by Brad Nelson 11/10/14
I partook of a The Waltons marathon yesterday. And although I often say that everything I needed to know I learned from the original Star Trek, that is not quite true. You have to throw this show into the mix as well.
Serendipity can sometimes make of one a causality. I had turned on my TV (a relatively rare occasion) Sunday morning in order to look for the NFL game playing in Wembley Stadium, London. I couldn’t find it. But I did run into something else that caught my eye. It was an episode of The Waltons titled “The Sinner” that was playing on the Insp cable channel. You can watch this episode in full on UltimateTube.
It’s one of their most famous episodes, and it’s from the first season. I don’t doubt that most of you are familiar with the plot. A new reverend has come to town. He’s a young man, wet behind the ears, or, as John Walton says, “He’s just a well-intentioned kid who tries too hard. He’s not seasoned yet.”
Speaking of sinners, it will be amusingly difficult not to see in the reverend the man who lived with two beautiful young women while pretending to be a homosexual (Three’s Company) in this character played by John Ritter. But his performance perhaps works doubly so because of that connection.
The new reverend is a real fire-and-brimstone man. One of the more humorous moments is when the preacher is out in front of the Walton house practicing his sermon to the air. Jim-Bob and John-Boy are within listening distance as they’re repairing a chicken coop. The reverend finishes and turns to them and asks “How’s my sermon?” Jim-Bob instinctively answers “Scary.”
Meanwhile, the ever-budding writer, John-Boy, is making enquiries of people regarding the nature of sin. He’s looking for an answer but no one can give him a simple and concise one. He wonders why it is sinful to dance, for instance. And there’s a wonderful moment between him and his father when John-Boy asks about the sinful nature of sex.
Meanwhile the preacher (and the dried-up missionary that Johns quips was “weened on lemons”) keep thumping their bibles with regular foaming vigor about the town. Whether they are but a stereotype in order to make a larger point, or are a living aspect of one side of this equation, is an interesting consideration. As one site characterizes it:
“The Sinner” comes down on the side of John Walton’s idea of forgiveness as opposed to Miss Prism’s unyielding legalism. They both have different reactions to the Rev. Fordwick having too much of the Baldwin ladies’ “recipe.”
The presence of the overzealous preacher and missionary causes a rift between the more old-school Olivia and her less brimstonesque husband, John. They eventually agree to disagree, but the hard-driving reverend forces the issue to the head again when he accidentally gets intoxicated on the Baldwin sisters’ “recipe,” which is some sort of powerful home-made moonshine. They refer to it as an “herbal drink” and the reverend doth partake to the point that he pulls into town with Grandpa Walton, falls out of the passenger-side door of the truck, and passes out onto the dirt in front of the folks who were gathered to officially welcome him to town.
Thus “The Sinner” in this episode turns out to be the good reverend. He is shunned by the community and not only decides not to give that Sunday’s sermon but to quit the ministry altogether. John, not a church-going man despite his pious wife, has had enough of this. He does a rare thing and dresses for church, bringing the disgraced reverend along with him. He walks the reverend to the head of the congregation and reminds them that “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.”
We thus see a nice playing out of what many view as the obnoxious or simple-minded aspect of religion that holds more to outer forms and words as opposed to John Walton’s more humanizing one wherein there is much more to the faith than rituals and legalism. And how interesting it is that our culture today seems almost incapable of thoughtful critiques of religion as was done back in 1972. All we seem to get today is either the tight-cheeked ritual/legalism aspect or the uber touchy-feely “Who am I to judge?” aspect which waters down religion into a soggy nothing — or the entirely obnoxious and poisonous views of the militant and mindless atheists, which is not a critique at all, depending as they do upon complete straw-man constructions.
In this series, and certainly through the character of John Walton, we get an often under-represented aspect of the religious question. It is an aspect whose resolution is generally not found in the extremes of either end of this debate. The Waltons was thus a sort of “Touched by an Angel” but with some balls.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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