Pleasant Dreams

The last time I watched Pleasantville I didn’t have this blog running to discuss it.  It was also during the Obama administration where it felt more like nostalgia rather than a documentary.  In case you’re not familiar, Pleasantville is a movie about how a nerdy teen, David, and his cool sister Jennifer get sucked into a 1950’s sitcom, “Pleasantville.”  They find themselves in black-and-white and in a world as regimented as Stepford, but somewhat more humorously so.  As Jennifer is eager to get back home, she introduces this colorless world to sex, and as the two-dimensional characters begin to experience strong emotions colors start to appear.  The “picture perfect” Pleasantville begins to let the plastic facade of the 1950s slip to reveal a complex and messy world of true humanity beneath.

Watching the film in the age of Trump, as with most things, interjected a current of fear.  The townspeople feel threatened by those who are different, colorful.  They want everything just as it was—women serving their husbands, everyone the same hue, and pretending that sexuality doesn’t exist.  It may have been originally intended as an homage to the the 1960s, but what became clear in an age of MAGA is that crowds easily respond to suggestions of hatred.  Many of those in the group, individually, are “coloreds” themselves, but fear to let it show.  Conformity is much safer even if it means hating those who are different.  I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but the superiority of the white man apparently was.  One of the characters is, tellingly, named Whitey.

Initially drawn to the film seeking biblical references (occupational hazard) I knew there was an Eden scene before I first watched it.  Margaret, on whom David has a crush, has discovered actual fruit at Lover’s Lane.  She brings him an apple which, the TV Repairman (if you’re lost, please watch the movie—it’s quite enjoyable) points out, is a form of sin in this world of simple answers and unspoken repression.  A mash-up of Jasper Fforde and American Graffiti, the film exposes the lie behind the idea that all were put on earth to serve the white man.  Jennifer discovers books and stays behind in colorized Pleasantville to go to college, something of a rarity in those days.  Although the movie bombed at the box office, it has a serious message to convey.  There was no perfect 1950s iconic America.  The process of becoming great is one of evolution, rather than that of a fabled Eden, available only in black-and-white.

Final Final Frontier?

Over the past several months my wife and I have been making our way through the Stars. Not really Trekkies or Jediists, we both came of age during the early days of Star Trek and the dawning of the original Star Wars. Both franchises have continued to grow and have become cultural markers in their own rights. We have survived all the episodes of Star Wars I through III, and have made it, so far through Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. As we switched off the DVD player, we mused that we hadn’t seen this particular installment (with good reason) since we had originally watched it together shortly after it came out. It has its moments, but it just doesn’t measure up to what Kirk and Spock can usually muster. Watching it as a somewhat jaded critic of space movies, however, its religious elements simply couldn’t be ignored. After all, this is the episode where they find God, then shoot him in the face.

Opening with Sybok, the emotional Vulcan messiah, with a tacked-on identity as Spock’s brother, healing his first convert, the movie follows a typical kind of progression of a boy and his god. The town on Nimbus III (every Trinity watcher surely caught that reference) is named Paradise. Some wag painted the Miltonesque “Lost” after the town name on the gate through which Sybok rides like Jesus entering Jerusalem. Hijacking the Enterprise turns out to be remarkably easy, even with Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu, and Kirk in the shuttlecraft. And soon we’re off to the Great Barrier, which, as it turns out, is just a bunch of colored lights.

When God appears, he takes the shape of a typical Terran, white beard and everything. When Sybok questions him he briefly turns Vulcan, but we get the sense that God is whoever you want him to be. He is definitely masculine, and he has anger issues. His Eden is a barren rock, and he feels trapped and requires a starship to get about. We are forced to conclude that this is no deity after all and life is but a dream.

Despite its many disappointments, Star Trek V is a theologically aware movie. Its conclusion of science trumping the need for the divine leaves us with three old men around a campfire waiting to die. A trinity in its own right, but one where the only hymn to be mustered is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” And God lies dead at the center of the galaxy.

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Which Way to Eden?

We don’t have television service, and I haven’t watched TV regularly for about two decades. Over the years, however, we’ve collected the DVDs of the shows we miss, or which we wish we’d seen so that we missed them, and use those in lean times. Feeling a bit lonesome over the weekend I downed a few Twilight Zones followed by a Star Trek chaser. On a three year mission to explore strange new worlds, my wife and I have been working our way through Star Trek, the original series. We’ve finally reached the final chapters of the final frontier. I’ve noticed as we’ve gone through the episodes just how biblically literate the series is. Even Spock quotes the Bible from time to time. Over the weekend, to keep my mind off present reality, we ended up watching “The Way to Eden.” As much as I enjoyed Star Trek as a kid, when it was still new, the overtly ’60’s-themed episodes bother me as an adult. I’m very much still a hippie at heart, but I don’t like lingo, and the alien cool cats in their weird shorts and funky hairdos chanting “Herbert! Herbert!” still really bother me. Somewhat predictably the aliens hijack the Enterprise to reach their fabled paradise.

