Sunday, November 28, 2010

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: A 100 Minute Eschatological Treatise

Everything in parenthesis today is for you, oh faithful reader(s) (assuming you exist), and was not part of the sermon delivery.


Matthew 24:36-44

"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

"Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

"Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

"Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."


"The two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

"Two women will be grinding mean together; one will be taken and one will be left."

This is what Jesus tells us will happen with the coming of the Son of Man: One will be taken and one will be left. I'm not a huge fan of "end times" theology; mostly because so much of it is so poorly done.

A few years ago, I happened to catch parts of a movie--based on a series of books--about this very topic. (Left Behind. Oh, Kirk Cameron, where have you been for the last 20 years?) Some were taken while others were left. Watching the few parts of this film I happened (rather unfortunately) to catch, I kept expecting Gene Wilder to show up on screen in a purple velvet suit jacket and burnt orange top hat singing:

There is no life I know that compares to pure imagination (And yes, I sang this to the congregation).

(Because the Left Behind movie and books, are just that--pure imagination. The God I worship just doesn't work that way. For an excellent article on how this plays out in politics, check out this link).

The problem with much of this theology, as I see it, is that it encourages us to focus our will and intent on the next life. (For really excellent examples that have made their way into "Christian" media, check out the lyrics to FFH's "Fly Away" and perhaps less blatantly vomit-inducing "One of These Days"). Often, this comes at the expense of the life we have now. It is a theology that encourages us to live a life of pure imagination, but without the happy ending (Gene Wilder, in his outrageous purple and orange outfit, gives Charlie Bucket at the end of the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory") in which Charlie Bucket inherits the chocolate factory.

Please, do not misunderstand me. I believe imagination is a wonderful thing! Imagination has the ability to change lives and alter the world. It is, I believe, the ability to imagine something better that allows us to hope in circumstances that feel hopeless. It is our ability to imagine a future radically different from our past which allows us to break cycles of violence and abuse.

In the aftermath of a number of teen suicides related to homophobic bullying, one man, Dan Savage, began to reach out and tell these wounded youth, "It gets better." And it is their ability to imagine what that "better" might look like that could very well be their saving grace.

Imagination is also what allows pop theologians to declare that the signs of our times are signs of the "end times," much the way "the sign of our times" in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory showed us street corners littered with empty Wonka boxes, assuring us that the end of the contest was near, the last Golden Ticket would soon be found.

In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, we meet five children:

  1. Augustus Gloop, a greedy glutton who refuses to listen and shows significant disrespect to his host, Willy Wonka;
  2. Veruca Salt, a wealthy, spoiled child who suffers from--and causes everyone around her to suffer under--an attitude of entitlement. She is utterly demanding and refuses to take "No" for an answer--not that anyone other than Willy Wonka has ever used the word in addressing her;
  3. Violet Beauregard, an obnoxious, prideful, rude young girl with a penchant for chewing gum who regularly interrupts her parents, rolls her eyes, jabs her father with her elbow, and picks her nose;
  4. Mike Teevee, a boy whose only interest in life seems to be watching westerns on television. Mike is obsessed with guns--he can't wait until he gets a real one--and violence. When asked he likes the killing on the shows he watches, he responds, "What do you think life's all about?"
  5. Charlie Bucket, a humble and poor boy who is full of hope. Charlie, raised by his mother and four bedridden grandparents after his father's death, is an honorable and honest young man, pure of heart. Charlie even goes so far as to forsake an opportunity to seek revenge in favor of doing the right thing.
The qualities we see in Charlie Bucket remind me of the qualities which are lauded earlier in the Gospel of Matthew: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness.

And let us not forget Willy Wonka himself, a man who rescued the Oompa Loompas from Loompa Land, a desolate wasteland full of fierce beasts who consumed the Oompa Loompas left, right, and center. Willy Wonka opened his doors and welcomed the alien, the orphan, the poor.

I sometimes think the best theology is not found in overtly religious texts or films, but rather in works like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or the book on which it was based, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl: stories that are accessible to a variety of people because they appeal (and are marketed) to so many more. Imagination can truly be a wonderful thing.

But, putting aside Willy Wonka for a moment, and returning to the text at hand, the Gospel of Matthew, let us consider, for just a short period, that the Day of the Lord is not a cataclysmic, eschatological event, but rather a simple reality--time will end for each of us. It is my belief that when our time is up, when we die, it is Jesus who comes and walks us into the next life. One is taken and one is left.

This is a theme we see in Willy Wonka as well, as first Augustus, then Violet are taken from the group, followed by Veruca and Mike. By the end of the film, only Charlie is left. Only Charlie, a poor boy who is meek, who has mourned loss, who shows a hunger for righteousness, who is merciful, and pure in heart. Charlie, who was the only peaceable child in the bunch.

Charlie is also the only one who chose to imagine something greater, who considered what could be done for the world rather than what could be done for him.

In choosing what was right over what was easy, Charlie demonstrated a strength not often seen in adults, let alone children. "So shines a good deed in a weary world," Willy Wonka says softly before turning to Charlie and proclaiming, "You've won! I had to test you and you won! The jackpot, my dear sir, the grand and glorious jackpot!"

And Charlie inherits the factory--the whole operation--because he demonstrated that he was willing to learn from Willy Wonka, and do things Willy Wonka's way, rather than his own.

And that is how I think it might be with us. Do we look around and choose to live in the world the way Jesus did--choosing to welcome the widow, the orphan, the poor, the alien? Do we forgive the sins of those who sin against us? Do we seek to follow Jesus to eat at the homes of sinners and outcasts no matter how uncomfortable it might make us?

Because ultimately, the question is not, "Will you be the one who is taken or left?" but rather, "What did you do with the time you were granted here?"

If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it;
Anything you want to, do it;
Want to change the world? There's nothing to it.

(I chickened out and did NOT sing these lyrics).

While changing the world may not be as easy as Gene Wilder sings in Willy Wonka, it is possible. We can imagine a new world into being. While it may be true that "There's no life I know that compares to pure imagination," a new reality created from our ability to imagine a future that is better than our past far surpasses pure imagination, because it can be real. It can be here. It doesn't have to remain in our imaginations.

This morning, I hope you can imagine a new tomorrow, and that you are able to begin living it today.

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