I hope you’ve been out see Disney’s beautiful new film Into the Woods. Originally written in two long acts, the new film does its best to cram it all into two hours. Each act of the original musical presents two entirely different philosophies and worldviews. Act 1 presents a religious and moral view of life, and Act 2 a humanist and morally relative view of life. The end result is a remarkable fusion of religious and humanist beliefs in which both are presented with nuance and respect. Ultimately, it demonstrates that both religious and secular humanist principles reveal important truths and should be able to coexist.
Act I, Sondheim on Religion
Act 1 has striking similarities to the LDS Plan of Salvation: there is a garden, curses inherited from a father’s sins, obedience to supernatural commandments, forgiveness and reconciliation. A poor Baker and his wife are unable to have children because they live under a curse. The curse comes because the Baker’s father (Adam) had stollen some magic beans (forbidden fruit) from a witch’s garden (Eden). In order to have the curse reversed, the Baker and his wife must go into the woods (the lone and dreary world), to find a series of objects (obedience to commandments): a white cow, a red cape, a golden slipper, etc. which they must give (sacrifice) to the witch (Jesus), who will work some magic on it (atonement) and reverse the curse.
This is one of several story lines interwoven in the first act including the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood, both of whom take their own path into the woods and come out on the other side having learned important lessons. Little Red Riding Hood gets eaten by a wolf (symbolically illicit sex) for having strayed from the path, but is pulled out alive from the wolf’s belly (atonement).
The characters learn that life can be dangerous but that if you are brave, follow your mission, and learn from your mistakes, you can reach your goals and gain wisdom and happiness. These morality tales are presented sincerely, without irony. Sondheim’s allegory even reflects the added nuance of the uniquely LDS view of the Fall of Adam, wherein the forbidden fruit turns out to be a good thing, a perspective lacking in other Judeo-Christian traditions. After being saved, Little Red Riding Hood sings the song “I Know Things Now” which echoes the wisdom of Mother Eve to Satan, “I know thee now” and further “Were it not for our transgression we…never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.”
The transformation in each of the characters is real and positive and it is clear that Sondheim truly believes that these little morality tales present important life lessons. The play could have ended with Act 1 and still have been a great success.
Act 2, Sondheim on Secular Humanism
In Act 2 the “happily ever after”of Act 1 is suddenly thrown into confusion and conflict. The authorities of Act 1 are overthrown by chaotic, unexpected forces. The witch seems to have lost her magical powers. The royal family is on the run after an angry giant destroys the castle. The baker’s wife, Jack’s mother, and the spirit of Cinderella’s mother are killed or lost. The marauding giant demands that the characters hand over Jack, who is responsible for the death of her giant husband, who was killed when Jack chopped down the beanstalk. Faced with an apocalyptic and meaningless existence without supernatural help or guidance, the characters band together to fight the threatening giant and create their own happiness the best they can by themselves.
Its similar to Voltaire’s humanist manifesto Candide, wherein characters are at first taught to believe that this is the “best of all possible worlds.” But after a lifetime of misfortune and confusion, they stop trying to find meaning in the violence and paradox of life, and instead learn to simply deal with things as they are: “to make our garden grow.”
Moral relativism is another central theme from Act 2. It was wrong for Jack to kill the giant. But should they sacrifice him up to save the world from the giant’s vengeful wife? When the opportunity to kill the giant’s wife arises, the characters still empathize with her, realizing she doesn’t really deserve to die. Elsewhere the witch demands of Little Red Riding Hood, “how many wolves have you carved up?” to which she responds, “a wolf’s not the same as a human.” The witch then says, “ask a wolf’s mother!” Before her untimely death, the Baker’s wife is seduced by Cinderella’s prince who sings, “right and wrong don’t matter in the woods, only feelings.” After her seduction, the Baker’s wife sings a song similar to Little Red Riding Hood’s song “I Know Things Now” but with a more humanist, less certain perspective. In the song, mistakes are not necessarily bad things that you learn from, but rather ambivalent “moments” which have both negative and positive sides:
Oh, if life were made of moments (beautiful moments like this indiscretion with the prince),
Even now and then a bad one (would be OK)!
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never know you had one…
Act 2’s crowning jewel is the exquisite song “No One is Alone” which beautifully teaches humanist principles of tolerance, pluralism and empathy:
Witches can be right, Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good
Someone is on your side
Someone else is not
While we’re seeing our side
Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
Mormonism: A Marriage of Religion and Secular Humanism
Western culture is a complicated mixture of both religion and humanism. Religion has helped ground humanity in basic right and wrong for centuries. Countless millions have transcend the temporal nature of life, finding happiness, meaning, and peace in their faith. Others would say humanism has done more for mankind than religion. It is responsible for the modern flowering democracy and individual freedom, the renaissance of science and technology, breaking down superstition and stifling religious authority, and establishing the ethics of empathy and human rights which have made the world a much more civilized place in modern times.
Mormonism itself is a marriage of both humanism and religion. Joseph Smith rejected the nature of traditional spirituality by claiming all spirit is matter, subject to measurement and science. Mormons also champion humanist values like individual liberty, work, progress, and education. These values frequently come into conflict with our other traditional religious values: authority, certainty, faith, and divine intervention. Terryl Givens makes a beautiful study of these conflicts in his book People of Paradox.
For Mormons who are conscious of both their religious and humanist heritage, Into the Woods provides a lot to reflect upon. Perhaps most active Mormons today take a more Act 1 worldview. But when life presents us with circumstances which do not fit comfortably within our conservative paradigms, humanism comes to the rescue: things need not be black and white as we imagined in Act 1. God can work on multiple dimensions. Pluralism and moral relativism are sometimes good.
- What did you think of the film Into the Woods?
- What do you make of the marriage of religion and humanism in both Mormonism and Into the Woods?
- Can morality sometimes be relative? If so, how can we know when?