Tag Archives: Narnia

,

The Good(er) Place

Warning: Contains Spoilerish discussion of the finale of the Good Place, and the whole series.

After we finished watching The Good Place, closing the green door on the final chapter of the story of four misfits from earth saving each other, and the entire universe in the process, I turned to my wife and asked ‘if heaven was just me for eternity, how long would it take for you to choose non-existence?’

She didn’t answer.

But that’s one of the profound questions asked in the Good Place’s exploration of the afterlife. What is worth living forever for? Is mastery of every craft imaginable enough to keep you occupied? Once you’ve read all the books, or played the perfect game of Madden — once you’ve achieved your ‘end’ — reached your telos — what can sustain you for an eternity? Is love, even love for a soul mate, enough?

The Good Place has punched above its weight when it comes to tackling philosophical questions — the Trolley Problem episode (which gets a callback in the finale) will no doubt make it into university lecture theatres for a Jeremy Bearimy or two. When we tackled the question of hell as a church about 18 months ago we showed a clip from the Good Place where arch-demon turned arch-itect, Michael, explained the scoring system that secured your place in the afterlife. We thought we were clever when we argued modern life is more complicated than the system allows, and our participation in systems built on sinfulness means we can never hope to escape the consequences of our sin on our own steam — and the Good Place writers obliged by making that season 3’s narrative arc.

Without spoiling season 4, having discovered that the system is fundamentally flawed, so that nobody can earn their way into the Good Place anymore, the team of humans; Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, with the supernatural assistance of Michael, and super-computer Janet, have to come up with a better system.

They basically design purgatory, a process of testing and refining that will ultimately let any and every human earn their own salvation; so that people can find their way into the Good Place again. The problem here is that the system is geared against the human, so fixing the system allows humans to extract themselves from its corruption, over time. The darker part of human nature — that we might ourselves be the problem — is not part of the philosophical anthropology — an optimistic humanism — served up by the show.

This is the best and most just system humans can devise, it’s also the most hopeful. Even the demons get on board — they too have been victims of ‘the system’ — and at this point the writers might have been able to pack up having delivered a literal ‘happily ever after’ to every human.

But they don’t. There’s a moment a few episodes from the end where most shows, with happy endings, would finish. Eleanor and Chidi sitting on the couch, looking out over a glorious vista, reflecting on how paradise is having time — an eternity even — with the person you love. But the writers want to press in to just how satisfying (or not) that sort of eternity might be…

And this is where season 4 gets interesting. We get a pretty serious and imaginative attempt to depict the after life; a take on heaven that never tries to take itself too seriously, and ultimately serves as a vehicle for the show’s final philosophical message — life here on earth can be a bit heavenly if we muddle our way through towards self-improvement and more compassionate relationships. It’s life now that has meaning, especially because life and love might (will) one day end. You can have infinite Jeremy Bearimys to work this out, or four seasons of the Good Place.

The Good Place (the place, not the show, or rather, the place as depicted in the show) offers an individual the chance to continue their personal development — the process they’ve used to secure salvation — or simply to enjoy the fruits of their labour. It’s a place of rest, work, and play. There’s continuity with life on earth in a way that is profound and comforting. The old order of things has passed away. Death is dead.

Something about the picture of heaven the show offers up reminds me of C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien without enchantment. It’s not that the hypercoloured reality the Good Place serves up is not imaginative, it’s that in a cosmos where everybody saves themselves and heaven revolves around one’s particular individual desires — even if only the good ones — there’s a hollowness. And it’s this hollowness the show presses into powerfully, without really resolving in a way I found satisfying.

Chidi and Eleanor meet one of Chidi’s philosophical idols, who reveals that an eternity in the Good Place with all good things on tap, a gushing, never-ending stream of goodness has left people incapable of much thought or imagination at all. Heaven has become monotonous. Even the Good Place is broken, and our band of heroes has to fix it.

Their diagnosis is that the joy offered by the Good Place will only truly be joy if it can end. Death is what gives life its purpose and pleasure its meaning. If when you’ve lived a full life you can walk through the door and push out into nothingness. The Good Place ultimately serves up the best end as euthanasia — ‘the good death’ — only not to end one’s suffering, but to finish one’s pursuit of pleasure and desire; to find satisfaction and so stop searching.

