American Dreams Gone Awry

This past week has been interesting.  My youngest daughter has been studying The Great Gatsby in her high school English class; while my middle daughter, at the university, had to endure the movie Straight Outta Compton and write an essay about it. Both asked for my help and as I thought about it all I realized that not only did those two works cover much of the same ground, they also apply to the sermon I was to give as a substitute pastor.

 Straight Outta Compton tells the story of several rappers and how they emerged from a broken and damaged culture that nevertheless seems saturated with a belief in the American Dream. But just as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, the rappers’ dream seem too often to be a dream that is out of reach.  In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is in love with a woman of his past (Daisy) that he cannot seem to get, who serves as a symbol of the American Dream, which he also couldn’t get. Jay Gatsby’s attempt at winning Daisy fails, just as his attempt to be “somebody” and “successful” fails because he sought his wealth illegally, by bootlegging.

The American Dream is that anyone can achieve greatness, and happiness—it is an expression of what is stated in the Declaration of Independence: that everyone has a right to “the pursuit of happiness.” But too often, the road to happiness takes detours into misery.  Just as The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale of the decadent downside of the American dream, the events in Straight Outta Compton tell of the same sad attempt. Most of the rappers came from poor, deprived backgrounds, and rise to fame and fortune, but they spend too much time arguing, fighting and cheating one another to actually find the real happiness promised by the American Dream.

Just like Gatsby became rich and was miserable, so these rappers may be rich but they too are often unhappy.

These rappers and Jay Gatsby are pursuing the American Dream, but what they are pursuing in these fictionalized accounts is going awry for them; they seem to think that wealth alone will give the dream to them, as they trash their friendships and relationships and allow the money to corrupt and twist them. For them, money becomes all: it is the only part of the dream they pursue.

It's like what advertisers do: they don't sell the steak, they sell the sizzle. Jay Gatsby and the rappers are being hoodwinked and led astray by the sizzle and are missing out on the steak; there is more to the dream than just money.

That's the mistake too many make with the American Dream: they think it's just about getting rich, achieving financial prosperity.  I’ve mentioned the movie It’s a Wonderful Life before, and what George Baily found is that part of the equation that Jay Gatsby and the rappers in Straight Outta Compton seem to be missing.  There is more to life than just the here and now, and there’s more to living under the sun than just having money or power or even respect.  What really fulfills are our relationships; without those, all the money in the world is ultimately hollow and meaningless and is a mirage rather than the real Dream.