The Gospel of Matthew in Pleasantville

Halloween fell on November 1 this year.  Costumes, candy, trick or treaters—the whole thing.  On the morning of November 2, Starbucks started using their red “holiday” cups and offering the egg nog latté.  Ho ho ho.

I’ve always been unhappy with the earlier and earlier introduction of Christmas.  It used to be the day after Thanksgiving, you know.  But now, rather than jumping the gun on Christmas, they have invented “the holiday season,” and it starts as soon as Halloween is safely out of the way.[1]  This year, rather than being unhappy, I have decided to start writing about Advent themes whenever they start talking about “the holiday season.”  I don’t know if it will actually work, but today’s essay is my first step in that direction.

As you see, I am going to be poking and prodding at Matthew’s use of scripture.  For myself, I would say “Old Testament scripture,” but those were the only scriptures Matthew had and, not coincidentally, the only ones Jesus had.  Matthew starts his account in Bethlehem.  Luke starts his in Nazareth.  I’m going to start mine in Pleasantville.

Matthew 2In the movie Pleasantville, a “modern” brother and sister (1998) are accidentally transported back to the world of a 1950s sitcom.  The brother (Tobey Maguire) and sister (Reese Witherspoon) are called David and Jennifer in their own world, but when they appear in Pleasantville, they are the two children of the Parker family and their names are Bud and Mary Sue.  In their own world, they are regular full-color people.  In Pleasantville, they are, initially, black and white, as you see in the picture, but some of their friends have already become colored and they will too–eventually.

Here’s what makes it so interesting for me.  David is a Pleasantville nerd.  He has watched all the shows.  He knows all the characters.  He knows what happens in one episode so that something else can happen in the next one.  When he arrives in Pleasantville, he goes to basketball practice because “Bud” is on the basketball team and in Pleasantville, he is Bud.  Here’s what happens when Skip, a fellow team member, does what he needs to do to advance the plot.

Skip:   Could I ask you a question.”

Bud:    Sure

Skip:   Well…if I was to go up to your sister…What I mean is, if I was go up to Mary Sue…

Bud:    Oh my God.  Are we in that episode?”

Skip:   What?

Bud:    Oh, I don’t believe this.

But he does believe it.  He knows why Skip is going to go out with Mary Sue and he knows what he is going to do on the date and he knows how Mary Sue is going to react.  He has seen that episode many times and nothing is going to surprise him.[2]

And how, exactly, is that like Matthew?  Matthew is trying to tell the story of Jesus to people who know the story of Israel pretty well.  They have heard the episodes many times.    Matthew is going to catch the sense of “Oh, are we in that episode?” and use those elements in the story he is telling about Jesus.  Here are two episodes Matthew uses.

Pleasantville 1Matthew is telling the story of Herod and the attempt to snuff out the baby who was born in Bethlehem to be the new king of Israel.  Then something catches Matthew’s attention.  He thinks of the Pharaoh’s attempt to control the Israelites in Egypt by killing all the male children and how Moses was saved through a combination of stealth, deceit, and simple chutzpah.  Oh, Matthew says, are we in that episode?

It seems to Matthew that God is telling the Moses story again; Moses the leader God raised up to deliver his people.  And now God is raising up his son, Jesus, to deliver his people.  It is Matthew who has Joseph take Mary and Jesus into Egypt, hiding out from Herod’s wrath, and then crowning that episode with the prophetic citation, “From Egypt I have called my son.” (Hosea 11:1)

It is Matthew who salvages an episode from Israel’s past to illuminate the meaning of Jesus’s birth.  Matthew tells about the magi from the east.  They saw a star and headed for Jerusalem as quickly as they could.  We don’t know how many of them there were, but there were three gifts, so we have hit on three as the number in the party.  Herod asks them to help find the “new king of the Jews” so he can be killed.  And the magi are OK with helping out with the finding, but after they have found the child, God has a serious talk with them and turns them into accomplices of the divine plan, rather than henchmen of Herod’s plan.

All that sounds familiar to Matthew.  He has an “Oh, are we in that episode?” moment. Pleasantville 2 What episode was Matthew trying to call to mind?  How about the evil king Balak, who recruits a wise man from the East and asks that a curse be put on the nation of Israel, who appear to be set on entering Canaan?  Balaam is a magus (the singular form of magi). But instead, Balaam sees “a star coming out of Jacob” and prophesies the victory of Israel.  You can check Numbers 24 if the story is unfamiliar.  It wasn’t unfamiliar to Matthew’s first hearers.[3]

Matthew doesn’t cite these stories of Israel as proof of anything.  I think he is trying to increase the resonance of the story he is telling by packaging it in a way that will engage the memories of his hearers.  Making the Moses story so broadly similar to the Jesus story may not round it out for us, but it would have made a lot of sense to First Century Jews.  The Balaam story joins the magical (he is a seer) and the world of nature (there is a star) and brings them into the story of what God is doing.  Those emphases don’t hurt the meaning of Jesus’ birth narrative either.  They provide an infrastructure of community memory to support the new story about Jesus.

I think what tickles me most though is the social distance between the two stories I am telling.  The greater the distance–so long as you can still see the similarity–the funnier it is. Seeing an outcast like David, living in a full color contemporary world, being jerked back into Pleasantville, where he is “Bud,” and where the world is black and white and fifty years older than David is—all that requires an adjustment from the viewer.  But then when you see the magi jerked back a thousand years into a history where the tribes of Israel are just arriving at what they are calling “the Promised Land,” you see the same narrative displacement.  I do, anyway.  And you see that just as Pleasantville is the infrastructure of David’s life, so Balaam, the “magus from the east” is the infrastructure of Matthew’s account of the Wise Men.  And you see the two displacements—Pleasantville’s and Matthew’s—as two instances of the same narrative treatment.  I do, anyway.

And then when you pick up the New Testament to read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, you say, “Oh, are we in that episode?”


[1] There are lots of other reasons for preferring “the holiday season,” of course.  It doesn’t privilege a holiday with a Christian name over Winter Solstice holidays from other traditions.  It just includes them all, provided they don’t come after Christmas.  And then too, “the holiday season” provides for a lot more commercial enterprise than would have been accommodated under the old “not until after Thanksgiving” rationale.
[2] He will be surprised, nevertheless, because Jennifer is not Mary Sue—or is Mary Sue only against her will—and she doesn’t want to go out with Skip.  And Pleasantville is never the same again.
[3] I’m trying to get away from saying “readers.”  Nearly all the people who came into contact with Matthew’s story heard it.  Literacy was not common and there were very few manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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