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The Gospel of Pawnee: Theology of Parks and Recreation

This past week, my favorite television concluded its run.  “Parks and Recreation” has survived for seven seasons on network television–a staggering feat in an increasingly cookie-cutter landscape of multi-camera sitcoms, crime procedurals, and shows about doctors being very bad at medicine.

In the midst of all these things, Parks and Rec managed to stake out ground all by itself–optimistic, but not delusional; romantic, but not twee; quirky, but not so meta that you felt it should have a beard and hipster glasses.  And most of all, genuinely funny.

There’s nothing overtly religious about the show.  (Well, that’s not entirely true–there is a cult called the Reasonablists, who believe the world will end when a giant lizard god named Zorp comes to eat the planet.  As you do.)  But the world and point of view of the show is incredibly strong, which is a gift when pop culture so influential on how and what we think.

I discovered the show about halfway through the second season.  I knew I was sold during the hunting trip episode, when Leslie takes the blame for accidentally shooting her boss, Ron Swanson, in the head.  She’s questioned by the local ranger, who has decided that this accident was inevitable, because of course, women are so easily distracted that they’re prone to shooting people. Leslie sort of frowns, and goes off on a spiel of sarcastic reasons why she shot Ron, all based on sexist stereotypes.  “I just get emotional when I don’t have a boyfriend and I feel like shooting something!  I think I saw some chocolate? I’m bad at math, good at tolerating pain, and bad at concentrating.”

It was hilarious, but most of all, it introduced Leslie as someone who was passionate about lots of things most people on TV aren’t passionate about:  women’s rights, the positive role of government, public policy, the minute details of pretty much everything.  And while Leslie’s passion and intensity was frequently presented as intimidating to others, it was never presented as a psychosis or something she needed to lessen.  It was the source of her strength.  In Leslie, we had a role model for how to be passionate and effective, in the middle of a system that was confused by your presence.

Meanwhile, while Leslie sees the glories of government, one of her dearest friends is an avowed libertarian, who works for the city expressly to stop its functioning.  Eventually, her team comes to include a failed teen mayor, a misanthropic intern, a possibly-brain-damaged guy who lived in a pit, and a man who’s life’s ambition is to live inside a rap video.  These people are wildly different, with little in common.  Mostly, they’re a dysfunctional hodge-podge of Fail.  But when they unite around a common goal, each finds their own way to be effective.  Turns out, the libertarian boss was also a strong feminist.  The pit-living guy performed in a half-way decent rock band.  Over the course of the series, these odd people form a tight-knit community, based on their love and support of one another.

Which is probably the biggest thing I loved about Parks and Recreation.  The show presented a world in which the characters were motivated by love.  Despite its plethora of weird inhabitants, odd customs, atrocious history, etc, Leslie loves Pawnee like she would love a child.  Her passion for the town drives her decisions–even when the citizens are yelling at her (The frequent town hall meetings are a delight, just for the problems of the townspeople.  “I found a sandwich in one of your parks and I want to know why it didn’t have mayonnaise on it.” ) even when they make incredibly dumb choices, even when they eventually turn on her entirely.  All the characters do.  The show itself treats the characters with deep affection–even the wackiest of them.  Everyone has their quirks, but Pawnee is a place where odd ducks and weirdos are celebrated.  It was such a warm and affectionate world that gloried in the weirdness of its people.

I’m sorry to say goodbye.




Yes, and….Part 2

If you’re just joining us, you can read Part 1 here. You can read Rachel Held Evans’ original post here.
And now, there’s more!

3. There are Millennials who like to go to church.

Sweet 7lb, 9oz baby Jesus.
There actually are young adults in our churches. We are not Bigfoot.
But, honestly, it does, on occasion, become exhausting to go to a church (even one where you are, say, the supply priest for the week) only to hear how “You really should be out having fun, not being in boring old church! You’re way too young for this!”
Or “Wow. I only expect to see folks like you here after they get married and have kids! How old are you anyway?”
I like church. I’ve always liked church, ever since I was a baby. Seriously. There are colorful things to look at, there are pretty songs to sing. There is incense sometimes. Sometimes, there’s stuff to light on fire.
Church is how I learned to read, and it’s how I learned to read music. It’s how I learned that people other than my parents liked me. It’s where I got lollipops every week when I was a kid. It’s where I learned to speak in public, and read aloud, and not gag on wine.
This is not counting the mystery, transcendence, and magic, and beauty, and transformation, and awe and wonder.
So, please, do me a favor. Next time you see someone you don’t expect at church, someone who surprises you….just tell them that you’re happy that they’re there. And assume that they’re there to enjoy the same experience of God as you.

