Episode Analyzed: Friendship is Magic, Part 1 and Part 2
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” –John 15:13
I don’t think I have heard the phrase “this is the dumbest idea I’ve ever had” fly through my head more times in a day than it has while I was thinking about writing this blog. I mean, seriously, go to a children’s cartoon about little ponies and hold that up as an illustration for how to live the Christian life? Really? I mean, I like the cartoon, but use it as an illustration for talking about Jesus?
The idea is insane.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” -1 Corinthians 1:25.
Sometimes the thing that looks foolish according to common understanding is actually a great way to bring glory to God. Not always, but sometimes. So, in the end, when I watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, I see a dim but surprisingly accurate reflection of the kingdom of God, and I want to share it with you.
The ground rules (there’s only two):
First, I am using MLP:FIM as an illustration and a talking point, not an information source. So, basically, I am taking MLP as a metaphor for God’s Kingdom and seeing what lessons I can better show by that. Like any metaphor, it is only useful up to a point. The fundamental understanding of the Kingdom of God comes always from Scripture (the Bible) because this is what God (who cannot lie) says about Himself and His kingdom. Therefore, wherever my MLP metaphor points to something that departs from clear scriptural truth, I will not use it as an illustration.
Second, I am not here to argue about the existence of God. I’m only here to teach about His Kingdom to people who are willing to hear about it. I am NOT an apologist (or at least, not a very good one). Not my giftset. Not my cutie mark. I could say that I’m just a Pinkie Pie, not a Rainbow Dash, but I haven’t gotten that far with my illustration yet. My point is that I’m just here to share something I think is valuable, not to attack anyone. If you’re a non-Christian who wants to fight, please go away. However, if you are any kind of person who wants to learn a little something about the Kingdom of God then I invite you to stay and maybe see a side of Christianity that you did not know existed.
The Pony Metaphor:
Okay, onto the fun part. Where to start? (Note: As this is my first time doing an MLP analysis I will have to set up some symbolic context first, so this will be long, but hopefully good as well.)
The context. Friendship. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) He then went and showed that love by laying his life down for all mankind “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That’s the second half of John 3:16, the verse that people hold up at football games all the time.
Basically, God said to mankind “I want you to be my friends FOREVER” and then went and 1) showed what that means, 2) proved He meant it and 3) fixed the problem that was keeping mankind from reciprocating on God’s desire to be friends.
My MLP metaphor won’t deal much with point 3. That’s the Cross, and it is what resolves God’s Perfect Justice and Impossible Grace into a beautiful whole (I could talk about the Cross for hours). MLP doesn’t have much absolute Justice in it, which means there isn’t so much opportunity to talk about the Cross. It does, however, have megatons of GRACE.
Which makes it an awesome illustration of points 1 and 2.
So, if the context is Friendship and the Friendship is with God, then where is God in MLP?
Right where God should be: On a glorious throne.
In MLP, the Kingdom of Equestria is ruled by Princess Celestia, the benevolent deity who raises the SUN every day (she’s the shiny one on the left side of the picture if you don’t already know). Despite the fact that EVERYONE bows when they see her and people completely lose their cool around her glory, becoming tongue-tied, stammering, dropping things, falling over themselves, and generally showing a powerful awareness of their own unworthiness to be in her presence, Princess Celestia is one of the gentlest and kindest souls in Equestria, showing a surprising lack-of-awareness of her own importance whenever anyone actually approaches her directly. This difference between who she IS and who people PERCEIVE her to be is one of the wonderful details of MLP.
It is also a powerful illustration of who Jesus is. YES He is the glorious, unapproachable King of all existence, who daily raises the SUN by maintaining all the laws of physics governing Creation through the sheer force of his WILL. However, He is also the man who once got ANGRY at His own chosen disciples for telling little children that He was too important to talk to them… and then hung out with those children while His disciples watched in total confusion. (Totally not kidding. Look up the gospel of Mark 10:13-16.)
So, people EXPECT Jesus (or Princess Celestia in MLP) to be high and mighty and unapproachable, but whenever anyone comes close enough they find out the exact opposite is true: they get welcomed warmly. How does this work? Where does this come from?
