Masters of their domain

Masters of their domain December 11, 2023

The sitcom Seinfeld was famously pitched as a “show about nothing.” But that wasn’t quite it. It was actually a show about people whose lives were about nothing.

It was a very funny show, but these characters — Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer — were horrible people. They were witty and entertaining, but also unfailingly shallow, obnoxiously self-absorbed, and oblivious to everyone else in the world except with regard to how those people might benefit them in some way.

To the extent that the show had a point, that was it.

And just in case anybody missed that point, it was hammered home, in exhaustive detail, in the 75-minute finale which brought back dozens of characters from the show’s nine-season run to literally testify against the quartet of main characters in a trial in which they are convicted of criminal indifference. Criminal indifference to what? To everyone they ever encountered over the previous nine years.

That same point and theme were central to what I think was probably the show’s best episode, and one of its funniest: “The Contest.” That episode won Larry David his only Emmy award for writing and helped secure the show’s Emmy that year for Outstanding Comedy Series.*

The whole episode was about masturbating.

Or, I suppose, it was about not masturbating. Either way, the focus is the same. That focus and that subject served as the perfect metaphor for these hilariously self-centered characters.

If you haven’t seen it, an explanation of the premise isn’t going to spoil it for you. This summary from Wikipedia is a good intro:

At Monk’s Café, George tells Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer that his mother caught him masturbating while reading a Glamour magazine, resulting in her falling over in shock and going to the hospital. George resolves never to masturbate again. When the others express skepticism, they make a bet over who can go the longest without masturbating. The men put up $100, while Elaine puts up $150, as the men insist that masturbation is not part of a woman’s “lifestyle.”

This is all made even funnier by the fact that network censors were nervous about using the word “masturbation” during a prime-time sitcom. The English language is, of course, rich in euphemisms for this practice, but the show was forbidden from using most of them too. So the writers and cast were forced to resort to other, more oblique references to the act their contest called for them to abstain from. That’s where the title of this post comes from:

Jerry: But are you still “Master of your Domain?”
George: I am king of the county. You?
Jerry: Lord of the Manor.

That was the thing about these characters. Their solipsistic self-obsession meant their whole lives were, essentially, nothing more than masturbation. And this was even true when they were self-obsessively not masturbating. This was what made them ridiculous and hilarious and what made Seinfeld one of the funniest shows on television.

But “The Contest” was, for me, also disturbingly familiar. I recognized what Jerry and George and Elaine and Kramer were doing in this episode because I had done exactly the same thing before.

At church.

As church.

“The Contest” was exactly like an “accountability group.”

For those who have never been a part of the white evangelical subculture, allow me to explain. “Accountability,” in evangelicalese, has to do with sin and temptation — with resisting the latter and avoiding the former. An “accountability group” or “accountability partner” is an attempt to bolster those efforts via teamwork. Two or more evangelicals pledge to “hold one another accountable” by discussing their own “struggles with sin” as transparently and honestly as possible.

This allows for mutual prayer, support, and encouragement, which are lovely things. And it demands honesty, candor, and vulnerability, which are all excellent skills to practice. But the main engine at work here is shame. That’s not entirely bad. The idea is to create a context in which you won’t be able to keep your shameful secrets secret and thus, therefore, you may end up with fewer of them. And that’s good, right? Avoiding the accumulation of shameful secrets seems good.

Alas, though, a system that harnesses shame tends to become a system that is dependent on shame. And when a system is dependent on shame — when it needs shame — it tends to also become a system that creates and cultivates and nurtures shame. This is one of the complicated ways in which this effort at “accountability” can become self-defeating.

Here, though, I intend to focus mainly on the far less complicated ways in which these efforts become self-defeating.

The thing you need to understand about these accountability groups is that they’re extremely earnest. This is something heartfelt, passionate, sincere, and terribly important to the devout Christians involved.

But ultimately this process channels all of that religious zeal into a show about nothing and a life about nothing.

Isaiah 1

“Accountability” groups and partnerships borrow heavily — and selectively, and poorly — from the world of 12-step support groups. It’s an attempt at something like a “Sinner’s Anonymous” approach to Christian living. You become a recovering sin-addict who’s taking it one day at a time. And so this becomes what each day is about and what your new life in Christ is all about: Not Sinning.

What did you do yesterday? Nothing? Excellent! You didn’t sin yesterday!

Now see if you can do nothing today as well. Lord willing, you’ll get to the end of your life and be able to say that you did nothing, absolutely nothing, in all those years!

(Something something buried talent.)

These accountability groups aren’t holding one another accountable for bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, and gentleness. They’re never about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. And they’re certainly never about loosing the chains of injustice, setting the oppressed free, and breaking every yoke.

Making your whole life about Not Sinning is doomed to fail because it’s an attempt to replace something with nothing. That never works. And even if it did, what would “success” get you? Exactly nothing. Only the nothing you sought and strove for.

This self-focused, wholly negative discipleship turns faith into a show about nothing.

And, ultimately, it turns faith into a contest about masturbation.

Both metaphorically and literally.

This is because, in white evangelicalism, sin is primarily about sex. Samuel Perry calls this “sexual exceptionalism” — the notion that sexual sins are the worst, most dangerous, most damning sins of all. When white evangelicals talk about sin, it’s almost always about the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes. Nobody confides to their “accountability partner” about their struggles with the boastful pride of life. (The “Billy Graham Rule” in which Christian men pledge to never be alone with a woman is more about appearance than behavior, but note that there’s no version of such a rule involving a Christian man never being unchaperoned in the presence of a banker or a corporate lobbyist or a hedge-fund manager or a white supremacist or an antisemite or a misogynist. The “Billy Graham Rule” didn’t keep Billy Graham from falling into sin while meeting alone with Richard Nixon.)

This is where the zealous navel-gazing of “accountability” turns into Seinfeld’s “Contest.” Christian discipleship, Christian faith, and the whole of life becomes a matter of ensuring that you are “Master of your domain.”

This creates an enormous “Don’t Think About an Elephant” problem for the earnest Christians obsessively seeking a life devoid of “lust.”

It may be easier to understand this if we use somewhat cruder language. This model of discipleship and accountability requires Christians to perpetually, vigilantly self-monitor their level of horniness. It trains them to always be auditing and measuring that level of horniness — trains them to pay attention at every moment to precisely how horny they are or are not at that moment.

People who go through life like that are, as a general rule, going to be a lot hornier than people who don’t.

In other words, “sexual exceptionalism” and a near-exclusive focus on “accountability” for lust and sexual sin sexualizes everything, everyone, and every moment. Turning the entire world into a hypersexualized minefield makes it more likely, not less, that these poor Christians will “struggle” and “stumble” in their efforts to always remain king of the county and Lord of the manor.


* “The Contest” was TV Guide’s pick for the No. 1 spot when they listed their “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.” The No. 2 spot on that list went to The Sopranos episode “College,” an excellent, harrowing installment of the series widely acclaimed as the pinnacle of “prestige TV.”

That category of prestige TV — ambitious, literary, artistically significant television — tended to focus on anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, or Don Draper, or Walter White, or Stringer Bell. I think all of those shows, in a sense, owe a debt to Seinfeld, the first major series to demonstrate that TV audiences can embrace protagonists who never learn, grow, or seek or find redemption.

 

 

 

 

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