If you’re okay with idea of a Christian pastor writing about Seinfeld, then feel free to skip ahead to the Summary. If not, please read the disclaimer below.DISCLAIMER:
You’re probably going to see a lot of these in this particular series :). By writing about a certain TV show, please understand that I’m not giving a ringing endorsement of all of the show’s content. A show like Seinfeld, popular as it was, on network TV as it was, certainly more than pushed the envelope at times in its subject matter.
That said, I do think it is important to honestly recognize talent where talent exists. It’s sort of like an adult telling a child they cannot watch a TV show because “it’s NOT funny” when, in truth, the TV show is, in fact, fairly clever, insightful, witty, and funny. Saying “it’s not funny” is probably not the right approach. That might merely cause you to lose credibility with your kids. After all, why would my mom or dad be more qualified than the American majority to label something as “funny” or not? As a Christian, if the show is mean-spirited and immoral, then that is the reason not to allow your kids (or yourself) to watch. But don’t just say it’s “not funny.”
Furthermore, I also think it’s important to recognize that the Christian Church hasn’t historically shied away from culture’s more influential art forms or artists, whether that be in literature, music, painting, sculpting, or theater. For some reason, perhaps American Pietism, the church in our country is well behind in embracing the most influential current cultural art forms. From a mission standpoint, I personally believe this makes it HIGHLY difficult for Christians to meet people where they’re at in life with the gospel.
In other words, I don’t exactly know how to “go into the city” (Jer. 29:7; Jonah 1:2; Acts 17:16), careful not to fully embrace the ways of the city (Gen. 19:1; Josh. 6:18), without ever entering the city. That balance is part of the purpose of this blog.
As I’ve gotten older and grown spiritually, I’ve become a bit more discerning in the entertainment I consume. I would absolutely support someone who avoids shows like Seinfeld for the right reasons. But I also see value in dissecting what impact they have on the thought of the very people we are trying to love, serve, and save with the gospel today.
I remember the moment I first fell for Seinfeld. It was during episode 34 (Season 3), “The Boyfriend, Part 1.” Main character Jerry Seinfeld was trying to convince his friend Elaine that professional baseball player Keith Hernandez did not, in fact, spit on his eccentric friend Kramer or Jerry’s arch nemesis, heavyset mailman Newman, Kramer’s close friend. I had never heard a conversation so sophisticated and yet so unimportant. It was beautiful in its own way.
Twenty years later, like many men my age, I’ve seen every episode of Seinfeld countless times, can annoyingly recite virtually every line, and still often laugh harder on hearing these lines for the 50th time even more than the first time. Seinfeld became such a distinct part of my life and the way that I think that to this day I have a harder time remembering my childhood address than Jerry’s – 129 West 81st St, Apt. 5A.
I’m sure there will come a day when Seinfeld’s brand of humor is no longer funny. It’ll almost definitely come at a time when the common worldview has shifted, since the idiosyncrasies of (post)modern man is what Seinfeld tapped into so well. But today, as evidenced by the fact that still no other show comes anywhere close to grossing what Seinfeld has in syndication, the series continues to capture the American zeitgeist, perfectly illustrating the foibles of the thought and spirit of our day.
“Isolated, narcissistic, urban, ‘thirty-something singles’ float through their existences trying to make sense out of what they ultimately perceive to be a meaningless, patchwork world. We laugh as we watch these actors portray individuals with no roots, vague identities, and conscious indifference to morals outside their self-determined ones.” (Hurd, R. Wesley (June 1998). “Postmodernism: A New Model of Reality”. McKenzie Study Center.)
What was “Magical” about the show?
In its June 1997 edition, TV Guide called Seinfeld, “the greatest television program of all time.” Why?
As mentioned, in Seinfeld, series creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David captured the spirit of the times and brilliantly pinpointed and poked fun at the finicky, superficial, indecisive nature of postmodern people. But the show’s mechanisms were also highly unconventional. Seinfeld, a self-professed “show about nothing” was less about plot line and more about character development, or lack thereof. And yet, despite the rather inconsequential nature of the characters’ day-to-day lives, all of their storylines ultimately interconnected in some uncanny way. This inevitably resulted not in a positive outcome for the characters (who can barely be labeled as “protagonists” due to their obviously selfish, superficial natures). Rather, in the end, the main characters generally got what they deserved. Even the series finale (SPOILER ALERT) concludes with them being tossed in jail precisely for their lack of concern for their fellowman.
