Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!
Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved stories. Every day she woke and fell asleep to the sound of pages turning and her mother voicing a host of different characters. On the way to school, she listened to her father retell her favorite fairy tales, casting her and her friends as the heroes. She rode in pumpkin carriages, explored enchanted castles, outsmarted villains, and broke magic spells.
Her favorite story of all was the story her parents told her of the brave, kind, gentle Prince who loved his people so much that he left his royal throne to live as one of them so that he could break the curse that bound them all in sin and set them free to love and live like him. The girl loved this story best because she knew that it was true and that she was a part of it. Unlike the heroes of fairy tales, this Prince was real, and one day he would return and bring her and all his people to his kingdom to live happily ever after with him.
This is the story of my childhood, but it may be a familiar one to many Christian women. Fairy tales are captivating to people of all ages. Like the parables of Jesus, they put vivid images to true concepts which are difficult to explain yet simple to understand. Every story where good triumphs over evil, love conquers all, and death is defeated in the end, echoes the good news of Jesus’s rescue of all humanity that Christians want our children to know and love.
The fairy tales where young women take center stage and play a vital role in the action are not usually the stories we choose to illustrate the love of Christ to our children. I believe that is a shame because fairy tale heroines often do a much better job of embodying the humility, perseverance, and sacrificial love of Jesus than their male counterparts. Instead of allowing these stories to reinforce gender stereotypes, Christians can use them as an opportunity to show girls how they can live out the calling of all followers of Christ to follow in his footsteps, and to show boys that God’s freely given, relentless, passionate love is for them, too.
When Christians try to explain the gospel in terms of a fairy tale, we often turn to stories like Sleeping Beauty. There is a helpless female victim who suffers under an enemy’s curse until a prince comes to her rescue, which we use to explain how our Prince of Peace broke the curse of sin and set us free to live with him “happily ever after.” The problem is that the princes in most fairy tales bear little actual resemblance to the Jesus we see portrayed in the Gospels. They know nothing about the unfortunate damsels they rescue, except that they are beautiful and powerless. They have no idea what it feels like to live under a curse. And what of the princesses? The image of sleeping in a tower, waiting to be rescued, leaves no room for women to participate equally with men in the work of God’s kingdom. The gospel according to Sleeping Beauty deprives women of their agency and men of the chance to see themselves as recipients of salvation.
If we want to show our children the full picture of the gospel, we need to teach them to look for Jesus in stories where women are the heroes, too.
One of my childhood favorites, Beauty and the Beast, is an example of a fairy tale where the heroine can serve clearly as a model of Christ. The curse in this story twists the prince’s handsome form into a grotesque and horrible representation of his inner cruelty. Love is the key to breaking the spell, but a kiss is not enough: the prince’s heart must be transformed in order to restore him to what he was meant to be. He needs someone to show him what love looks like so that he can learn how to love.
Enter a girl named Beauty, whose name and appearance, like that of the Beast, are a reflection of her heart. In Charles Perrault’s version of the story, Beauty’s father steals a rose from the Beast’s garden, for which the Beast decrees that he must die. Beauty offers her own life in exchange for her father’s and becomes prisoner of the Beast, leaving behind her home and family to live with him in his cursed castle. Living with the Beast is not easy and loving him is harder still. But even in his cursed form, Beauty recognizes the prince that the Beast used to be. As she chooses daily to live with him and love him, he begins to become more like her: kind, gentle, patient, generous. At last his beastly form dies, and through Beauty’s love for him, he is restored to life as the prince he was always meant to be.
Beauty and the Beast captured my imagination in preschool, but it was not until after college that a friend pointed out to me that it could be seen as an allegory of the gospel. I had never thought to look at this story that way, but once I began to, I wondered why I didn’t see it there before. In Beauty’s offering of her life to atone for her father’s transgression, I see a parallel with Jesus’s offering his life to forgive our sins, dying for us so that we could have life. Just as Beauty chooses to live with the Beast under his curse, Jesus chose to live with us in our broken, fallen world, loving us in the midst of the mess we created.
Once I began looking at fairy tales this way, I started to see parallels with Jesus all over my childhood favorites. The Little Mermaid chooses to leave her life as a princess of the sea, give up her voice, and suffer pain with every step she takes on land. In her story, I see glimpses of Jesus leaving his throne in heaven to accept the limits of a mortal body, bearing the sins and griefs of this world as a silent burden and living among those who failed to recognize his love. In Cinderella’s patient service and forgiveness toward her stepfamily, I hear echoes of Jesus’s command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, NIV).
In recent years, many parents have been rightly concerned about these fairy tales sending girls the message that they should endure and submit to abusive behavior, change their bodies, or continually make sacrifices for the sake of men. As a pattern for real-life relationships, these stories are far from ideal. But if we reframe these heroines as Christ figures, their stories become an invitation for girls and women to contemplate how they can follow in Jesus’s footsteps, within the context of their female identity. These stories can also be an invitation for boys and men to contemplate their role as recipients of God’s love.
In a society that prizes “manliness” and shames men for showing “feminine” attributes, it can be difficult for men to embrace titles like “Beloved” or “Bride of Christ.” But the truth is that all of us, regardless of our gender, are called to share in this identity. We cannot become Christlike if we do not first recognize our need for rescue and accept Christ’s love for us. Reframing fairy-tale heroines, like Beauty or the Little Mermaid, as Christ figures gives boys and men a chance to identify with the cursed victims, the beloveds, and the ones in need of rescue. In the story of the gospel, all of us are the ones in need of redemption. And though there is only one Savior who can set us free from the curse of sin, all of us are called to follow his example of showing sacrificial love for one another.
What if we told our children stories that reveal the full extent of Jesus’s love for them, showing them that both women and men can model Christlike love for one another equally? What if we told our children that Jesus loves us like Beauty loved the Beast: enough to live with us when sin made us ugly and mean so we could learn how to be like him? What if we compared the Little Mermaid’s desire to share a human life with her prince to the Word becoming flesh and making his dwelling among us? Our Prince is the Prince of Peace, who defeated the curse with patience, humility, quiet courage, suffering, and sacrifice. Perhaps the princesses who earn their happy endings in the same way can help all our young heirs of the kingdom learn how to follow in his footsteps.
Photo by Keisha Montfleury on Unsplash