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Theological Vision of “Pleasantville” by Gary Ross

The rapid development of Western civilization and the ongoing secularization of society cannot be doubted or reversed, with the societal rebuilding serving as a step toward new approaches to religious discipleship. Pleasantville (1998) is a movie that brilliantly shows how worldviews are transforming, causing rapid social change. In its essence, the movie explores the problem of searching for personal meaning, with the unfolding story showing that both the society of an imaginary world, Pleasantville, and modern society represent distinct worldviews that are inherently meaningless. The movie shows how can a merely privatized, secularized, and pluralistic society achieves pleasure. On the surface level, both worlds, the real and the imaginary, offer some basis of meaning; however, through the perspective of filmmakers, the two societies are enthralled in their vanity that leads to no satisfaction. This is because both Pleasantville and modern society would act as if they offer some meaning to their members when in fact, their lives have no meaning.

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The plot of the movie revolves around two 90s teenagers, David and Jennifer, being transported into the black-and-white world of a TV show set in the 1950s. The world of Pleasantville is similar to that of Leave It to Beaver, where the weather is always 72F while the local basketball team is never missing a shot, and it is highly symbolic. The theme of repression, both external and internal, is highly relevant in the context of the movie. Both teenagers who find themselves in the perfect world are trapped and repressed in their own ways. Jennifer is fond of living a life entirely ruled by social status. David, meanwhile, is highly introverted, and the only thing that gives him comfort is embracing the world of Pleasantville and its quirks.

As suggested by the name of the town, everything there was in service of pleasantness. There is no awareness of art, sex, profane words, or simple geography outside the perfect world because, according to its citizens, there is merely no need. However, soon after she arrives, Jennifer begins destabilizing the ideally balanced world by sleeping with her boyfriend in the show, Skip, who becomes obsessed with the newly-discovered act. Subsequently, the town’s Lovers Lane, which used to be the place for couples to hold hands at most, became the location for teenagers to ‘fool around.’ However, the discovery of sex in Pleasantville is not the only thing to break the repression spell in the town. For example, David is the one to show Mr. Johnson, the local soda fountain’s owner, that his work routine does not have to be precisely the same every day. Consequently, Mr. Johnson gets inspired to break free from the shackles of the routine and paint a nude portrait of a woman in the store’s window, thus causing intense town outrage. As more Pleasantville citizens get freedom, they start turning color, while those still following the strict rules of the establishment remain black and white.

There are many biblical allusions that the filmmakers show in Pleasantville. For instance, David is presented as a Jesus-like figure, a messiah that brings knowledge to the citizens of the town and helps them escape the utopia that prevents them from living to their full potential. There is a scene in the movie in which David retells Huckleberry Finn while the teenagers listening to him do not know the rest of the story. In the scene, links between Jesus and David can be made as many people wanted to hear what they had to say and absorb their wisdom. Moreover, the story of Pleasantville teaches about the nature of sin and its influence on the formation of humankind. At the surface level, sin is presented in the movie as something exciting, and what brings color to the world while living according to set principles is meaningless and black and white. Thus, exploring Pleasantville from different perspectives can offer a further insight into the morale of the story.

Cornelius Plantinga focused on the exploration of sin as culpable in disturbing balance and clarity in society. According to him, God, humanity, and everything else on the planet are designed to live together in delight and harmony, with all being the way the Creator intended it to be. Sin, however, is the disturbance of the balance that must be avoided at all costs. Thus, Plantinga may see the world of Pleasantville as an undisturbed land that has never experienced sin, which means that it should have been preserved in this state. However, the arrival of David and Jennifer, the two “prophets,” turned the world of the perfect town upside down. In the theologian’s eyes, everything happening in Pleasantville after David and Jennifer’s “sharing of wisdom” is sinful, and people should seek God’s forgiveness.

