Saturday, January 17, 2015

Welcome to Tomorrowland

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 20, 2007

Sometimes, I think I’m the only inhabitant of the eastern United States over the age of five who has never been to Disney World. (I know I’m not the only one, but sometimes, it feels that way.) I’ve been other places—but not Disney World. Or Disneyland. Or Disney-anyplace, for that matter (except maybe the Disney Store at the mall.) I don’t feel deprived by that fact, but I did want to share it, just to let you know that I’ve never actually been to Tomorrowland.
But I have been to the General Motors pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65. And that impressed me deeply. I can still remember the trip: six (or maybe it was seven) of us crammed into our Galaxy 500, leaving Rhode Island at four, maybe five, in the morning for the four-hour drive to New York. Parking outside of “brand new” Shea Stadium (“the ultimate in modern sports arenas,” the guidebook said), and taking a shuttle bus to the entrance of the World’s Fair. Standing in line for tickets. Standing in line to get in. Standing in line for the bathroom. Then standing in line—a very long line—to get into one of the fair’s chief attractions, the General Motors pavilion, with its (once again, according to the guidebook) “detailed, knowledgeable look at the technological developments awaiting mankind.”
It was our own sneak preview into the world of the future. A world of colonies on the moon, and underwater communities (complete with luxury hotels), and tamed jungles, thriving deserts, and great new cities “complete with midtown airports, high-speed [monorails], skyscrapers, moving sidewalks, and underground conveyor belts for freight.” (The amazing thing for an exhibit by a car company was that these cities of the future had very few cars in them.) All this was coming our way—and not too long after the year 2000, the dawn of the 21st century, these visionaries said. It would happen within the lifetimes of many of those visiting the World’s Fair.
Who needed to go to Disneyland way out in California (there was no Disney World in Florida yet) when you could visit “Futurama” at the General Motors pavilion in New York, and drive back to Rhode Island the same day?
It’s a funny thing, though: We’re now well past the year 2000, seven years into the 21st century already, and we’re still waiting for those “predictions… all solidly based on fact” (according to the guidebook) made at Futurama to materialize. We’re still waiting for that future to get here—and maybe, it never will. At least not in a way resembling that laid out by those futuristic thinkers 40 or 50 years ago. At least no time soon.
Walt Disney was a real visionary: a man who wasn’t afraid of the future; a committed optimist, who ached to glimpse the future and behold some of the good things which he knew—just knew—that the future held. So when he built Diseneyland in California back in 1955, Tomorrowland was intended to be a temple of his optimism, a shrine to his vision of the better world that would be. At the park’s dedication, Disney said, “Tomorrowland is a vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man’s achievements. It’s a step into the future, with predictions of the constructive things to come, and the hope for a peaceful and united world.”
One of the earliest Tomorrowland attractions—and a striking exemplar of Disney’s optimism and faith—was the Carousel of Progress. The ride followed a typical American family from 1880 through the technological advances of the Twentieth Century. Progress was inevitable, inexorable, and unstoppable, the exhibit seemed to declare, and that was a good thing, because every technological advance made life just a little better for ordinary men and women and their families. To underscore the point that progress was good, there was even a theme song, written by the same people who had written “Chitty Chitty Band Bang” and the music for Mary Poppins. It went:
"There's a great big beautiful tomorrow
Shinin' at the end of ev'ry day
There's a great big beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow's just a dream away
And when it becomes a reality
It's a dream come true for you and me"
Apparently, the Carousel of Progress was Walt Disney’s favorite ride, and he ordered that it was never to be shut down. (There was even a version of it at the General Electric pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, but I don’t remember going to it. I remember the Vatican pavilion, somehow, but not G.E.)
Of course, there’s some irony in having a ride called the Carousel of Progress: Progress is supposed to be linear, after all; it progresses, onward and upward forever, as it were. A carousel, on the other hand, goes round and round; its cyclical, endless, leads nowhere in the end; what goes around, comes around, over and over. As one writer has put it: “The reality of this paradox was not lost on [the] Disney designers.”
Keeping up with “progress” was hard work—expensive work. The Carousel of Progress had to be updated in 1964, 1967, 1975, 1981, 1985, and 1994. Even that peppy little theme song was changed to suit changing tastes.
Disney’s designers had foreseen the “progress paradox” years before: When first presented with Walt’s vision of a “world of tomorrow”, one of them had asked, “How do we produce a world of the future that isn’t outdated before it opens?” If they were worried about being swamped by the pace of technological advancement back in the 1950s, just think of what they’d be facing now, with some hot new invention crowding the shelves of electronics stores every month, it seems.
There was another problem with Walt’s original idea about Tomorrowland, too, and that was by the 1980s or 1990s people no longer believed in Disney’s vision that progress was inevitable, or that the steady advance of technology was necessarily a good thing. Back on January 1, 1901, an editorial in the New York Times had read: “The 20th century will meet and overcome all perils and prove to be the best this steadily improving planet has ever seen.” Well, actually living through the 20th century has made all of us take such utopian thinking with more than a few grains of salt.
Fifty years after the opening of the original Tomorrowland, there has been enormous technological progress: more, even, than the original designers of the exhibit had even dreamed. Most of us enjoy material and physical luxury and abundance that only the wealthiest could dream of one or two generations ago. But has this necessarily made the world a better place? I think not. Has technological innovation brought about a more peaceful, prosperous, and united human family? Hardly. As one observer has put it: “Innovation… solved many problems in the 20th century, but like battling the hydra, for each problem solved, many more have been created.”
As historian Jeff Kurti has written in the official history of Disney World: “The sad reality was that technology was not a savior and that much of the advancement anticipated during the 1950s and 1960s has pushed people further apart instead of bringing them together.”
Or, as another writer puts it: “optimism waned, innovation is suspect, and the term ‘future progress’ has gone from a 20th century mantra to a 21st century oxymoron.” For the first time in history perhaps (or, in recent history anyway) the generation that’s coming up does not share their parents’ or grandparents’ belief that the world is becoming a better place in which to live.
The future is no longer a source of hope and wonder (like that Walt Disney and his kind envisioned) but a place of dread and fear. Global warming; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; economic inequality; cultural and religious strife—that’s what the future seems to hold for many people. “Optimism” was a fine word, once upon a time; now, it seems to have the ring of quaintness about it—like “bloomers” or “chivalry” or some equally outdated concept. “Optimism” seems so passé, so retro.

