Truman Burbank’s “Deconversion”

Fall classes started this week. This semester I’m teaching a section of the second level of SAU’s required core curriculum titled “Community, Place, and Responsibility.” One of the defined objectives for all sections of the course is to “Reflect critically and productively on the main categories of cultural identity, including but not limited to family, nation, race, and sex.” This can be a challenge for students as many grew up in relatively small, homogeneous communities.

I wanted to illustrate the ways in which our individual origin stories are seen as normative — the model against which all others are evaluated. On the first day, I decided to show parts of The Truman Show; especially the sections where Truman first begins to realize that there is something seriously wrong with his world.

Only a few of the students had seen the movie (what’s wrong with you kids today?) and I’m not sure the concept made complete sense to them but we’ll come back to it throughout the course.

Since I’d rented the movie through Amazon, I figured I might as well watch the whole thing again. It really is a terrific film and received multiple nominations for best picture, best actor, best director, best supporting actor, and best screenplay. It allows Jim Carrey to show his quirky side but also to show him as thoughtful and struggling.

If you haven’t seen it (what’s wrong with you kids today?), the premise of the film is that Truman has spent his entire life on a studio set. Everyone he interacts with are actors and extras. Daily conversations turn into options for in-show product placement ads. Storylines are manipulated to maintain the global audience interest and allow drama to build. This premise gets shattered when technical glitches occur on the set. Truman discovers that he is the central character in this artificial drama and sets out to find the answers that might lead to his breaking free.

Because I’ve been immersed in trying to make sense of the sociology of evangelicals for the last several years, I saw parallels everywhere between the Truman Show and the evangelical subculture, especially as millennials have experienced it.

Truman Burbank, while being the central character in the story, has spent his life being sheltered from the world. He is told that it’s better to live in Seahaven Island (which is literally cut off from the world). A fear of the sea was instilled early in his life which prevented him from giving way to his curiosity about broader world (namely, Fiji). He is content to go through the motions of his life, relying on the structures surrounding him (both physical and narrative).

When one of the stars falls from the sky he is curious. When he finds that the radio is reporting on his daily drive, he is unnerved. When he sees his believed-to-be-drowned father on the sidewalk, he enters into a full crisis. Once he discovers that the bank next to where he works is simply a facade, he sets out to leave Seahaven.

Truman realizes that everyone he has come to know and love is in on the charade. They knew they were manipulating him. Overcoming his fears, he sets out to flee the island.

The show’s director, played brilliantly by Ed Harris, is named Christof (a not very subtle move on the screenwriter’s part). He tries to play on Truman’s fear of the water by having his assistant (a young Paul Giamatti) churn up a major storm. When Truman survives the storm, Christof tries to get him to stay, to affirm that love and support he had received his entire life in this fictional community.

Truman’s quest ends (and begins) when the boat reaches the edge of the soundstage. Faced with a decision to stay or go, he walks through the door into the unknown.

The movie occasionally shows scenes of the audience watching The Truman Show. They are enthralled with the action and yet become even bigger fans as Truman makes his escape quest. Once that has happened, they simply move on to see what’s on the other stations in their pursuit of entertainment.

In recent months, multiple evangelical “stars” have made statements about changes in their faith. Most notable among these is Joshua Harris. Emily Miller summarized these shifts in her story yesterday for Religion News Service. Figures like Harris were known in the evangelical community as “influencers” and continue that role as they announce their struggles via social media.

We don’t know all that went into Harris’ decision or those who struggle in similar ways. But my research on millennial evangelical memoirs allows some reasonable guesses.

When one grows up embedded in a highly structured evangelical world, there are a lot of taken-for-granted pieces that are simply accepted. It is the air one breathes. All the self-perpetuating dynamics of apologetics training, youth groups activities, and slightly proud separation from the world can be a remarkable mix.

It’s hard to say what triggers the beginnings of the questions. Perhaps it is realizing that the cool kids at school are just as messed up as everybody else. Or it’s realizing the challenges of purity culture and the double standards present in the church. Maybe it’s a growing awareness that the pastor’s sneakers are really expensive. Or church leaders who require allegiance without room for questions. Or systems that have ignored abuse and moral lapse for years.

Up until that point, perhaps everyone had gone along with the program. Questions are uncomfortable for everybody because they manage to highlight the compliant nature of their faith.

I think a major part of what happens is that the questioners start seeing the structures that make the whole system work. And then it’s no longer like the air one breathes or the water you swim in. Those structures sometimes seem more important to keeping the story moving for the sake of the audience. Questioners are encouraged to keep their thoughts to themselves and just have more faith.

And like Truman Burbank, they start wondering what’s behind all of the structures, who can be trusted, and whether there is a place for them within the structures at all.

So the time comes for them to look for an exit. Like Truman, they battle storms of doubt. At the end of the day, they don’t know where they are headed but prefer the unknown to the artifice they are leaving behind.

As a Facebook friend observed, what they find isn’t really freedom. But it is hope for an authentic faith that can sustain them.

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