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The film “Field of Dreams” beautifully portrays in a contemporary idiom the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but even more so, the grand cosmic drama to which that Parable points: that of Paradise lost and Paradise regained.
In view of the beginning of baseball season, and as the father of two Little Leaguers, I thought it appropriate to offer this tribute to one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams.
The film is about a man named Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner. He lives with his wife, Annie, and a young daughter on a farm in rural Iowa. Ray is in effect a washed up hippie; having inhaled deeply the radical idealism of the 1960s, he has only recently and quite reluctantly become a farmer.
One night, as he’s working in his cornfield, he suddenly hears the whispering of a mysterious voice: “If you build it, he will come.” This voice turns into a premonition of sorts: Ray sees a vision where his cornfield turns into a baseball field complete with floodlights and bleaches, and that his father’s hero, the early twentieth-century White Sox outfielder, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, will somehow return from the grave to play once again.
Obviously he discounts the reality of this vision. But the voice keeps haunting him, and eventually Ray becomes convinced that this is something he has been ordained to do. Convincing his wife, Annie, of course is another matter. Nevertheless, with Annie’s perplexed blessing, Ray begins plowing under the crops, often with his daughter sitting on his lap on the tractor, which provides the occasion for Ray to tell her the stories his father used to tell him, stories of Shoeless Joe Jackson and his alleged association with the so-called “Black Sox Scandal,” in which members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox participated in a conspiracy to fix the World Series. While his role was later disputed, Shoeless Joe was permanently banned from the game.
To Ray’s surprise, after having built the baseball field, nothing happened. Time passed, winter came and went, and still, nothing. In fact, the baseball field so harmed their crop production that Ray’s brother-in-law, a banker, tries to convince him to file for bankruptcy or lose the farm. Then, one evening, when Ray and his wife were arguing over their finances, they heard their little daughter say, “Daddy, there’s a man out there on your lawn.” Ray discovers that it is indeed Shoeless Joe Jackson, in full White Sox uniform. Shoeless Joe asks Ray if he could bring others from the disgraced team to play. “Oh man, anytime. They’re all welcome here; I built this for you,” Ray replies, just before Shoeless Joe disappears into the cornfields.
The next day, however, Ray again hears the mysterious voice, this time calling on him to “ease his pain,” and again a vision follows: Ray is convinced that he must travel to Boston and, for reasons he knows not, take the controversial 1960s author Terence Mann to Fenway Park. Ray had learned that Terence’s childhood dream was to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the team’s move to Los Angeles was one of the most heartbreaking moments of his life. Ray travels to Boston and finds Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones), but he is no longer the idealistic radical of the 1960s; Terence has since become a misanthropic recluse who no longer writes, and who threatens to beat Ray with a crow bar when he comes to his door. After reminding Terence that he’s a pacifist, Ray is able to convince him to attend a baseball game at Fenway Park, where they both shared a common vision to travel to Minnesota and bring back a young baseball player by the name of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one game with the New York Giants in 1922 but never had a turn at bat.
After they arrive in the small town of Chisholm, Minnesota, they learn that “Moonlight” Graham became a family doctor and died nearly twenty years earlier at a ripe, old age. Again, mysteriously, as Ray was walking the streets at night, he found that he was back in time, 1972 to be exact, the year of Dr. Graham’s death, and there he meets up with the good doctor, who confesses to Ray that while he regrets he never got to bat, he would have regretted it even more if he had never been a doctor. And so he declines Ray’s invitation to fulfill his dream. But, as it turns out, the mysterious forces in play would not be denied, for while driving back to Iowa, Ray and Terence pick up a young hitchhiker who introduces himself as Archie Graham, who’s looking to play some ball. He heard that there are some towns in the Midwest that will find players a job so they can play ball nights and weekends.
While Archie sleeps, Ray reveals to Terence that that’s what his father did for a while, working odd jobs just so he could play baseball. “What happened to your father?” Terence asks. “He never made it as a ball player,” Ray said, “so he tried to get his son to make it for him. By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage, so when I was fourteen, I started to refuse. Can you believe that? An American boy refusing to have a catch with his father… Anyway, when I was seventeen, we had a big fight, I packed my things, said something awful, and left. After a while I wanted to come home, but I didn’t know how. I made it back for the funeral. He died before I could even introduce him to Annie.” “What was the awful thing you said?” Terence asks. “I said I could never respect a man whose hero was a criminal.” “Who was his hero?” “Shoeless Joe Jackson.” Terence looks puzzled: “You knew he wasn’t a criminal…. So why’d you say it?” Ray couldn’t hide his remorse: “I was seventeen.”
When they arrive back at the field in Iowa, there are now enough baseball players that have mysteriously appeared from the cornfields to form two teams, and Archie gets his dream, he gets a turn at bat. As the players finish out the game, they invite Terence Mann to see what goes beyond the cornfields, and perhaps that will inspire him to write again. Terence eagerly accepts the invitation. Ray wants to come, too. “You can’t Ray,” Shoeless Joe says, “You weren’t invited.” Ray doesn’t understand; why is it that all around him dreams are coming true, except for the one who built the field? Shoeless Joe looks at him with a big smile, and points his finger over to home plate, and says to Ray, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray looks and sees a catcher removing his mask, and realizes that he is gazing into the face of his father. Shocked, Ray remembers the second voice: “Ease his pain,” and turns to Shoeless Joe, and says, “I thought it was you.” “No Ray,” he said, “it was you.”
