Art doesn't change the world. So why escape to the movies?

Even if “downtown” only stretched a block, most whistle-stops on the American prairie took great pride in their theaters, their dream palaces. Back in the last century, they would have been the only place a person raised in the heartland would have seen the ocean or a skyscraper, or seen someone like Rhett Butler kiss someone like Scarlett O’Hara. Travel was what poor people did in their imaginations, hence the importance of those dream palaces. If you were desperately poor, you didn’t even need a ticket to dream. You could stand outside and moon over the movie posters.

Toward the end of his life, my father seemed compelled to tell stories that he had never shared. He wasn’t, as we would say, one to talk. One involved his first job, which was taking tickets at the local theater in LaCrosse, Kan. He worked for a man named Paul Bitter. And yes, he saw that kiss get stolen, outside a burning Atlanta. More than once, he said.

It was a palace of dreams in another way for my father. He said that Paul Bitter had been impressed with him. The theater owner had told my father that, if he did a good job, he would one day send him to college and then to medical school. But my father ended his story with the stoicism of one who had long ago made peace with drained dreams. “But Paul Bitter drank up his money, and I never went.”

They sound similar in theme, but there is a tremendous difference between the role of the commandments in the Old Testament and the New. When Sirach enjoined keeping the commandments, the blessings to follow were to be experienced in this life.

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him (15:15-17).

For most of the Old Testament, there is little to no belief in an afterlife, save as a place of shadows. So the Psalmist reminds God that

the dead do not praise the Lord,
not all those go down into silence.
It is we who bless the Lord
both now and forever.
Alleluia! (115:17-18).

If God was going to bless the good, God would have to do it in this life. The Hebrew Sheol, like the Greek Hades, was only a place of shadows. It neither rewarded the righteous nor punished the wicked.

But when Jesus speaks of keeping the commandments, the blessing promised is not of this world. It is of one not yet known.

Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:19-20).

By the time Jesus revealed the reality of heaven—and, conversely, of its absence, hell—many of his contemporaries were ready to receive his testimony. If life was so short; if the wicked prospered here; and if the just could suffer, too—they had themselves wondered what God’s promises could mean. Jesus taught them that God’s word ran deeper than this world, which is why Saint Paul could so brightly preach the promise:

What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,
this God has revealed to us through the Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-10).

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, in times of relative plenty, when we live long lives, when we’re able to control so many of the forces that previously limited our lives, we should have some difficulty, not only in setting our hearts on it, but even trusting heaven’s existence. At least in our privileged world, that is. Don’t forget that so much of the world knows so little of our prosperity.

But, even in our world, promises are not kept, and hearts are broken, and there is a terrible distance between what life promises to the young and what it delivers to the old. That’s why we still like to watch movies where the good wins out in the end, where the righteous are blessed.

“La La Land,” the greatest movie made in my lifetime, plays on our movie dreams, suggesting that art itself can fulfill the promises that life doesn’t. Most of the movie is seen in the sun-faded, grainy light of the real California, but in the fantasy piece, set in Paris, the colors are deeper, the images more focused.

But art doesn’t change the real world. So why do we escape to the movies? Why do we torture our hearts with hope? Shouldn’t we embrace the rigor of reality? Indeed, accept not just its harshness but reality’s real hatred of us.

Why suggest that we are loathed by life? Because, if this world is all there is, if nothing greater than evolution holds its future, then the world and evolution are not neutral. They are malign, because they stir hopes in us they can never satisfy. Evolution doesn’t create other creatures only to break their hearts. If true evil exists, then so must its opposite, true goodness, and the deep truth of every movie we love is that the world is decidedly not a neutral place.

These days, we need not travel to dream palaces. They no longer hold pride of place on prairie main streets. Now we can stream our dreams. But give them up? Not while yet we live.

Readings: Sirach 15:15-20 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 Matthew 5:17-37

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