SMILE, YOU'RE ON COSMIC CAMERA

OCTOBER 4, 1998

R.M. FEWKES

Without a doubt my favorite movie of the summer was "The Truman Story" starring Jim Carey. The movie has nothing to do with the story of President Harry Truman as I first thought when I saw the title of the film in the papers. Rather it has to do with the story of a 30 year old man named, Truman Burbank, who lives in an idyllic seacoast island town, Seahaven, with his blonde bedimpled wife, Meryl. Everybody likes Truman and Truman likes everybody he meets, and he meets the same people day after day. He has a secure job as an insurance salesman at a local company. The thing is he has a neurotic fear of leaving the island so he does all his sales work on the phone which seems to suit him just fine.

One day as he is walking in the street a strange object falls from the sky and lands with a crash a few feet from his person. No, it's not a UFO. It is a television camera of some kind and Truman is puzzled as to where it came from or how it got there. This is the first clear sign to Tru man that his life is not what it appears to be. The truth be known, his entire life, from the day of his birth, for a period of 30 years, has been a continuing Candid Camera soap opera saga on a grand and epochal scale, broadcast world-wide, with millions of viewers caught up in the down-home-spun drama of his daily existence. Everyone knows it except Truman. He's the only authentic person on the entire show. All the rest are fakes and actors, even his wife and mother and best friend (who once said to him, "Truman, would I lie to you?")--all are playing prescribed roles, and coaxed in their lines and responses by a director, Christof, who communicates with them off stage via a hidden electronic device in their ear.

Even the town he lives in is a fake, a gigantic domed village with a fake sky complete with sunrise/sunset and fabricated clouds and rain, and occasional storms in the bay. Christof, the director, is a virtual god who shouts commands like, "Cue the sun!", and "More wind and lightning." Christof even calls for sentimental electronic musical background to some of the true to life emotional scenes in Truman's personal drama, which of course, only the viewing audience can hear.

"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their entrances and their exits, and every one in his or her lifetime plays many parts." The only one who doesn't know it is naive and innocent Truman Burbank. To Truman every scene is true to life because it is the only life he has ever known. The T.V. camera that fell out of the sky is but one of some 5,000 cameras hidden throughout Seahaven, recording his every move, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. More strange happenings and events begin to take place that add to Truman's suspicions that something is not quite right with his life.

One day a man appears on the street, the spitting image of his father, who was presumably lost at sea in a storm when Truman was a young boy on the verge of adolescence. Truman recognizes his father and runs after him, but he is whisked off the set in a car. Later he reappears with the story that he had somehow survived the ordeal but ended up with amnesia and disappeared. An old girlfriend also reappears on the scene and tries to tell Truman not to believe what he sees and is told by others. She wants Truman to be freed from his unconscious psychic imprisonment and would have told him the truth, but then she too is quickly removed from the set and disappears. Truman finally works up his courage and tries to leave the island for the first time. He crosses over the bridge and immediately encounters resistance to his efforts by scores of people who don't want him to leave and eventually prevent him from doing so. Truman realizes that he is literally a prisoner in paradise and that if he is ever to leave his Edenic existence he must do so surreptitiously and on his own. He manages to sneak away from his house at night, gets in his boat, the very one he and his father were in years ago when the storm hit, and heads out to what he thinks is the sea.

When the director, cast and crew discover that Truman has disappeared they comb the town from top to bottom in search of him. The director, Christof, finally figures out that Truman's probably headed out in the bay in his boat and one of the hidden cameras spots him. Once again Christof sends a storm his way in hopes that he'll turn around and head back to shore, but Truman is determined to leave, and he shouts into the heavens, "Is that the best you can do?" Christof turns up the volume and intensity of the wind and the waves and nearly drowns Truman in the process. Truman somehow stays with his little ship and reaches the outer limits of the bay. Christof finally relents and turns off the storm. Truman's boat bumps into the wall of the gigantic dome. He has literally reached the limits of his known universe.

Like the spiritual pilgrim discovering another world (on the cover of our order of worship) Truman reaches out and touches the wall and knocks on it. He looks to his right and sees a set of stairs leading up to a platform and a door. At that moment he hears the voice of God in the person of Christof speaking from the heavens. He tells Truman everything about his soap opera life. He tells him that he has brought hope and pleasure and meaning to millions of viewers for the past three decades, and that he now has a choice. He can choose to stay in Seahaven and continue to live his idyllic existence in his limited and constricted make-believe television world, or he can choose to leave and venture out into an insecure and unknown universe. Truman tells Christof that he may have had cameras hidden all over the island, but "You never had a camera in my head." He, of course, chooses freedom, and walks through the door into another world.

How would you live your life if you thought you were being watched 24 hours a day? That is what the ancient Hebrew writers of the Bible believed was the case. God, they believed, lived and resided in the heavens above the dome of the sky from which he observed the actions of every human being on earth. God is watching us, "From A Distance", as the song says.

Our ancient forbears believed that the earth was the center of the universe, that the sun and stars revolved around the earth, and that God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world. The writer of the 139th Psalm, one of my favorites, believed that his Creator was aware of his downsitting and uprising and discerned his thoughts from afar. Moreover, there was nowhere he could go, day or night, that God was not fully present and aware of his existence, in the height of the heavens, in the uttermost parts of the sea, in the grave, or in hell. God was even present in his mother's womb perceiving his unformed substance before he was born, and knew what the course of his days would be before they had come to pass. This was an all knowing, all seeing, supernatural being, who was indeed watching us from a distance 24 hour s a day, 7 days a week.

