Sunday, September 28, 2014
In Pleasantville, After the Fall
This past Friday I was able to sneak away from campus for a motorcycle ride. This is one of the keys to maintaining my sanity, such as it is. On the ride, I was stunned by the beauty of this river valley where we live. The weather was like a summer day, yet the turning of the leaves had begun on some of the trees; for others, the golden transformation would come at a later day. I had to stop on more than one occasion to take it all in. I watched ducks fishing with their bottoms up, which always cheers me for some reason. What a great way to look for food. And yet with so much beauty in the world, many of our students were saying goodbye to Raul at his funeral in New York City. How does the human heart hold such dichotomies at the same time? How do we hold it all together without breaking apart? Even as I went through the routines of my week, Raul and his family and friends were never far from my thoughts and prayers.
Our community was going so many different directions this week. For our Jewish students, Rosh Hashanah began last Wednesday, celebrating the Jewish New Year of 5775. The Jewish High Holy Days will end next Friday with Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish New Year, apples are dipped in honey in the hopes of a sweet new year. Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of the precious gift of creation—of sacred life itself. It is the birthday of the world. But the Jewish High Holy Days end with the Day of Atonement on Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness which is much darker in its divine power. It is a calling to repentance. During the High Holy Days, the Jewish people are called to reach out to those they have hurt or wronged, in ways both large and small. The High Holy Days, taken as a whole, include both the power of creation yet also the call to repentance to participate in the beauty of creation. New beginnings involve soul searching during the turning colors of fall.
As I tried to make sense of beauty and repentance together, along with love and sorrow, I was reminded of the movie Pleasantville. It is an excellent autumn movie. The film came out quite a while ago, in 1998. The movie is about a perfect television world, a utopia, where there is no pain. But there is no growth either. Within the movie, Pleasantville is a 1950s style television show portrayed in black and white. The show is centered on a perfect family called the Parkers. They have no problems, and everything turns out just right for them, every time. There are no arguments, no pain, no aging, no divorce, and certainly no death. Even the temperature never changes: it’s always 72 degrees. The basketball team never loses. Into this utopian world of television are transported a regular pair of high school students from our complicated world named David (played by Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (played by Reese Witherspoon). The twin siblings try not to interfere with the black and white world, but things begin to change, imperceptibly at first. The new reality begins with a red rose in full color, blooming at night. But soon the perfect black and white colors begin to change in wider ripples, following after the rose. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said of roses in his essay “Self-Reliance:”
“Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say, ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence…Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature in all moments alike…When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of a brook and the rustle of the corn.”
Because of the arrival of David and Jennifer, the perfect world of Pleasantville is blown apart. It begins with flowers, but moves onto people. Black and white characters burst as if into flame, into full color like in The Wizard of Oz. They become “colored” in the language of the film. A strong surge of emotion seems to trigger the transformation to full color, and the new identities are not timid, or apologetic anymore. They are standing upright, as Emerson hoped for in “Self-Reliance.” They are human—they have discovered their full humanity. Some of the transformations are inspired by romance, but this is not true in every case. Jennifer—the Reese Witherspoon character—finds her deeper humanity by reading a book, and David discovers his true identity by defending himself in a fist fight. The town fathers—still in black and white—fear the independence of the colored people, and eventually put David on trial for the chain of events he has set in motion. The judge gets so angry that he bursts into full color himself. The trial becomes a beautiful chaos, with even the town fathers in full bloom.
The movie Pleasantville urges compassion, in every direction. The events that give others their full humanity may be different from how you discover your true self. Pain comes to everyone, and pain has come to us this week. We all feel differently. We all grieve differently. But grieving we are. And yet the good things in life are still good. Creation, in all of its majesty and awe, is still here, but it is no black and white utopia. We live in a reality aflame with color where there is danger, peril, illness, death, and yet great beauty all around us. Our full humanity can be recognized, one person at a time, and we look at each other in full color this morning. Grief is not far from us, but neither is the love of God who made things the way they are.
The gospel reading from Matthew deepens our awareness of what it means to be fully human. The scene is in the temple, and an argument takes place, one which foreshadows the trial of Jesus. In the visual lexicon of Pleasantville, Jesus represents the world of color, his antagonists the black and white status quo. Everything has changed because of Jesus’ presence, and the chief priests and elders want to know why—by whose authority is Jesus doing these things? The chief priests and elders live in the safety of the past. They are timid and apologetic, and they are afraid of the upright personal religion that Jesus is sharing with his followers. They see its danger, especially in the appeal to his growing followers. This isn’t the trial of Jesus—not yet, so Jesus answers their question with a question.
“I will ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
They can’t answer the question. Not because they don’t know the answer, but because the right answer won’t produce the desired political outcome. How often does this happen in our world? So Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but he does offer a parable of two brothers. One son refuses to work in the field of his father, but eventually does, while the second son agrees to go, but then changes his mind. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus asks. This parable is so apolitical and innocuous that even the chief priests and elders get it right. You may say no to God at first right now, but, when the time comes, you change your mind and go to work in God’s field.
The two brothers represent the choices we have about how to respond to the gift of life, the invitation of creation, even when invaded by sorrow. We’re asked to go to work for God right now. As the leaves begin to change, so do our hearts—they are heavy, hopeful, overflowing, and open to the Spirit of God. We walk upright in full color.
The gospel from Matthew is not specific about the kind of work needed in the father’s field by the two brothers. But after the week behind us, I imagine the command is this: Take care of each other. The command goes out to every member of the Kent School community. Take care of each other now, and in the days to come.