4. Millennials do stay. We should find out why.

This was wisely pointed out by Meghan Florian who points out that most young adults are in the church now because someone invited them in: asked them to join the Altar Guild, or teach a class, or help with something, or run for vestry. (She doesn’t say it, but this would be where programs like Young Adult Service Corps and Episcopal Service Internship become vital.)

But also, it should be stated, it starts before that.
I stayed in the church because when I was eight, I decided, in my childhood wisdom, a.) that my church needed a Christmas pageant and b) the reason we didn’t have one was that no one had written one yet. (My logic had some holes.)
Therefore, I took it upon myself that summer to write one, on my parents’ typewriter.
For whatever reason, I decided it needed to be a modern interpretation. Mary and Joseph were teenagers, who wore very ugly clothing, which prompted their removal from several chain hotels, before finally giving birth in the parking garage of a Doubletree Inn. Then, “they wrapped him in oily rags, and laid him in a hubcap.” (It goes on from there.) (There may be rapping involved. It was the early 90s.)
Not knowing what to do with me, my mother told me to show our rector my story. To his eternal credit, Fr. Ted did not immediately expel me to the outer darkness where dwell those who mock the Glorious Birth of Our Dear Savior. Instead, he laughed really hard, and said, “Oh great! Now we have a Christmas pageant!” He threw the weight of the church behind it, and we performed it that year. (And Fr. Ted went on to be bishop in Kentucky.)

As a result, in later years, when I was told that I was too young to have written a newsletter article, or I was too young to consider ordination, I didn’t hear it as the church telling me No. I heard it as evidence that the church was momentarily broken, so I should hold out for a bit, or else, fix it. Because the church wasn’t really like that. And sure enough, I eventually found a church community that thought me plenty qualified to write and seek ordination and do pretty much whatever else.

Moral is: when you welcome people (ALL PEOPLE. Even, and especially kids.) and treat them like they’re important and valued members of your community, then they will generally come to love and value your community in return.

And isn’t that what Jesus would do?

Yes, and…Part 1

Rachel Held Evans, whom I read like it’s my job, wrote a piece for CNN that now has everyone discussing Millennials and The Church in even more ponderous tones than is normal for this discussion.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should. It’s great, and points out some important dynamics at play right now (I.e. authenticity and depth are important, put not your faith in praise bands or skinny jeans, etc.)
Basically, she says clearly, concisely, and calmly, what any college chaplain or young adult in the Episcopal Church has been saying for YEARS. (With loud voices and emphatic hand gestures, but that may have just been me.)

And now, us here in the Interwebz must add on to the conversation, for that is what we here in the Interwebz do.

So then, a few things I feel should be said:

1. No, this isn’t just Millennials.

Lots of people are leaving the church, and have been leaving the church.
Silent generation folks, GenXers, GenZers (because that’s a thing now, too), even Baby Boomers are leaving.
And all for different stated reasons, and all for different personal triggers, but I think it’s safe to say that a trend is emerging right now that unites a lot of people. The status-quo church is not embodying the spirit of Christ as effectively as it should. So it’s experienced as hypocritical, and, accordingly, people are leaving. That’s not new.
What’s new is two things: now the slow drip of loss is enough to affect our status as “established and privileged” and, by dint of being the largest generation since the Baby Boomers, Millennials just leave a bigger footprint than GenX did when they did they exact same thing.

