Have you seen The Good Place?
The show is as funny as it is incisive. It revolves around four characters who have died and are told they have accumulated enough points on earth to enter the Good Place, when in actuality they are in the Bad Place.
As the story unfolds, we discover that not only are the show’s protagonists in a kind of perpetual hell, but that they were strategically selected to live together for the ways they would make the afterlife miserable for one another.
Sounds interesting, right?
The premise has what industry folks call high concept.
Here we have the makings for a story oozing with potential tension, ripe for popular engagement.
The super sneaky thing about The Good Place is that the show stages conflict between its main characters and their afterlife environment as a way to explore the intricacies and complexities of moral philosophy.
The show engages philosophers as diverse and abstruse as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Aristotle, John Rawls, Philippa Foot, Søren Kierkegaard, Timothy May, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Unbeknownst to casual viewers, they are learning to parse the philosophical nuances between deontological, utilitarian, and consequentialist ethics.
They are wrestling with the overlaps and tensions between existentialism and nihilism and learning to recognize the doctrine of double effect.
Surreptitiously, The Good Place is an Ethics 101 course taught by Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, Jameela Jamil, and William Jackson Harper.
Given the general sense of loathing philosophical inquiry evokes in all but the nerdiest of us, how has the show managed to draw hundreds of millions of people to tune in week after week?
The answer is simple: narrative drive.
Narrative enables us to make sense of our experiences.
It helps us string together episodic moments to form a meaningful whole.
It allows us to consider matters of life and death (literally).
As Aristotle first observed, narratives are powerful because they enable us to experience life’s emotional conflicts and catharses vicariously; they serve as a kind of dress rehearsal for life.
Preachers and church leaders can learn a lot from The Good Place.
We are charged with the difficult task of engaging scripture and life to draw our congregants and parishioners into God’s story of love and redemption.
Sure, we can tell people about biblical truths and theological concepts.
But how much more powerfully are these truths and concepts received when we embed them within stories?
“Show don’t tell” is as important for storytellers as it is for preachers.
Part of the beauty of narrative is its ability to absorb all types of characters into itself.
Though none but the Divine storyteller have access to the grand story, common human experiences enable us to verify the authenticity of distinct narratives.
So, to tweak a well-known adage, story speaks to story inasmuch as our imaginations allow us to see ourselves in the story doing the speaking.
In this way, our particular, fragmented stories become part of a larger whole, carrying hope and wholeness amid our brokenness and incompleteness.
As children, stories are how we first learn to understand ourselves and our world.
However, story does not stand alone in the realm of meaning-making.
It engages in active and vibrant dialogue with other forms of knowledge and interpretation, always open and unfinished.
Narrative theology, done well, will not capture the story of God, but it should serve to draw us into God’s story.
This fall I hope you’ll join me for an online CLL course entitled, “Readings in Narrative Preaching.”
Together we will take a deep dive into classic and contemporary texts that aim to make us more nimble narrators of God’s story revealed in scripture and in the world God loves.
We’ll learn from preachers who employ narrative to astounding effect, and we’ll attend to the ways that short story authors do this work with precision and poignancy.
Our common work will be worth the effort.
To register and to learn more about this course, click here.
Dr. Jake Myers is interested in homiletical theories and theologies, continental philosophies (esp. poststructuralism, existentialism, and phenomenology), and emerging expressions of faith and practice in postmodern, post-Christian contexts. His research focuses on alternative epistemologies for sermon development and delivery, the philosophical and theological conditions for the im/possibility of preaching, contextual/constructive biblical hermeneutics and theologies, and the ways in which preaching interacts with cultures and traditions.