It is interesting to note that the 19th Century existentialist philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, found this ancient view of an all knowing, all seeing God, to be psychologically quite disturbing, so much so that he was moved to proclaim the death of God. In Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra" the Ugliest Man, the murderer of God, confronts Zarathustra and says to him that God had to die because he looked into the human soul "with eyes which beheld everything", all our "depths and dregs and hidden ignominy," prying into our "dirtiest corners." The God, "who beheld everything", and also our every thought and action, such a God, said Nietzsche's Ugliest Man, "had to die!" We could not "endure it that such a witness should live."

Is that what God is, nothing more than a cosmic Peeping Tom? When the earth was decentralized from the center of the universe, and we discovered wheels within wheels of galaxies and worlds beyond our farthest imaginings, the distance between God and us was spacially infinitized, and the divine had to be rediscovered in things closer to home.

There is another folk-song of sorts that was popular also around the time of Bette Midler's "From A Distance." It was called, "What if God Was One of Us?", meaning, what if the divine was present in an old person or a child, or in someone who was ill and confused and in need of help, or in an animal, or in the face of our enemy as well as our friend? What then? Would we behave any differently if we thought that was literally true? There is another current expression that says, "God is in the details", not just in the big picture.

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation tried to say that God was indeed one of us, that he became a human being in one man, Jesus of Nazareth, 2,000 years ago, and because of that event, the distance between God and humanity has been forever closed. But what if the divine were present not just in one man and one time and place only, but in all of the wonderful modulations of the faces of humanity, a spark of the divine in every human soul, old and young, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, not as a cosmic Peeping Tom, but as a co-partner in the evolution of life and consciousness here on earth and throughout the cosmos? This, you might say, is a finite-infinite view of the divine, infinite as the universe is vast, finite as the limitations that suffering, ignorance and death impose upon us. God does not violate our freedom of thought and our right to privacy, but still speaks to us in the voice of conscience, in the impulse to love and compassion, and in the search for wisdom, meaning and knowledge.

Did I get all that out of "The Truman Story"? Yes, that and a bit more. The other part of this clever rouse of a movie is the viewing audience, both the viewing audience in the film, and the viewing audience in the movie theater. Film critic, Matthew Gilbert, writing in the GLOBE suggests that "the real target" in this "sunny movie's very dark view of life is us, the audience, the global population of Peeping Toms who, like one of the TV watchers in the movie, lie wrinkling unto death in a tepid bath, clicker firmly in hand. We are the object of the ire" of this movie about a culture of television addicts. "It is our passivity as TV viewers" that is being held up for ridicule and review. We are the ones who "are ultimately the puppets in The Truman Show," and not the main character portrayed by Jim Carey.

I think Gilbert is right on the mark. Towards the end of the movie after Truman's life is spared in that near catastrophe at sea, the television audience is pulling and cheering for Truman to choose his freedom. When he walks through that door to the real world, one of the viewers, a policeman, says to his partner, in a tone of slight boredom, "See what else is on."

Some years ago an eccentric Unitarian minister in E. Bridgewater had a little house constructed on the Town Common (which was owned by the church). The little house had only one room. In the room was a dummy sitting in an easy chair watching television and the television was running 24 hours a day. Apart from the tastelessness of putting such an inane structure on the town common it did make a critical statement about our television culture, the same kind of statement made by "The Truman Show." If a significant portion of our lives is spent watching how other people live, on the news, or in sit-coms, or in fictional representations of the seamy side of life, while our own lives are passing us by, then something is radically wrong with our existence. If we are only watchers of other people's lives, and have forgotten how to find meaning and enjoyment in our own pursuits, then we are no better than the actors who lied to Truman Burbank for 30 years pretending that his and their life together was real when it was all a fraudulent exercise.

The other side of the coin are those who find primary meaning to their existence through the responses of those who watch them do their thing. They are defined by others rather than by a genuine and authentic expression of who they really are. Politicians and entertainers are especially subject to the distortions of this mode of existence. It is the devouring power of fame and the ego-inflation which results from it. It is interesting to note that shortly after "The Truman Story" was released a pregnant woman decided to give birth to her baby live on the Net. I don't know if she has decided to give continuing coverage of her life after the birth of her child, but in case she has not, another young woman, Jennifer Ringley, has a site on the Net, JennCam, which gives 24 hour coverage of her life and abode.

"The Truman Story" is not so far fetched after all. A few weeks ago Becky Smock, our Youth Director, gave me this big button, which says, FREE TRUMAN, with a smiling picture of Jim Carey in the center. I was delighted to get it and share it with you. I think it's real message is not "FREE TRUMAN", but "FREE HUMAN", meaning free what is most authentically human in yourself, liberate yourself from the addiction of living like a vampire off the life stories of others, whether infamous or famous, real or imagined. I like what the medieval Sufi mystic, Rumi, once said: "Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth." That is what "The Truman Story" (the Human story) is really all about. Unfold your own myth. Get a life. Be your own best self and trust the outcome to the Giver of Life and Love and Freedom.

Ours is a free church tradition, rooted in the best of the Judeo-Christian heritage, but encompassing the wisdom of the ages to be found in every faith tradition, and welcoming, as Channing put it, "new truth as an angel from heaven." What we offer our members is an open and caring religious community "where you can be you" and join with others in a common spiritual quest. The Tru-Man Story is the universal human story where human beings can be true to themselves and one another. We invite you to join us in that life long endeavor. ^^^