Tuesday, April 08, 2008

“Now I See”

Isaiah 45:18-23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41[1]

Anyone who is over 40 has very likely spent hours watching episodes of television shows from the 1950’s like “Andy Griffith” and “Leave it to Beaver.” Those wonderful shows were a feature of many of our lives. But I think it is appropriate that they are in black & white. It reminds us that the characters and the stories, like the photography, aren’t quite true to life. Ward Cleaver is always wise and understanding and June Cleaver always manages to have her hair and clothes “just so.” Even Wallie is pretty much the “perfect” kid. When you look at life through the lenses of a show like “Leave it to Beaver,” it creates some pretty serious problems—what do you do with people who aren’t “perfect”? What happens when your problems are serious enough that they cannot be resolved in the space of a 30-minute sit-com?

That’s the premise of the 1998 film Pleasantville. In it, two teenagers from the 90’s, David and Jennifer, are transported back into a 1950’s television show called “Pleasantville.” They land smack dab in the world where everything is just like “Leave it to Beaver,” including the lack of color—the people, the scenery, everything is literally in black & white! “Pleasantville” is a place where everything is “pleasant,” and sickeningly so! [2] Wives stay home to make sure they have dinner ready just when their husbands walk through the door, teenagers do what their parents tell them and actually enjoy school, firefighters spend their days rescuing cats, and the basketball team never loses. Everything is always right with the world.

But the problem with this superficially ideal place is that there is no color to life. No one has the courage to stand up for what’s right. No one would dare to “color outside the lines” in order to achieve something they’ve always dreamed of doing. No one wants to do anything any differently from what they’re doing and how everybody else does it. There’s no inspiration, no enthusiasm, no freedom, no joy. It’s a world without color.

Well, not surprisingly, David and Jennifer “infect” Pleasantville with color. Not at first. And when they do it’s only gradually. Ironically Jennifer does it by trying out the promiscuous ways she used in the 90’s to avoid the realities of her life. David does it by coming out of his own protective shell and treating people like individuals who have hopes and dreams. Slowly, over time, color comes into the world of Pleasantville, even into the lives of those who tried to resist it. And in the process, David and Jennifer are changed as well—when they return to the 90’s, they have given up their self-protective ways that were undermining their own chances for happiness.

In a very real sense, that kind of transformation is what the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is all about. It’s about finding our way from emptiness to enthusiasm, from boring monotony to freedom, from complacency and conformity to risk-taking and boldness. That’s what the Apostle Paul was talking about in his letter to the Christians of Asia Minor. He called them to leave behind the lifestyle that once kept them imprisoned in death, delusion, and darkness—a life that he says was “without God and without hope in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Because of what Jesus did for us all, Paul says that we can now choose a new life, a life of grace, peace, truth, love, and light.[3] From Paul’s perspective, we are like sleepers who have been awakened, and now that the sun has risen and our eyes are open we can never go back to the darkness that once kept us bound. And so he calls to us all, using what may have been words from an ancient Christian hymn sung in their worship, saying “Awake, sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (5:14)!

The prophet Isaiah issued a similar invitation. Initially, Isaiah had promised salvation for the people of Israel. It was a salvation that would completely transform their lives just like Paul said—from darkness to light. But Isaiah also proclaimed an invitation to all the peoples from the ends of earth to “turn to me and be saved” (Isaiah 45:22). Isaiah proclaimed that God’s purpose is that every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess him as the only Savior and God (Isaiah 45:23).

As in the story of Pleasantville, however, not everyone wants to be set free. When it becomes plain to the mayor of Pleasantville that things are getting out of hand, he convenes a meeting in the bowling alley, one of the remaining fixtures that haven’t yet turned to color. He says, “Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant. Now, it seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.” But as Roger Ebert reminds us all in his review of the movie, life may have seemed simpler in a 1950’s world where there weren’t as many choices, but the reality is that “things were wrong that I didn't even know the words for.”[4]

Jesus encountered this kind of attitude when he healed the blind man. Because he did it on the Sabbath, the religious leaders were sure that he was nothing but a sinner, and they tried every kind of “spin” they could come up with to discredit either Jesus, or the blind man, or even his parents. In response, the blind man replies to their silly questions with an exasperated, “one thing I know, once I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). But the religious “pillars” refused to accept that they were also blind, in a different manner of speaking. And because of that Jesus sadly declared that they remained in their blindness (John 9:39-41). They chose to remain in the darkness.

Lent is a time for us to examine the ways that we have been blind to the darkness in our own lives. It is a time to once again acknowledge God as our only Lord and Savior. It is a time to heed the call to wake up from our slumbers so that Christ may shine on us and we may live the life that he came to give us—a life that consists of what is “good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9).[5]



[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/2/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Linda A. Mercadante, “The God Behind the Screen: Pleasantville & The Truman Show,” Journal of Religion and Film vol. 5, no. 2 (October 2001); accessed at http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/truman.htm.

[3] See Ephesians 2:5, 17; 3:10; 4:15, 24; 5:1-2, 9. Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3, 510: the awareness of God that comes to us through the process of illumination “is not mere apprehension and understanding of God’s being and action … . It is the claiming not only of [our] thinking but also of [our] willing and action, of the whole [person], for God. It is [our] refashioning to be a theatre, witness, and instrument of His acts.”

[4] Roger Ebert, Review of Pleasantville, Chicago Sun-Times, October 1, 1998; accessed at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19981001 /REVIEWS/810010301/1023 .

[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3, 512-13: as Christians we have “a Lord who to [our] salvation will not leave [us] in peace but constantly summons [us] to wake up again.”

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