There aren't many television situation comedies left, and one of the last standing is NBC's Parks and Recreation. This show has succeeded so far with its creative and fresh writing, along with a talented ensemble cast of likable characters. I happened to catch a new episode last week though, and clicked it off.
The show was culture-warrior preachy, almost like a throwback to a 1970s Norman Lear sitcom. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there's something we ought to pay attention to about public discourse.
The episode was about an outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases among the elderly in a Pawnee, Indiana, nursing home. The show's lead character, councilwoman Leslie Knope, takes on the mantle of educating the elders about preventing STDs with condoms, and is stymied by a Religious Right activist and her stereotypically and flamboyantly gay husband. It turns out there is a law forbidding anything but abstinence education in Pawnee.
This storyline enabled a series of coarse sexual jokes, sprinkled with ongoing messages that abstinence education doesn't work and hurts people, and that government officials need the courage to fight the ideologues and do what is best for public health.
I, of course, am a conservative evangelical Christian who believes, with the entire historic Christian church of every wing, that chastity until marriage is God's design and is necessary for human flourishing. I also think many efforts at sex education, built merely around disease and pregnancy prevention rather than human dignity, have hurt people and diminish civil society.
But that's not why I turned off the television. I don't mind hearing other viewpoints, and I'm not afraid of them. I turned it off, not because I was outraged, but because I was bored.
Was Parks and Rec presenting a viewpoint? Yes. But they were doing so with the kind of smug assurance of rightness that does little to persuade others. At the same time, they caricatured those who hold other views. My point is not that this was rude to me. TheParks and Rec writers weren't talking to me, and that's just the point.
The storyline here wasn't intended to engage an alternative position, and to show why it fails to measure up. It wasn't intended to engage at all. Instead, the show intended to reinforce a view already held by the people to whom they were talking. Those who already deride abstinence education could nod their heads in affirmation, ridicule the morons who oppose good common sense, and feel much better about their moral and intellectual superiority to the Neanderthals out there.
But few people are going to have minds changed by seeing their viewpoints caricatured, interspersed with propaganda-like dialogue about how, "As you know, Leslie, abstinence education doesn't work."
I'm not worried about sitcoms. I'm worried about how often we, as the Body of Christ, do the same thing. There is a difference, after all, between preaching and preachiness.
It is easy to preach in a way that, like Parks and Rec, simply seeks to reinforce the assumptions of those who already agree with us. We can rail against people who aren't in the room, or at least that we don't think are in the room, simply to get the "Amen" from our people. We can caricature our detractors' positions in the grossest terms, in order to help reassure ourselves that those who oppose us out there are stupid or peculiarly wicked. But that's not preaching.