If it’s fleeting and to be enjoyed in the face of death. There’s something very much like Ecclesiastes in the mix here; Ecclesiastes without any sense that ‘life under the sun’ might point to some greater reality. A telos beyond the self. And here’s where The Good Place offers a less compelling version of heaven than Lewis, Tolkien, or the Bible.

Lewis wrote stacks on joy, on its fleeting, ephemoral, nature here in this world — though he saw our pleasures now anticipating the pleasures of the new creation, throwing us towards a more substantial reality than the one we enjoy now. He says moments of pleasure we experience now are pointers to something other-worldy, magical, heavenly even… in The Weight of Glory he describes these moments as echoes of a future time and place: “For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” But for Lewis even the fulfilment of these things — the hyper-coloured reality — is not actually what these pleasures point to.

What they point to is God.

God and his glory.

God is missing from the Good Place. And it’s that God is missing, and that the desires of the characters can be fulfilled in the goodness of pleasure as an end, or telos, that makes walking through that final door — euthanasia — seem ‘good’.

Death is not good.

God is.

And God is missing from The Good Place.

And I’d say that’s why nobody wants to stick around for eternity (and why I’d be ok with Robyn not wanting to put up with just me forever).

The Good Place is a fairy story without God. And I mean this in a pure sense; it’s a very enjoyable tale, it is mythic and beautiful, and fundamentally human in all the good ways it should be (and what a killer twist at the end of season 1). But it seeks to do what Tolkien says fairy stories should do — offer consolation — by offering a picture of a “good death” when perhaps true consolation can only be found in a truly good life.

Part of the problem is that the Good Place, with its unabashed humanism, has every character acting as the hero in their own story. Everyone who gets to the good place has pulled themselves in by the bootstraps. They’ve worked to save themselves. They’ve achieved. All they have now is the fruit of their hard work; or more work; which is satisfying for a time, but not forever. Even true love for another person can’t, in the honest appraisal of perhaps the smartest TV writers ever, sustain life for eternity.

This left me feeling sad. Not because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason (oh Jason)… but because I don’t want to say goodbye to those I love at all. What euthanasia attempts to hide now doesn’t look any more compelling to me in hypercolour; death actually is a terrible thing. Existence trumps non-existence. Light offers consolation; darkness doesn’t.

Both Tolkien and Lewis depict heaven — in new, restored, creation terms — as a case of “further up, and further in” — growing deeper in a sense of glory in another, rather than in ourselves. Delighting and knowing more of God and his goodness, not simply the goodness of created stuff.

In Narnia, at the end of The Last Battle, one of the characters (the Unicorn) when discovering the ‘new creation’ — the new Narnia — sees that it is a fuller version of reality anticipated by the goodness, pleasures, and beauty, of the previous one. It’s his Weight of Glory in story form, in this new creation “every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” and the unicorn, upon arriving, shouts:

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this… Come further up, come further in!”

Tolkien’s Leaf By Niggle is a beautiful picture of the afterlife that was, in some ways, echoed in some of the more satisfying depictions of heaven offered in The Good Place. It has Niggle, an artist, enjoying the coming to life of the beautiful works of art he created — true art, that reflected the creativity of the creator of beauty — and pressing ‘further up, and further in’ to that beauty, taking all the time in the world to come to terms with the goodness of a new, restored, reality.

“He was going to learn about sheep, and the high pasturages, and look at a wider sky, and walk ever further and further towards the Mountains, always uphill. Beyond that I cannot guess what became of him. Even little Niggle in his old home could glimpse the Mountains far away, and they got into the borders of his picture; but what they are really like, and what lies beyond them, only those can say who have climbed them.”

This little short story from Tolkien, and Lewis’ ending of Narnia, throw us towards the source of actual satisfaction — or at least show us that consolation is found not by completion, but by pushing deeper into love and goodness. They suggest such a ‘push’ works better, eternally, when you are pushing towards something, or someone, infinite.

The Good(er) Place — one that offers actual consolation — is the place where God is.

This might seem like pious waffle and a way to overthink a TV comedy — but the hollowness of the vision of the afterlife offered by The Good Place is not just because euthanasia seems like a terrible consolation; an eternity of pleasure in beautiful ‘things on tap’ rather than joy in the one who made beauty is also not consoling. Where The Good Place doesn’t achieve the emotional highs of the ending of Narnia, or The Lord of the Rings, or other fairy stories is in offering the best imaginable ‘euthanasia’ — a good death — while offering none of what Tolkien calls a ‘eucatastrophe’ — a ‘good catastrophe’ — an interruption of the natural ordering of things that thrusts us towards our telos, particularly the goodness and fullness of God.

