While working out in an employee fitness center late one afternoon, I caught the end of an Oprah Winfrey show devoted to the tribulations of a woman who had been horribly abused by her husband. She had taken refuge with her children in a battered women’s shelter, where the husband eventually tracked her down and snatched the kids to force her to return home. When she filed for divorce, he retaliated by shooting their children. One died; another was left in a wheelchair. Surely this was a tragedy that not even the formidable Oprah Winfrey could set right.
But, no. In a gesture beyond satire, Oprah offered the one consolation deemed capable of addressing the full pain and horror of the woman's situation: an all-expense-paid trip to Disney World. The audience cheered as a costumed Mickey Mouse figure scampered down the aisle. The woman’s surviving family members gathered around her onstage as attendants brought out shopping bags laden with 100 pairs of gift-wrapped Hanes pantyhose. Disney World! The woman opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. She could only sob with joy, the dead weight of her suffering suddenly lifted.
At Disney World, every day begins with a parade and ends with fireworks. Almost every day is sunny and warm; the flowers bloom year-round. Huge throngs are fed, sheltered and moved about with a minimum of hassle. There is no litter anywhere. The one time our family visited there, when our kids were teenagers, a barge decked out in Christmas lights floated by our hotel at night playing Handel's Water Music (a welcome change from the bubbly cartoon melodies that were heard almost everywhere else). The staff was overwhelming young, friendly and courteous. In the Disney scheme of things, they were regarded not as mere employees but as “cast members,” befitting their role in this grand exercise in make-believe.
Is it making too much of Oprah Winfrey's largesse to suggest that Disney World now occupies a place in the popular imagination akin to the heavenly places of medieval lore? The hope of a better world has long since ceased to be a preoccupation of mainstream religion; indeed, it has become a positive embarrassment to serious theologians. Likewise, religious pilgrimages have all but disappeared in the Western world, apart from the grieving throngs who still flock to Graceland to pay their respects to the departed Elvis. There remains only Disney World as the last wish of the dying child, the just reward of the Super Bowl MVP, the ne plus ultra of family togetherness. Was there not even some tiny foreshadowing of communism’s eventual collapse when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev expressed a fervent desire to visit the original Disney theme park in California, even as he loudly extolled the virtues of his dreary workers’ paradise? For the battered woman on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Disney World had in some way come to represent the fulfillment of an ancient prophetic vision: a heavenly city in which every tear is wiped away, in which there is neither mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more.
Long before all-expense-paid trips to the Magic Kingdom had come to be regarded as an antidote to human suffering, pious souls longed for the coming of God's kingdom. In Jesus' day, there were some who looked to God to restore Israel to its past greatness under King David. Others looked to the future; they understood God's kingdom to be a purely transcendent realm that would be ushered in by some great cataclysm at the end of history. But Jesus had an altogether different answer for the Pharisees who asked when the kingdom would come. He cautioned them to look neither to the past nor to the future but to look within themselves. "The kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed," he told them. "For behold, the kingdom of God is within you."
Rather than rest our hopes in a better world, we are called upon to see this world as it is, as God created it. This is not to deny the horror of abusive husbands who shoot their children in a jealous rage, or of the ersatz palliatives available in the land of make-believe. We are challenged to look unflinchingly at this strange world of squalor and exaltation, but to see it through God's eyes. Does God look upon his wayward creation with wrathful eyes, or as we might look upon our own wayward progeny, with eyes of love and sadness? Somehow, in spite of everything, I sense there is at the heart of things a deep and abiding acceptance of things as they are.