Almost three years ago, a show called The Good Place first started airing on NBC. Learning that it was about a woman who dies and wakes up in a place called “The Good Place,” I was unsure if I would want to watch it. The show makes it clear it is not talking about Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell, and says that no religion gets it all right. After looking at the previews, I decided that I didn’t want to offend my Catholic sensibilities by watching a show that made light of the afterworld.
Except that later, I started seeing other faithful Catholics comment about how much they were enjoying it. I considered watching it when Season One popped up on Netflix, but my job as a waitress prevented me from doing much binge-watching of anything. (We won’t even start talking about how it’s been so long since we watched The Man in the High Tower Season One that we aren’t even attempting to watch any of it right now.)
But after I quit my job, my husband and I were looking for something light-hearted to watch in the evenings when it was just the two of us again. I suggested we give The Good Place a try, with the idea that if it got too crazy (and I started yelling about theology at the TV), we would abandon it.
I don’t want to give any spoilers away here, but suffice it to say that we have caught up to the current season of the show, and my theological sensibilities are none the worse for wear. As a matter of fact, I believe the show holds far more Catholic ideas in it than the writers suspect. (That is, unless they are subversively putting it in there.) Basic ideas are front-and-center: your actions, no matter how much you believe they don’t do so, will affect others. Sometimes a thing you think is No Big Deal is, in fact, A Very Big Deal. You have to have good reasons for doing good deeds. Your relationships can affect who you are, but you ultimately have control about how much you allow it to cripple your character. There are even hints of Purgatory. The theme of redemption — and who is worthy — even plays a big part.
The point of this article isn’t to get you to watch The Good Place, but to get you to think a bit about your entertainment choices. Sometimes we strive so much to limit our exposure to bad influences that we miss out on things that aren’t bad. I’m certainly not saying you should watch shows with tons of sex and violence, but it’s never a good idea to completely block out all of the culture around us. In order to engage the world and evangelize it, we must understand where people are coming from. We have to be able to find common ground — things we can agree on easily — in order to build trust, which is paramount in the effort to evangelize a person. And, of course, we shouldn’t be getting to know someone with the ulterior motive of Bringing Them to Jesus. (That’s a natural outcome of a relationship, not the sole reason you talk to someone.)
When we look at the movies and TV shows in the world today, we can often get carried away with never watching anything but the squeakiest-clean of squeaky-clean entertainment. But when we do that, we might miss a gem of a show or a meaningful movie that presents important truths to the world in a way we might not have considered. I’ve seen the Gospel proclaimed in strange places and in all manner of ways that don’t necessarily square up perfectly with tender Catholic sensibilities. I see Theology of the Body in Shallow Hal. I see hints of faith and reconciliation in Firefly. I see a longing for love in How I Met Your Mother (though I’ll admit to skipping an episode or two of that one). And, of course, you have one Christ-like character after another in superhero films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe!
Don’t dismiss everything that comes from Hollywood out-of-hand. Give some shows and movies a chance, taking what’s useful and leaving what’s not. Sometimes a great story is waiting behind a rough exterior.
Copyright 2018 Christine Johnson