Along with most millennial women, I’m out-of-my-mind excited for the new live-action Beauty and the Beast. Belle was my childhood heroine. Like me, she was bookish and imaginative and wistful, but not shy and quiet and retiring. She told everyone exactly what she thought—which, more often than not, was that they should pick up a book and think about something beyond their petty, provincial lives.
This precocious pedantry soon led me from Belle to her magical counterpart: bushy-haired, bossy Hermione Granger, who couldn’t help herself from showing off in class if she tried. And in middle school, I discovered my next heroine: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Like Hermione, Jane challenged the ignorance and cruelty of those around her with references to history and literature. Like Belle, she tamed the beast—the byronic Mr. Rochester—in his shadowy castle—the sinister Thornfield Hall—with her fiery spirit and fierce integrity.
I love these women. Their words and example shaped me into who I am today. But the more I think about their stories, the more they trouble me—particularly the way their stories end. The sufferings of the bossy bookworms are rewarded by a complete and total escape from a world that never understood their gifts and talents. Belle escapes from her poor provincial town to live in a palace filled with priceless paintings and endless books, maintained by charming servants and married to her beloved prince. Hermione, although ultimately becoming an advocate for Muggle rights as Minister of Magic, spends the rest of her days among witches and wizards. And Jane never has to governess another day in her life: she lives a sequestered, silent life with Mr. Rochester at Ferndean manor, far away from the working-class girls she taught at Moor House or the orphans she instructed at Lowood School. Never again do they encounter anyone unlike them, anyone who dislikes them—anyone, in short, who can truly challenge them.
I see a similar arc in my own narrative, and it worries me. I went on to a small liberal arts college—studied English—read Gilbert and Gubar—discovered de Beauvoir—encountered Eve Sedgwick—became a feminist. I cheered Belle on as she spoke to the UN and marched with Hermione and thousands of other women on Washington. I, too, will doubtless marry an upper-middle-class prince and be sequestered away with my 2.5 kids in a sprawling suburban house in a ‘nice’ neighborhood, far, far away from poor provincial towns, from Muggles, from country schoolgirls, from people who dislike me, confront me, or challenge me.
For all our talk of progress, I sometimes think that I and my white liberal friends are a lot less radical than we may imagine ourselves to be. In many ways, I’m no different from the evangelicals on whom I blame the dumpster fire of 2016. Although traditionally embracing engagement with the world and actively striving to change it, some have noted a shift in this regard this past year. Not only did evangelicals support a candidate with remarkably isolationist and separatist tendencies, the increasing acceptance of gay marriage has led many to retreat from the culture or from various forms of public engagement.
And even within the evangelical intelligentsia, there has been a push for separatism: Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option argues that Christians must call a cease-fire in the culture wars and intentionally retreat for a time of prayer, peace and purification. Such separatism finds its roots in the fundamentalism of the early 20th century, which taught its adherents to hunker down in holy huddles far away from ‘the world.’ Jesus will be back sooner than we know it, and he will rescue us from the sinful world that mocks and misunderstands our holiness and take us away to his castle in the sky.
I sometimes think that liberal America teaches a similar version of this narrative—a different story of retreat or escape. Get out from the small town that mocks and misunderstands our education. Go to a university or move to a city and meet like-minded people who ‘get it.’ Slowly but surely build the wall to keep any racist, homophobic hatred from slipping in through the cracks.
The trailer for Beauty and the Beast opens with Maurice giving counsel to his daughter. “My dear Belle, you’re so ahead of your time,” he tells her. “This is a small village, and small-minded as well. But small also means safe.”
Maurice is right on the first two counts, but utterly wrong on the third. The village is not safe for Belle: the dangerous, mysterious castle proves a truer home for her than her hometown. Jane Eyre’s words about Rochester and Thornfield could well be Hermione’s words about Hogwarts or Belle’s words about the castle: “I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life… I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic and high.”
“Buried with inferior minds”—a telling phrase. How often have I and my liberal friends prided ourselves on our education and deemed other minds “inferior”? How many times have we congratulated ourselves on being on the “right side of history”? How many times have we sneered at Trump voters—at small villages—at Muggles?
On my best days, I strive to worship and serve an incarnate God. Christ could well have chosen to stay far off in heaven and proscribe rules and regulations for human flourishing. He could well have fretted and complained and judged us when we didn’t follow His commands.
But He did not: he willingly became a mortal Muggle in a small village. Although omnipotent and omniscient, He chose to live and learn alongside frail and faulty human beings. He made himself vulnerable to us—to our criticism, our censure, and our crucifixion of him.
Jesus boldly condemned religious smugness, hypocrisy and small-mindedness, but he died for the smug and the hypocritical and was buried with inferior minds. How can I genuinely call myself His follower if I can’t even talk to those with whom I find small-minded?
All of this has a lot of unpleasant implications for me. It means not jeering at those who voted differently from me. It means not mocking my college classmates who did the ring-by-spring thing and stayed in their small Midwestern towns. It means resisting my gut reactions and really listening to family members who voted for Trump.
Above all, however, it means seeking out those who are different from me. It means not presuming to know what’s better for them than they do or to understand their story before they tell it to me. It means deliberately laying myself open to their criticisms. It means being willing to hear that perhaps I am the smug one, perhaps I am the hypocritical one, perhaps I am the small minded one, perhaps I am the one who needs to change.
I don’t know what this will look like. I don’t know whom I will encounter. But I know that it must happen soon—and I’m open to any and all suggestions.
We are right to fight the wall that Trump threatens to build, but should fight with even greater fervor the walls we build in our own hearts against one another. Magic and mystery abound at the Beast’s castle, at Thornfield, and Hogwarts—but miracles happen when we find the courage to love and to leave.