Rather than taking hours to explain all the underpinnings of justice, role versus character, and desire versus necessity, I’ll just give the illustration of a Criminal Court Judge who has five kids at home that he loves very much. Think about that for a moment. In the court, when he is laying out judgement, everything HAS to be in order. Though everyone in that courtroom, save the defendant, knows they are pretty much okay with the judge, they also know that there must be order while he is holding court. Furthermore, there is one person in that court who is absolutely terrified of the judge: The defendant. To that defendant, especially if he knows he is guilty of the crime he is accused of, there is no harder face on earth than the face of that judge. This is because the judge is only doing his job when he does everything he can to make certain the defendant gets exactly what he deserves.
Despite this fact, when that judge goes home his children can run right up to him, because they know that he isn’t their judge, he’s their father. Even if they do something like get in a fight with their brother , their father isn’t going to send them to jail. He may discipline them, but it will be to break the behavior, not to destroy them (I’m assuming a GOOD father here. I know they can be pretty rare.)
This is the same principle at work with Princess Celestia (and Jesus). To her, all the ponies in Equestria are individuals that she cares for very much. When one of them comes close to her, she genuinely wants to know about them and is interested in finding what is best for them.
Those who approach her, on the other hand, see her as the Ruler first, rather than as a kind and gentle and selfless individual. They approach her afraid unless, like Twilight Sparkle, her prime student, they already have experience with her and KNOW how kind and approachable she is.
Just as a side note, I imagine anyone actually ATTACKING her kingdom and harming her subjects would meet a MUCH less approachable Princess Celestia. She DID banish her own sister to the moon for trying to lock the whole world in darkness (and essentially kill everyone with cold and starvation by banishing them to a lightless existence).
All that is to say that Princess Celestia, as the ruler (and goddess) of Equestria, is one of the best illustrations of Christ Jesus as King that I have ever seen, at least as far as a character in a fiction story goes.
So Princess Celestia symbolizes Jesus. Yes. That’s my stand. She ain’t perfect at it, but she’s better than a lot of other Christ-metaphors out there.
However, if Princess Celestia symbolizes Jesus as King over His Kingdom, then who is Princess Luna?
Before anyone goes anywhere, Princess Luna is not Satan and Satan is not Jesus’ brother. As a very short note, Jesus is the uncreated Son of God while Satan, once named Lucifer, is a created angel who made a very wicked decision to try to take God’s place.
Which is kind of what Luna did…
Only Luna gets saved and is restored to a close relationship with her sister, Celestia.
So, what is Luna?
Luna is a symbol of the Church. Why do I say this?
First, because her cutie mark is the moon.
Some interesting things about the moon. In Genesis, the moon is the “lesser light to rule the night” (Genesis 1:16). This means that, when the sun isn’t around, the moon is “the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). Of great importance, the sun is the ONLY lightsource. Apart from the sun, the moon can “do nothing” (John 15:5). The moon can only give light to the dark world because it is still able to see and reflect the sun when the sun is hidden. Yes, I’m getting a little crazy here, but I fully believe that there are few symbols in nature that more clearly illustrate the role of the Church than the moon.
Second, because she is Princess Celestia’s sister.
How does this make her a symbol of the Church? Because Jesus, the Son of God, has one set of siblings, and that is the Church. It is written that, “but to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). In this case, children of God is children of the Father, which makes every Christian a son or daughter of God and one of Jesus’ little siblings.
Again I say, little sister Luna is a symbol of the Church.
So, what goes wrong? Why does Luna stop being a loving little sister and become the horrible Nightmare Moon who tries to lock the whole world in darkness?
And how does this apply to the Church?
To put it simply, she stops looking at her older sister and starts looking at the world. Instead of rejoicing that she gets to spend every day with the most glorious pony in Equestria, a pony who loves her more than anybody else and who every other pony in Equestria wants to spend as much time with as they can, she decides that she, Luna, should be the pony that every pony wants to spend time with. Instead of enjoying the position that she has to rule over the night and to serve all the ponies in Equestria by giving them enough darkness for rest with enough of her sister’s light that they can get around if they need to, she becomes bitter that pretty much no one is awake to see what a good job she is doing. There is a word for this: PRIDE.
Luna falls under the counsel of Pride and believes that she should BE the one who is served rather than the one who serves. Eventually, she becomes so full of bitterness that she stops being herself and becomes something else, a monster who tries to steal her sister’s throne and plunge the world into darkness (and death). The same goes for the Church, which stops shining whenever it stops looking at Jesus, and becomes a dark and hideous monster when it decides that it wants to rule rather than serve the Ruler.
