We Were Voyagers: The Theology of Moana

[Disclaimer: This is certainly not the only way to look at the symbolism and typology in Moana. It would be great to discuss how any of you see it.]

The kids and I have probably watched Moana three times since it showed up in our Netflix queue. I have to admit I enjoy the movie. It’s the anti-Frozen steeped in Christian theology and typology. I get a little emotional whenever Taka realizes this is not who she is supposed to be and gives herself over to the Heart of Tafiti.

Moana is the daughter of the village chief on an island her people have inhabited for generations. She is being groomed to take over as the chief of her village. Her father wants her to keep the ancient ways of their people.

Moana represents the journey each of us must walk through on this Earth.

Look at what her father tells her:

Moana, make way, make way
Moana, it’s time you knew
The village of Motonui is all you need
The dancers are practicing
They dance to an ancient song
Who needs a new song?
This old one’s all we need
[Chief Tui:]
This tradition is our mission
And, Moana, there’s so much to do
Make way!


[Chief Tui:]
Don’t walk away
Moana, stay on the ground now
Our people will need a chief
and there you are

Even as a baby, Moana is drawn to something more than her isolated village. It seems that her Gramma, Tala, is the only one who seems to think life can be done a different way. In the opening sequence, as Moana is being told to stay grounded, her Gramma sings:

I like to dance with the water
The undertow and the waves
The water is mischievous, ha!
I like how it misbehaves
The village may think I’m crazy
Or say that I drift too far
But once you know what you like,
Well, there you are

You are your father’s daughter
Stubbornness and pride
Mind what he says but remember
You may hear a voice inside
And if the voice starts to whisper
To follow the farthest star
Moana, that voice inside is who you are

Life has a way of misbehaving. God makes it a habit of doing what we neither expect nor think He should. Deep down, I think, despite our protests, we want Him to. We have an unshakeable sense that there is more to life than what most people say there is. There have been times where we have connected with that “farthest star”. Perhaps it is a particularly otherworldly lovemaking session with your spouse, the time when pure love was reflected in your child’s eyes, or that time at the beach with your friends as you watched the indescribable beauty of the setting sun. These are not times of merely joy and pleasure, which are good, but times where we are connected and almost lost to something outside of ourselves. Those times are few and seem unreal next to the daily slog. Expecting it of real life makes us feel foolish but frustratingly the voice still whispers “It can be like that all the time“.

Moana keeps hearing the whisper of that voice every time she looks at the horizon beyond her island.

I’ve been staring at the edge of the water
Long as I can remember, never really knowing why
I wish I could be the perfect daughter
But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try

Every turn I take, every trail I track
Every path I make, every road leads back
To the place I know where I cannot go
Where I long to be

See the line where the sky meets the sea.
It calls me
And no one knows, how far it goes

Moana is torn between two good things; her family and her calling. If only there was a way to bring her heritage into her calling.

Gramma represents Wisdom

Gramma leads Moana to seek out another way to be “of Motonui”. Gramma tells anyone who will listen that the perfection and simplicity of island life is an illusion. Out there, beyond the reef, there is a growing darkness that is coming for them. She reminds Moana of a time when she was chosen by the Ocean for something special. She shows Moana the way to “find out who you are meant to be”.

How Moana finds out her calling is the opposite of what us Western thinkers would assume. It is the opposite of what Elsa tells us it is. It’s not the radical individualism confirming mantra of “Let It Go” (which also explains its popularity). Moana’s journey is to take her people with her. She is not only to restore the Heart of Tafiti, but also to restore her people.

We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high
We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze
At night, we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are

Aue, aue
We set a course to find
A brand new island everywhere we roam
Aue, aue
We keep our island in our mind
And when it’s time to find home
We know the way

Moana’s unshakeable conviction that she was meant for more is confirmed by the wisdom of the ancients who came before her. This is the opposite of casting off the shackles of the past but instead, it is looking to the past to find freedom in the present.

The Church contains this Wisdom. The Church is the history of two thousands years of ancients who communed with God, the source of that “something more”. And yet, so often we use the past to restrict the present. We are told that we must do what has always been done because we’ve always done it that way. Each denomination, movement, and sect is an isolated island of Motonui when we were voyagers and could be voyagers again. We voyaged in the Early Church, we voyaged in the Reformation, we voyaged in the Great Awakening, we voyaged in the Azusa Street Revival. We were voyagers; we can voyage again.

Maui is Human Freedom

Gramma’s death spurs on Moana’s journey to restore the Heart of Tafiti.

See her light up the night in the sea, she calls me
And yes I know that I can go
There’s a moon in the sky and the wind is behind me
Soon I’ll know how far I’ll go

The ancients confirm that call in us that we can go and find something more. There is more than the drudgery of a mortgage and the corporate ladder. Those things are good on their own. Motonui was good. But there is more than good in our calling to be voyagers.

Moana reaches Maui, the demi-god who stole the Heart from Tafiti and so spread the darkness. In a conversation I had with a friend, he thought Maui represented sin. I do not think that is quite right. Maui did some good things. Giving mankind the sun, fire, fish, coconuts and the wind. Maui pulled the islands from the sea what that great hook. Maui did some good, sin cannot do anything good.

Human autonomy has given us good things. Human beings have created wondrous works of beauty in art and literature. Science and technology have lengthened our lives by decades. The Bible was written by men whose personalities and emotions were not extinguished by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Women create human beings in their bodies and then sacrifice those same bodies to care for them. Ideas such as human rights and racial equality have saved and improved the lives of millions in the last two hundred years. The material goods created by capitalism has and continues to do the same. Mankind has given rise to immense goodness and beauty.

