Welcome to the Emerald City
Rev. Douglas Taylor
“Why, then, oh why, can’t I?” The lingering question with which the movie begins is the sort of question that could lead many people into transformative spiritual journeys. Folks recall the Technicolor and great songs from the movie, the one-liners, the characters. The movie is amazingly fun. Yet there is a deeper level to this movie that starts with these lyrics. “Why, then, oh why, can’t I?” The song asks, ‘why can’t my life have happiness and dreams that come true?’ “Some day I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.” So, if these happy bluebirds can get away from the clouds, how about me? There is something plaguing me, some dark cloud hanging over my life. I’m not settled in here, this is not quite my place; something is missing. I yearn for something more. “Why, oh why can’t I?”
I don’t think MGM planned for this to be a deep movie about spiritual searching, they were just bringing to the silver screen a delightful children’s book by Frank Baum. And I don’t think Frank Baum was intentionally creating children’s books that had mythic heroes and journeys as the frameworks. Maybe that was his intent, but I don’t think so. In the end, however, this 1939 movie, which the AFI (American Film Institute) continues to rank among the top ten films of all time, has a deeper mythic connection that comes out if you are willing to notice.
Certainly, there are other movies that have been suggested as models the spiritual journey, even other movies and stories that have been suggested as particularly apt for Unitarian Universalists. Perhaps you identify with the story of the Ugly Duckling: growing up, you didn’t fit in to the world around you until you discovered that indeed you are a terrible Catholic because in fact you are a Unitarian Universalist. Or you may find yourself in the annual televising of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a denizen of the Island of Misfit Toys: here we all are because we didn’t fit in anywhere else, but together we can make do. These are motifs from stories that seem to work particularly well as mythic stories or motifs for Unitarian Universalists. There are many, many possibilities of characters or scenarios that lend themselves to this sort of spiritual comparison.
The Wizard of Oz is on a different order from these other examples because I’m not talking about just one scene or one character. The whole movie is a model for a Unitarian Universalist spiritual life. The Wizard of Oz is an epic journey. And, again, there are other amazing movies that are based on epic journeys: think Star Wars, think Narnia; but what I lift up about the Wizard of Oz is that it seems to show this epic journey of spiritual searching in a Unitarian Universalist style. The Chronicles of Narnia are a delightfully entertaining children’s story with a deep and recognizable undercurrent of Christian theology. I think the Wizard of Oz, not intentionally of course, does this for Unitarian Universalism.
What stands out most is that this is the story of a person going on a journey to find her home, or at the end of the movie Dorothy says she was looking for her heart’s desire. As the opening song also indicates, there is a longing, a desire, a hope for something more in life. That is how many of us begin our own spiritual journey. And as Glenda the Good Witch told Dorothy, it is best to begin at the beginning. So we begin with the delightfully obvious metaphor of the yellow brick road.
The Yellow Brick Road is the path you follow in your journey to find the wizard who will help you reach Kansas. In Unitarian Universalism we speak of each of us being on our journeys to find wholeness or peace or enlightenment or Kansas which is home. We’re all trying to get home. The yellow brick road is the path. When Dorothy in Oz, Glenda the Good Witch doesn’t say, “Here is a holy book that will explain your situation;” she doesn’t say, “Trust and believe in the wizard and he will take care of all your problems;” and she doesn’t say, “There is no such thing as Kansas, you need to let go of your delusion.” Instead, she tells Dorothy that to get what she wants she must take a journey. Glenda the Good Witch tells her to begin at the beginning and “follow the yellow brick road.” In this mythic story seen as a spiritual search, you are Dorothy and your work is to be on the journey. The yellow brick road is not a dogma or a creed. It’s a path. This fits quite well with our Unitarian Universalist understanding of spiritual deepening.
Along the way, Dorothy meets many different people. In a way, everyone Dorothy meets in Oz can be seen as an aspect of Dorothy’s inner life as she follows her journey on the yellow brick road. Likewise for us: as we walk along our paths of spiritual deepening, enlightenment, and understanding, the characters in the movie can be seen as aspects of our inner selves. And, equally important, most of the time the characters also represent external aspects of life for us. Most obvious, perhaps, are the three characters that travel with Dorothy: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. On your spiritual quest you’ll need your brain, your heart, and your nerve. Being spiritual, especially the way that is meant in Unitarian Universalist circles, can’t b done without thinking, feeling, and courageously acting. My colleague, Tom Owen-Towle has claimed that UUs are “Freethinking Mystics with Hands,” meaning our faith involves the intellect, compassion, and a willingness to engage in the work of the world. There are many ways to lay these three characters out. But they all join Dorothy because they are each missing something – or they believe they are, at least. Dorothy is missing her home, but if you will recall, she left home because she was missing something as well – but it is difficult to say just what was missing. That is the trouble with spiritual yearning, half the job is figuring out what you’re after.
Two other characters that represent aspects of our inner and outer lives are the witches. The Good witch represents our guides, those around us that offer wise council. Your Good Witch may be a particularly good friend, your parents, or your minister. The good witch is also our own inner encouragement. Have you every said, or heard someone else say, “I think the universe is trying to tell me something”? That would be akin to the work of the Witches from this story. The Wicked Witch is pretty much the polar opposite of the Good Witch. You’ve got things in your life that help you out and things that drag you down. You have one or two people who look out for you and others that go out of their way to be snarky. You’ve good burdens and blessings, ups and downs, joys and sorrows, Goods and Wickeds. That’s life, that’s just the way things are. Of course, the Wicked Witches are always more prevalent that the Good Witches, but there are ways of getting rid of Wicked Witches.
