Lessons From Pleasantville
The rapid change in Western civilization can be seen all around. Understanding the root cause of this societal restructuring is the first step toward developing new approaches in discipleship and evangelism. The movie Pleasantville is a fine examples of one growing worldview that is fostering significant change. I have used this movie in the classroom and in several small group settings with great effectiveness. I wanted to pass along some of my observations in the hope they will offer you both a fresh perspective on a world that does not know Christ and a springboard for starting meaningful dialogue.
Before we get into the symbolism of the movie itself, I want to define four key terms. I have adapted the first three from the teachings of Ravi Zacharias and I have added the fourth based on my own observations of culture.
Secularization is the process through which ideologies, institutions, faiths, feelings, reason, and individuals are stripped of their foundational core resulting in the loss of identity, value, social and moral meaning. [see Video]
Pluralization is the process through which any exclusivist foundation for reason is eroded by giving equal value to a plurality of philosophical ideologies resulting in the inability for individuals to come into agreement of consensus. [see Video]
Privatization is the process through which individuals consent to remove all views of God, faith and practice from the public resulting in a loss of personal meaning and corporate shame. [see Video]
Polarization is the ultimate consequence of a Secularized, Pluralized and Privatized society demonstrated in the balkanization of civic, social, religious, and family structures. [see Video]
The Tool for Learning
Ravi Zacharias explores the first three concepts well in his writings, yet an intellectual understanding of these terms is not enough. We must observe culture so that we can understand just how the process of Secularization, Pluralization, and Privatization is taking place in our communities and leading to a socially debilitating Polarization.
One of the ways in which we can explore our rapidly changing culture is the study of media. One of my favorite tools for discussion is the movie Pleasantville.
Most people will never read a book about philosophy, but they don’t have to because in this movie we see secularization, pluralization, and privatization happening right before our eyes.
Premise of the Movie
Pleasantville is a captivating parable about the search for personal meaning. As the story unfolds, we discover that both modern society and the society of “Pleasantville”, which both represent two distinct worldviews, have no inherent meaning. Thus stripped of their facade of significance, the movie demonstrates how only a pluralistic, secularized and privatized society can lead to pleasure. On the surface, both worlds seem to provide some basis of meaning, but now, through the lens of the film makers, these two words are exposed as mere vanity that can not satisfy. Why? Because both Pleasantville and the modern world pretend to offer meaning when in fact life itself has no meaning. Meaning only comes from the reality you create for yourself.
Following is a summary of the movie. Each section gives the time index (hh:mm:ss) indicating the relevant clip from the movie followed by my observations.
00:00:00 – 00:01:56 The introduction establishes the ideal of the 1950’s world by creating what is in reality a secularized view of the fictional town called Pleasantville. However, the movie as a whole is a success in portraying the failure of this “Pleasantville” image only because this town conveys the outward values of the era without any of the legitimate cultural foundations.
00:03:04 – 00:04:04 A series of classroom vignettes is presented which are designed to show the meaningless nature of modern life. This erosion of meaning through these images only within the worldview of a pluralistic society which has no values based on a transcendent God.
00:03:03 – 00:04:04 Here the classroom scene in Pleasantville is presented in juxtaposition to the classroom scene from Bud’s reality (see comment on 00:00:00 – 00:01:56). Note the perceived difference of hopelessness from the first in contrast to the perception of the perfect world of Pleasantville. But soon we will discover that both these worlds are without meaning.
00:36:40 – 00:36:52 After having sex, Skip sees the red rose. Too many Christians get hung-up on this point and assume that the movie is about promoting promiscuity. I remember when this movie came out. Religious leaders railed against this movie that promoted care-free sex. These folks reflect well the secularized and vapid faith outlined in this movie. Christians with a deeper foundation for faith though will look beyond the issue of sex and discover the philosophical meaning that goes much deeper. What begins to develop here is the ideal that the “monochrome” world is becoming “colorized”. That is color represents the pluralization of society and the freedom of self-determined future. Happiness and pleasure are what bring meaning. The following things represent the pluralization of Pleasantville: Sex, Pleasure, Art, Books (01:05:00), Lust, Beds, Personal freedom (such as Bud quitting his job).
00:34:30 – 00:35:29 & 00:40:57 – 00:42:47 What is the meaning of a hamburger? Bill here finds meaning for the first time beyond the external reality of making a hamburger. Meaning, he discovers, comes from within himself and can only be found in a diverse and pluralized society. This conclusion of course only rings true if everyone is living in a secularized culture (this includes a secularized faith) where inherent meaning has been stripped from all reality.
00:47:00 – 00:48:00 This scene may be hard for some Christians to handle and is certainly not for the young, but here we see the writers concept of wisdom and purpose come to fruition as Bud’s mom discovers the joy of pleasuring herself in her bathtub. The burning tree is set in contrast to the burning bush given to Moses. In the Old Testament the bush was God’s way of speaking to Moses and giving him a purpose and mission. In Pleasantville, the burning tree symbolizes the ideal that only by discovering the way to give ourselves pleasure can we find the message that will give us purpose and meaning. The message is not a burning bush from God, but a burning tree from the god that is self.
00:51:15 – 00:53:10 What exists outside of Pleasantville? Confronted with the changing world, the kids want to know what exists outside of their reality (Pleasantville). Bud reveals the ultimate “truth” that “there are some places in this world where the read does not go in a circle. There are some places where it just keeps on going.”
