Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County
"Mickey Mouse Religion"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore June 12th, 1994

Introductory Words

Let us laugh!
Let us roar together at the comedy we call life.
The foolish fluster of pride, vanity, and pretense;
The silly self-concern which overlooks its own purpose;
The giggling gush of self discovery
All opening the way to pleasurable understanding.

Yes laugh, and remember what is real.
Foolish, silly, giggling contact with the real leads to healing laughter.
Healing laughter helps empty the dustbin of the soul.
And reminds us of who we are
with a gentle tickle under the chin.

Come, let us celebrate together
the joy of life, of commitment, of passion, of understanding,
of witness, of humility, of simplicity, of service,
of love that leaps beyond all comprehension.


Good ol' Mickey. How can you dislike the little rodent! Think of how many times in your life you have seen that smiling face on a watch or a tee shirt or an advertisement or on television or at the movies in earlier years. Our son Andy has his image between the handlebars of his tricycle. In case you have forgotten, I've put him on the cover of your program! Mickey seems as American as apple pie. He may be the next figure to be carved on Mount Rushmore.

For as many times as we have seen that face, it will come as no surprise to you to discover that Mickey isn't real. In fact the technology to make Mickey appear real didn't exist until the beginning of the 20th Century.

"Of course, that's obvious!" you might be thinking. Yes and no. Disney's skill in animation is part of a dissolving of the border between the real and the unreal which one finds perfected in Disney theme parks.

I sometimes choose the titles for my sermons long before I may have figured out what I want to say about a subject. This has some disadvantages, especially when one's research doesn't confirm the original idea. Philomena gave me this Mickey Mouse tie for Christmas and I wondered when I could wear it. Then I got the bright idea to do a sermon on Mickey. I mused that many devout believers from other faiths might think we are practicing a Mickey Mouse religion. I wanted originally to sketch the kind of church that Mickey might serve as spokesmouse. This week I decided I needed to check the definition of religion to guide me in organizing my remarks. After reading the definition, I realized that Mickey could never be a religious figure.

Webster's first definition is: The personal commitment to and serving of God with worshipful devotions, conduct in accord with divine commands especially as found in accepted sacred writings or declared by authoritative teachers, a way of life recognized as incumbent on true believers, and typically the relating of oneself to an organized body of believers. Worshipful devotion doesn't seem to go with the mouse who just likes to have fun.

I looked further down the page and found another definition that seems more suited to Unitarian Universalists: a cause, principle, system of tenets held with ardor, devotion, conscientiousness and faith, a value to be held to be of supreme importance. This definition might work for us but the only principle held with ardor by Mickey is having a good time. Although Mickey as been described as an "everyman" type figure, a better description of him would be the eternal child.

The choice of a mouse as the character for Mickey that children might identify with is significant. Walt laughed about the choice because he said he was afraid of mice. Mice are cute, furry and cuddly, but also small, amoral and pesky, much as children might have been viewed during the late 1920's.

Mickey's character is perhaps most clearly revealed in its simplest form where he appears for the first time: Steamboat Willie. In this animated cartoon he plays a workman on a steamboat whistling and having a gay old time piloting the boat - that is until the captain catches him in that role and disciplines him in grotesque cartoon-esque fashion. Mickey having a good time is victim of the big, ugly, nasty, and violent adult figure. The boat stops to pick up cargo and leaves before Minnie can get on board. Minnie, like most children, is unseen and thus devalued by the captain. Mickey does see her (being a peer) and uses ingenuity to hook her by the rear with a crane and swing her on the boat. Before they have a chance to get acquainted, the music and guitar she has brought with her has been eaten by a goat. When he realizes they are now in the goat's stomach, Mickey begins to crank the goat's tale and music comes out.

Mickey and his Disney pals live in a virtual world where things that are lifeless can become animate and things that are alive can be treated as objects. The format of a cartoon removes the limits of time and space so the world can be turned upside-down.

Mickey and all animation characters live in the same world as children who are striving to understand the relationships of time and space. Children especially enjoy the suspension of natural law because they can understand the deception and laugh at the confusion of the characters. In one comical scene, Mickey's dog Pluto (perhaps a farcical Plato? I wonder) swallows a magnet and then gets chased by pots and pans and everything metallic. A physical principle is stretched in a playful way much the way a child might grapple with trying to understand a new concept.

In the magical world of a child, everything is alive. In many of the Disney classics, the world is full of inanimate objects which come to life - with an attitude. Knives, forks and spoons dance on the table while the teapot spouts off at the tea cup. Trees malevolently grab little children while moose stand on two feet and smoke cigars. It is a world of make-believe far out of touch with reality.

And why do we watch that which is obviously fake when understanding the real is of supreme value for survival? It's entertaining. We laugh at the bawdy exaggeration. Something about slapstick tickles the funny bone. And the story usually teaches some moral or value. Cartoons do pass on the rules, the knowledge and social conventions of a culture. Animation is a refined visual form of story-telling that has existed since before the first cave paintings.

This would be all well and good except that this distortion of reality is happening throughout our culture as a byproduct of the information age and consumerism. Advertising is particularly at fault as it spews out sounds, smells and images to get us to buy the products for sale. Mickey isn't just found in celluloid. One can purchase his likeness reproduced on thousands of products. One can go to Disney World and actually see Mickey walking around with Minnie greeting children.

This is just a little confusing for children's sense of reality. I did a child dedication for a baby boy whose room was decorated in a Mickey Mouse theme (very popular today). From his earliest days, Mickey's face will be imprinted on his brain about the same time he is recognizing his mother and father. Mickey is going to be a central touchstone for this child as he begins to construct his internal representation of reality in his head.

