Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
In Forever’s opening four-minute montage, June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen) grow from two young, vibrant lovers to married, middle-aged normies. As their days blend to years, an unspoken boredom clouds their marital habits, which begin to repeat in perpetuity: same dinner routines, same lake house anniversary trips. June and Oscar are best friends for life, for sure, but they seem stuck in a banal, purposeless existence.
If you stop there, you’d be forgiven for prematurely classifying this new under-the-radar Amazon series as a twee comedy about the pitfalls of modern marriage. That’s basically how I described it to some friends the day after watching the pilot episode, not realizing I’d barely scratched the surface of all that the show is and wants to be. In fact, much of what makes Forever one of my favorite new shows isn’t just its humor or thoughtful handling of deep issues like marriage, regret, and purpose. It’s also the myriad ways its creators, Alan Yang (Master of None) and Matt Hubbard (Parks and Recreation) conceal surprising, even shocking, twists within its narrative in a way that’s neither gimmicky nor unearned, but satisfying and enjoyable.
To say anything more from here feels like a violation of sorts, marring a bit of Forever’s magic. I truly don’t want to spoil this show, so if you’re at all intrigued, stop here and spend a couple nights binging its eight episodes. Then come back to this article later, because if ever a show deserves the Christ and Pop Culture treatment, this one is it, for reasons that require entry deep into spoiler territory.
Dear reader, you’ve been warned.
Through a set of circumstances better left unsaid here, by Forever’s third episode, June and Oscar have died and are reunited in the afterlife. Their eternal home is now the comfortable California suburb of Riverside, which bears a striking resemblance to their home on earth.
In death, with no deity or “instruction manual” to guide them, June and Oscar continue on, just as they did before. Best friends not just for life, but for eternal life, still stuck as they ever were, settling into old habits and hobbies, one humdrum day after another, on and on and on and on. Forever.
As the reality of this plight settles on June, she asks Oscar, “So this is it? We just… keep going?” Oscar shrugs.
“I mean, what’s the point of all this?” she implores. “Well,” Oscar casually replies, “what was the point of the thing before this?”
Exploring the answer to that question is as close as Forever comes to offering its thesis statement: Why do we do the things we do, and what end do our lives serve?
Oscar is unfazed by June’s question, happily solving crosswords and continuing his daily neighborhood strolls into infinity. June, on the other hand, sinks further into an existential panic, settling into a nihilistic hedonism for several episodes, concluding there’s nothing left to satisfy but her own desires. Wrongheaded as she is, there’s something of June I admire as she stands at the precipice of eternity and resists the slow deadening that comes with the creature comforts of modern, middle-class life. The universe presents itself to June as meaningless, telling her life and love are without consequence. And she revolts.
NO. It can’t be this way. There must be more than this.
Some years ago, I read Chick Publishing’s This Was Your Life! tract from inside a gas station bathroom stall. (Say what you will about tracts, kudos to the guy who left this one tucked behind the toilet paper holder, pressing forward with the Lord’s work even as nature called.)
The gist of This Was Your Life! is simple, hitting all the fear-mongering beats anyone familiar with the Chick repertoire would expect. A wealthy, non-Christian man dies, and upon entering the afterlife, he presumes himself good enough for heaven. Over the course of a few pages, the man sees a full accounting of his life and learns he could never earn his way into paradise. His actions on earth had consequences, and those consequences now demand blood. Without the blood of Christ, he’s sent to hell.
That’s the version of the heaven-hell dichotomy most of us are used to seeing. Heck, even NBC’s The Good Place plays in the same ballpark, as its fictional conception of the afterlife operates according to a point system, where ethical behavior earns one’s place in heaven.
The Good Place and This Was Your Life! aren’t abnormal insofar as they present an eternal reality heavily influenced by the Abrahamic faiths—one of Good Places and Bad Places reserved for meting out rewards and punishments based on earthly conduct, where the ways we live and the choices we make matter and the arc of eternity bends toward purpose and consequence.
Here we approach something of eternity as our heavenly Father made it, as we’re made to feel deep in our bones. That’s why June can’t abide the afterlife as she sees it. It’s also why she ultimately rejects the hedonistic directive to “eat, drink, be merry” as the answer to her crisis.
I tend to scoff at things like tracts. I dislike the way they distill life’s infinitely weighty matters into fifteen pages of garish comics featuring childish caricatures of God and man. If any subject matter is worth exploring using carefully crafted words, poetry, music, and art, certainly our eternal home is one of them.
Heaven, the New Earth, our home, is a place prepared to meet us at our most human, saved for God’s people who find our deepest, eternal yearnings met in Christ and all he has for us. Intentionally or not, Forever posits how we would react to an afterlife that’s anything less than what God made us for.
It’s why something like Forever lands more heavily on me than that little tract in the restroom ever did, staying with me for weeks as I consider June’s question, “What’s the point?”
What is the point? And upon learning the point, am I filling my days and years accordingly?
As Christians, of course, we believe there is a point, not in earning our way into God’s favor, but in accepting his unmerited grace through the blood of Christ, and by walking out our grace-filled lives in loving obedience. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Catechism puts it. King Solomon framed it this way: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” There’s a freedom in believing by faith that life on earth—the sum total of our deepest pains and aches, our belly laughs, our tear-stained pillows—is not for nothing.
The truth is, we really are standing at eternity’s precipice. Yet often a peek into our lives, our daily routines and habits, our fears and anxieties, bears little evidence of this reality taking hold of us. In the days since watching Forever, I find myself praying God would shock me out of my malaise, to let me see as June sees, to escape the trap and declare, NO. There’s something more.
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