Despite all the truth there is in the notions of perspectivalism and reality creation, which are fundamental to a postmodern view of the world, there is a need for the Christian to recognize that these verities are but one weight at the end of a balancing pole we must keep balanced, if we are to continue to journey forward on the high wire of our existence in a fragile and fallen world.
The other is the objective reality of a world without us, the truths that are truths, the facts that are facts, whether we know them or not, and certainly whether we believe them or not. The Wizard of Oz, the beloved fantasy so influential in the shaping of American hopes and dreams, offers us food for thought in seeking this balance in several ways.
You will know Oz as the story of Dorothy and her dog Toto and their journey to the magic land of Oz. They encounter along the way good and bad witches, munchkins, evil flying monkeys, the emerald city of Oz and its sham wizard, talking scarecrows, tin men and lions, eventually learning that “There’s no place like home.” This defining, movie-ending apothegm is the first idea worth contemplating for the Christian because it is both true and not true at the same time. Salman Rushdie, in his remarkable little book on the film, makes much of how untrue this statement is. Kansas is a bleak place with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry struggling against the desperate conditions of 1930s dustbowl Kansas, plagued by three likeable but less than stellar farmhands, and trapped in a run-down farmhouse where they must work constantly and hardly have time for their niece. This drabness was intentional on the part of L. Frank Baum, the author of the book from which the movie was taken, and was a strong component of the script from its inception.
But the film makes just the point that these externally depressing conditions can be overcome by the right attitude towards them. Dorothy’s hopeful, sunny disposition—made up of equal parts brain, heart, and courage—can be brought to bear on her life in austere Kansas and make it into a color-filled place after all. The touching final scene is surely supposed to make us think that Dorothy has recognized in all the friends and family gathered around her a source of stability and goodness that transcends the jazzy Oz with its horse of a different color, singing townspeople, and rich, polished buildings. It takes little knowledge of the Christian faith to see the parallels for the Christian. As Paul puts it: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil 4:12).
So Dorothy balances the reality of Kansas with the reality of the lesson learned in Oz. A second way in which reality and myth intersect in the film is the startling truth, so nicely documented in Aljean Harmetz’s book The Making of The Wizard of Oz, that this project was from start to finish anything but the happy experience one sees on the silver screen. Power struggles between Arthur Freed and Mervyn LeRoy, extending even to the question of who should get the credit for bringing the project to Louis B. Mayer and convincing him to do it in the first place, plagued the enterprise throughout. Ten different writers and three different directors (four, if one counts the brief stint of three days George Cukor did as a favor to LeRoy) created such an uncertainty in the five month shoot that Margaret Hamilton wondered regularly whether or not she would be fired by the new guy, or at least have her characters (Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West) changed dramatically. Hers are, of course, the most enduringly memorable of the characters in the film; it is impossible to think of The Wizard of Oz without her, and in just the way she played both roles.
Whether or not her three companions, played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr, made life hell for Judy Garland on the set is unclear, but Hamilton at least was quite clear later that the three men made her feel shut out of the “boy’s club” on the set. Garland is famous for her later problems as a difficult actress, and of course has one of the most tragic lives Hollywood has ever produced. She was only sixteen at the time Oz was shot; it is hard to believe that the nightmare of the shoot had no lasting impact on her.
All this contrasts markedly with the finished product, which is widely believed to be the most watched, and arguably the most beloved, film in American history. One hundred years after its inception as an adored story, and due, no one argues, in very large part to the film version of 1939 (there was a silent production in 1925), Oz continues to spawn Tony award-winning musicals like “The Wiz” and “Wicked” (this year’s winner) and has earned a permanent place on network TV, as audiences gather at Easter time to indulge once again in their favorite hope-building story.
The mention of hope, however, brings us to our most conflicting assessment of The Wizard of Oz. Most of us, as Christians, love Oz. But its basic premise is also deeply disturbing. Try as one might, it proves impossible to get beyond viewing Oz as preaching a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-look-to-the-power-within humanism that seems as destructive a philosophy as the most despairing skepticism or Ayn-Rand-inspired foundationalism could ever be. The key to a life well-lived, to finding the world Matthew Arnold despaired of finding, a world which has “joy, love, light, certitude, peace and help for pain” lies outside ourselves, not within us just waiting to be discovered. At a showing and discussion of Oz during the recent City of the Angels Film Festival, an audience member asked a panelist whether or not salvation in Oz wasn’t in fact based more in the Buddhist idea of attainment of knowledge than in the Christian idea of divine redemption. The panelist was compelled to agree with him.
Near the end of the film, the tin man asks Dorothy what she has learned. She turns to the “good” witch Glinda and says: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look further than my own backyard. That’s right, isn’t it?” The witch answers, “That’s all it is.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact this is the most devastating lie since Eve heard the garden serpent hiss, “You shall not surely die.”
I quoted the apostle Paul above, as he displayed an attitude that conquered the many greys, and often the blacknesses, of his life. But he goes on in the next verse to give the secret of his ability to face “hunger and plenty, abundance and want.” He writes, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 1:13), signaling clearly that the Pharisee who once thought he could do all things through his own righteousness, had discovered the need to depend wholly on Christ and His Spirit, who alone enables the believer to face all the trials of life.
But are we then to hate, rather than love, The Wizard of Oz? Something deep within us cries out against taking this route. Why? Because it is part of the magic of movies, indeed the magic of story, that we can fill their spaces with truths we know from other places, emphasizing here, downplaying there, and taking what by common grace a story-maker has delivered in glorious, enriching fashion and incorporating it into the true story we are living. Oz has much that is useful in this way: the stark contrast between the evil of the wicked witches and the goodness of the good one, the benefit of community among the four adventurers, indeed the goodness of the common greys of “real life.” The joy of color and humor, the self-sacrificial kindness of Dorothy toward everyone she meets, the sparkling delight of imagination—all these are worthwhile objects for reflection and incorporation into the holy life. We should be grateful to this charming film for all these.