I don’t get it, dad, what is this ride supposed to be about?”
A thoughtful question!
I thought for a minute, and answered as honestly as I could, “I guess it’s just a bunch of drunk pirates. Not much of a storyline really.”
“Yo ho ho ho, A pirate’s life for me!”
As we floated through the underground caverns of the ride, I thought some more about this question. And it occurred to me that piracy is not exactly the most virtuous vocation. I mean, pirates are essentially thieves.
I continued to meditate on the theological implications of the Pirates of the Caribbean, (because I have this affliction of thinking about things theologically, even rides at Disneyland), and it occurred to me that all of the seven deadly sins were actually represented in the ride.
There’s Anger in the fighting scenes. There’s Lust with the Brides for Rent. There’s Envy with all the stealing. There’s Gluttony and Sloth with the drunk guy sitting in pig slop. There’s Avarice (or greed) with all the piles of money and buried treasure. And all of the scenes are, of course, undergirded by Pride. You can almost see the pride in the eyes of the animatronic figures.
Who knew that the Pirates of the Caribbean made such a wonderful Christian meditation!
Of course, one of the things that makes the ride so spooky is all of the skeletons. I think it’s really interesting that the whole first half of the ride is filled with scenes of all the skeletons – dead pirates with all their loot.
And the second half of the ride is filled with scenes of pirates who are not dead yet; who are still “living” it up.
This order is very telling.
We see right up front, the endgame of all these vices – these choices and lifestyles that lead to death. The ride almost takes the viewer backwards. When we make it to the living pirates, we know just where they are headed.
In the original version, before the movies were made, the ride ended with a pirate skeleton sitting on top of an enormous pile of gold coins and treasure. I think of that scene every time I read that verse from today’s gospel where Jesus says, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his life?”
That dead pirate on his pile of treasure is such a clear picture – an icon really — of how we humans misplace our priorities in this life.
It is reminiscent of Our Lord’s sermon on the mount, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
We are called to seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added unto us.
And that pile of gold coins is not just symbolic of greed. It is symbolic of all of our sinful passions and desires; all those things that we seek in this world which turn our attention away from the things of God.
We can’t take them with us when we die. And yet, when we live, they can take us away from our focus on, and love for, God.
Our sinful passions persuade us towards the things of this world, and away from the things of God.
The Bible gives us a very clear picture of these two very different choices. It is given to us in the image of two trees.
On of those trees we see in the beginning of the bible, in Genesis, in the garden. It is a tree whose fruit is very beautiful and enticing. And yet, while it looks life-giving, the fruit of that tree actually leads to death.
The other tree is found at the other end of the bible. It is a piece of dead wood on a dark hill. It is a tree that is not enticing at all. And yet, while it looks like death, the fruit of that tree actually leads to everlasting life. That tree is, of course, the cross.
Our human condition, subjected to the passions of the flesh, leads us toward the tree in the garden, and away from the tree on the hill.
It’s almost . . . natural.
We see this aversion to the cross in the gospel. Jesus teaches his disciples “that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” And we’re told that “Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.”
Peter speaks for all of humanity in his reaction against Our Lord’s prophetic words. “You can’t do that, Jesus! Don’t talk like that! No torture. No suffering. No cross. No death.”
But Jesus, in his response to St. Peter, reveals to all of humanity the great irony of the Christian faith. “Get behind me, Satan!” he says. “For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
The avoidance of the cross, and of death, is engrained in the mind of humanity.
But not in the mind of God!
The tree in the garden is a symbol of all that we take for ourselves, to the neglect of God; the fruit of that tree is the seven deadly sins, that always leave us empty, and unsatisfied, and pining for more. In the end, we might have all that world offers, but none of that can save our souls. As Jesus says, “For what can a man give in return for his life?” There is no amount of earthly pleasure, or treasure, that we can trade to redeem our fallen souls.
The cross, on the other hand, is a symbol of dying to our self – to our pride, and every other sinful thought and action that draws us from the love of God. And the fruit of the cross is eternal life – it is the fruits of the Holy Spirit of God that are manifested in us when we choose Him.
In the gospel, Jesus refers to these two fundamental trees, and these two fundamental choices that we each face every day.
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; (That’s the tree in the garden), and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (That’s the tree on the hill at Golgotha).
Let us remember and meditate on – not what each tree looks like – but where it leads to.
Let us choose the cross.
As you venture into the caverns of the Pirates of the Caribbean, there is a skull and cross bones that utters the famous phrase, “Dead men tell no tales.”
The idea is that one way of keeping someone quiet is to kill them.
Though we follow Our Lord to the cross, we know that the cross is not the end, but rather the way of life and peace. We do not follow a dead man. We know this, because the tale of the Living Christ has never ceased being told. As we choose the cross, may his story continue to be told in us and through us.