00:58:00 – 01:01:00 Why is Bud using make-up to cover the color on his mother’s face? Why is Bud ashamed to have helped her? Why does he in the very next scene bring the book of art to Bill? In part, we find in Bud the typical “Christian” hypocrite (as perceived by the writers). Bud is helping his mother cover her shame, but he knows better. He knows there is no meaning in living with shame, yet by putting on the makeup he keeps his mom on the circular road instead of helping her along the path of self-discovery and freedom from shame.
01:03:30 – 01:04:50 Don Knotts is the God of Pleasantville. In this scene we see the God who is controlling and angry. A God who is trying to keep the world from understanding the truth of good and evil. Here is the Genesis 2 revelation of God trying to control Adam and Eve and keeping them from the best things in life. Do not eat! Do not touch the fruit! Remain in ignorance and submit to a petulant God!
01:09:50 – 01:10:30 Bill removes the make-up and shame from Bud’s mom? Color should not be hidden in a Technicolor Pleasantville. Shame exists only in monochrome world which symbolizes the repression of self-actualization.
01:11:26 – 01:02:35 The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (01:27:58) is the only hope of freedom. Once we experience the Tree, the gate to freedom is opened wide and can not be closed by those left in the Garden (01:13:16 – 01:13:30). Pleasantville is the Garden of Eden where no one can miss a basket or strike or a spare. Then when true enlightenment comes, people come to the realization that they must find their own way outside of the boundaries of what others expect or what “God” can demand.
01:16:30 –01:20:34 “Its not about dinner and a shirt, its about values.” Boy doesn’t that sound familiar in our value focused Christianity? But as this movie shows us, values can not exist by the “moral majority.” We are not safe inside the four walls of our bowling allies (churches). Can we hold onto our values just by sheer force of will? The cinematography of this scene is very powerful. The camera shoots up at the mayor as he preaches from his bowling ally pulpit. Stick together! Stay in the holy huddle and it will all be okay! The rain outside the bowling ally is symbolic of the Flood rains that fell upon Noah. The Bible says that they were safe in the ark and the rains came to bring cleansing to the world. But in Pleasantville, the rain is the symbol of cleansing brought about by the freedom of individualism and pluralization. Right and wrong are washed away in the cleansing rain of Pleasantville and those inside the ark are not saved, they are really only sheltered from the hope that the rain brings. The scene ends and the rainbow appear in the skies above Pleasantville (01:20:47). Here the rainbow is not a symbol of God promise, but of enlightenment, self-discovery, and personal freedom. A promise that we need not return to the days of rules, regulations, and ironing shirts.
01:22:50 – 01:24:14 They will see you! If we chose to live our own life and make our own way, people will see us. They will try to impose their “shame” upon us. But here in Pleasantville, Bud’s mom chooses not to live in shame. She will not go back to the “Garden” mentality and she will not hide. She must find her own way and make her own path.
01:27:10 – 01:30:00 The old Pleasantville gets its power by imposing shame through the establishment of “arbitrary” laws, intimidation, and prejudice. “No Coloreds” are welcome!”
01:33:26 – 01:25:00 Moses was given a Law by God, and in Pleasantville the mayor is giving his own set of moral codes. But in a secularized world all laws are arbitrary. They are based not upon some external moral person we call “god”, but upon the simple “agreement” of the people. The external laws of the Divine have no validity in a secular and pluralistic society.
01:42:00 – 01:48:00 “You don’t have the right to impose your laws on us.” In the trial scene, Bill is trying to defend himself within the “law.” Bud is living now outside the “law” and sees Bill’s dilemma. One cannot live in both worlds. The truth is really inside of each one of us. We all really desire to live outside of the “law.” The old way is to keep our desires inside and hide them in shame. But in truth we all violate the “law” and thus the law and moral code must be abolished for us to find true meaning. In the end, pluralization in a secular world is the only hope for personal freedom and meaning. All those who live in shame will be driven out and forced to flee.
01:55:50 – 01:56:30 As the main characters sit on the bench, we are left a bit confused as to who is really there? Who is sitting next to who? To whom are they talking? We are left with the question, “so what is going to happen now?” The answer is that there is no right or wrong answer. Even more, there is no answer at all. No one knows the answers? No one can offer us meaning? And only when we discover that all is hopeless, can we find hope within ourselves.
|Deliver Us From Evil DVD Series, 2 DVDs & 1 CD
By Ravi Zacharias
Getting the most out of a discussion of Pleasantville, requires that a group understand the concepts of Secularization, Pluralization, Privatization, and the consequential Polarization of society. Of course, in the classroom I have time to develop these concepts for the students before we engage the movie. Ooutside the classroom or in a small group setting, the best tool for this is the DVD series by Ravi Zacharias titled, “Deliver Us From Evil.” Lead your group through the first 3 lessons of the DVD series. Watch the movie and use my above guide to foster discussion. Then watch the last three lessons from the DVD series to explore ways of overcoming these cultural trends. This has been a very powerful experience for the groups I have led. You may also want to pick up his book by the same title from Amazon as it is very helpful.
No secularized culture, no matter how pleasant it seems on the surface, will ever satisfy the needs of Man. Life and culture without Christ are meaningless. A secularized and moralized Christianity is not the answer either. Christianity, to be successful, must be grounded in a vital relationship with an immanent God of meaning.