The Common Good

The Garden Outside Pleasantville

In some way or other, I think it’s safe to say that we all have a kind of nostalgia for the innocence and purity of the Garden of Eden before what we call “the fall.” We have a sense that we are not supposed to be outside the gates of the Garden … out here. At the expulsion of the man and the woman in the story from Genesis, the cherubim (angels) are posted at the gate to be sure that those who have been expelled cannot get back in. The cherubim and a twirling, flaming sword keep Adam, Eve — you, me, all of us — on this side of the gate, outside the Garden of Eden.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Water tower located in Pleasantville, Iowa. By Ashton B Crew for Photo taken for www.randomiowa.com. Via Wikimedia Commons

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Well it’s a story, of course, but isn’t it our story? Nostalgic for a world where nothing ever goes wrong. But illness comes, a marriage goes bad, a relationship with someone you love falls apart just when you think it’s to lead to something more permanent, you lose a job, you suffer depression, you suffer from an illness, you’re left alone in grief over the loss of a loved one. Or you yourself are dying, and there are wars and rumors of wars. We watch the children and wish that we could protect them, but we can’t, even though we are parents and grandchildren, aunts and uncles. Out here, outside the Garden, it’s rough sometimes.

In [John’s] Gospel (20:1-18), the Risen Christ’s appearance to Mary takes place in a garden. The garden is outside the empty tomb. Until Mary turns and sees the One she supposes to be “the gardener,” the text has said nothing about Jesus being laid to rest in a garden. It says only that Jesus was laid in a tomb in which no one had yet been buried.

Mary has already been there by herself in the early morning darkness. When she sees, to her great horror, that the tomb is empty, she runs to tell “the other disciple” and Peter.

What do they do? Well … these are guys, you know. They race each other to the tomb!

We don’t ever compete, do we, guys!? And Peter loses! The other disciple gets there first, and then Peter follows, huffing and puffing, and Peter, bold man that he is, looks in. Peter in this story is like detective Joe Friday in the old Dragnet series: “Just the facts, Ma’am; just the facts!” He sees the facts. The burial cloths are lying there as though the body had evaporated out of the, but the napkin that had covered Jesus’ face, was neatly rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple goes in, sees the same thing. He believes … and then … they just go home.

Well, what happened to Mary? They leave Mary there? By herself? And it is Mary who gets it – because Mary continues to stand there, weeping. She’s feeling her grief, feeling her sorrow, and it is as she is feeling her sorrow and her grief. It is as she goes down into the horror of the cross, the horror of having stood helplessly at the foot of the cross that she experiences the Risen Christ.

It is there that there is suddenly a garden, a new garden of Paradise.

I don’t know how it is with you, but sometimes I want to live in a perfect world. I want everything to be in its place. I don’t want any problems. I don’t want to feel anything. Someone I love much once said, “I hate feelings!” This is about feelings, brothers and sisters.

There is a certain kind of Christianity that says “No, no, no!” to every “negative” feeling.  It wants everything to be happy. Like Steve Martin dancing around with happy feet. All we want is happy feet. But you don’t get happy unless you know sadness. You don’t get to laughter unless you know what it is to cry real tears of sorrow.

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This distorted kind of Christianity, this preference for the perfect world without any negative feelings or experience is humorously by the film Pleasantville.

David, who is played by Toby McGuire, and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) lead very different high-school social lives. Jennifer is popular and shallow. David is introverted, keeps to himself and spends most of his time watching television. David’s favorite show is Pleasantville, a nostalgic throwback black-and-white television series about the idyllic Parker family in the late 1950s. The little imaginary town of Pleasantville is, for David, a kind of Garden of Eden in which nothing ever goes wrong. Everyone is nice. No one ever feels pain. They are just, well, so nice.

One evening David and Jennifer fight over the TV. Jennifer wants a concert. David wants to watchPleasantville. As they fight, the remote control breaks.

A mysterious TV repairman, played by Don Knotts, shows up, quizzes David about Pleasantville, and replaces the remote control with a strange new one. When the TV repairman leave, David and Jennifer resume their fighting, and are sucked through the television set into the black white gray, colorless world of the Parkers' Pleasantville living room.

They are no longer David and Jennifer. They must pretend to be Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the son and daughter of the Parker family of Pleasantville.

David and Jennifer witness the wholesome nature of the town, such as a group of firemen rescuing a cat from a tree. David has to remind Jennifer that they must stay in character and not disrupt the lives of the town's citizens, who don’t even notice the difference between the show’s original characters of Bud and Mary Sue, and their role replacements, David and Jennifer. In keeping with the show’s plot, Jennifer dates a boy from high school, but when she has sex with him, a concept unknown to the boy and to everyone else in town, the spell of colorless innocence is broken.