Plantinga also explores sin as something that can slip into one’s consciousness and seem pleasant, but more often than not, the results can be disastrous. This is because humans are prone to self-deception about one’s wrongdoing, which is quite addicting and instrumental in suppressing conscience. Therefore, following this logic, when being exposed to the knowledge of sin and the pleasure that it brings, the people of Pleasantville convince themselves that it is something that should be encouraged. According to the theologian, human sin breaks the peace and perverts what is special and human about people. It can distort its character, which is the fundamental feature of human nature. It corrupts powerful capacities in individuals, such as thought, emotion, and belief, so that people become capable of attacking God or others.

The theologian will consider Pleasantville as running counter to his theological vision because the filmmakers present the ‘epiphany’ of the town as its citizens breaking free from oppression and control. In Plantinga’s mind, this moment does not signify epiphany but rather the town’s succumbing to sin and embracing self-deception. Moreover, the theologist suggests that sin often lies at the root of humans’ miseries, such as loneliness, estrangement, and meaninglessness. The lack of meaning is the problem in this instance because the citizens of Pleasantville had no purpose in life – every day was the same, and nothing substantial was taking place. They had no knowledge of art or geography, which is why their introduction to sin, such as sexual pleasure, had such a powerful impact. As a rule, sin tends to cause misery and result from it, as suggested by Plantinga. Therefore, the theologist may look at the movie as proof that without purposes, such as the belief in God and the following of His commandments, inevitably results in sin because human nature is prone to it.

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In contrast to Plantinga’s views on sin, Bruce Epperly may approach the evaluation of Pleasantville from a different perspective. While Plantinga believes that the exposure to sin by the citizens of the perfect town needs forgiveness and the establishment of purpose, belief in God, Epperly views sin as a conscious choice that people make since God gave people free will and cannot exert any control over their actions. In his book, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, the evidence for God being at work at all times is illustrated in people’s ability to think freely. In contrast to the traditional view of God’s power to “influence” or “control” people’s decision-making, Epperly suggests that His power is rather relational and contextual than deterministic or predestination. Instead of being blind followers of God, the theologist invites people to partner with Him in healing the world and making it a better place.

Epperly is an adamant supporter of process theology, which is a modern non-evangelical approach that suggests that the understanding of God is rooted in the natural world around people. The philosophy entails that God is not omnipotent and can be changeable and interactive with humans, which counter the traditional view of the classical God. In Epperly’s view, the citizens of Pleasantville have lacked purpose in life and lived by strict rules because they did not understand that they could make their own decisions. However, their introduction to freedom and creativity gave them purpose as they now could break free from the oppression and could be in control of their lives.

Even though the “epiphany” comes with sin, there is no way of avoiding it altogether because it is a part of human nature. Moreover, process theism does not delve deep into exploring the notion of sin or redemption, which explains why Epperly may not find the “epiphany” of Pleasantville as the emergence of sin and it’s taking over. In Epperly’s view, it is not sinful to explore one’s creativity or engage in sexual behaviors because God does not exert complete control over human beings’ decisions. As David and Jennifer introduced the town to new knowledge and opportunities, it was the decision of others whether to follow their lead. Whatever the consequences of that decision, the people of Pleasantville are the ones to be held accountable for them. Epperly wrote about the importance of embracing authentic experiences and learning from them because life should not consist of strict rules that must be followed at all times. Embracing new ideas and concepts was instrumental for Pleasantville citizens to live their life in full colors.

To conclude, Pleasantville is an enigmatic work that allows for the exploration of the plot and morale from different theological perspectives. Stuck in their black and white world, the citizens of the perfect town did not have any freedom but later were seemingly enlightened and learned how to live life freely. The different perspectives offered by Plantinga and Epperly allow looking at the story from various angles that align with the theologists’ approaches. Plantinga is likely to view the transformation of Pleasantville as humans deceiving themselves and falling into the trap of sin, for which they must seek forgiveness and redemption. Moreover, people must have a purpose in life in the form of belief and dedication to God. Epperly, however, will not judge the citizens for embracing newly-found pleasures and opportunities as he advocates for approaching life as an adventure given by God.

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