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Everything You Need To Know About Life You Can Get from ‘The Twilight Zone’ and Rodgers & Hammerstein Musicals

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Everything You Need To Know About Life You Can Get from ‘The Twilight Zone’ and Rodgers & Hammerstein Musicals

Commentary By Jim Downard | FāVS News

Should someone ask me (a secular atheist) where I got my philosophy of life — what to value, how to behave — and how not to, I can answer simply and directly: from watching Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals as I grew up.

And I’m not being at all flippant. I mean it.

A boomer, I arrived at the start of the TV era. We had one of the first sets on the block — a nice mahogany cabinet with doors that could shut away the greenish eyeball of the 17” picture tube (black and white picture, of course — it would be over a decade before the wonderful world of color invaded our living room).

My Worldview Built on the Visual

So my worldview was built on the visual, rather than the purely acoustic landscape my siblings had experienced listening to old radio shows (some of which got turned into TV series, usually not very lasting).

My mother loved mysteries, as do I (I even write some). So there was plenty of “Perry Mason,’’ “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Boris Karloff’s “Thriller” to watch, along with the ubiquitous comedies, from “I Love Lucy” to “The Dick Van Dyke” Show, plus of course Ed Sullivan, and even “The Tonight Show.” Live from New York back then, it was rebroadcast on tape at 10 p.m. or so for the west coast, and as I had good grades at school and always had my homework done, I got to stay up late and catch it.

Steve Allen at first (who went onto his own show, and lots of book writing, including a criticism of the Bible). Then Jack Paar (a most sophisticated wit, politically and culturally — I still remember the racy Beatrice Lillie telling a joke about a gay paratroop instructor during WWII). And finally Johnny Carson, who moved the show to Los Angeles and shortened it to just an hour.

The one big lapse on TV here in Spokane was how few science fiction shows there were, apart from the low budget “Flash Gordon” or “Space Cadet” stuff. There were some series like “Tales of Tomorrow” early in the 1950s, with major Sci-Fi authors like Arthur C. Clarke contributing to it, but I don’t remember seeing that series when I was young. Ray Bradbury even wrote a few episodes for Hitchcock’s show, but I don’t remember having seen them when they originally aired either.

Enter ‘The Twilight Zone’

Not so for Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” That we watched from the beginning, and week after week it provoked thought and wonder in my gestating imagination.

No surprise there, for Serling was both a brilliant writer and a deeply committed social critic, and had contributed to the premiere message program on TV, “Playhouse 90,” featuring a who’s who of directors (from Sidney Lumet to John Frankenheimer). But just as that series found finding corporate sponsors ever trickier, Serling veered off in a fresh direction, by presenting the same themes in a science fiction or fantasy context.

Serling found in “The Twilight Zone” he could get away with a lot.

Over the years of its run I could see the philosophy of that world in action. Don’t assume an alien from another planet is necessarily a threat — they could be offering a cure for cancer. But don’t be a pushover, either — sometimes aliens can be just as lethal as any human (“To Serve Man … It’s a cookbook!”).

Be wary of tyrannies that govern by fear, and step away from the prejudice and unreasoning vengeance of the crowd, or of megalomaniacs. Don’t judge by mere appearance, and remember always the need for compassion and humor.

The Ethics and Morality of ‘The Twilight Zone’

This was a worldview that could embrace technology, but caution how a dependence on it could distort our lives, from jealous computer minds to robots embodying our worst traits. And an eye on history, what we might be giving up in a race toward a conformist future — how hideous it would be if everybody were alike.

Sometimes the magical was brought in to remind us of that, children ignored by their combative indifferent parents, diving into their mansion’s swimming pool to emerge in an idyllic haven of happiness, and taken in by a loving old woman who cared for many youths who had come to this unexplained realm in the same way. The writer on that one was Earl Hamner Jr., who wrote seven other episodes for “The Twilight Zone,” before branching out to expand on those homespun ideals in “The Waltons” TV series.