The Good Place is ultimately a tragedy, not a comedy (or fairy tale) because death is not defeated but embraced. Comedies and fairy tales have, by not simply ‘satisfying’ endings where our desires are met, but happy endings where they are exceeded. They have a eucatastrophe that brings a sudden joy, a taste of consoling truth, to the audience.

The Good Place doesn’t console, or bring joy, in Tolkien’s terms, because its good place is not true. Tolkien says:

“The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?”

For Tolkien the goodness of the Bible’s story — the story it tells about the afterlife — is that we are not the hero, and that the change brought by the hero is not simply time enjoying the fruits of our own victory, but that we are raised from the dead. ‘True’ consolation looks forward to the renewal of all things, secured by God’s ‘eucatastrophic’ interruption of history in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Who’d want heaven without the God who renews all things? Without Jesus?

Because The Good Place has each person in heaven there as a result of their own efforts, there is no ‘telos’ beyond the self, and one’s improvement, but also nobody to glory in or love; no experience of grace; no desire to ‘push further up, and further in’ into the knowledge of the author of beauty; the true consoler. Where the throne in heaven in the Bible’s story is occupied, and the centre of the action, in The Good Place, everyone gets a throne, everyone rules their own little kingdom, and nobody wants to stay. The Good(er) place offers something more satisfying than the green door on the good place, it offers us a throne, and one on it, and invites us to push ‘further up and further in’ to knowing and glorying in the infinitely good and loving one on the throne whose glory will take an eternity to wrap ourselves up in.

Here’s how the Bible describes the Good(er) Place… with God at the centre.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

— Revelation 21:3-5, 22:1-5

In the real good place, nobody will want to leave.

,

The persecution complex: Ware the carrot more than the stick

carrot_stick2
Image Credit: Mark Stivers

There’s always an easy way out.

Just bend the knee and the beatings will stop… not only will they stop. You’ll be forgiven.

Not only will you be forgiven, you’ll become a champion for the cause able to help people just like you used to be see the way out.

This is the carrot. This has always been the way. Perhaps because people taking the carrot is the Devil’s ultimate weapon — because it is really people reaching out and grasping the forbidden fruit…

Ware the carrot. Fear the carrot. It is more dangerous than the stick.

There’s always a carrot.

There’s always a way out. Even in extremely sticky situations.

This was true in Daniel.

“Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” — Daniel 3:14-17

It was true in Rome, under Emperor Trajan, who wrote these instructions to Pliny, the governor of one of his provinces who wanted to know how to treat Christians, and people who’d once claimed to be Christian, but walked away.

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

And you know, for Polycarp, a bloke who the empire killed because he wouldn’t renounce Jesus, whose death is described in the aptly named The Martyrdom Of Polycarp.

Some tried to persuade him to walk away from his death at the hands of the empire saying:

“What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?”

He refused. Over and over again.

“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.”

But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.”

Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;”

Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

This is the goal. Our goal and the worlds. Ours is to believe that Jesus is true, and true to us. Theirs is to persuade us to blaspheme our king and Saviour. Because that is what the serpent has been after since the beginning. And the best way to do that is to offer the carrot.

And, of course, this is exactly what is at play when Satan offers Jesus a carrot, and Jesus ultimately chooses the sticks — the wooden planks of the cross — instead. 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” — Matthew 4:8-10

The world lures us away by offering carrots. The sticks are a distraction to make the carrot more appealing. So that we’ll wander off and join everybody else in their boundless enjoyment of the carrot.

There’s a rabbit warren in Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Cowslip’s Warren, where the rabbits appear to be living in bliss. They’re well fed. By humans. All you can eat carrots. The rabbits don’t realise that they’re being farmed by the people. That they’re food. That’s the people in our world. They’re being kept well fed, they think they’re indulging in the good things they worship, but they are ensnared.

The rabbits in Cowslip’s Warren have no stories to connect them to the past, to explain why people should or shouldn’t enjoy boundless carrots. Just poetry, just revelry in the moment. They need to keep disconnected from history, and from other stories, and from other warrens, in order to believe that what goes on in their warren — where rabbits are snared by their human overlords and disappear from time to time — that this is normal. That it’s just what happens.

