A family member once told me that “Brigadoon” (1954), a classic musical starring Gene Kelly and Van Johnson, was light-hearted and had little depth. When I finally saw the film, what I witnessed was light-hearted on the surface but deeply disturbing underneath.
Brigadoon, a small village in the highlands of Scotland, is stuck two hundred years in the past. It’s 1754 there. To the rest of the world, including Tommy Albright (Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Johnson) from New York City, it’s 1954. How did this event, which the villagers call a “miracle,” take place? Pastor Forsythe was disturbed by the idea of witches entering Brigadoon and poisoning people’s minds with lies. So he asked God to make the village disappear, both from the world and from the maps – to come alive from sunrise to sunset only once every one hundred years. On Wednesday, the year is 1754; on Thursday, 1854; and on Friday, 1954. If anyone leaves, he will make Brigadoon disappear forever. Forsythe made this “miracle” possible through self-sacrifice, himself leaving by living and dying outside the village. It begs the question how the inhabitants of Brigadoon learned the truth in the first place.
Mr. Lundie (Barry Jones) reveals Brigadoon’s history to Tommy and Jeff, and to the audience, an hour into the film. In the meantime, the screen is filled with villagers in stereotyped Scottish dress and rousing song-and-dance numbers. Their outer joy disguises a terrible truth, one that reflects painfully on both the church and its critics today.
Jeff is a typical atheist. He believes only in what he can experience with his senses. Anything outside it that he doesn’t understand, Jeff refuses to believe in. His physical presence on the village outskirts and emotional presence outside the plot reinforces this skepticism. When Jeff finally learns the true history of Brigadoon, he intrudes into the plot by accidentally killing Harry Beaton, who had threatened to leave the village (and make it disappear) because of his jealousy over a rival’s marriage to Jean Campbell. But this intrusion is not enough to wake up Jeff from his physical drunkenness and spiritual stupor. He even ridicules Tommy for wanting to stay and marry Jean’s sister Fiona (Cyd Charisse). Jeff never learns to love or make sacrifices. The film ends with him as asleep as Brigadoon, only his is a spiritual slumber.
Some elements of “Brigadoon” resemble the classic fairytale “Sleeping Beauty.” Why would anyone want to live in a fairytale village, so they can sleep for one hundred years and live their normal lives in a single day? Some outsiders ask the same question of the church. Why would anyone want to be part of a community that resists change and ignores the trials and tribulations of outsiders, people who live daily in the noise and confusion of the real world?
Pastor Forsythe was wrong to ask God to make Brigadoon disappear, so the villagers would be resistant to change. Change is neutral, not evil. It is also inherently human. God alone does not change (Malachi 3:6). We are not God, so we must change. Otherwise, we make ourselves God and that is idolatry. All that matters is whether change on our part is for better or worse. Through change we can strengthen a relationship or weaken it, gain victory over an enemy or suffer defeat. If we want to draw close to God and be like him, the change of conversion or the “new birth” is vital.
Christians should not be resistant to spiritual and social changes either. They should help the poor and oppressed, witnessing to the lost. It took a whale and a vine to make Jonah see that God was showing grace to Nineveh (Jonah 1-4). Centuries later, it took a vision of unclean animals to make Peter see that God was showing grace to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Both men needed a strong wake-up call to understand how, and why, God was moving in his people.
Christians should not act like Mr. Lundie, who hears distant voices of angst while sleeping on a cloud. They should not be so far removed from reality that they cannot wake up from Brigadoon and help people in New York City. Christians should not be irrelevant to world cultures today, seeming like Highlanders in 18th-century dress to outsiders. Jesus wasn’t irrelevant! In relation to the pro-life movement, a German Christian who lived through World War II said the church in America today was just like the church in Germany then, singing worship songs but oblivious to the train outside filled with Jews headed for concentration camps and unborn babies headed for abortion clinics.
However, the changes some people want to see in the church are not possible. There is an omnipotent God and his name is Jesus Christ. Moral absolutes, and both heaven and hell, are real. Finally, what we do in this life matters in the next. Atheists, moral relativists, and the religiously tolerant will never accept these timeless truths. If they compare the church to Brigadoon because of its resistance to such changes, they have been misled by Satan and their sinfulness. Their resistance to God and conversion is evil, not good. This truth is characterized by Van Johnson himself, a homosexual who resisted moral and spiritual change.
If there is any hope for both the church and the lost today, it is the love of Jesus Christ. The relationship between Tommy and Fiona is light-hearted, but it points to greater truths. Tommy is so in love with Fiona that the songs of Brigadoon become more real to him than the chaos of a New York City restaurant. When he finally returns to Scotland, Tommy discovers that the village has reappeared after just four months. Mr. Lundie tells him that he was woken up by the man’s love for Fiona. Tommy then decides to stay in Brigadoon and marry Fiona. He learns that only by giving up everything can he gain what truly matters. I pray more people, both inside and outside the church, learn and obey this truth today.