Pleasantville

Rev Sue gave this sermon on Wednesday 19 January 2022. Here it is for you again:

I don’t know whether any of you have seen the film Pleasantville. It’s an American film from 1998 about a teenage boy, David, and his sister Jennifer. They are very different. Jennifer is a party girl – David is obsessed with a black and white 1950’s sitcom set in a Midwest town called Pleasantville. One evening, alone in the house they fight over the remote control and break it.

A mysterious TV repairman arrives and gives David a strange remote control. When they use it they are transported into Pleasantville and find themselves playing the characters Bud and Mary Sue in the sitcom. When they try to leave the town, they find that all roads somehow take them back to the town.

Pleasantville is a wholesome but rather dull place. There are no books, fire or rain for example. Gradually Bud and Mary Sue begin to bring a new vitality. As they do so, parts of Pleasantville change from black and white to colour, including some of the people.  For instance, Bud shows Bill, his boss at a soda fountain, a library book about modern art. When Bill becomes interested in painting, he appears in colour. Mary Sue herself becomes coloured after discovering literature. The town becomes divided. Books are burnt and coloured people are hassled by the black and white ones. A law is passed forbidding visiting the library, playing loud music or colourful paint. In protest Bud and Bill paint a colourful mural. They are arrested, but the mayor of the town is so indignant he experiences real emotion and becomes coloured himself. The TV shop starts to sell coloured televisions showing programmes about other places outside of Pleasantville and the roads now lead to other cities.

At the end Mary Sue is enjoying her new life in Pleasantville and opts to stay. Bud chooses to return to the real world and resume his life as David.

The film encapsulates the sense of coming to life and experiencing real feelings, not just as an individual but as a community. It is interesting that it’s not just the good feelings. In the sitcom the fire engines were only used for rescuing cats from trees. When Mary Sue’s mother discovers passion a tree spontaneously bursts into flames. David runs to the fire station and shouts “fire”. The firemen look at him blankly. He shouts “cat” and they come running. They arrive at the scene confused, so David finds the hoses on the fire trucks and shows them what to do. Danger and risk provide colour in life, too.

Pleasantville doesn’t mention religious experience at all. I wonder what a similar film would be like if it addressed issues around faith? Would going to church put colour in people’s lives? Would you see them change as they prayed?

This week’s collect has the words

Almighty God,

in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory.

Our nature is fundamentally a poor black and white experience without the riches of God’s grace painting on the colour. God’s glory is in the renewal of our lives, by both the explicitly spiritual experiences, and the experiences of love, nature and poetry, which are all the gifts of God.

Not all religion is good. Sometimes it can lose its way and become about keeping the rules. There is no fun and no possibility of expressing real feelings. You can see that attitude from the Pharisees in today’s gospel – the sabbath has to be reserved for explicitly religious pursuits. But for Jesus what mattered was doing good and saving life – healing the man so that he would live a richer, fuller life. Last Sunday’s gospel reading told us how Jesus turned the water of everyday banality into wine – and not just any wine – the best wine in ridiculous quantities. More than they could possibly drink. The generous exuberance of God.

Faith is exciting and challenging. It offers us love and lifts our spirits in praise. It makes us sing for joy, and sometimes weep for sadness. Don’t settle for less.


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