Mankind is also capable of unimaginable horrors. War. Racism. Greed. Men in power all over the world are right now subjecting their own people to torture, humiliation, starvation, and death for the purpose of their own power and wealth. Even good things are used for evil. The Reformation was good. Without the Reformation, however, there is no Enlightenment and without the Enlightenment, there is no secularism. Secularism continues to ravage societies in the Western world. Men and women murder babies by the hundreds of thousands in the West to seek to deny the purpose of their bodies as made in the Image of God. Mantras created by the minds of men like “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “My Body, My Choice” cause the deaths of thousands of the most vulnerable among us.

All the while human autonomy demands to be praised. “Thank you” it wants us to chant. Human autonomy for its own sake always leads men to want to become God. In the ultimate repudiation of human limitation, Maui steals the Heart of Tafiti so that humans can do what only God can do; create life.

The Heart of Tafiti is the Image of God

Tafiti, the mother island, with its Heart in its proper place, gave mankind the ability to create. We are little creators. The people of Motonui built boats, wove tapestries, made traps for fish, and ink for tattoos. All from the natural world that Tafiti created. But without the Image of God in its’ proper place, sin and corruption, the darkness, begins to spread.

All we have to do is look at the social media machines in our pockets or turn on any TV news station for five minutes and we’ll see how desperately mankind is trying to recreate itself in its own image. We desperately hate the reality that we are not God and indeed have been created in His Image and for His purposes. The sexual revolution and the untold destruction is has continued to wrought is nothing short of a declared war on the Image of God.

Taka is Us

We rage against the fact that we are unable to recreate human life as we see fit. We rage, as Taka does, that we do not possess the Heart of Tafiti. Moana and Maui journey across the Ocean to restore the Heart. Taka stands in their way. Maybe something us Westerners hate more than the idea that we are not God is the person who tells us we are not God. Taka is intent on murdering the messengers.

Jesus said the world would hate Christians. This is why. Jesus, if He is real and was telling the truth, represents who we are supposed to be like. Taka cannot abide such truth.

At first, Taka defeats Moana and Maui as she so often does these days. Maui, with the threat of losing his power and no vainglory in sight, quits the quest. Moana’s journey to fulfill her calling is now at a crossroads. It seems she is able to reject her call. The Ocean takes back the Heart of Tafiti to find another but leaves it within Moana’s reach if she wants it back. I think the Sea represents the Holy Spirit, or the Kingdom of God, or some other way of expressing God’s providence in nature. In this time of crises, Gramma shows up and asks what Moana has learned about her calling:

Who am I?
I am a girl who loves my island
And the girl who loves the sea, it calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me

I’ve delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more
Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all
It’s inside me
It’s like the tide
Always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart
You’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way

I am Moana!

Moana’s self-declaration is the climax of the song but we cannot miss how different it is from Elsa’s heritage rejecting*** “No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free!”. Moana defines herself through her heritage. “I am the daughter of the village chief” is how she grounds her identity. We too are children of God first. Above all things, that is who we are. I’m a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and an employee. At my core, however, I am a child beloved by God.

[***I do not exactly blame Elsa for fleeing her past. With their “conceal, don’t feel” lock-you-in-a-room-for-your-entire-childhood parenting style, her parents are her Dr. Frankenstein and she is their monster. A sociopathic monster who was only awakened to love by the self-sacrifice of the sister she murdered. What a great movie for kids!]

An identity grounded in the group from which we come spurns Western radical individualism. It is how the ancient Hebrews thought. It is how the men who wrote the Bible thought. Losing this framework has robbed us of many of the riches of the Bible. Whenever Paul says “in Christ” what he means by it, at least in part, is that we are defined by the group of men and women who believe in Jesus Christ, all of us being a part of God’s family. He did not mean some exclusive, personal relationship with Jesus Christ that you can go off and do with it what you please.

Moana is re-energized by her heritage as descended from voyagers and the family from which she comes. She takes back the Heart of Tafiti and turns her boat towards Taka again.

Tafiti Is Who We Are Meant To Be

When Taka seems to get the upper hand Maui dramatically returns to free Moana to make for Tafiti’s island. When she gets there, Tafiti is gone. Taka is about to deliver a killing blow to Maui who, his hook destroyed, seems to accept his fate. Moana holds up the heart of Tafiti. It is a beacon that catches Taka’s eye. The Ocean makes way for Taka to reach Moana and instead of destroying her she stops and allows her to return the Heart to its rightful place.

Why does she stop? No matter how much we rage, when someone shines the true beauty of the image of God, we know it is who we are meant to be. The call of the Gospel pulls us out of our hatred, malice, and self-indulgence. It speaks to something deeper than our protestations. We know we are supposed to be life-givers and not death-dealers; creators and not destroyers. In the Western world, we have everything we could ever want and more. We are unbelievably wealthy in comparison to the rest of the human beings who have ever walked this Earth. And yet, it is still not enough. Still, our souls cry out for something more, maybe even something else.

I love the music and the theology behind this movie. Moana has found her calling. My sincere hope is that we all find ours.





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2 Responses to We Were Voyagers: The Theology of Moana

  1. Tim Nichols says:

    I just found this. Great stuff, Eric!
    Just for fun, something to add: Te Ka can’t go into the water. But to receive the heart that will make her new, she has to passs through the water. At Moana’s request, a way is made, and Te Ka passes through the sea to receive a new heart and become the (very different) person she was meant to be: Te Fiti. In other words, it’s a baptism. (And an efficacious one. Heh.)

    And the baptism is administered by Moana, who went through her own baptism a little earlier in order to reacquire the calling she’d rejected.

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