Ray looks across the field at his father and marvels. “I’d only seen him years later when he was worn down by life. Look at him. He’s got his whole life in front of him and I’m not even a glint in his eye. What do I say to him?” After introducing him to his wife and grand-daughter, Ray and his father have a long overdue talk. “Is there a heaven?” Ray asks. “Oh yeah,” his father replies. “It’s where dreams come true.” “Then,” Ray responds, “this must be heaven.”
And as his father turns to disappear into the cornfields, Ray calls out: “Hey, Dad,” his father turns; “you wanna have a catch?” A smile beams across his father’s face. “I’d like that.” And so, on this baseball field, Ray’s dream came true; he found his way home.
As I reflect on this film, I am struck by how beautifully it portrays in a contemporary idiom the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but even more so, the grand cosmic drama to which that Parable points: that of Paradise lost and Paradise regained. The baseball park is a paragon of geometrical perfection, carpeted with grass glowing as parrot green, cool as mint, soft as a cashmere blanket, framed by the breezy movement of cornstalks, backgrounded by the eternity of the stretched-out canopy of a fathomless blue sky; a garden of aesthetic delights that awaken the senses and cultivate the imagination. Shoeless Joe in fact says as much; he tells Ray when they first meet that after he was banned from baseball, he would wake up at night with the smell of the ballpark in his nose and the cool of the grass on his feet. “Oh man, I did love this game,” he says longingly; “the game, the sounds, the smells.”
But for Ray and Shoeless Joe, the baseball field involved an additional dimension: it was a place where they both knew life before innocence was lost. For Ray in particular, the baseball field was a place where he could commune with his father, who appeared larger than life through childlike eyes, but whose stature faded as those eyes began to change. The baseball field was perceived progressively as a prison, and freedom was found away from home.
And yet, while Ray may have fallen away from his childhood paradise, the ballpark never seems to leave him. Indeed, we see this ‘hound of heaven’ motif with all the characters throughout the film, uniting them in a symphony of redemption that is able to transcend time. One commentator writes: “Baseball is rhythm without time, the lack of clock rendering the events immortal instead of static. There’s no running out the clock… A baseball game lasts exactly as long as it needs to, like a life time…. Baseball is the way our hearts wish time worked.”
Terence Mann draws from this “time outside of time” when he informs Ray that he will not have to sell his farm or the baseball field that he built, because it will be a field of dreams for more people than he could ever imagine. In an eloquent soliloquy, Terence proclaims:
People will come, Ray…. And they’ll walk off to the bleachers and sit in their short sleeves on a perfect afternoon. And find they have reserved seats somewhere along the baselines where they sat when they were children… And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces… This field, this game… reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.
In the Christian tradition, Paradise is not a mere sentiment or therapeutic fable; rather, Paradise is intrinsic to our humanity. As our first habitation, the essence of what it means to be human is inseparable from an environment wherein every square inch constitutes love incarnate. It is in the primeval Garden that Adam was created to grow, to blossom, together with the flowers and the trees, to cultivate and to be cultivated in an everlasting communion with God. The twelfth-century mystic Hildegaard was moved to say: “God created humankind so that humankind might cultivate the earthly and thereby create the heavenly.” Centered on the mystical Tree of Life, Paradise is that place wherein we are most fully human.
When Adam is expelled from the Garden, having rejected his Father, an indispensable part of our humanity was lost. The Tree of Life was replaced with thorns and thistles, indicating a cosmos characterized by death and decay. Our senses in turn fell, rendered dissonant, discordant, and our imaginations shriveled up into a parody of our true selves, characterized by an infatuated love of the self. And all of our broken relationships are but echoes of our original estrangement from the source of eternal life.
And yet, while we have fallen from Paradise, the Garden in a very real sense has never left us. The created order that was to serve as the habitat that shaped and sanctified the human person has now been restored in the Incarnation of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity. Just as God formed Adam from the earth, so now the eternal Son of God, in the words of the Gospel of John, “became flesh and dwelt among us,” a New Adam, the unblemished embodiment of Paradise restored. Indeed, this is the classical significance of the Eucharistic meal, where the grain and fruit of the third day of creation are transformed into the bread and wine identified with the body and blood of Christ, such that creation and Incarnation come together to restore our communion with God and one another.
Therefore, just as our humanity cannot be understood apart from Paradise, so our true humanity is comparably incomprehensible apart from the cross, for the Tree of Life is restored to precisely in and through the cross. The cross is where God and humanity confront each other in the deepest and starkest of terms. It is on the cross that humanity is revealed for what we have become: when truth appears in a world marked by self-centered dissolution and estrangement, it can only appear as crucified. And in that crucified figure, we see the very heart of God revealed, we see a love that knows no bounds, no depths too low; we see a love that reaches out with nail marked hands to welcome us back into his infinite embrace. And it is this love, unconquerable and inextinguishable, that bursts forth from the tomb the Eternal Spring of resurrection glory, infinite in its abundance and eternal in its life; which in turn awakens a comparable love within us, reorienting our senses and restoring us back to Paradise, our true and everlasting home.
It’s the beginning of springtime as I write; that time of year my two young boys take to the diamond-shaped field of the Little League gateway into the dawn of summer. I often sit on decaying wooden slabs across rickety stands, watching these once toddlers turn into young men. Sitting there, gazing over that field illuminated by the late afternoon sun, my boys are transfigured into what, in many respects, we were always meant to be: delighted dwellers in a timeless garden, that place where our humanity flourishes. And it is there, when my sons look for and catch my fatherly eye surveying their immersion in this field of dreams, that I am truly reminded of all that once was good, and that could be again.
We smile at one another. Paradise regained.
This essay first appeared here in April 2017.
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The featured image is courtesy of IMDb.