Evidence of the impact of Seinfeld can still be heard in everyday conversations, which often sound like retreads of the sitcom’s classic bits. Whether slight variations or direct theft of Seinfeldisms, if you’re looking for it, it’s nothing short of amazing how much modern comedy is so transparently driven by Seinfeld humor.
Since the show concluded in May of 1998, there have been other shows that have shifted the way TV, particularly comedies, have been done. The Office comes to mind. But most critics would tell you that none of them even come close to the continued impact of America’s most beloved “show about nothing.”
Okay, so how has it influenced us….spiritually?
1) The characters never develop
Prior to Seinfeld, the way a story was generally told, in simple terms, was that a character has some sort of humble beginnings (moral or financial or simple naïveté, etc.). The character experiences a conflict which causes him/her to go on a journey. Everything comes to a head, a climax, and finally the character learns an important lesson and the tension is resolved.
If you’ve ever seen Seinfeld, you know that this doesn’t happen in one single episode. The show’s creators were acutely aware that the conventional storytelling method, while compelling, is often not the way life really works. Much of the time, people don’t actually learn the lessons they should, continuously falling into the same traps.
In the show, Jerry, a single, indifferent, semi-famous comedian, is constantly looking for a true companion, but due to his perfectionist, picky ways, he ends up dating a different girl each week. George Costanza, his lifelong best friend, is petty, cheap, dishonest, and constantly jealous of the success of others, yet possesses no real drive to achieve success of his own. Elaine Benes, Jerry’s ex-girlfriend but continued good friend, is assertive, a bit of a feminist, and wants to prove the power of the modern woman. Nonetheless, she’s a bit of a self-righteous liberal, which tends to cause her to fall into the very stereotypes she hates. And then there’s Kramer. Kramer is the do-nothing, know-nothing, but good-natured and good-fortuned eccentric, across-the-hall friend of Jerry. And every single one of the characters ends the series as the exact same person as when the show began. They start the show as superficial, single adults complaining about the minutiae of life, aspiring for something greater but refusing to make the painful changes in themselves that would lead to changes in their lives. They flirt with such changes at times, even holding lengthy conversations and making pacts about things like growing up and getting jobs and getting religious and getting married, but none of them is ever able to fully follow through on the execution. To the characters, life is just too hard and their own comfort and pleasure is just too important. In fact, this lack of development is such an integral part of the show that the very last conversation of the series shows the characters holding one of the same petty, pointless discussions that opened the series – the placement of the second button on a man’s shirt making or breaking the quality of the shirt.
Alright, does this teach us anything spiritually? Yes, something painfully applicable in fact. As the years go by, humans are not only supposed to grow up physically, but it’s also understood that we’re supposed to develop in character. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (1 Cor. 13:11) Seinfeld is filled with characters who have refused to grow up (i.e. develop). This is illustrated in every episode in subtle ways, such as Jerry’s fascination with Superman and his tendency to eat cereal for every meal.
When you’re a child, your world is very small and you are the center of it. It’s only as you grow up that you realize you are a mere speck on a giant planet which is itself a dot in the universe. When your world is small and your thoughts are simplistic, comfort and pleasure and entertainment, base desires, are generally your only goals. On Seinfeld, there is very little action. Probably around 80% of the show takes place either in Jerry’s apartment or Monk’s cafe, their local diner around the corner. They live in New York City, but their world is very small because they are full-grown children.
Today we have a similar situation/problem – young adults, especially young men, refusing to grow up. Why? In part, simply because we can get away with it. If your parents are willing to let you live in the basement until you’re 40-years-old and you’re not starving and there’s very little societal shame in not tracking down a job, you can bank on finding boatloads of guys who won’t grow up, who are the center of their own little universe, and who see pleasure as the main goal of life.
The Apostle Paul encourages us to grow up and put childish ways behind us. Culturally though, we’ve responded with a collective “No thanks. Responsibility is scary. I’m afraid of failing. And it’s much easier to play video games.”
2) It was an intensely interconnected “Show About Nothing”
For thousands of years, philosophers have asked questions about the meaning of life. In a fresh way, Seinfeld just resoundingly said, “Life is about nothing.” If that’s true – that life truly is about nothing – then, as the show points out, that reality creates basically miserable, selfish people.
