Friday, June 6, 2014

Re-Post: The Gospel According To Earl

Both our junior and senior high youth groups are using the TV show MY NAME IS EARL to study the Bible. With its rather low-brow humor, it may not seem like the ideal choice, but in reality the show is full of moral and religious musings that make wonderful fare for a good discussion of various Biblical passages and principles. Some may also be upset that the show's central religious theme is Buddhist, rather than Christian. Earl, the show's main character, is obsessed with karma, the idea that what goes around comes around. In it he tries to balance out all the bad karma he's built up by making up for many of the mistakes he made in his rather shady past. This would not sit well with many Christians, who see karma as something antithetical to the Christian message. But, truth to be told, the Bible itself has a tradition within it that is very much like the Buddhist concept of karma.

The Deuteronomistic interpretation of history, which predominates in many of the historical books, the Book of Deuteronomy, and many of the prophets, interprets all historical events in the light of God's justice. Suffering is supposed to be the result of our own past sins or the sins of our ancestors, and success (by the Deuteronomical lights) is similarly the result of fealty to God. This insistence that suffering is the result of our own behavior, inculcated into the prophets a sense that all difficulty must be met with increased trust in God and personal virtue. Eventually, other members of the Israelite community began to criticize this worldview. The Book of Job, the Book of Ecclesiastes and prophetic books like Habbakuk, essentially are a turning to the prophets and saying 'hey God, hey prophets, the world doesn't really work that way. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. The world is more complicated than you seem to say it is'. Much of what is written in the Bible is an affirmation of, or a protest against, a karmic view of destiny.

The issue is a difficult one because in one sense, what the prophets were saying we should DO in response to suffering was, for the most part, correct. The prophets encountered a God that was so good that next to Him all human goodness looks like, in Isaiah's words, 'but filthy rags'. The idea that the only proper human response to our encounter with God is humble worship and repentance, and the idea that suffering must be met with faith, are largely correct. But the problem is that any rudimentary examination of the world will find that most events, good and bad, are not tied to anyone's behavior. Moreover, however true it is that all people are equally distant from God in terms of morality, it is not true that all people are equally good or equally bad, any more than the fact that both 7 and 8 are equally distant from infinity means that 8 isn't greater than 7. Relative moral judgments have to be made in the world, and if God can't guide those, then He can't guide the ethics of our lives here and now.

Figuring out how to reconcile the prophets' experience of God as infinite goodness, our need to meet suffering with faith, and the fact of evil within the world, is one of the primary challenges for any person of faith. The truth is life is not as simple as it is made out to be in MY NAME IS EARL. But examining what life would be like if it were, and what that means for us as people in the here and now, is something that is very fruitful for any Christian. It is no wonder that our discussions during this study have been particularly stimulating.

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