“Let It Go” from Disney’s animated movie Frozen (2014) was and is a megahit. The melody is both powerful and catchy, and Idina Menzel can sing icicles off reindeers. The piece won the Oscar for best original song, reached the top five in the Billboard 100, and sold 10.9 million copies. It has now also achieved the status of Christmas song in Spotify playlists, as was written long ago by a prophet on Reddit.
But like some Oedipal monster, the pop song has eaten up the movie that gave it life. Because the Frozen story as a whole stands firmly against Elsa’s choice in that song. And this raises interesting questions about authorial intent in interpretation—both of pop music and of Scripture.
Let’s think first about the song. During a discussion in his excellent book on preaching Tim Keller uses “Let It Go” as a prime example of the the way contemporary culture “enthrones our passions”:
The song is sung by a character determined no longer to “be the good girl” that her family and society had wanted her to be. Instead she would “let go” and express what she had been holding back inside. There is “no right or wrong, no rules” for her. This is a good example of the expressive individualism [sociologist Robert] Bellah described. Identity is not realized, as in traditional societies, by sublimating our individual desires for the good of our family and people. Instead we become ourselves only by asserting our individual desires against society, by expressing our feelings and fulfilling our dreams regardless of what anyone says. (134)
But we must also think about the movie as a whole, and not merely the song in isolation. As Trevin Wax of The Gospel Coalition has pointed out, the heroine of the movie, Anna, rescues her sister from the selfish, solo life to which she gives in by Letting It Go. (Greg Forster has made a similar argument.) The movie’s story ends up undermining and then jettisoning the “expressive individualism of the sovereign self” Elsa tries on for size while striding up the North Mountain. I agree. Anna’s love for her elder sister, despite years of apparent coldness from her, is one of the more beautiful redemptive loves I’ve ever seen in film. And in the end, Elsa submits again to “right and wrong,” even “rules,” by taking up her queenly responsibilities in the land of Arendelle. This the movie portrays as good, not as a constriction of her individual rights. I love the love of Anna for Elsa. Romantic love isn’t the only true love, and it isn’t even always true. I want my little girl to know this. It’s the major reason I let my kids watch Frozen.
So what does the song mean? Does it undermine or does it support the expressive individualism of the sovereign self? Was Tim Keller interpreting and applying “Let it Go” according to the authorial intentions of the now-famous duo who wrote it?
Authorial intent is a complicated and interesting thing; we don’t have exhaustive access to our own minds, let alone anyone else’s. Individual humans are sometimes driven by conflicting desires (indeed, one of Keller’s big arguments against expressive individualism is its impracticability: which authentic desire am I supposed to follow when they disagree?). And when you have a group of them all producing something together, authorial intent suddenly gets very complicated. Songwriters might intend both to serve a story and to create an anthem for a worldview antithetical to that story.
I think that’s precisely what’s happened with Frozen: the expressive individualism of Queen Elsa’s “Let It Go” is so powerful, so crystal clear, that the meaning of the song has transcended and even overwhelmed the meaning of the movie. The song got out of the hands of the storytellers. The writers themselves have said, “We put a lot of our emotion in it, like a lot of things we didn’t realize we needed to express went into this song.” They “felt sorry” for Elsa, because, they explained, “She’s been repressing who she is her whole life. . . . And [now] there’s this release.” Sounds like expressive individualism to me.
And even if I am misreading the writers’ intent, and they really don’t believe that self-actualization through the release of the repressed, “true” self is the goal of personhood—who’s to say that the artistic purposes of the authors of “Let It Go” must rule over the meaning everyone else gets from it? If 10.9 million pre-teens belt it out to each other as mutual catechesis for the expressive individualism of the sovereign self, then the song has a very real meaning for them that would be pretty hard to disabuse them of. Can they all be 100% wrong? Do songwriters have authority over the meaning people get from their work?
And lest you think I have spun myself a million miles away from anything relevant to the Bible or the Christian church—do you know anything about the views of the author of the Christmas song my church sang just last Sunday? Do you have to research what “when with the ever-circling years / comes round the age of gold” meant to Unitarian minister Edmund Sears (1810–1876) before you can sing that phrase at your church’s carol service? (And wasn’t the author of “It Is Well with My Soul” Swedenborgian or something? The Internet won’t tell me.)