2. And also, we talk about it.

Arguably, one of the markers of the Millennial generation is a major shift in the divide between what is seen as public and what is seen as private.
A silly example would be Facebook statuses; a more serious one would be the current push towards transparency in government and the Arab Spring.
I’m not kidding. At the national training for IAF, it was this public/personal discussion that split my small group along generational lines, with the younger organizers arguing vehemently that it was dishonest and disingenuous to work with people and claim to represent them if you couldn’t be at least somewhat honest about who you were and what you believed. This was authenticity, we maintained. There was some buy-in, but for the most part, the older folks in the room thought we had lost our minds, and were overexposed, trying to live in our own TV show. Too much Internet, the trainer diagnosed.

My point is this– the gift of the Millennial generation may well be that we are, as a classmate ahead of me in seminary put it, “whiny and confrontational” but in the best way. We name things!

If we feel unfulfilled in church, if we feel like there is something missing, we won’t just let it lie. We won’t just continue to attend in silence. Or church-shop continuously, in a slow round of disappointment. We will take to the blogs, the Internet, Twitter, etc. Because this is a generation raised to talk it out (ad nauseum, occasionally.) What everyone else has been feeling for a while, we will actually name. We shall talk until we reach some conclusion.

And we don’t consider it a taboo subject any longer.

I have more to say about this, but I’m in the middle of moving right now. So come back tomorrow, and behold!
There shall yet be more on this topic.

Who do you say that I am?

Driving home from Prov 8, I let the students play music off my iPhone. The DJing student selected the playlist I had constructed last year entitled “Southern mix”– because it was music that reminded me of being in a kid in Virginia in the summer.
We listened in silence for a few songs, broken only by my shock that several (SEVERAL) of them hadn’t heard the musical genius that is Marshall Tucker Band’s Can’t You See.* (If you haven’t heard it either, go listen. I’ll wait.)

Finally, one of the students said, “There’s a surprising lack of country on this playlist. Aren’t you from the South?”

I was puzzled. There was actually no country on that playlist. There was lots of blues, there was lots of stuff recorded at Muscle Shoals, there was Atlanta hip-hop, there was the Alabama Shakes, and the Black Keys, and Tuesday’s Gone by Skynyrd (piano solo!), and some gospel and Nina Simone, but no country at all. And wasn’t that the South, too?

I don’t associate country music with what I know of the South. Apparently, many other people do, though. Who gets to decide what ‘the South’ is?** Who gets to tell this story?

Those proscribed identities, all those narratives that we assume we know–they’re problematic–both for those inside the group and those outside. It’s a problem when we let the idea of ‘the South’ be represented by only Brad Paisley (saints preserve us) or, worse, Rick Perry or Ken Cucinelli (…let’s just all move to Canada. They have health care.)

In the church? Also not helpful to let our identity, our story get co-opted.
It’s not helpful when the guys carrying the banner of “Christian” are preaching the fiery destruction of hell for 3/4ths the population, or explaining the evils of birth control, or gay marriage. When the loudest Christian voices are preaching anything but love, our voice has been co-opted. And we have a problem, because the story of the Gospel of love isn’t being told.

For a little while now, our collective solution to this has seemed to be to back away quietly, and hope the illogic of the louder voices would soon become clear. (This might be because we are Episcopalians, largely, and someone told us that it was quite impolite to contradict, or argue in public.)

Yeah, that didn’t happen. It turns out, no one hears the truth that you don’t speak out loud. People don’t actually learn through osmosis, and as much as we might think it obviously flawed and ridiculous, if no one presents any alternative, then everyone will go with the single, loudest definition for Christian.

So it’s up to us, who have a problem with the current, dominant definition to say something. To start telling our own story, to play our own song, and present a counter narrative. If we think the loudest religious voices are wrong, what do we think is closer to right?

What does being a Christian mean to you?

*Lyrics like Gonna find me/a hole in the wall/ Gonna crawl inside and die just cannot be argued with if you want to get real about Feelings.
Also, there is a flute. Because this was the 1970s, and this was how you rolled, if you were a legit blues band, evidently.

**If you want to read what a smarter person than me thinks about this, read what Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote about Brad Paisley, and the South here.
It’s what got me started thinking about this, and also what makes me want to get a Faulkner or Ida B Wells t-shirt. Definitely ordering my Harriet Tubman coffee mug, though.