Slowly, Pleasantville begins to change from black and white and grayness to color. Flowers and the faces of people who have experienced bursts of emotion begin to have some color.

David becomes friends with Mr. Johnson, who owns Pleasantville’s cheeseburger and soda fountain. He introduces Mr. Johnson to colorful modern art via a book from the library, sparking in him an interest in painting. Mr. Johnson and Betty Parker fall in love, causing her to leave home, throwing George Parker, Bud, and Mary Sue's father, into confusion. The only people who remain unchanged are the city fathers, led by Big Bob, the mayor who sees the changes eating away at the values of Pleasantville. The city fathers resolve to do something about their increasingly independent wives and their rebellious children.

As the townsfolk become more colorful, a ban on "colored" people is instituted in public places. A riot begins when a nude painting of Betty, painted by Mr. Johnson, appears on the window of Mr. Johnson's soda fountain. The soda fountain is destroyed, books are burned, and people who are "colored" are harassed in the street. As a reaction, the city fathers announce new rules preventing people from visiting the library, playing loud music, or using paint other than black, white, or gray.

When David and Mr. Johnson protest by painting a colorful mural on a brick wall, depicting their world, they are arrested. Brought to trial in front of the town, David and Mr. Johnson defend their actions, arousing enough anger and indignation in Big Bob, the mayor, that Big Bob becomes colored as well.

Having seen Pleasantville change irrevocably, Jennifer stays to finish her education, but David finally manages to return to the real world by use of his magical remote control.

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Easter is about a full-color world … FULL of color. Full of emotion. Ups and downs. It has nothing to do with this imaginary, utopian Garden of Eden that never was and never will be, in which we no longer have to feel much of anything. “I hate feelings!” 

There is no return to the Garden in which the man and the woman live in unconscious innocence, no way back into the black and white and gray world of the Garden of Eden from which humankind is expelled.

But this morning … we see a colorful woman. She is a colorful woman, this Mary of Magdala, who stays with Jesus all the way through. According to one tradition in the Church, this Mary was a prostitute. Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus, stays by Jesus, is healed by Jesus. Now she is in deep grief on this morning when, so far as she knows, her Lord was still buried in that tomb following a Roman crucifixion, dead and gone

It is this Mary who goes out early in the morning, “while it was still dark.” Women don’t go out in the night; they don’t go out unescorted in the dark. But Mary does! And when the other disciple and Peter, the two heroes to whom she had gone for help, abandon her, she is there by herself.

“Why are you weeping?” ask the two angels, one where Jesus’ feet and been and one where his head had been. The cherubim! These cherubim, who guard the way back into the lost paradise of the Garden of Eden, are there in the tomb. “Why are you weeping?”

Mary’s voice breaks into a stammering primal cry of horror. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him! Tell me where he is! Let me hold him!”

She turns around. The gardener greets her. The Risen Christ greets her, but she does know that it is Jesus. She supposes him to “the gardener.” She is in a garden where only the gardener would be early in the morning. The One she assumes to be the gardener greets her. She doesn’t recognize him. He asks the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Mary gives the same answer.

Then he calls her name. “Mary!”

Rabboni (Teacher)!!!  It’s YOU!!! Is it really YOU!

How about you? Why are you weeping? Ask the Cherubim and Jesus.

“Mary, Mary, Mary!’ her name is called. Your name is called, the name of the real youNot some black-and-white-and gray, colorless character in a Pleasantville world, but the real flesh-and-blood, colorful you, thereal Mary. The real Bob. The real Jane. The real you in living color. 

“Do not hold me,” he says, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and sisters and tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

”Go! Go! Go now!”

Tell each other. Tell each other it’s not over. Tell each other you have seen me. Tell each other that Caesar did not have the last word. Tell each other that life is greater than death, greater than might. Tell each other that you have heard the cherubim, standing guard from within an empty tomb, asking you why you are weeping. Tell them that you have heard the Gardener’s own voice in the New Garden outside my empty tomb!

Today the tears of sadness and the cries of horror are turned into the tears of gladness and shouts of exuberant joy:

“Christ is risen!” brothers and sisters, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen!”  Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Gordon C. Stewart is a social commentator, writer and radio commentator on Minnesota Public Radio's "All Things Considered" (MPR).  He is pastor at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn. Visit him at http://gordoncstewart.com/

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