Writings by Cole Huffman

Those Halcyon Days of Yore

Lynn and I recently took in a movie at the good ole Ridgeway Four.  Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (PG-13) tells the story of an American screenwriter’s visit to Paris with his fussy fiancée and her parents.  The screenwriter, Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson), is successful as a self-described “Hollywood hack.”  (Allen engages in some vicarious self-deprecation through Wilson’s character.)  But what Gil really wants to do is write great literature, and he’s brought his not-quite-finished novel to Paris with him.  He thinks he could write from his heart if he lived in Paris, something his wife-to-be balks at: Paris is good for shopping and sightseeing, but live there?  Gil is undeterred, however.  He’s a hopeful romantic, smitten with the rich artistic ambiance of a city his literary heroes adored. 

One night, trying to find his way back to his hotel, Gil realizes he’s lost.  He sits down on a stairway.  A clock begins to toll the arrival of midnight, and slowly up the boulevard chugs a classic old 1920s Peugeot.  Only this car actually is from the 1920s, as are its roaring inhabitants who invite Gil to join them.  Suddenly Gil is in Paris of the 1920s.  This magical scenario repeats itself each subsequent midnight, and Gil gets to know a who’s who of twentieth-century artistic greats: writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, painters like Picasso and Dali, and the poet Gertrude Stein, who helpfully reads his novel for him.  Starved for the kind of fellowship he enjoys among them, Gil never wants to leave his “new” era and welcoming friends.  

A young woman named Adriana, who makes the rounds as the girlfriend du jour of various artists, falls for Gil, drawn to his affable sincerity and boyish zest for her city.  On what turns out to be their final night stroll together, they are invited to enter a horse-drawn carriage. Unknown to them, the destination is Moulin Rouge in the 1890s. 

All the wonder Gil feels in visiting the 1920s, Adriana feels about Moulin Rouge in the 1890s.  Across the room she recognizes an artist Picasso once gushed to her about and persuades Gil to join her in approaching the man at his table.  Rodin and another artist join them there, to the delight of Adriana.  She is mesmerized to be among these men, like seeing the original masterpiece when all you’ve seen before are its copies. 

But Gil has a flash of insight.  Realizing what’s happened to them both, he takes her aside for a word.  Adriana doesn’t want to go back to her life in the 1920s because, she says flatly, “It’s boring,” even though she was with people who would long be celebrated by later generations.  But she’d heard that Moulin Rouge was Paris at its halcyon best, and she wasn’t going to miss its full experience.  But Gil realizes they both have the same problem: familiarity with their present times led them both to romanticize a golden age in the past and diminish their present in comparison.  “I’m from 2010,” he gently tells Adriana, nodding toward the table of artists she would return to, “These guys don’t have antibiotics.”

Farfetched tale, yes.  But a nice commentary nevertheless on the all-too-common notion that one would be more comfortable or successful in another era, when the era you’re in is all you know in experience.  Gil’s realization of this paralleled my own a few years ago.  Back in seminary I was first exposed to the theological greats of church history: Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, etc.  If only I could go back in time somehow and talk to them!  And it was easier also to think of their eras as superior and/or preferable to my own because of how impressively and permanently God used them.  For a time I was so smitten with their times I diminished my times in comparison.  I felt very few modern authors and leaders compared with these “real statesmen” of the kingdom and their times.

I was guilty of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” only in reverse.  Chronological snobbery usually looks down on the past because one is so full of the present.  But in the intoxication of tasting the thoughts and words of some of the church’s greats, I looked down on the present as I filled up on the past.  Once I realized the knack for this in myself and corrected it, I no longer pined away for an era God did not put me in.  I resolved to live fully alive to and engaged with the era God did put me in—where antibiotics are available and God is still using people for His glory.  Not a bad thing, n’est-ce pas?

Posted by Cole Huffman at 5:03 PM
Share |