Of course, the Wizard deserves a comment or two. Dorothy gets started on her journey with a goal in mind: to get home; and in order to do that, she has to go see the Wizard. The Wizard is the one who will fix all the problems, solve all the dilemmas, and to give to you the things that are missing. You’re missing something, remember? That’s why you started on this journey. So you go to your Wizard to find answers. Guess what kind of answers the Wizard gives you! Well in the movie, the Wizard gave our friends an outrageous task: go deal with that big thing you’re afraid of first, and then I can help you. “Bring me the Wicked Witch’s broomstick.” It reminds me of the story of the Lions Whiskers. The stepmother in this Ethiopian folktale is heartbroken because her stepson rejects her. She seeks help from a wise medicine man, who tells her to bring him three whiskers from the ferocious lion that prowls in the black-rock desert. Over many months, she tames the lion through and discovers that she ahs the patience and courage to handle the situation. In the same why she dealt with the lion, she works to tame the boy and make him need her and love her. So the Wizard says to them when they get back from the adventure: you want brains: didn’t you find that you had them when you needed them on this task I set for you? Did you not find your heart and your courage by yourselves: what you needed was already there inside you?!
Your wizard is the minister, guru, rabbi, or teacher who becomes the focal point for you. Your wizard is your external focal point. You show up here with questions and find bigger questions, or find that what you thought was lost is there inside you and has been all along! There is a great quote for a wayside pulpit: “Seeking Enlightenment? Inquire Within.” Certainly if you think I am your Wizard I will tell you I am only a Humbug! Oh, I know how to put on the show with the smoke and the pyrotechnics, if you will. But I hope when I am saying, “Pay no attention to that man behind the pulpit,” it is not because I want to dazzle you into submission. Rather I how to get out of the way so you may better see God or at least yourself more deeply.
Now, I want to point out a very important distinction, one that most folks notice, but forget if they don’t watch the movie every year: The Wizard did not give anything to Dorothy, did not solve her problem. His one attempt to help her is spoiled at the last moment as he flies away in his balloon without her, which necessitates Glenda the Good Witch to put in another appearance. But it is not Glenda who saves the day either. Glenda doesn’t give anything to Dorothy, does not solve her problem for her. What was it in the end that got Dorothy get back to Kansas? The Ruby Slippers, right? Wrong!
Listen, when the Wizard floats off with the balloon at the end, everyone is crestfallen. Suddenly Glenda’s bubble appears and every one is hopeful. The first words out of Dorothy’s mouth are “Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?” Glenda says, “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.” Over the years that has been a most frustrating answer. Well, why didn’t you say so earlier, Glenda? In fact, the Scarecrow asks that very question and Glenda says Dorothy wouldn’t have believed it at the beginning; she had to experience it for herself. Experience what? That the shoes had the power to take her home? No, it’s not about the shoes! Glenda doesn’t say, ‘it’s the shoes.’ She talks about the shoes later, but it’s not the shoes that do it. I wonder if the Shoes are like Dumbo’s Feather: just a prop to help you see what you can accomplish. “She had to learn it herself,” Glenda says. It is the experiences Dorothy went through that allow her to use the shoes to go home. What takes Dorothy home is her own lived experience of the journey.
What you need has within you all along. This is what we mean when we put so much emphasis on your path, your journey, in Unitarian Universalism. One of the regular jokes about us is how much we are interested in the journey and not so interested in the destination. The Wizard of Oz gets it! The journey is the whole point; without the journey, the destination is meaningless.
Now, I could go on. I could tell you all about what the Munchkins and the Winged Monkeys could represent. I could talk about what Oz and Kansas are meant to represent in spiritual terms. I could go on. But I want to mention only one other aspect of the movie this morning and how it might relate to the spiritual search as we Unitarian Universalists know it. I want to talk about Toto. Really, when you think about it, if it weren’t for Toto, there wouldn’t be much of a movie! Several of the very significant events were advanced due to Toto’s actions. From the whole beginning of the movie with Mean old Almira Gulch taking him away and then Dorothy deciding to run away to save Toto, up to when he runs away from the witch’s castle to bring help for poor Dorothy and sneaks over to pull back the wizard’s curtain, all the way to the very end when he leaps from the balloon as the wizard is about to take Dorothy back to Kansas, Toto is a great literary device. When some part of the script is stuck, have Toto do something and suddenly everything is moving again. Toto is also a great spiritual device – and for the same reason. Toto can be seen as an extension of Dorothy. If each of us is Dorothy, we all have an adventurous little Toto inside us as well. Toto is that adventurous aspect of our spirit, he is our spiritual whim. I encourage yourself to let your Toto off his leash more often and hold on to your red shoes – for your inner Toto of spiritual adventure may very well dash off to wonderful lands.
That’s what life is like sometimes: you find yourself on a journey, you are given guidance and there are companions to walk with you; but there will also be roadblocks and hurdles to overcome. Quite likely your will not find quite what you are looking for, or what you expected; and more mill be asked of you than you imagined when you started out. But in the end, the road will lead you home. Through perils and joys, blessings and great trouble, this road will lead you home.
In a world with a Kansas and an Oz without end
May it be so.