Mickey isn't alone in his influence of young children. My two-year-old son has many cartoon characters on his chest in the course of a week. Television overwhelms us with image after image, none of which are really real but representations of the real and unreal.

One way to get a handle on this process of disconnection of the real and the unreal is with a system of evaluating the real and fake. I happen to have one for you this morning. That which is "real real" is not a representation but the genuine article. If you go out and hug a tree, that is being in contact with something that is real real. Those who help with our work parties around the Fellowship have the privilege of being in direct contact with the really real as I was yesterday trimming bushes and cleaning the meditation walk stairs.

Something that is fake fake is something which doesn't exist. Mickey is a fake fake, along with imitation margarine, a clown's red nose, and those ceramic animals whose heads were connected to the body in such a way that the head would bob up and down when touched.

Understanding the real real and the fake fake is the easy part. Now things get more complicated.

When one goes to Walt Disney World and sees Mickey walking down Main Street U.S.A., one knows that Mickey isn't real - but there he is! The art of Disney's imagineers is to bring that which has no existence to life in a way that convinces us that it is real - what might be called, real fake. If you doubt the deception, one only needs to hear the cries of small children, "Mommy, Daddy, it's really Mickey!"

Lastly, at Disney World, they have an imitation tree that rises 90 feet in the air. The tree is so tall, it is said to be visible from both coasts of Florida on a very clear day. In it is the Swiss Family Robinson Tree house, one of the attractions. The tree's leaves, of course, are not real but fake. This tree has around eight hundred thousand fake leaves, giving a convincing impression of reality. This fake tree is something that is fake real: a convincing reproduction of something real. The imagineers accomplish this deception of confusing reality and illusion by their obsessive attention to detail. Anyone who has visited Disney World will testify that they do this confusion of the real and fake very, very well.

Something that is fake fake and real real will support our understanding of reality and reinforce it. On the other hand, that which is real fake or fake real can confuse us and cause us to lose our bearings. Yet disorientation is also critical to the process of entertainment. Our purpose in seeking entertainment is often relief from the unpleasantness of being in contact with the really real.

Harmless as it may seem to try to escape from the really real, the problem is that our contact with the really real is slipping away in American Culture. Already we separate ourselves from our environment in houses that are climate- controlled. Our source of information about our community is greatly distorted as it is compressed into a paragraph on newsprint or a soundbite on television. Few of us grow our own food, carry our own water. It is impossible for us to know all the citizens of our county.

I'm smarting this week from having my first letter to the editor published in the paper. Based on what I read and a few personal reports, I wrote a letter in support of Judy Jones, a woman living on Scott Street in Punta Gorda who feeds the poor. The day the letter was published, I got several calls from people trying to convince me she was not all she seemed. Upon investigation with my community contacts, something I should have done before writing the letter, I realized Ms. Jones wasn't quite the saint I expected her to be. The newspaper wasn't telling the whole story. And neither were my contacts. The truth was not very easy to surmise.

The less contact we have with what is really real, the more our sense of reality is distorted. Our common experience is the basis for our compassion for each other. My desire to help someone who is hungry often comes from my own experience of hunger. My desire to shelter another comes from the experience of the harshness of exposure to the elements.

The movement between the fake real and the real fake may have entertainment value, but it has a secondary effect. It causes complacency. Watching Mickey and Pluto move from one violent act to another, concluding their escapades with a giggle, can desensitize one to violence. In one scene, Mickey is playing golf and his ball lands in a sand trap. Mickey takes a bad swing at the ball and covers Pluto with sand, the ball landing on his rear end. Mickey takes aim while Pluto cowers, dripping with sweat. Pluto becomes an object rather than a living creature which can feel pain. This transition from object to living creature and back happens again and again in cartoons, confusing them together so that everything can be viewed as an object or a living being at any moment. This weakens one's respect for the interdependent web.

What is completely missing in Mickey's cartoon world is a cause, principle, system of tenets held with ardor, devotion, conscientiousness and faith, a value to be held to be of supreme importance. And when they do appear, they come in the image of adult who is ridiculed. In fact, in the world of entertainment, literally nothing is sacred. Comedians prove this every night.

Now I'm not arguing entertainment is a bad thing. I suppose some of what I do here falls into that category - but I hope not too much. The problem as I see it is that too much of our lives are offered over to entertainment and not enough toward following causes and principles held to be of supreme importance. Entertainment which confuses the real and the fake too completely can disconnect us with the truths we hold most dear.

Mickey is part of this conspiracy to turn us into couch potatoes. I worry about it most in our children who are forming their identities. Mickey may make for wonderful amusement but he is hardly a role model for life. In a world fraught with threats which may wipe us off the planet, a wink and a smile from Mickey wishing me a happy day may not lead to having a nice day, week, month or lifetime.

Many today do make their entertainment into their religion as they worship at the movie theater, the football stadium, the ballpark or most often at the television shrine. Only the most religious spend as much time in front of their altars as we do at the tube.

So I encourage you today to take a step away from the world of entertainment and one toward the really real. There are plenty of really real problems here in Charlotte County that need our attention more than Mickey does. There are plenty of distracting diversions out there. There is not enough focused commitment to moral and ethical values. This is what I believe to be an important purpose of a religious community.

Our purpose here is to breathe life into our values and make them flesh and blood, not fictional cartoon characters.

Closing Words

Yes, let us laugh, but let us remember what is real and what isn't. The suspension of the real can be helpful to gain a new perspective, yet when the line becomes confused we can lose our humanity.

Don't blame Mickey, though. He's just trying to have fun. And so should we.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.