Intersections

You Think What You Consume: Implicit and Explicit Messaging in "The Good Place"

by: 
Bryan A. Just, MA

You Think what You Consume: Implicit and Explicit Messaging in The Good Place

Nearly 100 years ago, Karl Barth admonished theologians to “take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”[1] While this quote (or some variation of it) is well known, the second part is rarely included: “Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions.” This second part is just as, if not more, true today, but there is another source of power over the public imagination—TV and streaming media. Whether we realize it or not, we are shaped by the content that we consume, and if we are not careful, we are catechized by the implicit and explicit messages that content carries.

I saw an example of this firsthand in my youth group. While we discussed Jesus’ teaching in Luke 13:22–30 on the wide and narrow doors, and how Jesus does not invite people into heaven based on what they have done, but on whether they put their faith in him, one of our youths wanted to confirm, “So it’s not like the point system in The Good Place, right?” She knew that the show’s presentation of heaven was incorrect, but it had influenced her enough that she was questioning her understanding.

The Good Place is a popular comedy show that follows four humans and their experience in an imagined afterlife where people accumulated points based on their good and bad actions on earth and were then sent to either “the good place” (effectively heaven) or “the bad place” (hell) depending on how they lived. As the main characters experience all that the afterlife has to offer, the show consciously addresses a number of moral and philosophical questions revolving around what it means to be a good person and how one can live a moral life.

Because of the comedic nature of the show and its characters, it is easy to suspend disbelief and become lost in its world, simply enjoying the humor and story. The danger in this, however, is how easy it is to unconsciously absorb its implicit messages. We may recognize that The Good Place’s depiction of demons as bumbling and juvenile, albeit with a strong sadistic streak, is mostly for laughs. Yet, if we are not careful, we can syncretistically combine this with Scripture so that when we read about biblical demons, we are picturing something more akin to the show’s characters than what the Bible actually teaches. The same holds true for its depiction of heaven itself, or hell, its “intermediate state,” and any number of other concepts.

While any movie or show has a multitude of implicit messages that must be parsed by the discerning viewer, The Good Place also has some very explicit messages that could be confusing or troubling to those who are not firm in their faith. For example, in the show’s version of heaven, the characters soon realize that there is a problem—everything is perfect and wonderful, but no one seems particularly happy. Eventually, they are able to wrest an explanation out of one of the Good Place’s residents: “You get here and you realize that anything is possible and you do everything and then you’re done. But you still have infinity left. This place kills fun, and passion, and excitement and love.”

Clearly, this is not how a Christian should view heaven, leaving out as it does the reality of the presence of God and our eternal enjoyment of him as well as the completion of our own sanctification. However, even if we recognize this is a faulty view of heaven, we can be left with nagging questions: What if heaven isn’t as wonderful as I’ve been told? What if the presence of God isn’t enough to keep heaven from being boring? This is not to say there is anything wrong with media that causes us to think critically about our faith, only that we need to be aware of the way such media can influence us.

Other messages in the show are not as explicitly theological, but can have the same implicit influence on our thinking. An interesting example of this comes from the final season. To counter the boredom of an eternal existence, the characters decide that the best solution is to give people an escape. As the main characters explain to the residents of the Good Place:

When you feel happy, and satisfied and complete and you want to leave the Good Place for good, you can just walk through [a door leading out of heaven] and your time in the universe will end. You don’t have to go through it if you don’t want to, but you can. And hopefully knowing that you don’t have to be here forever will help you feel happier while you are.

When one of the residents of the Good Place asks what will happen when they pass through this door, the protagonists admit that they are not sure: “All we know is it will be peaceful and your journey will be over.” They encourage them to have the time of their lives, and then, “when you’re ready, walk through one last door and be at peace.” The show’s argument, then, is that when continued existence in the afterlife becomes unbearable, people should have the choice to end their time there on their own terms and in a peaceful manner.

It could be easy to write this off as an interesting plot device that fits the world of the show. However, there is an issue in the real world that uses a nearly identical argument—physician-assisted suicide (PAS). The advocacy group Death with Dignity describes PAS as “an end-of-life option that allows certain terminally ill people to voluntarily and legally request and receive a prescription medication from their physician to hasten their death in a peaceful, humane, and dignified manner.”[2] Or, consider this quote from End of Life Washington: “we assert that it would be a terrible disservice . . . [to] forbid patients the ability to choose the timing of a peaceful and humane death.”[3] Those who watch The Good Place might not make the connection between its solution to the boredom of an eternal life without God and PAS, but they can still internalize the arguments. When confronted with PAS, it might then seem like a very reasonable option, even if they do not know exactly why.

Just as with newspapers, movies and TV shows, such as The Good Place, need to be interpreted through the lens of Scripture, as they present us with both danger and opportunity. The danger comes from their ability to catechize us into the worldviews of their creators. It is almost certain that most Christians spend more time consuming TV and movies than they do Scripture; an uncritical imbibing of these messages can easily lead to the uncertainty I saw in my student. The Good Place, and virtually every other popular show, contains themes and messages that, if we are not careful, can lead us to positions that are antithetical to orthodox Christianity. At the same time, though, these stories raise the opportunity for critical analysis. They can also provide a point of connection to our unsaved friends and create opportunities to share our secure hope in Christ that provides us with peace on earth and imbues meaning to the life to come. Thus, by thinking about, interacting with, and analyzing the explicit and implicit messages of The Good Place, or any other show, we gain the opportunity to grow in our understanding of our faith and to share that faith with others.

References



[1] Karl Barth, “Karl Barth in Retirement,” TIME Magazine, May 31, 1963, 60, https://time.com/vault/issue/1963-05-31/page/62/.

[2] Death with Dignity, “Frequently Asked Questions,” deathwithdignity.org, accessed September 15, 2021, https://www.deathwithdignity.org/faqs/.

[3] End of Life Washington, “Terminally Ill Washingtonians Deserve Peace of Mind, Choice, and Continuity of Care,” Endoflifewa.org, September 6, 2020, https://endoflifewa.org/news/terminally-ill-washingtonians-deserve-peace-of-mind-choice-and-continuity-of-care/.

 

Bryan's piece seeks to intersect the world of bioethics and popular media. For similar pieces, check out this resource page from CBHD: cbhd.org/content/primetime-bioethics