(Ed. note: this whole subject deserves more attention than I had time to give it here. So true of so many things in life, eh? The point was, or was meant to be, what responsibility the rest of us, as believers, have to counter the ideas supporting the Vox article. Kind of lost my way on that one.)
There's an interesting assumption here, one appropriate to the season of Advent (or any liturgical season): what is "religion"?
But what makes The Good Place so fascinating is that it manages to be a show about the afterlife that is, nevertheless, not about religion. It takes seriously the demands of moral and ethical philosophy; the show’s emotional heart lies not in Chidi and Eleanor’s budding romantic relationship, but in the notion that they can become better people. It also plays the metaphysical framework surrounding the characters — the existence of God or other deities, and the actual structure of the universe — for laughs. (emphasis mine)There is evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, which is certainly concerned with do's and don'ts, mostly in what other people do that the "Christian" doesn't want them to do (I use quotes because evangelical/fundamentalists are hardly the exclusive brand of Christianity they think they are). Once you are "saved," this brand holds, your morality is no longer a concern, except as you present a proper facade to others, a role model for them to follow (as long as inquiry is not made too closely into how you treat your friends, family, business relationships, or if you keep your consumption of alcohol mostly private). So the idea that religion does not take "seriously the demands of moral and ethical philosophy" is a bit understandable; but it's also incredibly blinkered.
The show is secular, and that's fine. It's not a production of the Catholic Church, after all, or a mainstream Protestant denomination (ah, for the days of Davey and Goliath. Well, not really....). But is the reason one in three millenials no longer affiliate with organized religion really because organized religion is, at its core, about God and not about goodness? Yeah, I can cite more than a few good examples of that being seemingly true; but do evangelicals and fundamentalists speak for us all? And is complaining about that presumption really of any value?
It’s the disconnect between The Good Place’s serious approach to ethics and lighthearted approach to metaphysics that makes the show such a powerful and affecting watch in an era in which one in three millennials no longer affiliate with an organized religion. The Good Place is, at its core, about goodness, not God. It’s a show about heaven and hell, but it’s also incredibly, tellingly secular.
Part of the problem is one of definition. Take this assertion, for example:
Traditional questions of theology — Does God exist? Is God good? Why does a loving God allow evil in the world? — never come up in the Good Place.
But those are not tradition questions of theology; those are traditional questions of philosophy of religion. True, they do come up in the Christian scriptures: notably in the Wisdom books of the Hebrew scriptures (Job, especially); as well as in the words of the prophets (Jeremiah and Isaiah come to mind) as well as the Psalmist ("My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?"); but they are not theological questions as theology is defined and understood. Maybe it's a minor point of definition, but the distinctions need to be clear. However, in the context of the TV show, God is not what matters:
According to showrunner Michael Schur, this is intentional. “I stopped doing research [on world religions] because I realized it’s about versions of ethical behavior, not religious salvation,” he told the Hollywood Reporter before the show premiered. “The show isn’t taking a side, the people who are [in the Good Place] are from every country and religion.”
This much is truer than Burton seems to realize. The fundamental question is Tolstoy's question: "How should we then live?" If we understand the words and lessons of Jesus of Nazareth as trying to answer that question, rather than answer the question "Are you saved?" (the ubiquitous religious question of my childhood, from the people who weren't members of my church/denomination), then you are actually closer to the interests (as I would argue, anyway) of Christianity; as well as, I agree, the religions of the world. So the question is not, what are the use of world religions, but: what is a "religion"?
The show cares about what we do on earth, not what’s stored up in heaven.
The Kingdom of God is like this
A trader sold all his merchandise to buy a single pearl
(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)
John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (New York: HarperSanFranciscso, 1994, 1st ed.), p. 93
For heaven's imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day he sent them into the vineyard.
And coming out around 9 a.m. he saw others loitering in the marketplace, and he said to them 'You go into the vineyard too, and I'll pay you whatever is fair.' So they went.
Around noon he went out again, and at 3 p.m., and repeated the process. About 5 p.m. he went out and found others loitering about and says to them, 'Why did you stand here idle the whole day?'
They reply, 'Because no one hired us.'
He tells them, 'You go into the vineyard as well.'
When evening came the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: 'Call the workers and pay them their wages starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.'
Those hired at 5 p.m. came up and received a silver coin each. Those hired first approached thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor. 'These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.'
In response he said to one of them, 'Look, pal, did I wrong you? You did agree with me for a silver coin, didn't you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to do with my money as I please? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?'
