I think one of the most difficult parts of Christian fellowship is grappling with the fact that sometimes even God-fearing individuals who share the same worldview and who love one another deeply, will disagree. This article came about in response to a disagreement I had recently with a close friend about the new Disney Pixar movie, Soul. My friend is a new mom who loves the Lord and who loves children passionately. Out of her desire to protect her children and the children of other Christian parents, she expressed concerns via social media about the overtones of New Age spirituality that ran throughout the movie and the potentially harmful effect they might have on children watching the film.
When I read what she wrote, I empathized with her concern but felt her fears were an unwarranted overreaction. I also felt that the language she had used to describe New Age influences, specifically, using the word “demonic,” was a mischaracterization of the ideologies of New Age. This led to a heated debate that ended poorly.
After the conversation ended, I couldn’t get it out of my head. On the one hand, I felt bad about how I had hurt my friend’s feelings and caused her to feel judged and misunderstood. After all, the heart behind her comments–the desire to protect children from wayward influences–is one that I think all Christian parents share. On the other hand, I couldn’t stop thinking about one of my other close friends, who practices New Age, and who I often try to encourage to come to church with me, and how she might feel if she had heard her beliefs described as “demonic.”
The internal conviction I felt in pondering these two perspectives is what gave rise to this article. In it, I’ve tried to bring clarity to Christians who may have questions about what New Age is and what it isn’t, what counts as “demonic,” and most importantly, I’ve tried to offer a challenge to my fellow Christians to think differently about how we discuss other worldviews both with our children and with other adults. The kinds of conversations my friend and I had about how other ideologies might be influencing our children is important, but in the same way that we have a responsibility to shepherd our children toward Christ, we also have a responsibility to love our neighbor, and I think that requires a more careful consideration of how we talk about our neighbors and their differing worldviews.
What is New Age?
Though it has grown in popularity in recent years, some Christians reading this may not really know what New Age is. To be fair, it’s an incredibly broad ideology (we’d call it a religion, but they probably wouldn’t) that defies definition because of its diversity of practice. It is an informal spiritual/cultural movement that became popular in the 1970s, especially in the United States. It draws heavily from ideas in Eastern religious traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but unlike them, it does not classify itself as an organized religion. It has no official clergy, holy books, or dogma, and it varies widely from person to person in its practice.
Some of the common beliefs that run throughout New Age are the idea that human beings and the universe are interconnected through the power of spiritual energy; they are all of one essence. There is not, for example, a distinction between Creator and creation the way there is in Christianity. In fact, there is no personified god(s) at all.
People who believe in New Age believe that the energy that exists in all things can be harnessed by human beings and used to effect change, including bringing about healing, happiness, or the fulfillment of your desires.
It is from New Age that we get ideas like energy vortexes, healing crystals, astral projections, vision boards, and manifesting. There is also a strong overlap between New Age and chakra therapy and holistic medicine, though these concepts are not exclusive to New Age.
Is New Age Demonic, and What Does That Word Even Mean?
No, New Age is not demonic. I want to make that very clear.
Sometimes, Christians will use the term demonic to refer to anything that comes from this world, including any non-Christian ideology or worldview, citing various verses in the Bible that refer to Satan as “the ruler of this world” (John 14:30) or “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Though it is true that Christians believe any religion, ideology, etc. apart from God is false, sinful, and idolatrous, and also true that as such, it falls under the reign of Satan, Christians need to make a distinction between mere false ideologies and truly demonic ones.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines demonic as “of, resembling, or characteristic of demons or evil spirits.” There is nothing in New Age that promotes interacting with demons or evil spirits; and though they recognize both positive and negative energy in the universe, they do not attempt to draw power from that negative energy, in fact, they actively avoid it. Therefore, New Age is not demonic.
Misrepresenting the ideas of a non-Christian ideology by labeling it “demonic” has wide-reaching negative implications for non-Christians and Christians alike.
The Effect of “Demonic” Language on Non-Christians
Firstly, to use the term demonic too loosely is incredibly unhelpful because of the associations it conjures (no pun intended). When non-Christians hear us use the word demonic, they picture little red devils running around with pitchforks, upside-down crosses, pentagrams, demonic possession, etc. (scary things, evil things), that they do not identify with. They feel misrepresented and offended.
