I don’t ask for much from a television show. After I’ve spent all day reading dead philosophers and existentially intense Russian novels I just need something with which to wind down before bed. I do not need brilliance (Breaking Bad, The Wire, West Wing). I just need “not inane.” Alas, there are not nearly enough shows that pass such minimal muster. Turning to political news, which has now also become an inane reality television show, does not help. And thus a lament about the state of our culture rises in my soul; perhaps it rises even to insights about what it means to be a church. Let me explain.
A few nights ago, I tried to watch an episode of New Girl. The show used to be pretty decent; it reminded me of various loony antics with roommates from my early 20s. But as I expect would have been the case if I were still doing the same random things with the same roommates several years later, the plotline has gotten thin. They have run out of things to talk about. There are only so many gags about a roommate’s sloppy laundry habits that you can do. Why have they not grown up yet? Why are they still doing the same things over and over again? It’s not very funny anymore.
I tried another show, Happy Endings. It’s basically the same premise: a group of 20-something friends hanging out together in hip but somewhat sloppy apartments, going out for drinks, talking about pop culture trivia, and coming up with half-baked schemes. One of the characters tried to jump-start his life by starting a new restaurant called “Pangaea,” which would feature menu choices from every nation and tribe so that you would never have to argue about whether to get Italian or Chinese food. His friends reluctantly told him that it wasn’t a very good idea; he got angry and stormed out of the trendy craft beer place where they’d all gathered. One of them observed: “Well, I guess that goes to show why we never have serious conversations.”
The show wasn’t any funnier than the episode of New Girl, but at least it was an honest moment. How long can a storyline retain interest when nothing of importance is ever at stake? Seinfeld was the great exception that proves the rule, a self-professed “show about nothing” featuring a set of 30-something New Yorkers who spend all of their time watching movies and making wry observations about daily life. It’s hilarious, but I’ve always found that I can’t watch it for too long — behind the laugh track, it gets depressing. It’s not really about life, but the avoidance of life. No one grows, or changes, or learns. No one does much of any account. The thing that matters most in life is getting New York’s best Chinese takeout to deliver.
All of this has been on my mind as I’ve been reading my dead French philosophers and Russian novels, specifically Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov. The distance in time and space between these works and today is not really all that great, but the cultural distance feels as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. Maritain was born in 1882, less than thirty years before my own grandmother. He was not raised Catholic, and as a young man he and his best friend Ernest Psichari spent all of their time devouring books and culture and fighting for political causes. They were devoted socialists and Dreyfusards, publishing a journal with Charles Péguy (Maritain used up a significant portion of his inheritance to fund it) and in general spending their days and nights as I imagine countless young French men and women did back then: arguing passionately about the true, the good, and the beautiful, churning out political manifestos, and, one hopes, smoking cigarettes and drinking elegant little cups of coffee.
When Maritain met his wife-to-be Raissa, they almost immediately began what was to be a lifelong dedication to truth, beauty, and justice. Despairing of the fashionable nihilism that they were being fed by their professors, they made a pact that if they could not discover some larger purpose and meaning to life, they would commit suicide. Jacques thought for a time that even if life as a whole is absurd, one could make meaning through politics, but he eventually decided otherwise. Thankfully for them and for history, they found a path together out of nihilism, leading to baptism and a life filled with hopeful struggle.
What a world apart this all is from the drifting trivialities of New Girl and Happy Endings! Dostoevsky too paints a picture in his novels from about the same time, of young people gathered together in little Russian pubs and back rooms, arguing until all hours of the night about God and the soul and the future of the oppressed workers. What do our young people gather together to talk about? Or do they just sit at home and watch Netflix, and then get together and talk about what they watched?
Of course there are historical reasons why we binge on Netflix now instead of publish political manifestos and debate life’s meaning. Between the world of young Maritain and Dostoevsky and today, the West and beyond tore itself apart with cataclysmic wars. Rivers of blood were spilt for political causes devoted to the true and the just and the oppressed, or to monstrous parodies of the same. Contemporary political liberalism is born from this, as well as from the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries: Public ideas about God and the good, true, and beautiful led to rivers of blood, and so we drained out every reference to those things from our public life and common culture. It’s like the fellow in Happy Endings said: “Well, I guess this goes to show why we never have serious conversations.” Those things now will be private matters, left up to the individual in the privacy of her or his own heart. There will be no more passionate debates or bloody battles about such things, because about them there is nothing to be said: there are only free individuals, each of us with the “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” And, as Woody Allen famously put it, “The heart wants what it wants.” What more is there to say?
The trouble is, it’s all so boring. Even our entertainments and distractions stop working after a while. The gags only work so many times. There is no storyline. No one grows, or changes, or learns. No one does much of any account. There is only one Kardashian after another. It’s not very fun anymore.
I would be willing to bet that even the actors paid to act like they’re enjoying themselves on these shows aren’t really. Our restless hearts want more than entertainments and preference-satisfaction. We’ll run after most anything or anyone that claims to show us the way to something larger and truer about our common life, even if it’s a big-haired billionaire reality-TV star or a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont. As Walter Sobchak almost said: Say what you want about the tenets of socialism; at least it’s an ethos.
Our Anglican Communion recently decided at its Primates’ Meeting to “walk together” rather than apart, despite the painful decisions and conversations that this might involve. This will be a difficult path, but it is the right one. For if we are to have any kind of common life worthy of the name, we have to have, as Happy Endings put it, the “serious conversations.” These cannot simply amount to everyone sharing their individual hearts, and then providing a safe spiritual space so that everyone to their own hearts may be true. How boring is that! The world desperately needs a witness to a people constituted by a genuine common life, in pursuit of a genuinely common good, debating passionately and nonviolently about how to order our life together after the pattern of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
What the world doesn’t need are yet more inane sermons and churches “about nothing.” Such churches produce people, as Stanley Hauerwas notes, who say things like “Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, but that’s just my personal opinion” — after which, of course, there is nothing else of any consequence to say, nothing to learn, no way to challenge others or discover goods in common that we did not know we had.
Our common culture already has quite enough of that.