by Bishop TIm Harris
The 1998 movie Pleasantville used the simple contrivance of seeing two teenagers (David and Jennifer), a brother and sister, zapped back into the world of a classic 1950’s black and white TV show.
While the TV show is called Pleasantville, it is very much in the style of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver. Life in Pleasantville is perpetually… pleasant.
Not a cloud in the sky, there are no storms or crises. The biggest emergency for the fire department to face was a cat stuck up a tree.
The teenage brother and sister find themselves locked into this 1950’s fantasy dream of life when it was all so pleasant, and engage in their TV show personas as Bud and Mary-Sue.
For David it is his dream world of order and predictability. For Jennifer, it is the opposite – the epitome of Nerdsville. Both, in their own ways, function as catalysts for emerging social coming of age and glimpses of life beyond the bland shades of grey.
Predictably, the initial experience of discovering a world of colour comes through sexual discovery, but a growing depth and richness of life comes more profoundly through art, reading great literature, and experiencing the simple pleasures of rain and changing seasons.
The fear of disruptions to this world of pleasantness is well-expressed by the town Mayor, Big Bob:
“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.”
The desire to remove anything unpleasant, that is to say, disruptive to the perceived pleasantness, results in an authoritarian banning of colour, and a trial scene reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird of those who subvert the new town bylaws.
By contrast, the colourless existence that filters out the uncertainties and unpredictability of life is effectively conveyed in an exchange between our protagonist David, and his developing friendship with his girlfriend Margaret, curious about life outside Pleasantville:
Margaret: So what's it like?
Margaret: Out there.
David: Well, it's... It's louder, and... scarier, I guess.
And it's a lot more dangerous.
Margaret: Sounds fantastic.
For me, the most poignant figure is the owner of the soda shop, Bill Johnson, played by Jeff Daniels.
Locked into the habitual and fixed mode of a background figure, he is a mixture of weariness and anxiety over the possibility of his world being shaken out of its well-worn routines, shown literally in the scuff-marks of his habitual cleaning of the shop counter.
A most beautiful and touching scene is depicted when David introduces Bill to the world of art, with each image conveying powerful dimensions of all that it means to be human and a growing awareness of the wonder of the world around us.
Now I have a reason for drawing on the imagery and deeper wonderings reflected in Pleasantville. It strikes me that the desire to live in a pleasant world, unmarked by disturbances and discomforts might just speak to our desire to live within a pleasant church. Certainly, that is the way it has challenged me. I would much prefer to stay within my comfort zones, to stay within established routines and expectations, to hope that the more predictable mode of going about our activities as a church in the past would continue into the future. Yet we are facing a time in which the pleasantness of our experience of the church of the past is fast fading, and we face the disrupted-ness of a rapidly changing world impacting our own neighbourhoods.
Viewed in more parabolic terms, I wonder whether my spiritual experience is the world of black and white, albeit nuanced by shades of grey? Am I more comfortable with staying with words on a page, or within routines and rituals that bring comforts of predictable and non-demanding order?
As I view the scene of Bill Johnson opening the book of great works of art, that speaks to me of my experiences in reading Scripture. It has pages and pages of theological artistry, conveying the presence and activity of God in and through every aspect of life. It captures and depicts the greatest drama of all, the drama of God’s mission in this world, centred in the beauty and wonder of Jesus Christ.
Yet Scripture is only as effective as it opens our eyes and awareness to the presence and activity of God in the world around us, not only in the pages of a book. That is akin to discovering colour in a world of black and white. It brings out qualities of life in every season and experience. There is a richness to life, certainly in the spiritual realm, but no less in the material world of flesh and blood, in the midst of the messiness and complexities of life, especially as lived in community.
Our Bible readings this evening focus on the presence and working of the Holy Spirit. I must confess there is so much I don’t know or understand about the Holy Spirit. I can identify various statements and affirmations relating to the Holy Spirit as presented in Scripture, and through various occasions and seasons in my own experience. Yet I doubt whether any one of us can claim to truly fathom and understand the workings of the Spirit. Yet we are encouraged to seek the Spirit, to be filled with the Spirit, to be in step with the Spirit. In like measure, we are warned against blaspheming the Spirit, and cautioned that it is possible for us to quench the Spirit in our own experience, and in the experience of our church.
Both readings affirm the promise of the Holy Spirit. In the reading from John 16, the Spirit is identified as the Spirit of truth, a Spirit who speaks to us of the things of God, and especially of the glory of Christ and all that is available to us in Christ. God is not silent, and nor does God want us to stay in a state of ignorance or darkness. And when the Spirit speaks, he opens to us a world of glory – we might say, a world of colour against the backdrop of grey bleakness.=
The Epistle reading from Ephesians 1 elaborates on the same theme. It comes as the conclusion of one long sentence, starting in verse 3 and running through to verse 14. It’s too much for our translators, so they break it up to make it more digestible. This is an incredibly rich sentence, weaving the fulness of the spiritual blessings we receive in and through Christ into a glimpse of God’s ultimate plan for this world, culminating in the promise here and now in the form of a down-payment of the Holy Spirit.
Ten times we are told of things that are achieved or provided in, through or under Christ, collectively summarised as the message of the gospel of our salvation.
This passage in Ephesians 1 tells us that a gospel without engagement and receiving of the Holy Spirit is no gospel at all. The Spirit is a seal of our inheritance, that is, of our salvation and place within the kingdom of God. Being in Christ is only possible through the Spirit, and as Ephesians makes clear in subsequent passages, the church does not exist other than being a temple of the Holy Spirit, nor may we live the Christian life both personally as a community of faith except in and through the Spirit.
If we view Pleasantville as a type of parable through which we might reflect on our own dreams and experience as a Church looking to find its way in an increasingly disruptive and less than comfortable environment, I wonder how it speaks to you - I’d love to know your thoughts afterwards.
For myself, I am struck by my own desire and need for a fresh inbreaking of the Spirit to bring renewed life and richness. I yearn to become more mindful and aware of the presence and work of God around me. And I especially need to be more confident in trusting God’s activity in that wonderful—if somewhat fearful—world outside our pleasant expressions of church.
To set God’s offering of the Holy Spirit to one side, or at least relegate the Spirit to living out in a backroom somewhere, is to strip the gospel of its power, and to make all our activities and endeavours futile.
But the world of colour has been there all along – it is just that it was not being perceived. Read through the agency of the Spirit, and guided by the mysteries and glories revealed in Scripture, we view the world around us with eyes to see and ears to hear the working of God. Not only empowered and in step with the Spirit, we are drawn into the body of Christ and discover the most awesome truth that the Holy Spirit resides within us, both personally and as a Church.
It is true of every age, but no less true today than at any other time: this is an exciting time to be a follower of Christ and to step up to the mark as a member of his Church. Our life membership fees have been paid in full, and we have received this wonderful down payment of the Spirit. Let us seek a renewed filling of the Holy Spirit, and step out on journeys of faith not quite sure where it will take us, but knowing we have no better an enabler, comforter, advocate and guide.
My prayer for the season ahead of us as a Church is conveyed through one of my favourite short poems by Steve Turner, called Spiritus.
I used to think of you
as a symphony
full of no surprises.
Now I see you as
a saxophone solo
into the night,
a tongue of fire,
flicking in unrepeated
Steve Turner, Up to Date
To which we say, Amen. Or more colloquially, bring it on!