Thursday, July 29, 2010

Frasier Crane, Forgiveness, and "One Too Many"

In the aptly-titled second season Frasier episode "The Show Where Sam Shows Up," Sam Malone (Ted Danson), Frasier's old friend and bartender from Cheers comes to visit him in Seattle. We learn pretty quickly that Sam's there running from his impending nuptials. He's engaged but afraid. As an inveterate womanizer, his basic argument is "ME? MARRIED?" When Niles (David Hyde Pierce) is horrified that Sam flirts with Daphne (Jane Leeves) while engaged, Frasier responds, "Of course he's flirting with her. He's a sexual compulsive. He flirts with everyone!" Those of us who know Sam from Cheers know this all too well (Kirstie Alley, anyone?).

Through normal machinations of the plot, Frasier meets Sam's fiance, Sheila (Tea Leoni). When he sees her, he realizes that, only a few months ago, after she and Sam were engaged, he slept with her! He met her in a bar, and one thing led to another. She reveals that she is a sexual compulsive, too, and that she and Sam met at a 12-step meeting. Frasier decides, in the interest of saving their relationship, that Sam and Sheila should be honest with each other, and ask for forgiveness. "Honesty," he says, "is the cornerstone of any healthy marriage."

Sam confesses an infidelity to Sheila, and she forgives him. Sheila confesses an infidelity to Sam, and he forgives her. Everything seems to be back on track until Sheila says, "I have another one." "It's okay, don't worry about it," Sam says, "this is what it's all about...honesty and forgiveness." But then she says that it's someone from Cheers. Frasier, of course, is terrified that she's about to reveal their tryst. However, the name she blurts out is Cliff (Cheers' frumpy mailman, John Ratzenberger). "CLIFF?!?!?!" Sam explodes. This is over the line, he can't take it, storms out of the room, calling off the marriage. "CLIFF?!?!?!" This is too often how we think of God's forgiveness, and why assurance eludes us.

If God said, like Sam, "Oh, it's okay, don't worry about your transgressions," we'd always be worried that one day, one of our transgressions would be a Cliff. What then? What if it stopped being okay? But God doesn't say it's okay. Paul says that God "made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross" (Col 2:13-14). He nailed our indiscretions, our infidelities, our trespasses to the cross. He paid the ultimate price, laying our sins on the shoulders of his son. He doesn't ignore them...he pays for them.

Thank goodness our God isn't like Sam Malone!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Frasier Crane, Casuistry, and Freedom

I tried to warn you. I got onto a Frasier kick after my recent Frasier Crane and the Day Spa of Death post, and my wife and I are watching the entire series from the beginning. What a treasure trove of wonderful comedy and Gospel insight! Today's entry comes from the first season, episode 9, called "Selling Out." Frasier is offered the opportunity to make some extra money by personally endorsing products on the air. First a Chinese restaurant, and then a hot tub company. At first, he refuses, seeking to maintain his medical ethics. Then, enticed by the amount of money he's been offered, he agrees, on the condition that he try and like the products that he is endorsing.

Before long, the Holy Grail of endorsements is offered: television. This throws him back into a quandary. He doesn't especially like the product (snack nuts) and the commercial includes a blow to his ego (he must pop out of a giant foam peanut shell). As is his custom, he goes to his brother, a psychiatrist in private practice, for advice.

"I'm afraid that I'm compromising my integrity as a psychiatrist," Frasier explains. "I don't see this as a problem," counters Niles. Frasier replies, "You don't think this is the selling-out of Frasier Crane?" "Oh, certainly not!" laughs Niles. "You sold out a long time ago. The moment you agreed to do that call-in show you sold out." Frasier is horrified. "Niles, you are such a purist. Granted, i can't do the kind of in-depth analysis one can with a single patient, but my show literally helps thousands of people a day!" "Let's face it, Frasier," comes Niles' retort. "You talk about wanting to safeguard your professional dignity, but the first time you went on the air you got out of medicine and into show-biz." Niles likens Frasier's show to an actress to did a nude scene and then complained that no one took her seriously as an actress. Crestfallen, Frasier asks, "So what you're saying is that I shouldn't do it?" "No, no, no," concludes Niles. "I'm saying it doesn't matter. Let's face it, Frasier. They've already looked up your skirt and seen everything there is to see."

As is the norm with Frasier, there is meaty human-nature stuff here, all couched in hilarious dialouge and situations. The first thing we see is Frasier's casuistry. Loosely defined, casuistry is the practice of finding exceptions. We tell children who play the piano poorly that they play well because we feel it is heartless to be honest in this situation. This is casuistry. We know that lying is not "right." But we do it, because we find the exception to be worthwhile. For Christians, casuistry is a dangerous practice. God's law does not leave wiggle room. There are almost no exceptions made in Scripture. Frasier is being casuistic when he claims that his ethics are intact because he has tried and liked a product. As Niles points out, Frasier is being casuistic in his claim that his ethics even still exist! He's using an "ends justify the means" argument: I cannot break my ethics...UNLESS a huge number of people is helped in the process!