A few glances at earth’s history will show just how badly that can go.
With those two pieces of very important context set it’s finally time for some story analysis. As the story starts, Celestia is on the throne managing both the sun AND the moon and Luna, who is presently Nightmare Moon (a.k.a. Luna Possessed by Pride), is shortly scheduled to bust loose again after a thousand year imprisonment and once again try to lock the world in darkness. Princess Celestia’s favorite student, Twilight Sparkle, knows this because of a prophecy she read and is trying to figure out how to stop it from happening, or defeat Nightmare Moon if it does.
Basically, how to keep pride from destroying the WHOLE KINGDOM.
She tells Princess Celestia about the impending problem, certain that Celestia will listen to her and come up with some grand, magical solution for saving the Kingdom.
Celestia does. She tells Twilight to go make some friends.
This actually represents one of the deepest and most powerful pieces of wisdom that MLP has for the Church on how to grow the Kingdom. A lot of Christians (myself included) tend to think that the way to build Christ’s kingdom is with powerful Scripture teaching, and huge churches, and money (lot’s of money), and exciting music, and moral laws, and a million other things.
How did Jesus say to build His kingdom?
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” –John 15:12-14
Paraphrase: Go make some friends. More importantly, go BE one.
In the same vein, Princess Celestia tells Twilight Sparkle to go save her kingdom by making some friends, although Twilight doesn’t understand the importance of the command at the time that it is given. She just wants her textbook solution.
Still, she goes where she’s told to go, does only what she’s told to do, and somehow, in the way of these things, manages to end up with five friends without even knowing that she has done it.
Then, also in the way of these things, Princess Celestia disappears, Nightmare Moon comes back and locks the world in night, and the only solution is a quest.
So Twilight heads off with her friends to find the Elements of Harmony, the most powerful force in all Equestria and the only thing that can defeat Nightmare Moon… by saving her from her own pride.
What are these elements?
As laid out in the MLP premier, the Elements of Harmony are: Honesty, Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty and the Mystery Element of Friendship/Magic.
How are they found?
As it turns out, they are with Twilight the whole time in the form of her friends, each one of which shows the element that they represent by using it to bring the group through a trial that can only be bested by that element.
When Twilight almost falls to her death in a landslide and the only solution is for her to let go, Applejack’s Honesty convinces her to do so.
When a vicious manticore blocks the patch and no amount of battling can defeat it, the beast is transformed into a tame kitten by Fluttershy’s Kindness.
When the group of ponies are surrounded in the dark woods by demon-faced trees (horses will shy at anything) it is only the Laughter of Pinkiepie that can disarm their fear and allow them to move on.
When a huge river serpent turns a river into a raging rapid because his moustache has been destroyed, only the genuine Generosity of Rarity in sacrificing her own tail to repair the moustache can calm the river serpent so that he helps them cross.
When a bridge has fallen down only Rainbow Dash can tie it back into place. She is tempted to abandon the task in exchange for the fulfillment of all her deepest dreams of fame, but her Loyalty allows her to choose her friends instead.
The sixth element only shows up after Nightmare Moon smashes the physical Elements of Harmony and forces Twilight to realize that the elements are a spiritual thing contained by her friends rather than something merely physical that can be destroyed. Twilight calls it magic.
I’d suggest that it is the element Christians call “grace” or “unmerited favor”, the fundamental ingredient in any true friendship (because friendships based on what the other person can give you are not really friendships). However, in the end the question of what the sixth element is doesn’t matter very much to my symbolic framework.
What does matter is that six ponies in this kingdom each have a potent, specialized gift that is an important element of true friendship and that when all these elements come together they form a rainbow that burns the pride out of Nightmare Moon, restoring her to the sweet, innocent Princess Luna she once was whose greatest desire is to be forgiven and reunited with her big sister.
What should I talk about first? What the gifts equate to in the Kingdom of God or what the rainbow means? The rainbow symbol ROCKS… so I’ll leave that for last and go with the gifts first.
So, here’s something you may not know about Christianity even if you’re a Christian: All people who become a citizen of Jesus’ kingdom get a spiritual gift. This gift is a divinely empowered aptitude for loving others in a specific way.
