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. The Parks 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.
Jesus' preaching took clear stands, with sharp edges. But he never turned the Sword of the Spirit into a security blanket for the already convinced. With the Samaritan woman at the well, for instance, it would have been easy for Jesus simply to tell his disciples how Samaritans are sexually licentious because they reject the fullness of the biblical revelation. He could even have made fun of her self-delusion about her many failed marriages. Instead, though, he speaks to her, uncovering how even she must acknowledge the barrenness of the spiritual water she's been lapping up.
Jesus, in continuity with the prophets before him and the apostles after him, doesn't shy away from moral confrontation, but he refuses to leave it at the kind of superficiality we all crave. The disciples aren't allowed to congratulate themselves for being free from adultery or murder, because Jesus in his preaching drives the law deeper into their consciences, exposing the roots of the kind of internal adultery and murder it's much harder to wash away.
Likewise, the apostle Paul demonstrates the moral degeneration of the Gentile nations, but he doesn't allow the Jewish believers to simply step back and applaud. He asks whether they, too, were guilty of the same things they censured in their foes. The point of this apostolic preaching wasn't to evoke smug grins from the audience, but to "shut every mouth" with the law and to drive every heart to the gospel.
Sexual liberation ideology is deadly, but we aren't preaching to those in bondage to it if we simply repeat slogans. In order to see the true wickedness of sexual liberation, we must ask why it's appealing, and why deceptive arguments can seem plausible. Only when we speak to the conscience can we get to where people are, as we all once were, hiding from God.
Darwinism can't explain the meaning and purpose of the universe or of humanity. But when we simply laugh and say, "My grandpa wasn't a chimpanzee," we aren't taking seriously the claims of our opponents. In fact, we're not speaking to them at all, just to ourselves.
When unbelievers hear a canned, caricatured argument, they recognize exactly what I recognized when I listened to the moralizing of the Parks and Rec script: They're not trying to convince me, or even to talk to me. They just want to soothe the psychologies of their partisans.
A sitcom is a sitcom. It's meant to deal superficially with issues. Preachiness rarely works in that format, unless it's so subtle it's not detected. Christian preaching, though, doesn't have the luxury of the superficial. (And, yes, I'm avoiding a "Treat Yo Self" reference here.)
We, as ambassadors of Christ, are dealing with the aroma of life and the stench of death. We must appeal to the depths of accused consciences that already know God, but shrink back from him in fear.
We love people enough to tell them the truth, and to tell ourselves the truth about them. Those who oppose us aren't stupid. They're not any more hell-deserving than we are, apart from our rescue by the grace of Christ. So we don't just talk about them. We talk to them. We plead. We persuade. Preachiness never changed anybody's mind. Preaching, on the other hand, can change everything.
Russell Moore is dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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