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Spoiler alert! For those of you who’ve been asleep since 1969, or have had no curiosity about the inspiration behind all those geniuses who’ve ushered in the technological revolution, I’m about to reveal some details. Eden is deadly. The landing party finds the short-pants wearing, funky guitar-strumming crooner dead under a fruit tree. “His name was Adam,” Spock laconically notes. The scene of Dr. Sevrin’s burned foot has stayed with me since childhood, and I still cringe when he leaps out of the shuttlecraft to take a bite of the poisoned fruit. It was only as an adult that I realized his name was reminiscent of Eve, indeed, a kind of blending of the words “sin” and “Eve.” In a kind of homoerotic death scene, the two male leaders end up under the tree together. Probably my overactive imagination.

Sometimes I ponder how much a biblically illiterate society misses. I frequently told my students that the Bible is foundational for our culture. Whether or not you’re aware of it, it is reinforced regularly in ways both ortho- and heterodox. Despite our very secular self-awareness, entire movies, such as The Book of Eli, can be based on the premise of biblical literacy. It is entirely possible to watch movies and television shows, and to read novels (graphic and literary) with enjoyment and not notice the allusions. The reasons they are there, however, is that despite the abuses of literalism, the Bible does have some profound things to say. It’s up there with Shakespeare and Chaucer. And even with Roddenberry and his host of staff writers. And I suspect that it still will be, in some form, in the twenty-third century.

Secret Life of Apples

Considering that the story of Eden fits the pattern of many an ancient myth, modern writers still occasionally argue about what the fruit on the tree of life might have been. The favorite with medieval theologians seems to have been the apple because of the similarity of its name in Latin and the presumed badness of the act. Apples, however, are nutritious and make up a large part of autumn’s outdoor appeal. While at a local orchard over the weekend, apple picking, my daughter pointed out a tree with what might be termed biblical properties. A tree full of ripe apples yet to all appearances the tree was dead or dying. Perhaps that is nature’s way with apples, but it also seemed like such a resurrection symbol that I just couldn’t let it go. Would the apples carry on the line of the dead parent tree? Was there life after death?

I’m not sure why I’ve associated apples with new life. Shortly after my father died, I planted an apple seed in a plant potter in our Wisconsin home. To my surprise, the seed germinated and began to grow. We did not own our house, but we lived on a wooded campus and two large shade trees had been blown over in the past few months, so when the young tree was large enough, I planted it outside. The lawns on campus were rather aggressively mown with students who sometimes had anger issues, so I put up a little fence around the young tree to keep it safe from accidental mulching. By the time I was asked to leave Nashotah House, the tree was taller than me (not such a feat, but the fact that it survived so well was pleasing). No apples had yet appeared, but the tree is a symbol of new life. No one on campus knew its meaning, and I doubt very much that anyone thought much about it one way or the other after I left.

I often wonder if that little tree is still alive, and, if so, whether or not anyone enjoys its apples. Every year when the trees begin their long journey into a winter’s sleep, the apple trees send forth the own message of resurrection. Some will associate the fruit with sin while others will find pleasant autumnal memories. And a very few, I should suppose, will always think of trees as a symbol of someone they wish they might have known a little better. Far from being a sign of sin, the apple can be a sign of forgiveness and self-giving. Whether it is a myth or not, the northern hemisphere has begun its inexorable turn away from the sun. I look at a tree that is dead and full of life at the same time, and to me it seems to be a very different kind of fall than some suggest the Bible intends.

Edeniana

“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye”—so begins a hymn I learned as a child and which has followed me to Bloomington, Indiana. Campus visits are an expectation of some academic editors, and as I stand and look at Jordan River on the Indiana University campus, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I have no idea if this little stream was named after the Jordan River of Israel fame, or if it just happens that someone named Jordan was a benefactor of the university. Given that there is a Jordan Hall, and a Jordan Street, the latter seems likely. Nevertheless, whether liquid or liquidity, any Jordan in contemporary society probably traces its origins back to the river that now separates Israel from Jordan (named after the river). Many hymns celebrate the mighty Jordan without the benefit of geographical experience. The mythic river is not mighty or majestic, but a slow-moving artery that sluggishly empties into the Dead Sea. With all the history of Christian imagination, however, we like to think of it on a par with the Euphrates, or at least the Mississippi.

Jordan’s stormy banks

Biblical images have a way of catching the imagination. Although many younger people have no training in the Bible or Christianity, our culture is steeped very thoroughly in it. For some who are just rising to voting age, it must appear incredible the amount of effort politicians still put into keeping the old faith alive. It is clearly so here in Indiana. Driving down from Indianapolis I passed many signs that the Biblio-Christic pulse still throbs in the heartland. As I stopped to check my directions, I realized I’d just parked across from Pray Street. In a land where an imperative verb for a religious function stands a chance of becoming a street name, anything is possible.

