You’d be hard-pressed to make it through a typical church service, from beginning to end, without hearing the buzzword of all church buzzwords: community. We love to talk about community and Acts 2 and about the easy way you can join our small-cell-life-community-growth groups and right now’s a great time to do that as we go through our 40 Days of Dieting series (or whatever). Maybe, if you’re in a super highbrow church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer might get name-dropped.
But what do we mean by all this? Most small groups I’ve been in aren’t these glamorous opportunities to make BFFs for life. Instead, they are moments when we all get together, exhausted from our days, eat dinner while the kids scream at us from the other room, and then hurriedly try to cram in ten minutes of something spiritual before we have to get the kids home for bedtime.
What are we genuinely hoping to accomplish in all this? Why does community matter? Is it worth the effort? And is there an NBC show that can answer all these questions? Yes, dear reader, there is.
If you haven’t watched The Good Place yet, you’re missing out. It’s painfully hard to talk about it to the uninitiated. In an attempt to not talk about the show while also — you know — doing my job here and talking about it, I’ll mention three things about the plot:
1. It stars Kristen Bell as a woman who died and went to “the good place” but doesn’t belong there.
2. It also stars Ted Danson as an angel of sorts who runs the good place and reminds us that Danson is a non-Nicholas Cage-connected national treasure, and we need to appreciate him more.
3. Plot points 1 and 2 are 100% accurate, except for the parts that aren’t, and I can’t tell you what I mean by that. Got it? Cool.
Oh, one more thing: if you like making fun of Florida (and why would you not?) this show has a Jacksonville native throwing a molotov cocktail while screaming “Bortles!!!!” so …
Now to the stuff that is exciting about this show. There’s a philosophical treatise by T.M. Scanlon mentioned several times throughout The Good Place called, What We Owe to Each Other. This title is, in so many ways, the guiding theme of The Good Place’s endearingly goopy main message: we will only learn to be truly good when we let the messiness of relationships with other people melt our selfishness, and teach us to serve.
This is the central tension for Eleanor (Kristen Bell’s character), who is struggling to prove she belongs in The Good Place. In her life on earth Eleanor, among other things, worked for a company that sold fake drugs to the elderly. She knows she doesn’t belong, but is terrified of the Bad Place and reaches out to others for help. Her progress toward becoming “good” is directly proportional to how much she lets a community of strangers around her shape her life. The struggle being that these other people drive her insane. One is a hyper-neurotic moral philosophy professor; another is a name-dropping wealthy British socialite, and one is the previously mentioned Floridian EDM DJ with a penchant for arson and an undying love of the Jaguars.
What The Good Place reveals over time is that everyone in this group needs each other. They all become better people in community because it’s uncomfortable. While it’s possible for these characters to spend their lives isolated from others - close to people in proximity but never letting them in - the cost of doing this is their soul. The only other option for Eleanor, and of course us as well, is to join in community with others and let their needs, flaws, and point of view literally annoy the hell out of us. There’s nothing glamorous about this kind of community, iron sharpening iron involves a lot of friction after all, and at first, these four being trapped together in the afterlife seems like a cruel joke - a way of driving each other eternally insane.
But what The Good Place postulates is that no one finds heaven on their own: we’re all too busy clinging to our own, personal hells. However, if we’re willing to “do life” with each other, die to ourselves, and fight through the discomfort, we’ll learn what we truly owe to each other, which is to follow the mindset of Christ Jesus, who though he was God, became a servant … if we do this, we just must find a way to “the good place” together.
Community then is more than a catchphrase on the wall. It’s the path to our sanctification.