Niles points out the truth of Frasier's situation, and the truth of the human situation. We let our ethics go long ago. We excuse all manner of sin because we like the people committing it. We say things like, "No one will ever find out" or "No one is getting hurt." We pretend that we're still "good" with God because we haven't broken the "important" laws. Niles urges us to stop being so defensive. It doesn't matter! Don't worry about finding the exception! You're already too far gone! And finally, this illustrates what happens when this realization hits home. We believe that sinners are justified while still in their sin. In fact, we urge sinners to take note of the depth of their sin, to be able to see the corresponding grace! But what of the next step? Doesn't such unmerited grace encourage licentiousness? Won't people just do whatever they want, knowing that, as Niles (and many Protestant theologians put it) IT DOESN'T MATTER?

NO! St. Paul asked, "Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? By no means! We died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?" (Romans 6:1-2) He's not telling the Romans NOT to sin, he's saying that they're incapable of it! He's with Niles! Frasier CAN'T lose his medical ethics! They're gone! So what does Frasier do? Knowing that he has the freedom, being already a "sinner" and forgiven by Niles, does he shoot the smarmy snack nut commercial? No, Dr. Joyce Brothers does. Freedom in the Gospel does not create license. It creates the thing that ethics, that the law, wanted in the first place. Righteousness.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Billionaire Dan Gilbert: Theologian of the Cross?

Well, we have at least part of an answer to the question I posed last week: Lebron James cannot come out of his free agency unscathed if he decides to play for the Miami Heat. After announcing that decision on his prime-time special "The Decision" two weeks ago, James became persona non grata in Cleveland. Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, in a letter to fans on the Cavs' website, never mentions James by name, only referring to his nicknames in quotes and lambasting his former superstar for the way he announced his decision.

"This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his 'decision' unlike anything ever 'witnessed' in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment. "Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us," Gilbert said in the letter. "The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you."

Gilbert, who has owned the Cavs for five years, said James' decision was a "cowardly betrayal" and called James the "self-titled former 'King'" and promised the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft would be "taking the [Cleveland] 'curse' with him down south." Despite James' departure, Gilbert guaranteed future success for his franchise. "I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE," Gilbert declared. "You can take it to the bank."

Buried in this letter otherwise filled with invective, Gilbert wrote, "Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there. Sorry, but that's simply not how it works." This is an amazing statement, temporally and theologically. Temporally, he seems to be equating living in Cleveland with death, which is interesting to find coming from a man who lives in Cleveland and who is writing almost exclusively to other Cleveland residents. James, he seems to be saying, has to suffer the death of living in Cleveland before he can achieve the heaven of an NBA championship. Obviously, on an earthly level, this is not true. No other NBA team or player has had to live and play in Cleveland as a prerequisite for winning a championship. Indeed, no Cleveland team has won a championship in any sport since 1964, when the Browns won the pre-Superbowl NFL Championship.

However, in theological terms, Gilbert is certainly on to something. Martin Luther would have called Gilbert a "theologian of the cross." The recognition that heaven only comes after death is a profound one. We humans often try to get to heaven without having to die. We call it "self-help" or "coaching." This is what we want from God. "Tell us what to do and we'll do it!" we say. The last thing we want to hear is what is seems like Jesus is actually saying. "Take up your cross" (Mark 8:34). "Die and be resurrected. That's the only way." We see death as the end of our lives, perhaps understandably, and have incredible trouble seeing it as the beginning. This is, of course, why the word of the Law must precede the word of the Gospel. We must be cut down before we can be raised up (and we're not going to do it on our own!). We must die before we can get to Heaven. That's the way it works. Dan Gilbert on LeBron James: Great theology from an unlikely source.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Theologian for the Day: LeBron James

I'm throwing the blogosphere to you today: what do you think of this LeBron James saga? For those of you who aren't following it as rabidly as I am, here are the highlights.
  • LeBron is arguably (and then, only occasionally) the best player in the NBA. He has won the last two NBA MVP awards.
  • He is a free agent, i.e. able to sign with any NBA team that can afford his salary.
  • Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, two other All-Star free agents, have both signed with the Miami Heat.
  • Everyone involved (fans, teams, owners, etc.) is chomping at the bit to find out where LeBron is going to sign.
  • LeBron has contacted ESPN, and will announce his decision tonight live, just after 9pm.
  • The money raised from the sale of sponsorships on this program will be donated to The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, James' pet charity.
There are a lot of ins and outs here. First, LeBron James is from Ohio, and has played for the Cleveland Cavaliers for the only seven years of his NBA career. By all accounts, he loves Ohio. The prevailing wisdom is that, if he leaves Cleveland, it will be tantamount to stabbing the city and state in the back.