Christians ought to be familiar with this feeling because we experience something similar when “culture” labels us. When we equate New Age with words like “demonic,” it’s very similar to what has happened recently when culture associates words like “evangelical” with “white supremacist.” Though I may consider myself an evangelical, I do not identify with the values of white supremacy; in fact, I find them abhorrent, as well I should.
The same is true of words like “demonic” and other “fire and brimstone” rhetoric. When we use this kind of language too loosely, we risk alienating non-Christians and making them unwilling to engage with Christian people or the Christian message. At my church last weekend, the lead pastor, Paul Artino, said that when anybody comes to a church, they are asking, “Am I going to be loved here? Am I going to be accepted? Am I going to be included?” That sense of acceptance and inclusion is applicable not only to how non-Christians feel in a church building, but how they feel among church people. The problem is, too often as Christians, we make such a point of distinguishing our viewpoints from others that we alienate the very people we are trying to help.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be truthful with non-Christians, just that we should use less inflammatory rhetoric because it’s what Jesus would do. Jesus used harsh rhetoric, yes, but almost exclusively with religious leaders, people who were already on the inside. With people on the outside, He never shied away from the hard truths about His identity, God’s heart, or the Kingdom of Heaven, but he did so in a way that made people feel loved and invited in. As Christians, we need to do a better job of following this example. It’s not wrong to speak the truth, but if we do so at the expense of being loving, we ultimately fail in our mission to love our neighbor and risk damaging the mission of Christ.
People who practice New Age may not recognize Jesus as their Savior, but they recognize that there is spiritual energy bigger than themselves and they want to interact with that energy. Almost always they want to bring positivity and goodness into the world and they take a tremendous amount of personal responsibility for their success or failure to do so (oftentimes, far more than we do). Clearly, these people are searching for the Way. If Christians fail to see the areas where these people are on the right track and only focus on where they get it wrong, we will miss the opportunity to engage in a loving relationship or to share the Gospel with them.
The Effect of “Demonic” Language on the Church Body
The second reason we need to be more careful with our word choice is due to the effect it has on our own Body. When Christians use this kind of language to refer to other worldviews, we promote fear among other Christians that prevents them from loving their neighbor. One of my friend’s primary fears about the movie Soul was the potentially negative effect that it could have on impressionable children who viewed the movie. Her fears about this are common among many Christian parents (we all can cite examples of similar reactions to other pop culture phenomena such as Harry Potter). These concerns are normal, and certainly, it would be wrong to open the flood-gates of culture to our children and let them try to figure it out on their own, but it is also wrong to shelter them so much from other ideologies (and to use language to demonize those ideologies) that they begin to fear the world and the people in it.
As a teacher at a Christian high school, I witnessed first-hand the effect that this attitude had on children who had been overly-sheltered from other worldviews. Some of our students grew up to be very legalistic, judgemental, and unforgiving of others as a result of their sheltered upbringing. They avoided engaging in authentic relationships with any non-Christians, they were unable to examine opposing viewpoints, and they hid away from the world in their largely white, upper-middle-class Christian bubbles where they never had to look upon the ugly, the lost, or the lonely. They didn’t even like reading books about these kinds of people, much less engaging with them in real life. The problem is, these are the very people Christ calls us to lean into and to love.
A Better Way to Engage With Other Ideologies: An Example Using the Movie Soul
Rather than taking an overly-censored or overly-permissive approach to worldview exposure through media, I think the solution is to engage our children in authentic, worldview conversations that allow us to make distinctions between a Christian and non-Christian worldview and to guide them in the right direction. I also think it’s incredibly important for parents to engage with the material themselves to see what ideas are actually in it. We shouldn’t just rely on what other people (including our children) say about a media text—be it positive or negative.
What New Age Ideas Are In the Movie Soul?
The movie Soul does contain some overt New Age motifs such as astral projection, mystics, meditation, and a brief reference to chakras, but much less than I was led to believe by the posts shared by my friend. The part of the movie where these references appear comprises only about ten minutes of total film time over the course of a few short vignettes.