After I returned from my trip to Israel many years ago, I realized that I’d neglected to take any pictures of the Jordan River. It runs like a leitmotif through our national imagination that it almost seems worth going back just to snap a shot or two. The Jordan is redolent of Eden, a land that is, according to Genesis, defined by four rivers. Water is a precious commodity in the arid Middle East. Its fluid nature seems not to have achieved the level of metaphor for those who insist on warring over religion. For gardens to bloom, there must be water and its short supply raises tensions. Water connects, however, just as readily as it separates. One of the first steps towards the great civilizations was the technology of travel by water. Why can we no longer use it for connecting rather than gerrymandering? I don’t know why this little stream is called Jordan River, but I do stand by its banks and cast a wishful eye.

Religious Raven

Having seldom achieved any sort of public recognition in my youth, I have been gratified to observe the approbation my daughter frequently earns. One such instance occurred yesterday as she won an Outstanding Presenter award at the state level of 4-H. For her presentation she introduced and recited Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” from memory. As much as I like to take credit for some of her taste in literature, her remarkable memorizing ability that has impressed several judges and parents along the way is the result of her own determination. “The Raven” has always been among my favorite poems. As I listened to my daughter’s recitation yesterday, once again the wealth of religious and biblical images stood out.

Starting subtly with the perching of the raven on a bust of Pallas, Athena, the protective goddess of Athens itself, Poe adds the supernatural to his lamentation on the death of his wife. The bird’s origins on “the night’s Plutonian shore” also point the reader to the classical underworld toward which the poem inevitably points. The last five stanzas, where Poe’s verse turns directly toward his black thoughts at the decline of his wife, introduce the presence of seraphim—the turning point in the poem—angelic beings mentioned as attendants to God’s throne in Isaiah. The divine presence, however, offers Poe no comfort as the raven refuses to relinquish his memories of his love. Asking with Jeremiah (and citing the bird as prophet) if there is balm in Gilead, the poet is informed no such comfort exists. Calling God in Heaven as witness the bereaved asks if in Eden (Aidenn) he will be reunited with his bride, only to be informed such will not be the case. The raven, compared to devil, thing of evil, and a demon, represents for Poe the ultimate reality.

“The Raven” is a dark poem, tinged with religious imagery that was freely drawn upon in the nineteenth century. Having heard it recited many times over the past few months, I have come to believe that Poe would have been in accord with my belief that religion and fear are close siblings. When the climax of the author’s pain and sorrow is reached, the religious imagery predominates. This is a paradigm of many human lives. How many non-religious folk seek to make their peace with the supernatural when death is imminent? “Eleventh hour conversion” may be a trite trope, but it does point to something that Edgar Allan Poe recognized long before me—when we find ourselves most afraid religious impulses are frequently at hand.

Vulcan’s Anvil

Volcanoes have long been the prerogative of the gods. Saturday’s eruption in the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex in southern Chile joins last month’s outburst from Grimsvotn in Iceland for divine fire-storms. In the days before geology, the only explanation for these impressive explosions was the gods. The concept of Hell was fairly late in the development of ancient Near Eastern religions, otherwise volcanoes might have been labeled as Hell breaking loose, literally. Many historic eruptions have influenced the course of history, most notably Thera and Vesuvius. Ancients would have been hard pressed to see such spectacular—and obviously divine—displays as “natural.” Indeed, the concept of “natural” events was itself slow in evolving since the gods were always lurking in the dark corners of the evolving human psyche.

Fortunately, beyond disrupting some air travel, these two latest outbursts have been fairly benign from a human point of view. This too is an evolved perspective since we tend to see ourselves as the overlords of the natural world. Watching industrialists poke new orifices in the planet’s crust for personal gain even in rare and delicately balanced ecosystems, who can doubt that we are masters of our own domain? Much of the misdirected sense of such entitlement comes from interpreting the Bible as declaring the planet ours from the days of mythical Eden. Some of the more perverse applications of this principle include those who try to force the hand of God into sending the Second Coming due to their creating conditions appropriate to an apocalypse. Others declare that since said Second Coming is nigh, why not trash the environment? We won’t be needing it much longer.

Apart from the obviously failure of logic here, the anthropocentric view is also misguided. The earth was not created for us—we simply evolved on it. The corollary also stands true: long after any human intelligence is here to read these words, our planet will continue on its weary track around the sun until it blossoms into a red giant and consumes our final cinders. There are no horsemen in the clouds, but this planet is all that we have (even the space station depends upon it) and when we grow too arrogant, the planet unconsciously gives us a spectacular display to remind us that we are mere guests upon this globe. We need to treat it with respect.