LeBron, though he has definitely been a user (using ESPN and this free agent experience to inflate his fame and wealth, for instance) has also been used. Check out the picture of him and Gisele Bundchen, next to an old-school army recruitment poster. Wow, right? Does LeBron have the right to ply his wares in whatever city he chooses? Of course. Does he have the right to announce his decision on national TV? Well, if a national network will have him, of course. Does this make him a good person? Well, maybe not.

Does the fact that he's donating all of the proceeds from the special tonight to charity make it less egotistical or is it simply an attempt to hide his megalomania behind a veneer of generosity? LeBron is currently said to be leaning toward Miami, to sign with Wade and Bosh to create some kind of super-team. LeBron is getting killed for this. People are questioning whether he and Wade can co-exist, because it will tarnish both of their legacies, as being unable to win championships without each other. But what if they just want to have fun and play with each other? What if they want to win and think this is their best chance?

The final question: is there any situation in which LeBron comes out of this unscathed? The only option seemingly possible is to stay in Cleveland: to "be loyal." Is loyalty the highest good here? Is it possible that LeBron be seen as "righteous?" What theological themes do you see at play here?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Frasier and the Spa of Death

Frasier is one of my all-time favorite television shows. In fact, I'd say it's in a tie with The Simpsons for sheer "any time it's on I'm watching it and I'll own all the DVD boxed sets for sure"-ness. In fact, since Frasier has been off the air for a while, I already own all the DVD boxed sets. Hmm...maybe it's about time to start at the beginning again. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) is a member of ever exclusive club in Seattle. So, the episode called "Door Jam" (Season 10, Episode 11) when he gets his even-more-snobby neighbor's invitation to a secretive establishment in his mailbox, he's driven wild by jealousy and desire. When he calls the place to find out what they even do, he's prompted to enter a secret code that he, of course, doesn't have. His brother (David Hyde Pierce) remarks, "The allure of La Porte d' Argent has increased ten-fold!"

By pretending to be his neighbor, Frasier and Niles, his brother, gain access to La Porte d' Argent, which turns out to be a fabulous day spa. After an amazing afternoon of coddling, Frasier and Niles say, "I feel like I've been rubbed by angels" and "I've never felt better in my life." All of a sudden, they see a golden door, through which they are forbidden to go. "It's for our gold-level members only" they are told. Immediately, the wonder of the day turns to hatred. "Just how are we supposed to enjoy THIS?" wonders Frasier angrily. When asked what the place was like at home, he spits, "It was a hell hole!"

After trying everything to wrangle an invitation through the golden door, Frasier and Niles are having coffee with their friend Roz (Peri Gilpin), who chides them: "You only want to go in there because you can't. How much better can it be? And then, what if you do get in the gold door? What's next, the diamond door? And after that a titanium door? And after that a plutonium door?" Roz knows that there is no end to the human struggle, the human quest for achievement. For Christians, the analogy is our quest to get to God, or to at least become closer to him. There will forever be another door through which we must pass.

Of course, it turns out that Roz actually knows someone with enough influence to get Frasier and Niles through the gold door, and it turns out that she's wrong. The gold-level spa is SO much better than the silver-level spa. Frasier describes the "relaxation grotto" to his brother like so: "It's just paradise. From the rare, exotic orchids to the perfectly bubbled stream to the..." and then he sees it. "There's a platinum door." When Niles wants to go through the unguarded door, Frasier cries, "This is heaven! Right here and now! Why do we have to think about someplace else!" Niles retorts, "This is only heaven for people who can't get in to the real heaven...the PLATINUM heaven!" Finally, Frasier wonders, "Why can't we be happy?"

Frasier goes over to the platinum door, to take a peek through it, but just then, an employee of the spa comes into the relaxation grotto: "You're not allowed through there...please remain in the relaxation grotto." And with that, the relaxation grotto becomes an intolerable prison: "Please remain in the relaxation grotto?" grumbles Fraiser. "Have crueler words ever been spoken?" Rules create the desire to break them. We put our satisfaction out of our reach on purpose, so that we can later congratulate ourselves for achieving it, not thinking that we'll just do the same thing again and again. We do this with our relationship to God.

So finally, Frasier and Niles go through the platinum door, and the truth is revealed to them. There is no platinum-level spa. They are outside, with the dumpsters and garbage, locked out of the spa altogether. For us, we can say that there is such thing as a "close enough" relationship to God. We would all affirm this, and yet we all chase this mythic state. Like Frasier and Niles realized too late, the profundity of the Gospel is that we are in the best place (a perfectly justified relationship with our Creator, mediated by the blood of Jesus Christ) already! There is no improving on this relaxation grotto. Let's stop trying so hard and enjoy the rare orchids, the bubbled stream, and the beauty of a God who promises to be with us wherever we go.
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