Thursday, 18 June 2020

"We have so many ways of learning about God."

I found myself completely in accord with the Rev. John’s Reflection/Sermon last Sunday as I have found great depth and reason in my personal reflection of many many unintended “Jesus movies”.   

“We have so many ways of learning about God. We learn from Holy Scripture, of course. We learn from our worship, from the seasons of the year and the glories of nature, from one another, in our prayers. There is a way of watching movies that can open our minds and hearts to God in ways more powerful than we might imagine. When we see a movie strictly for entertainment, we've received our money's worth, but when we watch the screen through the eyes of faith, God can touch us in ways that are worth much more, ways that are surprising, even transcendent. Ordinary, commercial films become "Jesus movies." Take the film, The Green Mile, for instance.”

I find that I am able to watch and find much to reflect upon in such movies, sometimes watching them over and over again.  The relatively new political correctness of the random “judgements” of “history deniers” can only remove the opportunity for reasonable people to learn from history and avoid repeating some serious mistakes of the past.  Like “Gone with the Wind” - “The Green Miles” could easily be included in the growing list of ‘inappropriate’ movies.

“Gone with the Wind” is an enduring story full of life lessons, laughter and tears.  It is rich in history, although offering a biased account of the American Civil War and slavery.  It paints a broad social history from the perspective of the privileged residents of the Old South.  However, from the moment I first read Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel as a romantic 12 or 13 year old - at a time in my life when I greedily devoured books with my entire being, I did not for even one moment, form ideas of approval for any of the behaviour of the privileged people whose lives were presented.  

Although this Pulitzer Prize winning novel was then just a page turning and exciting story that kept me reading until the small hours of the morning; after the passage of almost 60 years of my own life experience I understand so much more of those life lessons and the historical and cultural significance that I imbibed as I read.  I can remember lying outstretched on the lounge room floor hoping that my mother would not wake up and discover I was still reading.  She had no patience with reading and would have spoilt the magic by nagging me off to bed with a guilty feeling that I had once more wasted my time reading.  My dear mother thought that reading was only a reward for having finished all the outstanding work still to be done.

When my husband and I visited Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston and other southern places in 1991, I re-lived some of the feelings of romance and heroism of the Deep South that Margaret Mitchell lamented in her story which has been called, “The last great posthumous victory of the Confederacy.”   As we drove for many kilometres along a tree lined road looking for our accommodation one hot summer evening the sight of the Spanish Moss hanging in abundance from all the trees instantly transported my mind to the Atlanta of Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton.

As we explored Atlanta during the next two days we found Margaret Mitchell’s grave in the Oakland Cemetery; saw beautiful antebellum mansions and visited the impressive Cyclorama and Civil War Museum which houses the largest oil painting in the world.  The painting is 42 feet tall, covers 16,000 square feet and has a 358 foot circumference.  We were told that laid flat, it would cover an entire football field.  With an air of expectancy we were transported to the Atlanta of 1864 and as we sat in rotating tiered seats, the Battle of Atlanta unfolded all around us.  In the foreground of this huge panorama is a three dimensional diorama with scenery and figures which blend with the painting to complete the reality experience.  The canvas was commissioned in 1885 and was painted by artists who visited the battlefields and listened to first hand accounts of the battle. 

Like most foreign tourists we went looking for Auburn Street or “Sweet Auburn” to pay homage to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and visit his birthplace, his tomb and the Ebeneezer Baptist Church where he was the pastor; following in the steps of his father and grandfather.  We discovered four city blocks had effectively become a shrine to the man and his work; yet a white woman we asked to give us directions when we were one block from Auburn Street, literally turned her back on us and muttered, “I wouldn’t know where that is.” 

Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Auburn Street, Atlanta

A few days later, as we watched a thoughtful man slowly walk alone in the grounds of the Carter’s Grove Plantation in Virginia, we wondered about the thoughts of this giant of a man, who just a few generations ago, would have been a much prized plantation slave.  As a white person I felt embarrassed that he may indeed have been a descendant of some of the slaves who had worked this plantation and lived in the slave quarters there.  We had seen an archaeological dig in progress in the mizzen heaps where the original slave quarters had stood and read some of the documented evidence that the Carter’s Grove slaves were brought to America from what we know today as Nigeria and Cameroon.  Was he wondering how they must have felt?  Was he feeling their pain and was he still feeling frustrated by the lack of equality he encountered in the south?  Having read “Gone with the Wind” and seen the movie, we could almost feel his pain.

A Reconstruction of Carter's Grove Slave Quarters

Carter's Grove Plantation on the northern bank of the James River near Williamsburg, Virginia
was built in 1750 by Carter Burwell  

We discovered as we explored the historical, cultural and architectural highlights in Williamsburg, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia that there was still a great division between white Americans and African Americans as well as people from the north and those from the south.  We were surprised to see many Confederate Flags; but perhaps we were most surprised by the unfortunate gap that still existed between the very rich and the very poor - and this gap existed in both the white and black communities.   

We also discovered that the Civil War is still extremely personal in the South and that the selfish flawed characters of Scarlett and Rhett represented the people who adjusted and continued to flourish in the changing order of things after such a comprehensive defeat; while Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton embodied those who crumpled and lost all when the old South was swept away as if “Gone with the Wind”. 

When it was written this book may have been as divisive as the Civil War itself; but it was one woman’s act of defiance after history took the side of the Union while the people of the South did not really concede defeat.  The ‘heroine’ Scarlett O’Hara represents the fight that Southern women must have faced as they looked towards a very different future and struggled to accept change. Some of the characterisations were surely drawn from Margaret Mitchell’s own life experiences - and that may be why her characters are so believable and timeless. 

Born in November 1900, Margaret Mitchell grew up listening to the war stories of old Confederate soldiers and she suffered grief when her first love was killed at the end of the First World War.  Shortly after this her mother died and it was she who had to care for her father and brother.  Did she secretly wrestle against this responsibility as Scarlett did after the death of her mother?  Margaret was the first serious woman journalist for the Atlanta Journal and was said to have had many suitors – does this sound like the independent Scarlett O’Hara?

Her first husband, Red Upshaw turned out to be a bootlegger and an alcoholic – was he the foundation for the character of Rhett Butler?   She married John Marsh in 1925 and remained married to him until she died as the result of being struck by a car on an Atlanta Street in 1949.  Margaret Mitchell once said in an interview that the theme of her novel was survival and that in writing it she had looked at what it is that makes some people who seemed brave and strong “go under” while others survive similar circumstances.  She called this attribute “gumption”.  Was Margaret Mitchell demonstrating Scarlett’s gumption by having her retreat to Tara to regroup each time she was faced with intolerable odds?  Or do you think it was weakness and denial?  Perhaps even plain selfishness?

I often use a paraphrase of the famous final quote after a hard day when I feel unable to make any more decisions.  If you know me I may have said to you; “I will go back to Tara and think about it tomorrow!“

As the Rev. John noted at the end of his sermon; “John Coffey, the Jesus figure in The Green Mile is obvious; of course.”  However, there are hundreds of movies, old and new, which can help us through our reflections and respect for the past and willingness to learn in our quest to: – “As 21st Century Apostles, identify as people who strive to embody Jesus and to become daily more filled with the love and grace of our Saviour.”   I believe we should not live with guilt about history – we cannot change the past.  However, as Scarlett O’Hara said; “After all - Tomorrow is another day!” God teaches us - if we live well each day we can bring HOPE.

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