The same evangelicals who (rightly, in my opinion) insist on interpreting the Bible according to authorial intent sometimes become reader-response critics when they pick up their hymnals or read lyrics on Proclaim slides. In other words, they forget the author completely and care only for what the text means to them and their community.
What gives? (And has any reader lasted this long? It was my authorial intent that you would.)
A unique book
I’ve raised some pretty huge questions. Let me herd at least a few of the worms I’ve released from the can into a thimble I’ve got waiting over here. I’ll do it by pointing out a few ways in which the Bible is a unique book.
If the Bible were merely a human book—a collection of writings from various people all claiming to speak for Yahweh—then we’d have no problem seeing conflicts between certain parts and the whole. Just like people sing “Let It Go” to mean what they want, despite the overall message of the movie, there would be nothing surprising or wrong about people liking certain parts of the Bible more than others—and to the exclusion and contradiction of others. There would be nothing wrong with lifting out that piece and making it a popular “single.” Maybe Arnold likes the imprecatory psalms parts, with all the emotional revenge on one’s enemies. Maybe Amelia likes the “love your enemies” parts and the “turn the other cheek” parts. If the Bible were merely human, there would be no point in trying to find a fully unified message. Its multiple human authorship would nearly guarantee conflicts.
It’s the Bible’s single divine authorship which makes Christians see the Bible as a unified whole. Yes, human authors wrote it, too, and humans can contradict one another. But over and over the Bible claims that these words are also God’s (2 Sam 23:2), and God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13). God “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2); his word “cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
I don’t think it’s practical to ferret out the authorial intent for every piece of communication we hear. We are called to love the neighbors who communicate to us, and so we must put forth genuine effort to understand them. But the depth of my relationships is a clue to the depths of those obligations. I owe my wife a great deal more than I owe my coworkers or the fiction writer I’m reading right now. If my wife says something that seems out of character, I’d better do some ferreting. But if I’m not quite sure I understood the political comment from an acquaintance on the bus while we’re making small talk, I don’t have to press him for details. If I fail to grasp a theme in my beach novel, I’m generally fine making my best guess as to what the author meant and moving on.
I’m also fine in church, then, with singing a phrase conceived by an unorthodox person to express what becomes on my lips (I trust) an orthodox sentiment. At least, I’m fine assuming the orthodox meaning and living in blissful ignorance.
But I’m not fine with treating the Bible’s author that way. If it is God’s word, I must know what he meant as best I can by his grace. I’m glad to see that the Christian church through the centuries has produced reams of writing reflecting that same conviction: the Bible is an utterly unique book, and we have to interpret it consistently with itself.
A unique author
When the author of the text before me is divine, when I owe him all my love and effort, and when his Spirit goes with that text and dwells inside me, I’m in a different epistemic situation than I am with the stranger on the bus. I owe God interpretive attention I don’t owe anyone else. He’s my master.
That’s why we’re not permitted to let one part rise out of the Bible and override the whole. Imprecatory psalms have to be given their due, and they have to be interpreted in light of “love your enemies.” God’s love and his wrath are both perfections in the divine glory. God’s grace and his judgment are both world-shaping truths. God is sovereign and people are responsible.
He’s so sovereign that he, the author of the Bible, is the only author in the world who has not just intents and purposes but also the full authority and power to carry them all out. My goal as a preacher and teacher of God’s word should be to help people discover what God intended them to do with that word, because the Bible is one of the major means by which God intends to accomplish his purposes. I’m not getting mystical; you discover God’s purposes precisely through the word (and prayer and study and all the Christian disciplines and means of grace), and the whole word. You help people obey “love your enemies” by helping them see what it means to love, and even who warrants the title “enemy,” both of which require the whole Bible. The Bible doesn’t come with a dictionary in the back defining “love,” followed by a list of your enemies. You help people obey the imprecatory psalms by pointing out the differences and commonalities between God’s purposes for Israel and his purposes for the church.
God intended trillions and trillions of concrete results to flow from faithful use of his sometimes abstract word. Our job as readers is to discover those uses through that word. Our job as teachers is to help others do the same.
Preachers bear a responsibility to interpret both the Bible and the culture to which God’s people must apply his word. Keller’s book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, is a very helpful guide and model for this latter task. The rules of Bible-interpretation and of culture-interpretation have significant overlap, but they are not precisely the same.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
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