Upper School Arts Chair Reflects on 2018 Musical Selection

Bali H’ai and the Kingdom of God

by Jerry King, Upper School Arts Chair and 2018 Musical Director

In the story of South Pacific, our musical this winter, islands are important. The island where most of the script’s action happens is a busy place: Tonkinese natives, French colonial planters, and American military personnel are all meeting, mixing, clashing and separating. Some lives and loves make it; some don’t.

But off-shore on the horizon stands another island: the mystical twin-volcanoed Bali H’ai. This seductive island seems to be alive: “She call you… Bali H’ai will whisper on the wind of the sea; Here am I, your special island. Come to me, come to me!” Bali H’ai is Polynesian Utopia, a lush, beautiful paradise of love, fulfillment, dreams come true, your deep and settled happiness. In how many pieces of literature does a Shangri La, a Camelot, a Xanadu, and Sollo Sollew appear? How much history has been shaped by the itchy impulse to leave “where you are” and “go to a better place, a place of freedom, promise, space, abundant resources and defended peace?”

The problem with South Pacific’s Bali H’ai was that, in fact, it could not actually “float in the sunshine, her head stickin’ out of a low-flyin’ cloud.” Bali H’ai was actually firmly anchored to the war-torn earth. They were part of the New Hebrides chain north of Australia, a kind of island corridor down which Japanese warships were coming – unless they could be spotted in time and stopped. These tropical paradise islands were hotly contested by the Americans and Japanese, and the warfare on them would be bloody and protracted and just plain awful, some of the worst of WWII. Seen from above, perhaps from a bomber, Bali H’ai would not be a floating heaven-on-earth, but “strategic,” or a target, a dot on a sprawling military map, little more than a stepping stone in a massive military campaign. It was not in fact a shielded paradise, a remnant of Eden, protected from the rest of the earth’s tragedy. It would prove no safe place for young love nor greenhouse for cultural bridge-building. Bali H’ai was just another vulnerable South Pacific island.

We’ve all got our own Bali H’ai’s. Perhaps yours is not in the south Pacific. Maybe “Out West”? Europe? A beautiful spot in Virginia where you don’t yet live? Completion of a diploma or degree? The successful launch of a start-up or a promotion? Changing marital status? The kids “turning out alright?”

The problem with all of our own Bali H’ai’s is the same as that in the musical: they are vulnerable. The perfect versions in our imaginations do not in fact exist, and the real ones are tied down to a broken and imperfect world. Bali H’ai eventually gets bombed. Dis-illusion-ment. Much as we hate it and do our best to resist it, it’s actually a severe mercy. Every promise of heaven-on-earth is simply too small, too flimsy. Our homesickness is for Eden—or more accurately, the Kingdom complete. Nothing short of that will have the grit, the sinewy toughness, the overarching glory, not only to outlast all counterfeits, but to swallow them in something so much better. “Not worth comparing,” Paul maintains. It’s the Gospel of the Kingdom that we’re hungry for, sometimes aching for.

To ponder:

  • What would you consider to be a perfect environment for you?
  • How much of that have you realized so far?
  • How diminished will you be if “you never get there/it never happens?”
  • How tough is your ultimate hope?