Notice how different this mindset is from what Jesus teaches in the great “Good Shepherd” chapter of the New Testament, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) Now, a fair number of “prosperity theologians” have interpreted this passage to mean that God wants us to have a comfortable, pleasurable life here on earth. Notice, not coincidentally, that’s the exact same end goal of the selfish Seinfeld characters. But, without diving in too deep, we can glean from Jesus’ words here in this passage that life is NOT about nothing; it’s about something.
According to the Bible, life has purpose and therefore we do have something worth living for, which transforms us into more thoughtful, fulfilled people. If everyone simply lives for their basest wants and desires, how laughably disgusting of a world might it be? But if we’re living for something greater than personal pleasure and comfort, well……what on earth would that something be?
Some of the higher, more noble-sounding goals that you hear people living for today are good things like “saving the planet.” Every year NBC changes their logo green for a week and has some of their stars tell us about the importance of recycling and lowering our harmful car emissions. As you can perhaps tell by my tone, I take John Krasinski’s encouragement to reduce my carbon footprint fairly seriously. But okay, so lets say we do prolong the existence of the planet (and don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we abuse the planet). But what’s the final goal of that? So that another generation can have a planet? And then their life goal is ALSO to preserve the planet for the generation after that? Seems unsatisfactorily cyclical. The same could be said when someone makes a pious-sounding statement about how we’re doing things “for the children.”
Another popular goal is what was referred to in the 20th century as “world peace” but today is called “tolerance.” Basically, we want all humans to get along. Again, this is a legitimate and noble goal, but if it’s made to be the ULTIMATE truth of life, it violates my personal biblical beliefs. Martin Luther once said, “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.” Luther was referring to doctrinal agreement, but it’s a general universal principle. For instance, I’d like to get along with my neighbor, but if I find out that he’s abusing his wife or children, we’re going to have problems – the truth at that point outweighs my desire for neighborly peace.
My belief that salvation comes exclusively through Jesus is probably going to rub some people the wrong way. I’m certainly not going to engage in physical war with anyone over it, unless perhaps I have to someday defend myself. Nonetheless, difference in spiritual beliefs has certainly caused (and continues to cause) wars in the world. Truth claims do tend to put people at odds. But, understand, if you ask billions of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other to put away their truth claims, YOU are making a truth claim – that world peace is more important than such beliefs. My point is that in order to achieve true world peace, everyone would have to think alike, which means you’d have to suppress everyone’s religious beliefs. And that wouldn’t be particularly peaceful, right? You can’t force everyone to be “tolerant” without being intolerant yourself. There are other points, but the bottom line is that logically life cannot ultimately be about world peace and tolerance.
According to Christian doctrine, life is about more. True life/full life comes from personally knowing Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. It is in understanding God the Father’s plan/design for your life. It is in recognizing the Son executing a rescue mission to deliver you from your sins, yourself, and hell – an existence apart from God. Finally, it’s about being filled with the Spirit who makes these truths real in your heart. While we desire to grow in our relationship with this God and recapture the perfect image of God, we know that we are a work in progress in this lifetime and that this will not be fully realized until heaven. That is the goal of life for a Christian. Life, since it is growing in connectedness with an infinite, cosmic God, is then invaluable.
Let me put this a slightly different way. Life is NOT about NOTHING as Seinfeld joked. Nor is life just about a good but not ultimate SOMETHING, as many well-intentioned people would have you believe. According to the Bible, life is the only thing. Poetically and profoundly, life is about the ONE who creates, redeems, and sustains life. And the Bible says the only way to that is in Jesus (John 14:6; John 17:3; and the rest of John’s Gospel).
The hallmark interconnectedness of Seinfeld episodes, in its own way, shows some sort of divine, cosmic guidance to the human existence. But why would a divine being guide events ironically into nothingness? Simply to amuse himself? Or does it make more sense that he is, in fact, guiding events, but for a greater purpose – to develop true relationship with spiritually maturing human beings.
NET takeaway: Life cannot be about NOTHING. If it is, there is nothing “wrong” with stunted character growth, solidifying ourselves as selfish, miserable human beings. If that doesn’t sound right, too empty, then life must be about something more, something bigger, SOMEONE better.