Retrieving a yearned-for nostalgia in a world where perhaps something valuable was being lost was a recurring theme in “The Twilight Zone.” Which means there was an ethics and morality to it all, at every level. Solider and more direct that any Rock of Ages coming from the religious worldview I could see in the Bible itself (we had them in the house, to read at my leisure) or in its widescreen movie incarnations, from “The Ten Commandments” (the opulent kitsch of the pompous rake Cecil B. DeMille) to “The Robe” (a surprisingly secular take on early Christians, shorn of explicit miracles and written by a pair of non-believers — one, a blacklisted communist).

Now, the Musicals

Connected to that were the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals I encountered. Quintessentially American, they were knee deep in philosophy, too, easily integrated to the worldview I saw spooling out in “The Twilight Zone.”

There were prejudices in the world, often getting in the way of love and decency. You weren’t born with them, after all, but “have to be carefully taught who to hate” (“South Pacific”). The equality of humanity was there for all to see in “Oklahoma!” — where you’d never say you were any better than anyone else, but would stand your ground on being “just as good.” And where tolerance and getting along was oh so essential in a civil society, as “the farmer and the cowmen should be friends.”

As for broader politics, you could see how other cultures operated and sympathize with their common humanity, as they tried to make their way while being squeezed by neighbors or imperialist powers (“The King and I”). And definitely take a dim view on Nazis (“The Sound of Music”).

The working hypothesis I came to by then was this: what our moral reasoning is up to involves human beings in social contexts, making choices, embodying their ethics by what they do.

Does Morality Have to Have a God?

Now at this point, one can imagine the dedicated theist chomping at the bit, preparing to object, “Nay sir! From whence did you obtain your compass, to select good from bad? Must not that judgment derive only from an Eternal source outside ourselves, from God Himself?” Or Herself? Themselves?

This issue is at least as old philosophically as Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma. Which of course has been a ball in play in the theological tennis match ever since. Can any “morality” be considered moral if its only justification is the dictates of a god? Wouldn’t morality have to be somehow independent even of gods to carry any weight?

And who exactly decides what the gods’ positions are on this? Why, from the human fan fiction presenting same. Which is the point at issue.

How happy I was a youth (I won’t go as far to say strapping) to have drawn my moral compass from the ever more tangible and informative “The Twilight Zone” and Rodgers and Hammerstein, rather than try to parse Genesis or Leviticus (let alone the highly obtuse Book of Mormon, or some other scriptures of varying provenance) to extract something resembling a moral framework, when I could see and apply one straight away every week on CBS.

Years after, by which time Serling’s TV series was relegated to wee hour reruns and TV had gone color — to see Star Trek’s “Enterprise warp onto the scene, embodying secularist Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a bold and inclusive future for humans and aliens alike — I encountered more of college level philosophy to relate to all this.

The Merit of the Consequences of Belief on Action

William James, for example, one of the most consistently (if not annoyingly) brilliant people I’ve ever read. His pragmatic approach was to consider the consequences of belief on action, and evaluating its merit based on that.

Which was what I was already doing in my “Twilight Zone” catechism.

Ultimately, of course, what we feel about rights and wrongs, oughts and shoulds, stems from how our brains react to these things, and we discovered long after James’ time that part of our problem in being too logical in our moral reasoning is that we have more than one brain system that gets in the act: our quick-at-the-draw emotional response, spinning off our ancient amygdala brain connections … versus a more analytical set running off the prefrontal cortex.

They don’t always agree. Darn.

Wanting to shoehorn in any purely theoretical divine commands to get around this problem would not only require establishing that the alleged divine commands were divine and worthwhile — or are we back at the presupposing that only the gods’ opinions on this matter? It would have to be shown that such an approach did more than just laminate on a traditionalist opinion, one which we know from history has led to all manner of nuisance, from pogroms to jihads.