The last will be first and the first last."(Matthew 20:1-16, SV)
Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, make your move, sell your belongings and give (the proceeds) to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. And then come, follow me!"
When the young man heard this advice, he went away dejected since he possessed a fortune.
Jesus said to his disciples, "I swear to you, it is very difficult for the rich to enter Heaven's domain. And again I tell you, it's easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle's eye, than for a wealthy person to get into God's domain."
When the disciples heard this, they were quite perplexed and said, "Well, then, who can be saved?"
Jesus looked them in the eye and said to them, "For mortals this is impossible; for God, everything's possible."
In response Peter said to him, "Look at us, we left everything to follow you! What do we get out of it?"
Jesus told them, "I swear to you, you who have followed me, when the son of Adam is seated on his throne of glory in the renewal (of creation), you also will be seated on twelve thrones and sit in judgment on the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left homes of brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms, on my account, will receive a hundred times as much and inherit eternal life. Many of the first will be last, and of the last many will be first."
Matthew 19: 21-30, SV
Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God:
Which made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: w hich keepeth truth forever:
Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungery. The Lord looseth the prisoners:
The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind: the Lord raiseth them that are bowed down: the Lord loveth the righteous:
The Lord preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow; but the way of the wicked he turneth upside down.
The Lord shall reign forever, even thy God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise ye the Lord.
After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)
Or again, is there any woman with ten silver coins, who if she loses one, wouldn’t light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she invites her friends and neighbors over and says ‘Celebrate with me, because I have found the silver coin I had lost.’ Luke 15:8-9 (SV)
Is there any one of you who owns a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, who wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that got lost until he finds it? And when he finds it, he lifts it upon his shoulders, happy. Once he gets home, he invites his friends and neighbors over, and says to them, ‘Celebrate with me, because I have found my lost sheep.’ Luke 15:4-6 (SV)
A younger son requested and received his inheritance, went abroad, and wasted it all. Destitute in the midst of famine, he envied the swill of the swine he tended.
The younger son
I will return home where servants eat their fill
I will say to my father
I have sinned against you and God
I am not worthy to be your son
I will be your hired servant
The father saw him even before he reached the house, ran out, embraced, and kissed him.
The younger son
“I have sinned against you and God
I am not worthy to be your son”
“Bring robes, and shoes, and a ring
Prepare a great feast
My lost son is found, my dead son is back.”
The elder son returned at evening form working in the fields, heard the sounds of music, and asked a servant what was happening.
“Your brother is back and your father feasts him”
He was angry, refused to enter the banquet hall, and complained when his father came out to speak with him
The elder son
“I, who have always obeyed you, have never received a feast
He, who has disgraced you, receives one now”
“You are with me always and mine is yours forever
But now is the time for feasting
Your lost brother is found, your dead brother is back” (John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus)
Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate. (Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB))
When the son of Adam comes in his glory, accompanied by all his messengers, then he will occupy his glorious throne. Then all peoples will be assembled before him, and he will separate them into groups, much as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. He'll place the sheep to his right and the goats to his left. Then the king will say to those at his right, 'Come, you who have the blessing of my Father, inherit the domain prepared for you from the foundation of the world. You may remember, I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a foreigner and you showed me hospitality; I was naked and you clothed me; I was ill and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to see me.'
Then the righteous will say to him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and gave feed you or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we notice that you were a foreigner and extend hospitality to you? Or naked and clothed you? When did we find you ill or in prison and come to visit you?'
And the king will respond to them, 'I swear to you, whatever you did for the most inconspicuous members of my family, you did for me as well.'
Next he will say to those at his left, 'You, condemned to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his messengers, get away from me! You too may remember, I was hungry and you didn't give me anything to eat; I was thirsty and you refused me a drink; I was a foreigner and you failed to extend hospitality to me; naked and you didn't clothe me; ill and in prison and you didn't visit me.'
Then they will give him a similar reply: 'Lord, when did we notice that you were hungry or thirsty or a foreigner or naked or ill or in prison, and did not attempt to help you?'
He will then respond, 'I swear to you, whatever you didn't do for the most inconspicuous members of my family, you didn't do for me.'
The second group will then head for everlasting punishment, but the virtuous for everlasting life. (Matthew 25: 31-46, SV)
A large selection; but how many of those are about salvation in the Great Hereafter, and how many of them directly address Tolstoy's question: "How should be then live?"
What is religion, if not about that question?