Would anyone have heard of The Tiger King show if they weren’t stuck at home? The hype makes me think I’m the only one not interested. As traffic crawls along to view that car wreck, I’m going to recommend an alternative route. [Spoiler alert.]
My kids finally convinced me to watch the Netflix series, The Good Place, and so far I am pleasantly surprised. It tackles large themes with a light touch. Poking fun at human nature makes it easier to admit one particularly big, hairy truth: selfish motives taint all the good we try to do. That’s a ticklish topic in an age of participation trophies. But they almost find the solution to this part of the human condition. Almost. What would make The Good Place great?
The plot twist in season two nearly moves the story from good to great. Thinking their fate is sealed for the bad place, the main characters suddenly feel free to do something good with their remaining time on earth anyway. Amazingly, rather than to eat, drink, and be merry, they try to do something selfless and redemptive, even knowing it will not earn them a ticket to the good place.
Grace is missing
This insight comes so close to Christianity. Close, but no cigar, because they never get beyond an old broken idea called the point system, or moralism. Simply put, if good deeds outweigh bad ones, you’re good. What’s wrong with that? It does not work for the very reason they already covered in the show: motives. No matter how you pull, you cannot lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. Effort alone does not change the human heart.
C.S. Lewis makes this brutal fact plain in a poem to his wife, written while she lay dying of cancer.
“All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love –a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.”
That last line is key. Just like the pain of losing his wife was worth the gains he enjoyed in their life together, the pain of dying to one picture of ourselves is worth the gain of a new one. Seeing the ugly side of self love is worth the gain of a life re-centered on the love of God. The bible calls it grace. Grace (unmerited favor) distinguishes Christianity from all world religions. It’s is the solution the show strives for but never quite finds.
The experience of grace is the reason Christianity makes sense above all religions and philosophies. Grace is the stone that swings in like a wrecking ball and levels what we were building and in that place secures a cornerstone for a new foundation. Through grace, God is not saying, “Tidy up the house of your life and then I’ll come in.” He’s saying, “Let’s bring the old thing down and start something new.” By grace, God both confronts us and accepts us. The more you explore human nature, the more evident its need for grace.
Jesus uses a mustard seed to picture what happens to a person who trusts the grace of God even a little. It was the smallest seed used in agriculture at the time, but it spread like Kudzu. What’s he saying? Anyone who tastes the freedom of grace hungers for more of it. The Good Place demonstrates that good deeds are self-serving when they are a means to an end. Souls who stop piling up their earnings to get into the good place make room for good to get into them.
“Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.” (Matt. 28:11, The Message).