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Dreaming Dreams, Seeing Visions: The Theology of Field of Dreams

Ask baseball fans to name their favorite baseball movie, and it is highly likely that Field of Dreams will be on the short list. Released in 1989 with a fine cast that included Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Ray Liotta, Amy Madigan, and Timothy Busfield, it was nominated for three Oscars. It was financially successful, grossing $84.4 million. It is a perennial of the Hot Stove off-season, repeatedly shown on the MLB Network and cable movie channels.

The movie has secured a place in American culture. The Iowa farm where it was filmed has been heavily visited, and MLB built a field there that hosts an annual MLB game. The Library of Congress included the movie in its National Film Registry in 2017. “If you build it, he will come,” the declaration of the voice that Ray Kinsella heard in his cornfield and that initiated the movie’s plot, is widely known and used in many contexts.

With another baseball season underway, what accounts for the place that Field of Dreams holds among baseball fans and in our wider culture? Is it simply the movie’s effective use of sentimentality, as most critics asserted? Is it just a “male weepie,” as one claimed, strumming our heartstrings about sons playing catch with their fathers? Is it mere enjoyable fantasy?

I want to suggest some deeper reasons. Field of Dreams is suffused with Judeo-Christian religious concepts, and the redemptive climax of the movie is a moment that shows the working of grace. Consciously or not, the makers of the movie drew upon these religious themes. Viewers of the movie, even in an increasingly secular, post-Christian culture, resonated with these religious themes. This suggests how popular culture, even as it succeeds artistically and financially, can proclaim at least some of the good news.

I have lost count of the times I have seen Field of Dreams in whole or in part. It has many memorable scenes, some of which have become part of popular culture. In addition to the first declaration of the voice, many will be familiar with Shoeless Joe’s question to Ray (“Hey, is this heaven?”) and Ray’s reply (“No, it’s Iowa”). Still another is Terence Mann’s speech extolling the verities of baseball in a changing America. And of course there is Ray’s encounter with his father and his question, “Dad, do you want to have a catch?”

As popular as those moments are, I have been drawn more to two other scenes. One occurs during the Christmas season, after Ray has built his ballfield but before Shoeless Joe has appeared. Ray stares silently out the window of his house at his ballfield covered in snow. He is wearing a Christmas sweater, and his wife and their friends are having a party around a Christmas tree in the background in their living room. Ray does not join them and can only watch and wait.

The other moment is after Archie becomes Dr. Graham and saves Karin, Ray’s daughter. As he walks among the players, whom he now cannot rejoin, the players congratulate him in the plain-spoken yet heartfelt way of true American men — “Good job, Doc.” And Dr. Graham accepts their quiet praise appreciatively and modestly before he ventures toward whatever lies in the cornfield. He has sacrificed himself to do the right thing.

During this Epiphany season, I had an epiphany about these scenes. On Monday of the third week of Epiphany, the readings appointed in the Daily Office included Mark 5:15-21. This passage describes Jesus’ saving of Jairus’s daughter. Reading this passage, I immediately thought of Dr. Graham saving Ray’s daughter. True, Dr. Graham is not fully a Jesus figure in Field of Dreams. But like Jesus, Dr. Graham sacrifices himself; he won’t have the chance to play ball again. Even if the analogy is imperfect, the similarities in the movie to the restoration of Jairus’s daughter to life are evocative.

Now sensitized to one bit of religious imagery in the movie, I thought of my other favorite scene. In recent years, I have become more aware of the call of Advent to watch and wait for the return of our Lord. As a child and as a young parent, I found the time before Christmas was the frantic period of preparation — for a big holiday with gifts, food, and drink for family and others. Now I see all that as almost beside the point. The clock is ticking. Jesus is coming. Am I ready? Do I have faith? The silent image of Ray staring out his window at his snow-swept, empty field, watching, waiting, and believing is deeply affecting.