None of that would be news to William James, who found religions a belief system that was simultaneously sublime and neurotic, profound and stupid. Useful certainly as a benchmark of how humans approach the ultimate issues of life, but not necessarily of much help if the object is to come up with workable and honest approaches to living in the world today.

Authority of the Bible?

Which reminds me of a 1904 questionnaire on religious beliefs directed at prominent figures of the time. They were asked “Do you accept the Bible as authority in religious matters? Are your religious faith and your religious life based on it? If so, how would your belief in God and your life toward Him and your fellow men be affected by loss of faith in the authority of the Bible?”

Concerns one hears many a conservative theocrat asking today, especially the ones most visibly bowing to their Golden-Plated Calf of Donald Trump, from Tony Perkins to the creationist conspiracy believer Mike Johnson, currently the Speaker of the House (though at this writing with another removal measure hanging over his head, courtesy of the ever-ludicrous harpy, Marjorie Taylor Greene).

William James was one of those receiving that 1904 questionnaire, and I freely confess I cannot beat his pulverizingly concise response to it 120 years ago: “No. No. No. It is so human a book that I don’t see how belief in its divine authorship can survive the reading of it.”

Or Authority of the Human Narrative?

I would agree, and when making moral judgments on how to live my life, the last place I need to look is in that oh-so-human Bible, so clogged with quirks — not when I have the just as human narratives of “The Twilight Zone” and Rodgers and Hammerstein to point the way so much more vividly.

And you get the music and songs with it, like Bernard Herrmann (who did the impossible to forget “The Twilight Zone title theme, along with scoring many episodes) and the uplifting voices on the caliber of Julie Andrews.

We can get by quite nicely with all that, thank you.


The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Jim Downard
Jim Downard
Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose. He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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Chuck McGlocklin
Chuck McGlocklin
1 month ago

Coming from the same era, but not having tv until 1960 and only seeing the Twilight Zone on a few times that my parents went out an left us with a babysitter that had never watched tv, I relate to your view; especially on the musicals.
I recently changed my view of my dad, Archie Bunker, when viewing reruns of “Have Gun, Will Travel”. It was my dad’s favorite western and Paladin was always on the side of the little guy, the minority, the down trodden. My view of my dad was that he would not have resonated with those views, but he did.
But I may be more skeptical about human nature.
Not those that give us their wisdom through media but those it is directed to.
A young girl, 17, (I should say woman) loved and knew all the songs in the Sound of Music but was baffled that I thought it had anything to do with the Nazis or WWII.
Trash on the floor of theaters for “Happy Feet” or “Avatar” is greater because of a young audience.
How many today see that the major cause of climate change is consumption fueled by Central Bank’s fiat currency and debt economics?

My love of history, philosophy and especially psychology is why I accept and love the Bible. It is the most accurate description of human nature.
God gives us perfection but it’s not enough. We can’t trust Him. We want more.
We are given long life but use it to destroy ourselves.
“Why don’t you tell us what You want???” He does, but we won’t do it.
He wipes the slate clean, gives us a fresh start, but we still will not follow. We must lead.
All this brings us to the world we have. The world we have created. A world where, if you have something I want (that I am “entitled” to) and will not give it to me, I will take it from you and if you resist, I will kill you.
Our core nature is selfishness.
God (or the nature we are to aspire to, defined by all the great writers and thinkers) is good UNLESS I don’t get what I am entitled to.
What Paul describes as a stumbling block and foolishness to the carnal heart is surrender, submission, crucifying self AND obedience of God.

We recognize that too. If there is no God, we will create one, make one or elect one. We recognize that we can’t get all we want on our own and need someone to blame when we don’t get it. But we will never take the responsibility of doing the right thing and give to others what we all desire: dignity, respect, love and care.

James Downard
James Downard
1 month ago

Have Gun Will Travel was a well-written and intelligent series. It’s shown on MeTV locally on 4.2

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