Waking Up With Truman Burbank: Leadership Alongside Spiritual Refugees
The movie The Truman Show serves as an allegory for those in the process of awakening to a God who is uncontrolling and unrelenting love.
“We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” – Christof, The Truman Show
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11 (NRSV)
In the description of his excellent book, Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, popular film critic Josh Larsen writes, “Movies do more than tell a good story. They are expressions of raw emotion, naked vulnerability, and unbridled rage. They often function in the same way as prayers, communicating our deepest longings and joys to a God who hears each and every one.”
I deeply resonate with these sentiments from Larsen. As a self-professing cinephile, one of the most meaningful and regular ways in which I experience the love of God, while contemplating the journey of life and faith, is in my local movie theater. When the lights go dim and the big screen lights up, my soul sings.
To this day, one of my favorite movies is The Truman Show, the 1998 comedy drama starring fellow Canadian Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank. The film, which can rightly be called a classic, portrays the life of Truman who, at birth was legally adopted by a major television studio and whose entire life (unbeknownst to him) has been broadcast to the entire world as a sort of reality television show. Everything and everyone in Seahaven Island, the town in which Truman lives, is carefully constructed and meticulously controlled by Christof (played by Ed Harris in a performance garnering him an Academy Award nomination) the architect and designer of the fabricated reality in which Truman lives.
Through a series of bizarre events and experiences, Truman begins to suspect that something is amiss and pieces together the truth that his world is a façade filled with cameras, props, and actors (including his best friend Marlon and wife Meryl). This series of “woke” moments propel Truman into an agonizing and enthralling search for truth and an attempt to escape the world he once naïvely thought to be good, true and beautiful.
As Truman begins to wake up to the truth of his fictitious world, Christof and his personnel are forced to go to great lengths to ensure Truman remains content and contained in the faux-paradise world of Seahaven Island, as millions around the world remain glued to their television screens to see how it ends.
As things begin to unravel, Christof, in an unprecedented move, gives a rare and exclusive live television interview. In responding to the question of why Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world until now, Christof stoically states, “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. It’s as simple as that.”
As a pastor and university chaplain, I continually have the privilege of listening to and walking alongside men, women, and children of all ages, who, like Truman, are discovering that the worldview with which they were presented is somewhat illusionary and problematic.
Day after day, I rub shoulders with many of the “Trumans” of my world. Whether in coffee shops, pubs, churches, or through social media, I hear many stories of life experiences which have led to confusion, disillusionment, and despair. While each of these stories is unique, the common thread that binds them together is the way they highlight how lived experiences can bump up against one’s inherited worldview and accompanying theological presumptions, leading to a sense of doubt, disorientation, and discouragement.
Recently the Pew Research Center released updated statistics of America’s changing religious landscape. The results highlight both the continued decline of those identifying as Christians, while those who identify as religiously unaffiliated (religious “nones”) continue to be on the rise, now comprising more than one quarter of the American population. In Canada, and to a greater degree most European nations, the trends parallel those of America where percentages of religious nones grow even higher.
While there is undoubtedly some truth to Christof’s claim that the worldview a person is given is typically accepted as truth, the current massively shifting cultural and religious North American landscape suggests an alternate and competing truth—many, like Truman, are waking up to the reality that the spiritual/theological worldview they inherited is faulty. This cognitive dissonance has and continues to lead many to walk away from the church and/or the Christian faith, essentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
I empathize deeply with those undergoing a season of spiritual disorientation and disillusionment. It can be extremely fearful and unsettling to have one’s theological house of cards come crashing down. The more isolated and sheltered from the world a person remains, the easier it is to naïvely live, work and worship in the neat and tidy confines of a small and sheltered existence. Ignorance is indeed bliss—until life happens.
It didn’t take long for doubts, questions, and fears about aspects of the worldview I inherited to arise in my life. I vividly recall being in junior high when my family received word that my mother, a woman of great faith, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Growing up in a religious environment espousing a God of meticulous control very much like that of Christof, my world was rocked. Why would a God of love give a faithful God-fearing woman like my mother a terminal illness? How can a perfectly loving God co-exist with so much senseless evil and suffering?
My doubts, questions and curiosities led me into a lengthy period of disillusionment and spiritual unravelling which in many respects paralleled the painful disorientation of Truman Burbank as he awakened to—and attempted to break free from—the confines of his fabricated, and ultimately toxic world.
