Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
When Michael Schur creates a show, you can bet it will focus on two things: diverse communities of people and how to love them well. Although he has a knack for comedy vehicles that drive on finding the absurd in the ordinary, getting laughs is not his endgame. Whereas most sitcoms feel as though they are taking place on a stage, the settings of Michael Schur’s sitcoms become focal points, not mere backdrops. His worlds are lived in, built out, and real—as real as the many, as-absurd-as-real-life characters who people them. This is why his shows are named for his settings: The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place. The environments of each show are communities, and couched within each is a story arc concerning the goodness of community—not just for our individual souls, but for society as a whole.
We are communal creatures created by a communal God. From the moment God said, “It is not good that man should be alone” and made Eve to partner with Adam, it was clear that humankind flourishes best in communion with others. Solitude has never been the natural state of humanity—from the beginning. But communion with others requires a sense of place, as well. Wandering people—whether in scripture, in history, in stories, or in verse—struggle with unease, lack of identity, restlessness, or worse, until journey’s end when a home is reached and roots are established. This is when true community is entered into, and when you become part of a community, it usually involves entering into a relationship with a diverse set of people.
In an age of internet globalism, it’s easy to confuse our tribes with our communities, but community is not synonymous with tribalism. Our tribes are those with whom we most easily identify—echo chambers of people with whom we agree, who look like us, think like us, vote like us, worship like us. Tribes usually exist in online spaces and are thus fluid, as you can “ghost” a group or a member with relative ease. It’s more difficult to identify with our communities, who are made up of disparate parts and are the people in our real lives with whom we live and work. It’s more difficult to love the people we don’t necessarily choose to identify with—the coworker who is always late, the roommate who is a slob, the angry neighbor, the deskmate who is racist (or who looks different from us, if we harbor racism in our own hearts).
I don’t mean to say that real community cannot exist online, as well, because I know that it can. And online community can also be good, especially in consideration of our need to not be alone. But doing the hard work of serving our communities usually falls to those we people in the flesh, and if we’re honest about our online community groups, we may find they blur the lines between community and tribe more often than we’d like to admit. It can be hard to tangibly care for those who exist as an avatar and words on a screen, especially when all it takes to “other” them is a few keystrokes and the block function.
We can’t so easily block people in real life. Neither should we, no matter how tempting it may be. This is where stories like Michael Schur’s can be helpful in instructing us, stories that place the focal point on the community itself and thus the individual’s role within it. His stories seem to say that when we think of our communities in the aggregate, we can’t help but cheer for everyone to succeed and grow. Rather than making his communities invisible backdrops, he puts them front and center—peopling them, forcing the audience to think first of the whole. If I’m going to watch The Office tonight, “The Office” is first on my mind and on my lips before Jim or Pam or Dwight or Michael Scott. This doesn’t diminish the value of any of the individuals, but rather casts them into the context of their community. Even unlikeable individuals within Dunder Mifflin, or within the Parks and Recreation department, or the 99th Precinct of Brooklyn, or within the Good Place/Bad Place become people you want to see succeed and grow so as to further the success and moral growth of the whole. Minor side characters come and go as legitimate villains, but within the core characters of each show, no one is permanently labeled as “toxic” and blocked from fellowship.
By stuffing his settings full of the sort of absurdly unique, yet somehow ordinary, people we encounter in our own lives, and then building his communities around each of them in such a way that they are all both valued and valuable to the whole, the storytelling of Michael Schur encourages us to remember that we, too, belong to such communities. “Grow where you’re planted,” might seem a trite expression, but not when you consider how easy tribalism is, and by contrast how difficult it is to serve our communities in a time where we can live virtually our entire lives online. Stories like this invite us to view communities of people as embodied units—as diverse as they are singular—and can help us overcome our natural reluctance to love and care for those who are different than us.
We have an individual and a corporate responsibility to our communities, and our decisions help shape the character of the whole. In Romans 12:16-18, the apostle Paul instructs Christians to, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Live peaceably with all. Is this even possible today in a world full of triggers and microaggressions? “It is not good that man should be alone,” but living in community is hard—so hard that is seems filled with ways in which we can only fail. Perhaps this is why scripture admonishes us to remember these things.
This is why I’m always happy to find stories that acknowledge the difficulty of living in community with others, and show how we can live out (even in stumbling ways) manners of living peaceably with all. In characters like the indomitable Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, Schur sets up an example of how to hope in and for the goodness of our communities. Leslie Knope loves the city of Pawnee inside and out, even when Pawnee acts badly—even when the people of Pawnee hate her. She’s not blind to the flaws in her city, but she has a vision for Pawnee that not only holds out hope for them, but dignifies them in the process. She never stops the hard, thankless work of serving her people. Or the unrelentingly optimistic Jake Peralta of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, who always hopes for the best even in the criminals of his city.
The power in good stories is that they lay out examples of people who look, think, and act in ways we can relate to. In the stories of Michael Schur, he also gives us communities that look like ours, so going to the office with Jim and Pam, for example, feels much like going to our own offices. We begin to long for the well-being of the office, or the Parks and Rec department, or the 99th precinct, or whatever facet of life or the afterlife the crew of The Good Place happens to be in at the moment. We may even come to love Pawnee as much as Leslie Knope does. The empathetic nature of storytelling allows us to step into their shoes and into the settings and walk alongside each character, longing for the good and flourishing of each place as if it was our own. These are the sorts of vicarious storytelling experiences that, if we let them, can transform our hearts and attitudes toward our own communities, which we just might see reflected on the screen.
As Schur puts his characters through the comedic hoops of navigating the absurdities of ordinary life (and sometimes the afterlife), he postulates that serving our communities may look as small as relocating slugs from an ungrateful neighbor’s walkway with no hope or expectation of thanks, as Leslie Knope does in a notable episode of Parks and Recreation. Or it might look as monumental as fighting for the literal souls of our neighbors, as in the premise of The Good Place. The Good Place goes so far as to encourage us to remember that we must love even our enemies when they move into our communities. And to serve, and perhaps save, our communities might sometimes mean giving up our comfort, our space, and so much more. It’s a gifted storyteller who can swing between such extreme examples while maintaining thematic cohesion.
Michael Schur seems to be particularly concerned with the soul of communities in America. That is an admirable thing to care about, and there is much that can be gleaned through common grace from his stories. Community is good for us, no matter how loveable or unloveable the people, and we are tied together in community for common flourishing.
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