So now, two religious notes had sounded for me in Field of Dreams. Could there be more? Yes, there are. As the noted theologian, Casey Stengel, said, “You could look it up.”

Ray is a kind of prophet. The “word of the Lord” came to the Hebrew prophets. Ray too hears a voice — in fact, it is The Voice. The last of the cast listed in the movie’s credits is “The Voice,” and it is played by “Himself,” suggestive of “I Am Who Am” (Ex. 3:14). And, like Ray, the Hebrew prophets had visions.

Powered by his unwavering belief, Ray has other biblical qualities. He summons the dead. He provides a way for the redemption of sinners. He provides a channel for God’s mercy to the disgraced Black Soxs, and they get to play baseball again. He also offers the means of redemption to Terence Mann, the embittered, withdrawn writer of, among other things, novels about godlessness. Ray calls Mann to a journey out of his self-imposed exile to the healing power of Ray’s Iowa baseball field and Mann’s ultimate apotheosis into the cornfield.

Ray even aids the redemption of his brother-in-law, Mark. It was Ray who brought Graham to Iowa and had the faith that he would save Karin. This healing opens Mark’s eyes to the presence of the ballplayers he had previously been unable to see, and causes him to forgo foreclosure and support Ray’s retention of his farm.

Finally, Ray finds redemption himself. On the road trip to Iowa, after Ray explains his falling out with his father and expresses his regret for how he treated his father before he died, Mann tells Ray that his seemingly crazy pursuit of his visions is his “penance.” Being afforded the second chance to play catch with his father seals Ray’s redemption.

In addition to suggesting Ray’s prophetic role, Field of Dreams invites us to consider our ultimate end. This is introduced by Shoeless Joe’s question of “Is this heaven?” and Ray’s jocular reply of “No, it’s Iowa.” But the movie does not leave the matter with that laugh line. In the climactic scenes, Shoeless Joe asks Terence Mann to enter the cornfield where the players go after playing ball on Ray’s field. Mann is scared but believes that “there is something out there.” He summons his courage and joyfully enters the cornfield. Ray is hurt and angry that he has not been asked. He feels that he has earned it; it is his due. He even pleads, “What’s in it for me?” Shoeless Joe explains that if Ray feels this way, he is wrong; he isn’t invited. In other words, we go to heaven by grace. It isn’t transactional.

Instead, Shoeless Joe points Ray to his father. As Ray overcomes his shock at seeing his father reborn as a young man, he engages in a dialogue with his father about heaven. Like Shoeless Joe, Ray’s father asks, “Is this heaven?” Ray again replies, “No, it’s Iowa.” But the father is not so easily put off. He says, “I could have sworn this was heaven.” This prompts Ray to ask, “Is there a heaven?” And his father replies, “Oh yes. It’s a place where dreams come true.” Looking at his father, his loving wife and daughter, and his saved farm, Ray says, “Maybe this is heaven.” The son is reconciled with the father and glimpses heaven. From the porch of his home, Annie sees the two of them playing catch, smiles, and turns on the field lights. In that light we see the light — and the lights of the cars making their pilgrimage to Ray’s farm.

Dreams, visions, and grace. Field of Dreams evokes all that and more. It may not be a complete, coherent, and fully orthodox statement of Christian belief, but it movingly, and unconventionally, depicts things mystical and religious — the means of grace and the hope of glory — while masking them in a story grounded in baseball. This, I submit, is why so many — believers, those yearning to believe, and even unbelievers — have been repeatedly drawn to it.

As the church year draws to a close and Advent approaches, the Daily Office appoints a passage from the Prophet Joel (Year Two, Proper 27, Joel 2:28). He might easily have been the film’s producer and director:

I will pour out my spirit
on all flesh;
your sons and daughters
shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall
see visions.

Cut! Play ball!

Mark Pelesh is a lifelong Episcopalian and a member of the vestry of All Saints Church, Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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