In the most recent episode of Community, a comedy on NBC, the character Abed, who is both Muslim and has Asperger’s Syndrome, reads the New Testament. The episode Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples presents the character Shirley, who is a devout Christian, musing on the popularity of YouTube videos and the fact that only 9 people attended her Church service the previous night. She decides to ask Abed, a budding filmmaker, to create a “viral” YouTube video on Jesus. Abed agrees to do it, but only after he has read the whole New Testament. When he tells Shirley he has read the New Testament the next day, the whole New Testament, he says, “you know being raised on TV and movies I always thought that Jesus just walked on water and told people not to have abortions, but he’s so much cooler than that. He was like ET, Edward Scissorhands and Marty McFly combined.” The rest of the episode is fascinating, as Abed gets caught up in a movie on Jesus for the “post-post-modern world” in which he is playing Jesus – or is he? – and Shirley goes it alone trying to produce a simple YouTube video on her own which will appeal to young people, with a rapping Jesus. Ultimately Abed drops his project and helps Shirley complete her video, but the Abed line stuck with me throughout the whole episode and, obviously, after: “you know being raised on TV and movies I always thought that Jesus just walked on water and told people not to have abortions, but he’s so much cooler than that.”
My students today are so distracted that it can be difficult to make it through a class without seeing one of them looking down past the table to the floor. What this means is not that they are deep in contemplation, but that they are sending or receiving a text. I am on the verge of taking a trick out of the playbook of Wild West saloon owners and having them hand in all phones prior to class, just to protect them from themselves, and then returning them after class. Shirley’s desire to make a “viral” YouTube video on Jesus draws from the same desire to fight distraction or, to dredge up a great word from sociology, anomie. She wants to use the tools of distraction to put them into a relationship with Jesus as her own Church is floundering. The students are “connected” in ever more profound ways, Facebook, texting, Internet, YouTube, e-mail, but what depth is actually being created in these relationships? More than that, when it comes to serious issues, a character like Abed has come to know Jesus through movies and TV.
There is a danger and an opportunity here, which Shirley wanted to draw on. How do you make Jesus truly known and loved through the same media which saturates our life and pulls us from truly knowing and loving anyone? Abed’s understanding of Jesus was cartoonish – he walked on water and spoke out against abortion – but after reading the NT a fuller Jesus could only be explained by him in terms of movie characters. The danger, of course, is that in reaching people through new media we reduce Jesus to a sound bite, making him the flavor of the day or a cardboard character, a one-issue Messiah. The opportunity is to use all media to draw attention to Jesus, especially to a time of serious reflection and contemplation, and so the presentation of Jesus cannot be simply a "one political issue" Jesus, which might work for politicians and marketers, but cannot work for the Church. We need to be careful and faithful in our presentation of Jesus in order for people to see that there is more at stake in their encounter with Jesus. From my own current classroom experiences, I would say that students are willing to consider Jesus; the bigger issue is actually having them focus enough to consider anything in depth.
In light of this episode, while I was reflecting on the readings for this week, my eyes jumped to the verses above the 2 Timothy 4 lectionary reading for Sunday, verses 1-2: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” This patience is essential for those who are in the classroom, or in the pulpit, or using new media in order to proclaim the message. Somehow, we must present the truth in full and pray for a reduction in the distractedness of our age so that it can be considered with the attention it deserves. As Paul ends his letter to Timothy, he says,
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen (2 Timothy 4:16-18)
Who can bring you to this kind of perseverance, fortitude and assurance? Surely someone “like ET, Edward Scissorhands and Marty McFly combined,” but even greater than them for none of them will stand by you and give you strength and none of them can save you for his heavenly kingdom but one. It is worth considering and worth contemplating, so put down the phone, put your hands up, that’s right, kick the phone over to me, easy now, easy, now back up. Alright. You see that chair? That’s right, the comfy chair. Sit down in it. Pick up the book beside it and read. What’s that? Read for a while and when you are finished reading, think about what you have just read. What do I want you to read? Start with Sirach 35:12-18, 2 Timothy 4, and Luke 18:9-14. What’s that now? No, you can do it without texting. No, you do not need to check your e-mail. Read and contemplate.
John W. Martens