Whether it be questions related to inconsistencies and violence in the Bible, science and faith, human sexuality, the problem of evil or a host of other issues, countless masses of people are wrestling with the increasing divergence between one’s lived experiences and rational thinking and one’s inherited worldview and theological system. Essentially, many—like Truman Burbank, and unlike Christof—are adamantly no longer willing (nor able) to accept the reality of the world in which they were presented.
These courageous, yet fragile spiritual refugees need the safety and comfort of authentic communities where they can have a place to wrestle, heal, and reorient their lives and worldview. It is essential that Christian leadership in North America include the recognition, inclusion, and embrace of the “Trumans” among us. The God revealed fully and finally in the incarnation of Jesus is nothing like Christof, nor is the world a product of a meticulous controlling architect. As I reflect upon my own “woke moments” and the joy of leading and being led by fellow pilgrims on the journey towards a more beautiful Gospel and a God of unrelenting love, I humbly offer three observations related to effective leadership for and with those undergoing a season of spiritual disorientation and detox.
Staying in the Ring and Going to the Mat with God
One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament is the story of Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with God. (Gen. 32:22-32) What I find so fascinating about this strange and epic story is how Jacob’s divine wrestling partner doesn’t overpower Jacob, but seemingly invites such wrestling which eventually leads to a blessing and a new name for Jacob. The new name given to Jacob is Israel, which means to contend or wrestle. Much like my home wrestling matches with my two children, rather than overpowering them as I could, I invite and enjoy these shared experiences. Healthy Christian leadership involves cultivating communities in which authentic questions, doubts and wrestling with God within the ring of faith is not only permitted, but is encouraged and embraced. In contrast to the rigidity and uniformity that is mandated in many faith communities, to go to the mat with God within the ring of faith is to embrace and embody the heart of a “true Israelite.”
A Time to Carry and A Time to Be Carried
For the last few years, every second Wednesday evening is spent in a living room with a group of fellow pilgrims on the journey of life and faith. I consider this “Band of Brothers” group to be a part of my family—a vulnerable community where those present can share both their victories and struggles and process their pain and shame together. One common thread that binds us together is our desire to listen, learn, and heal together in a spirit of love absent of judgment. As I reflect fondly upon the importance of this community, I’m reminded of the story recorded in both Mark and Luke’s Gospels where another “Band of Brothers,” in their desperation and determination to have their friend healed, rip off a portion of the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching (Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26). Those of us waking up to a more beautiful Gospel and a relentlessly loving and uncontrolling God bear the wounds and scars of holding onto toxic theologies and traumatic church experiences. Healthy leadership acknowledges the need for vulnerability and authenticity in community. The reality is that everyone, including leaders, goes through paralyzing life experiences that leave us wounded on the mat and needing to be carried to Jesus. Other times we carry our wounded brothers and sisters to Jesus in an effort to find healing and wholeness.
Opening the Door to the Great Wide Open
The final scene of The Truman Show is one of my favorites in cinema history. Having pushed through the fear and trauma accompanying his “waking up” and surviving the fear mongering attempts by Christof and his cronies to stifle and contain Truman within his fabricated world, Truman literally reaches the end of the world as he knows it. As he stands before an open door to an unexplored world, Christof makes one final appeal to Truman from his control studio perched high above: “You can’t leave Truman. You belong here with me. Talk to me. Say something.”
Truman responds by turning his gaze skyward, smiling and responding with the words he has mindlessly and monotonously uttered to his neighbors throughout his life: “In case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.” After taking a bow to those watching around the world, he walks through the door into the great wide-open future awaiting him.
The story of Truman Burbank serves as an allegory for those who are in the process of awakening to the reality that the God of uncontrolling and unrelenting love bears no resemblance to the distant, micromanaging character of Christof. In contrast to Christof, it is Christ who reveals to us a God who is not a distant controlling architect, but rather an authentic loving friend (John 15:12-17).
Leadership that gives permission to wrestle with God, humbly recognizes the necessity of both carrying and being carried by others. It encourages others to leave behind toxic pictures of God to step out into the beautiful and open future together is essential in a culture increasingly and rightfully unwilling to accept the reality of the world. Let’s stay awake to the “Trumans” around us and the God who is faithfully present with us all moment by moment.
This essay was one of more than 60 published in a book entitled Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love. Other essays in this book can be accessed by visiting www.c4ort.com/open-and-relational-leadership-essays