There are seven of them that can be considered motivational (personality defining) gifts, described in Romans 12:6-8:
“We have different gifts, according to the grace [unmerited favor] given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” (NIV)
Seven gifts, six ponies? Well, according to Chip Ingram, a pastor who gives some of the best teaching I have encountered on this topic so far (a lot of what I’m laying out here about spiritual gifts comes from his teaching on the subject), the motivational gifts of Teaching and Leadership actually appear in the same person sometimes. That makes the Romans 12 list of personality-defining spiritual gifts:
Prophecy, Mercy, Encouragement, Giving, Service and Leadership/Teaching.
Is that starting to look a little like a certain group of ponies?
I’ll take it one by one, describing each spiritual gift and matching it with the pony who demonstrates it best. I’ll leave prophecy and service for last because there’s some controversy over the elements and personalities of the two ponies who best deserve those.
So first, Mercy. Mercy is the divinely empowered ability to show people kindness and forgiveness. Someone with the gift of mercy is not just nice. They are able to look at people that most anybody would agree need to die for their crimes right now and extend them meaningful compassion, kindness and forgiveness. Fluttershy wears this one like a champ, showing it clearly in the first episode by seeing a wounded animal in need of help where others can only see a raging manticore blocking their way.
Second, Encouragement. Also known as exhortation, this gift is a divinely empowered gift for encouraging others in their faith in Christ. People who have this gift are motivated to come alongside others and bring healing and joy to their souls so that they will be better able to serve the kingdom. I know this gift pretty well because I have it. It goes well with the subgift of hospitality, the divinely empowered ability to… throw parties, because there are few better ways of encouraging large numbers of people and improving fellowship throughout the Church than throwing parties and showing everyone who comes that they are loved.
If you haven’t guessed it already, this is totally Pinkie Pie, whose entire goal in life is to bring joy to the lives of others. For a clear example of her gift in its most potent form, look to the encounter with the demon-trees in the Everfree forest in episode 1 where she LITERALLY encourages her friends by singing to them until they are filled with enough courage to face their fears. (Yes, I have done something like this, without the demon trees, with the singing).
Okay, so, Giving? This gift is a divinely empowered ability to see the material needs of people in the Kingdom and to provide appropriately and meaningfully for those needs. It usually also comes with some ability for making money so that the person with the gift of giving will have something to give away. It lines up perfectly with Rarity, who not only possesses the wealth-gathering side of the gift (she owns her own successful dress business and can literally go out and find precious gemstones just about anywhere) but also the more important side of the gift which is the ability to see the needs of others and meet those needs from her own personal resources, even when the cost is deep enough that it hurts her (such as when she cuts off her beloved tail in order to repair the prized moustache of the river serpent).
Next: Leadership/Teaching. The first is the ability to see needs in the Kingdom of God and then attract, organize and lead other Christians in fulfilling those needs. Sadly, not all pastors actually have this. Teaching, which goes well with this gift (at least in the case of pastors), is the ability to understand Scripture and then instruct others in it. It commonly includes a passion for research.
This is entirely Twilight Sparkle, who not only is the leader of the main 6 but is almost never not-researching when she is on her own. Additionally, her primary research task, as given by Princess Celestia, is to research friendship, which is about as close to researching God’s Word as one gets in MLP.
That just leaves Prophecy and Service. Oddly, it’s hard to figure out which pony goes with which of these not because there aren’t any ponies that match them, but because Applejack and Rainbow dash don’t always fit the Elements of Harmony assigned to them (a fact noticed by more MLP fans than just myself). Essentially, Applejack has been seen lying on several occasions and Rainbow Dash, who actually seems almost incapable of doing anything BUT tell the truth (in the most tactless way) has had some serious loyalty failures. However, that controversy mainly has to do with the Elements of Harmony. If I only look at personality and behavior in relation to Christian spiritual gifts, then these two ponies actually line up pretty well.
For Applejack, it’s Service. This is the divinely empowered ability to take care of the numerous, seemingly mundane tasks that must get done in the Church for the Church to function. These include things like setting up the church for services, taking care of children, cooking meals for sick people, washing dishes for potlucks, repairing people’s houses, etc etc etc. The person with the gift of service is able to do any number of these for free with a smile and little need for recognition. This isn’t very clear about Applejack from the start, but it becomes clear in subsequent episodes (starting with Applebuck Season) as she can be seen helping out ponies all over ponyville to accomplish whatever they need to get done, all without complaining or giving much consideration to her own needs.
