Parenthood, Life, Death, and the Art of Asking Questions
Do stories that present us with ideas that we disagree with make those stories bad? What makes something a bad story or a good story? When a story asks a big question, I for one appreciate a non-answer, let me explain.
My wife Jennifer and I recently watched a fascinating episode of NBC’s serial drama Parenthood, titled “Damage Control” in which a mother and father are forced to talk to their 5 year old daughter about death. For the sake of argument and time, I will briefly explain the story. The mom believes in heaven but the dad doesn’t and apparently is a naturalist of some sort (when you die you die and that is it). The daughter finds an injured bird and tries to nurse it to health, but the bird dies. The parents don’t want to lie to their daughter about it and debate between mom and dad as to how to talk to her about death ensues.
The parents try to agree on plan for how they will talk to her about death but the conversation is forced upon them unexpectedly by the daughter. This brings up the bigger question of death and what happens when we die. Seeing that her daughter is greatly saddened by the reality of her parents dying one day, the mom defaults to sharing with her the hope of heaven. As expected the mom’s explanation of heaven is far from distinctly Christian—she describes heaven as a place where people go when they die to be with the ones they loved in this life.
What does this have to do with art’s unique ability to ask questions? A few hours after watching this episode with Jennifer, I asked her what she thought of how the show handled the issue of death and heaven. We had two very different responses and yet I think we were both right and both appreciated the episode. Jennifer said, “they missed it” meaning they didn’t understand what heaven actually is. I said, “you are right, the characters missed it, but I appreciated the way the show dealt with the issue of death.” As Christians, I hope we can all agree that what makes heaven great is that God is there and those who trust His Son will spend eternity in close relationship with Him (1 Thess 4:17; 2 Cor. 3:16-18). So yes—Parenthood did not articulate what I believe to be the correct understanding of heaven (nor did I expect it to). That said, I thought the questions the show posed were fascinating and the way it posed them was perfect.
It is perfectly reasonable and even good to disagree with ideas presented in stories and yet still find those stories to be valuable. To understand what I mean in this particular context you really ought to watch the episode. What I appreciated about this episode was that its characters were faced with a sobering truth and an incredibly important question was posed. The truth presented was simple—everyone dies and death is disturbing. The question asked was: what happens when we die? To be fair to the show, it really didn’t answer that question but it did explore it and most notably explored how scary death is for both children and adults. The only thing close to an answer was actually a non-answer, namely, the episode illustrated how depressing it is not to believe in heaven.
What this episode does well and what good art often does well is this: it asks an important question and doesn’t spell out the answer for us but instead causes us to explore the issue ourselves. There are few questions more important than, “what happens when we die?” In fact, I appreciate this episode because sadly this is a question that pop culture often takes great pains to avoid. You don’t have to agree with the way these fictional parents address this important question to appreciate that one of life’s most important questions is being asked. Whereas so much of what we watch trivializes death, this episode forces us to face the reality of death and the inevitable question of what is next—a question the world desperately needs to ask and for which Christians have an answer.