These vignettes center on a humorous caricature of a New Age practitioner who shows up in the spiritual realm as a mystical hippie pirate. He and some fellow mystics do some drumming and chanting to help a lost soul return to its body and he helps the main character do the same by having him channel his “crown chakra,” but that’s about it. I think it’s worth noting that this character’s day job is as a sign spinner, so I’m not sure we’re supposed to take him too seriously.
There are also some more vague New Age-y ideas, such as the reference to an undefined afterlife known as “The Great Beyond” and the pre-life realm where souls originate known as “The Great Before,” but these ideas are not very specific or exclusive to New Age. There’s also a spiritual dimension known as “the Zone” that characters can enter when they’re really in tune with their passions and kind of lose themselves in their art for a minute. I think all three of these locales are meant to be symbolic rather than literal, similarly to Inside Out’s “Friendship Island” or the “Long Term Memory” library.
What are the underlying messages in Soul and how do they compare to a Christian worldview?
Spoiler Alert: The following section contains spoilers to the movie Soul.
The final takeaway in Soul also has somewhat of a New Age ethos to it. The theme is that the meaning of life is to live it. Where Christians can legitimately find fault in the movie’s message is that it contains no recognition of the external meaning to life that comes from God and instead focuses more on the meaning that comes from within the self. However, this does not mean the film is irredeemable. There are many seeds of truth that present excellent opportunities for parents to engage even young children in authentic conversation that can direct them toward a Christian worldview.
Below are some great talking points you might consider:
- The film suggests that the meaning of life is to live it. God did make life and he made us to live it, but as Christians, we believe the intention of life is for us to live it with Him.
- The film suggests that it’s important to live your life to the fullest and to make the most of the time you have. Christians also believe this, but we believe that that occurs by aligning our life with God’s will and living in obedience to his commands.
- Over the course of the film, Joe discovers that it is not what you “do” that gives your life purpose. As Christians, we also do not believe that our jobs, talents, or passions give our life purpose, but rather, our identity as children of God.
The film also has a very powerful moment where it visually depicts the character “22” battling the lies in her head that are an amalgamation of exaggerated, hurtful things that have been said to her in the past combined with her own insecurities and self-doubt. The crippling effect it has on her causes her to retreat into herself and become stuck as a lost soul. What she experienced is what Christians often recognize as a form of spiritual warfare. Like us, 22 needs to hear words of truth and speak them to herself in order to combat the lies that are holding her back from truly living. As Christians, the Bible is the source of truth that helps us do this.
After the strong reactions we heard from Christians about the movie, Brad and I were honestly surprised by how little New Age messaging or imagery was actually in the film. We found it pretty innocuous. The movie does not try to beat viewers over the head with any particular ideology, New Age or otherwise. Instead, we thought it offered some really great opportunities to talk about life, death, meaning, and purpose in ways that might not naturally come up on their own, despite the fact that the film is not coming at those topics from a Christian perspective.
It’s also is the first Pixar movie with a predominantly Black cast and it introduces children to improvisational jazz, which has a beautiful and important place in the history of American music and they are unlikely to encounter elsewhere. These features alone make it a worthwhile view.
Lastly, it’s one of the only movies made for kids where the cat isn’t the bad guy, and I think cat-positive imagery is something that’s really missing from children’s films and television. (When you have cats like Tom, Sylvester, and the cat in Cinderella—whose name is actually Lucifer,—it’s no wonder people grow up to hate cats!)
Soul is not a Christian movie, so viewers should not expect to see a Christian message presented in it. However, just because it does not present a Christian worldview does not mean that it doesn’t provide opportunities for parents to help guide their children toward a Christian worldview, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the film is presenting damaging, “demonic” ideas that are going to harm children.
When Christians use this kind of language to discuss ideologies or popular cultural phenomena, particularly ones we haven’t investigated thoroughly, we do a disservice to our children in cultivating a culture of fear around non-Christian ideologies and a disservice to the witness of Christ by alienating non-Christians who hear those messages coming Christian voices.
We need to do a better job of teaching our children how to engage with different worldviews while still distinguishing ourselves from them, and we need to do a better job of doing so ourselves.