“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price?” — Watership Down

And the thing the carrot-addled rabbits had forgotten? The words of the ‘Rabbit God’ El-ahrairah.

“All the world will be your enemy prince of a thousand enemies. And when they catch you they will kill you. But first they must catch you. Digger. Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”

Rabbits were meant to remember the story of El-ahrairah, and his teaching, and run and hide. Made for it. Not to sit and get fat on carrots. Not become story-less.

Watership Down is prophetic really. The lure of the carrot is powerful. Especially when we disconnect ourselves from our past, from history, from stories, from eternity, and start living as though this moment is all there is. Which is exactly what our dominant culture has done. Who needs history? Who needs ‘transcendence’ or anything beyond the here and now? Why wouldn’t we want more carrots?

This is how our culture is destroying the church. Yet we keep worrying about the stick. Stop worrying about the stick.

The stick of persecution might be looming large for Christians in Australia as we read about new laws and new campaigns to silence Christian voices (or sometimes just to stop us being jerks). But there’s always a way out. A carrot, dangling just out of reach. Luring us. Leading us.

The thing is. We aren’t actually rabbits. Jesus is our El-Ahrairah. And our own survival isn’t necessarily our goal. We’re to be nimble  — shrewd and innocent — in the face of persecution, sure. But we’re going to be caught. And offered carrots, and beaten with sticks.  But we’re to endure it, to know that persecution of the body is not a great reason to grab hold of some carrots. And we only ever read these words of Jesus from Matthew 10 in the light of the climax of the story, the cross and resurrection. He tells us (starting with his disciples) this is going to happen, and then he lives it himself. He endures persecution. This is the story that we’re meant to remember that’ll keep us from the offer of carrots.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles… You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” — Matthew 10:16-18, 22-28

As an aside, lets make sure we’re getting beaten for the right stuff. I’m all for persecution but we don’t have to bring it on ourselves by being idiots — pretending we’re still the ones holding a stick, or grabbing for us, is sure to see us belted harder. Let’s get hit for what Jesus told us to get hit for. The very unpopular Gospel message we preach. Not for having it in for particular subsets of our culture, or the ‘enemies’ we choose to target in a circle of stick wielders that is closing in on us. You know. When we get stories published in newspapers about how we’ve had to officially decide whether to let the kids of gay parents come to our schools… That’s a paddlin’ — but for entirely the wrong reason.

There’s always going to be a stick. The world is always going to come after us because the ‘prince of this world’ is coming after us, and the world.

There’s always a carrot though. An easy way out. And that’s where the insidious part of the trap lies.

If you want to stop the beating you could walk away. And the lure is strong. I’d say the lure is stronger than the stick, and yet, for those of us who won’t walk, we seem more worried about what the stick will do to us than we are about the lure of the culture around us and what it promises those who walk away.

The turkish delight is delicious and our society is always looking for Edmunds.

The world is always so beautiful, in part because it glories and indulges in the good things God has made, using the senses God has given us. It wants to hold all of those things. To grasp. To worship. While ignoring that God who made them.

Maybe it’s time we spent less time worrying about the stick wielders. Maybe we should remember what happened to the White Witch in Narnia is the fate awaiting those wielding the stick, and start worrying about the damage being done by the lure of the carrot. The stick will fall. The blow will land… But even if it hurts, the pain will be temporary for us, and the joy eternal.

We don’t just have to grit our teeth and bear the pain. God is good. And we can know his goodness and joy now too. One of our answers here should be to realise that we already have the carrot the world offers, just as Adam and Eve were already ‘like God’ in Genesis 3. We live in the same world, the same pleasures are ours in the good contexts God made for them to be enjoyed in, and while this pleasure will be fleeting and frustrated and won’t deliver everything we want, it should point us to where we are going. If we trust that his plans and designs are good, and build communities where that goodness is evident in the love of his people, then we’ll be less likely to be lured by what the world has to offer. This is part of being the ‘eschatological Christian’ Stephen McAlpine is urging us to be — we know God is good, and we know the carrot he offers is more complete than anything our world can dangle in front of us, even as the world beats us with its paddles. We know that joy now is possible, but it reminds us, as CS Lewis says, of our pilgrim status. That we’re not home yet.

Be like Jesus. Pursue the real carrot.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1-3

Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking that we keep people from the carrot by crying “Don’t hit me” and start crying “hit harder” because the carrot is real. And we want people to believe it.