Which is what the designers at Disney finally saw. So, they threw in the towel on their constant struggle to update Tomorrowland, and fired the “retro rockets” on their Rocket Jets and turned them into AstroOrbiters instead. They recast Tomorrowland (the bright and shining world of the future) into the land of “the future that never was”. Instead of trying to predict the future any more, Tomorrowland started to look backward toward what people “used to think” the future would bring… Designers recast Tomorrowland as “a future built on yesterday’s fantasies.” Rather than project the dismal future that seemed more likely (which wouldn’t be something people would want to experience on vacation; I mean—really?—“Jihad: the Ride”? Or, “Melting Polar Ice Caps: what a thrill!)—Disney now presents a fanciful future that “could have been”. Drawing heavily on comic books and science fiction films of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, Tomorrowland is now a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the “future”.
Instead of “I have seen the future and it works”-- Lincoln Steffens’ notorious quote about the “glories” of Stalinist Communism-- the prevailing sense of our own day is “We have seen the future and we don’t think we like it very much.” So instead of rushing forward into this brave new world, Disney says, we’ll lollygag around in a faux-future, which is really the past, where things look so much more pleasant and predictable.
Which brings us to the question of what all of this mean to the church; more precisely, to this particular church, as we stand now on the eve of our 253rd annual meeting. How do we greet, or envision, or prepare the way for our Tomorrowland: the future that will be upon us before we know it?
It seems to me we have (at least) three choices:
First: We can take the original position that Walt did back when he opened Tomorrowland. We can offer a “pie in the sky” vision of the future and cling to it for dear life. “Everything’s going to be just fine,” we can say. The new world of peace and brotherhood and sisterhood is just around the corner. It’s easy: all we have to do is sing a few hymns, say a few prayers, hold hands in a circle. It’s easy. “We have seen the future, and it’s coming soon to a UU church near you.” We can offer people a shallow and unrealistic vision of what the future might be.
Or, second: We can stop thinking about the future at all, and concentrate on the past. Our religion, too, can become a nostalgia trip; an “old time religion UU-style”. We can abandon our calling to ponder and struggle with the deepest spiritual questions of life, and instead try to draw people into our churches (and keep them their) by becoming purveyors of “top quality religious entertainment and amusement”. We can try to ride the cultural wave and add yet more ways for people to amuse themselves to death. The mission of the church can become distraction: to draw people’s attention away from the demands of today and their fears of the future, and offer a pleasant oasis in their busy lives, sort of a spiritual social club. We can run our churches like businesses, and hire consultants, and engage in all kinds of strategic planning, and employ focus groups, and engage in “niche advertising” to zero in on our potential clientele.
But what profiteth a church if it gains the whole world and loses its very soul? Ity has always seemed to me that people who advocate the “church as a business” paradigm neglect a couple of important points: the most important, perhaps, being that a church isn’t a business. It’s more like a family. And as much as we might like to, we can’t hire consultants to re-brand our families. We’re stuck with them, or blest with them, or usually blest/ sometimes stuck with them.
Which brings us to the third option the church has, I think. Which is to remember who we are and where we can from and why we’re here. To see ourselves not as a spiritual massage parlor, nor as a social club, nor as First Parish, Inc. But as a blessed community of memory and hope: a community which “reveres the past but which trusts the dawning future more.” Which faces the future head on: in all of its messiness and uncertainty and conflict. Which admits that this world is very often a vale of tears and that things often get worse before they get better. But which nonethless walks together with its people boldly into that future, with hope (but not naïve optimism) and with courage (a realistic courage, which knows that most of us may not see the great new world of which we dream and for which we work.)
May our way toward Tomorrowland be lighted not by the garish carnival lights of this mad commercial culture, but by light of one another, and by the living light of the love of God. And may we shine forth, with courage and with hope, to all of those around us, as we guide one another toward the land of tomorrow.

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