A Second Act Problem
Today I listened to a podcast of comedians Pete Holmes and Judd Apatow interviewing the great Norman Lear. For those of you are either too young or pop culture indifferent and have no idea who Norman Lear is, I will tell you. Norman Lear is one one of the greatest - a case could be made for the greatest - television writers and producers in the history of the medium. He is responsible for shows like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Maude. He has also won four Emmy's, a Peabody, and a National Medal of the Arts. So he's kind of a big deal.
This living legend is now in his 90's and he appeared on Pete Holmes' podcast "You Made It Weird." If you have the time, I would highly recommend giving their conversation a listen. At one point in the midst of a discussion about God and the meaning of life, Norman tells a story about a brief story about a taxi driver he met once. She had put her two children through college and, that done, had told Norman that now it was her turn to go. He said that he wanted to help her. After vetting the story for authenticity, he helped a woman who had had little to know connection with other than both people humans in the same car once for a while pay for her college. And then he tells Pete and Judd about a letter her got from her:
This story bothers me. Here you have a legendary creative mind who no doubt has an absurd amount of money. He meets this woman totally by happenstance, hears her story, and choses to invest in her. Why? Simply because it was the right thing to do. That's it. And it's important that I tell you that Norman doesn't identify as a spiritual or religious person, so this action didn't have those motivations either. Just a human being helping another human being because he could.
That's not the part that bothers me. That part that bothers me is - as you might have guessed - the letter. She wanted to save him. And I understand full well that this was done out of love, as Norman says. But it's the very idea of it that bothers me. I think Jesus said some stuff about helping the less fortunate at least once in the Bible, maybe more. Norman did that. The television show All in the Family is widely regarded as one of the best television shows of all time. It's intent, style, and impact on the culture is best summed up by this text, which was actually shown before the show's premiere.
Norman Lear helped to bring a fractured country together by shining a light on ridiculous some things can be. He influenced an entire generation's development in countless ways. He did that. (Come to think of it, we could use another All in the Family right now about...) My point here is that even though Norman Lear doesn't identify himself as Christian, he up to some pretty Christ-y stuff. He's participating in the Kingdom as much as anyone. So WHY is it necessary for him to go to a church and say some words? His life, the things he's done, isn't that enough? Isn't goodness for the sake of goodness STILL Godliness?
Later in the interview, they guys are talking about creativity being a connection to the divine. When asked if he believes God is present in those creative moments, Norman says, "Oh yeah, I mean you go to bed with a second act problem and you wake up the morning with the solution. What is that?"
Our Second Act Problem
I identify myself as Jesus person. I've spent years of my adult life thinking about God, heaven, hell, Jesus, resurrection, redemption, and just the heck is going on. I've had lots and lots of conversations with people from a variety of faith backgrounds with vastly different opinions. And I've reached a conclusion: we have a second act problem.
There is a traditional model of story-telling called The Three Act structure. In Act 1, we established setting and introduce a problem. Aaron Sorkin would say that the characters have to want something and if they can need it, that's even better. In Act 3, whatever the problem is has climaxed and we begin what is called "Descending Action". This is like the end of an episode of Grey's Anatomy where someone wraps up whatever everyone learned. (I've only ever seen the ends of episodes.) A picture can explain this much better than I can.
Christianity has a second act problem. As you can tell by the picture above, Act 2 is where most of the stuff happens. The central movement of the story occurs here and, in a traditional model, this is where tension is heightened. Let's examine the basic story of Christianity through the lens of the Three Act Structure.
Act 1: The inciting incident is the Garden of Eden. We have established now that humanity has fallen away from its creator and will start a journey back. (That's what I would argue the "story" of Christianity is, btw)
Act 2: Turns out we suck at this whole "relationship with God" business. We fail repeatedly and the tension heightens. But through all of that, God remains. The climax? Probably that whole death and resurrection thing, but I'm willing to hear other pitches. Maybe for you it was the fish and the bread.
Act 3: Humanity and God are restored to relationship with each other. Depending upon how you understand "heaven", this could mean going to heaven after you die OR it could mean participating in the kingdom of heaven that is already present here OR some combination of both OR neither. (I'll make an argument for one in a minute.)
When I say we have a second act problem, I don't mean that it's poorly written or boring. I mean that we have a tendency to miss it altogether. More often than not we want to jump right from Act 1 to Act 3, without much thought to the stuff in-between. And the stuff in-between is important. The stuff in-between, the Act 2 of it all, is a story about us failing miserably and being disappointing to God pretty much all the time and how God endures it all. It's a story about a love that is so wholly and entirely other that the Greeks made up a word for it: agape. Act 2 is the central part of the action. It is the story.
So what if we re-structured our telling of the story of Christianity? What if we shifted our focus? What if we made Act 2 matter and made Act 3 totally different? Because the story is different by virtue of a stone that was rolled away to reveal an empty tomb. Let me make a pitch:
Act 1: The Empty Tomb
Act 2: The Kingdom Come
Act 3: The Steadfast God
In Luke 17:20-21, Jesus says, "The Kingdom of God can't be detected by visible signs. You won't be able to say, 'Here it is!' or 'It's over there!' For the Kingdom of God is already among you."
The Resurrection changed everything forever. It should be Act 1 of the story. In the re-written version of history and with a new understanding of the story of Christianity, Norman Lear doesn't need to be saved from anything. He already has been. And he might not call it the same thing as you or I; he might not participate in the same rituals as you or I; but by doing goodness for goodness' sake, he's participating in it. Maybe better than you or I.
Who is in and who is out? Who is saved and who is not? Do you believe all the right things?
I'm tired of those questions. I want to ask different ones.
What can we do to be better? How can I engage with goodness more? Where do we see the light shining through?
Resurrection On Me
While I was thinking about Norman Lear and God, I got a Facebook message from my friend Jen. She said she had listened to a song by the artist Sia called "Jesus Wept". And since Jen knows that I like thinking about God and pop culture (Ref: everything I've ever written) she thought I should hear it. So I listened to it. And then I listened to it again.
And much to my excitement, it is about resurrection. Sia seems to have taped into a beautiful truth as she sings, "Resurrection on me," in a song that is both hopeful and heart-breaking. It's that resurrection didn't just happen, it happens. It is happening.
The game changed forever on the cross that day.
Redemption is here.
Salvation is now.
Resurrection is happening.
Love is everywhere.
The kingdom has come.
This is our second act.