That just leaves Rainbow Dash… the Prophet? Seriously? Yes, seriously. First, something about prophets: They aren’t necessarily telling the future anymore. I’ll leave anymore on that for another day and say instead that the primary function of this spiritual gift in the Church is to proclaim God’s word and apply it to situations with truth and power so that people not only understand what it’s saying but also respond to it. Prophets have the truth burning in their hearts and they have to share it.
What this means is that they are often the person standing up in front of everyone preaching the Gospel to the gathered crowd. People with strong gifts in this area are the superstars of the Church, known by many, and they tend to WANT to perform in front of a whole crowd of people because that means more people to receive their message. Some other common traits of people with the gift of prophecy: tendency to be opinionated, tendency to be insensitive to feelings of others.
Looks kinda like our friend Dash, doesn’t it? But still…
Rainbow Dash the Prophet?
Still not kidding. Why? Cause she carries the Gospel.
It’s time to talk about rainbows.
After God wiped out everything on the earth with a flood, saving only Noah, his family and a whole bunch of animals (note: contrary to what a certain recent movie might make you think, the crime for which mankind was judged was that their every thought was for evil, murder probably being high among those thoughts, not for eating animals and chopping down trees) God made a covenant with mankind and all the world that He would never again destroy everything with a flood. To signify that covenant, he set His bow in the sky. The story is found in Genesis 9:12-16:
“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
So, picture this: God has destroyed all the earth with water. Doing this was perfectly just. Not only is God the One who created it all in the first place, but He knows all. He is the perfect judge. He does not make mistakes when He says: here is evil, it must be destroyed. He saw evil, and He rightly destroyed it.
But this is not how He wants it to be. He wants mankind to be with Him as their Father, not to come before Him as their Judge. He wants children and friends who come to Him gladly because they know that they are loved, not enemies who flee from Him in terror because they know they must be judged.
So He makes a promise that He will never destroy the earth in this way again, and to seal it He takes His bow, the bow of rain with which He made war on the earth, and sets it down so that it is pointed at Heaven… at Himself.
This is the Gospel declared by the rainbow: that God will fire the arrow of His judgment into His own heart rather than destroy mankind, a promise fulfilled at the Cross when the Son of God bore all God’s just wrath at the evil of mankind down into the grave so that He could thereafter declare the crimes of anyone who came to Him fully paid for and make them a child of the Father and a citizen of His kingdom forever.
And that message is the message that Rainbow Dash has written in her mane and that she leaves behind her whenever she really gets going. Filling the world with that message is who she is… even if she seems to be bad at living it out. Except… she does live it out. Despite the fact that Rainbow Dash has a pride problem almost as bad as Nightmare Moon, when it comes down to something important, she is willing to murder her own desires and dreams for the good of others. That’s the loyalty thing, the “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” thing.
Okay, so, 6 ponies with the same spiritual gifts as the Christian Church. How does this work out when Nightmare Moon shows up?
It works out by making a rainbow that not only defeats Nightmare Moon, but cleanses her of her bondage to Pride and restores her to her proper place by Princess Celestia’s side. Symbolically, it cleanses the Church of evil ways and serves as an excellent illustration of Ephesians 4:15-16, where the Apostle Paul talks about how the Church works when people are using the gifts they’ve been given rightly:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
That is life in the Kingdom of God, a place where each person has been given something special with which they can build up their fellow citizens and serve their Savior King so that the WHOLE body can be freed from pride and bitterness and evil and draw nearer to Him day by day, shining more and more as its members learn not to look to the darkness of the world but instead to look to the brilliance of the one who loves them more than His own life.
To those who already knew and believed the core of this, I hope the whole of this article has served to give you a clearer picture of what you already knew. To those who didn’t know any of this Jesus stuff… I hope this has given you a clearer picture of what is really meant by The Kingdom of God. I hope you’ll join me again when I start on the individual episodes of season 1. Each of those entries should be much shorter now that I’ve set the stage.
If anyone has any questions or wants to discuss some of my interpretation, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you shortly.