American Theology on Display

This fall NBC rolled out a new sitcom called The Good Place starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. The general premise is that Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Bell, is dead and due to a clerical mixup, finds herself in a neighborhood in a heavenly community designed by Michael, played by Danson. Because Eleanor was a terrible person in real life, her presence sets off numerous pseudo-cataclysmic events in the neighborhood. As everyone tries to figure out what has gone wrong, Eleanor realizes that if she is to stay she must become good, a task plagued with misadventures.

The jury is out on whether NBC will renew the series for a second season, but it does paint a rather revealing America’s cultural theology. Three essential presuppositions drive the show and give great insight into American theological reasoning.

  • Who are the “good” people?

The show hinges on a single premise expressed in differing ways. The first is that there are good individuals who deserve to be in “the good place.” When we meet the characters, we find an embodiment of what Americans believe to be morally praiseworthy. The good place is full of doctors who gave their lives working with aids patients, others who sacrificed themselves for others or devoted themselves to a cause.

The inhabitants of “the good place” ultimately represent what we believe to be morally virtuous. These are the characteristics we hope to embody. Each society elevates what it holds as morally upright and praiseworthy. So, apparently, Americans still value selflessness and sacrifice.

  • Amazing Self-centeredness

While the show presents selflessness and sacrifice as virtues, it also paints heaven as an all-about-me place. The entire neighborhood is designed to provide the ideal eternal dwelling for its inhabitants. One cannot help but notice the irony of people who were truly selfless in life enjoying a self-indulgent eternity.

The creators paint a picture of heaven that is wonderful because of all the benefits bestowed on its inhabitants. However, the Bible paints a picture of heaven that is wonderful because it is the dwelling place of God. In the American vision, heaven exists for the benefit of those lucky enough to make the cut. In the Biblical understanding, all things, including heaven, exist for the glory of God.

  • An Exclusionary Ideal

Perhaps the most unusual twist in The Good Place is its exclusionary nature. While the creators base the show on the premise that there are people who deserve the reward of heaven, they similarly acknowledge that there is “the bad place.” In doing so, they recognize there are those who deserve punishment. Our society has embraced the mantra of inclusiveness, but on a moral level, we realize that not everyone deserves heaven. Everyone agrees that Hitler deserves punishment. The question that arises is, “by what criteria are people excluded?”

According to the creators of American theology, people are excluded for not being good enough (whatever scale is used to measure such a thing). The Gospel asserts, on the other hand, that people are excluded for sinful rebellion against God and rejection of His Son, Jesus Christ. Within humanity, an impulse exists that revolts against the notion of universal salvation. Our internal cry for justice demands that satisfaction is made for wrong. The standard of judgment for that satisfaction remains the sticking point. We are all exclusionists; it’s just a matter of what kind. Do we base our exclusionism on our internal sense of right and wrong, or on the truth of the Gospel?

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