I would have titled this post “I can hardly imagine Leviticus in The Good Place” but I wasn’t sure that readers would immediately pick up on the movie/song reference. This post emerges out of thoughts I’ve had recently related to the TV show The Good Place and the movie I Can Only Imagine.
The initial prompting in the direction that led to this post came from someone who asked me about the prominent place that shrimp cocktail plays early in the show. Shrimp and other shellfish, this person observed, are not kosher. And so should they be in the Good Place?
On the one hand, I offered the quick response that the TV show The Good Place is not offering a biblical vision of the afterlife, and so this is just in keeping with that fact. But on the other hand, a religion professor was not about to just leave it there. So many interesting lines of further inquiry to pursue! Some envisage the afterlife as a place where a religion’s moral teachings are perfectly adhered to, while others envisage it as a place where things prohibited on Earth are permissible. While visions of a “messianic banquet” fill Jewish and then Christian literature, many envisage a spiritual afterlife in which eating anything at all, and not just shellfish or even frozen yogurt, has no place.
I thought it might be worth writing a blog post about this, but didn’t pursue it, until I watched the movie I Can Only Imagine. Late in the movie, Mercy Me lead singer Bart Millard’s abusive father Arthur has undergone a change (‘found God’) and has tried reading the Bible, multiple times. He specifically asks Bart, “Leviticus, what is this?”
I found I Can Only Imagine moving, not least because Evangelicalism and Contemporary Christian Music played such a key role in my coming to a personal faith. Sometimes when I encounter stories like that of Arthur Millard, I wonder whether any other religion offers this kind of transformative personal experience that Evangelical Christianity does, and whether, in moving in a more liberal and inclusive direction, I am not in danger of losing something valuable, if not indeed essential.
As I reflected more on this, I realized that the questions raised about Leviticus relate directly to this. And I found my thoughts turning to Rudolf Bultmann’s approach to the gospel. His aim as a theologian was to allow the good news to be translated for modern people who could not accept the pre-scientific worldview with which the New Testament’s presentation of the gospel is inextricably intertwined.
The film, upon further reflection, brought home that the experience of redemption doesn’t depend on a particular theological, textual, or cultural framework. You can have no idea whatsoever what to do with Leviticus, and yet still have this sort of transformative experience. As Bultmann sought to accomplish – whatever one may think of the specific way he went about it – this frees the good news to confront people today in a manner that they can understand, without placing stumbling blocks of cosmological, ritual, or other cultural baggage between them and a life-changing experience.
It is important to realize this, since many presumably feel they must choose between the Evangelical approach to religion in which “sharing one’s faith” involves telling people about the dogmas of one’s specific tradition, and liberal inclusivity that lives and lets live. It is possible to adopt a Bultmannian approach that is evangelical in its desire to see people have a life-transforming experience, and liberal in its eschewal of the constraints of particular cultural and textual baggage related to ancient ideas of purity and sacrifice, or cosmology, or whatever else.
I’m glad that I get asked questions about shrimp cocktails on The Good Place. They lead to all sorts of interesting explorations that I find personally beneficial. I hope you do too – and that you will have the kind of life-transforming experience of repentance and redemption that I’ve had, that Arthur Millard had, and that you can have too!