Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Owning Cougar Town and Christianity's Name Game

by Ben Howard

People have a tendency to laugh at me when I tell them that I not only watch, but love the show Cougar Town. From the outside, I can totally understand this reaction. The title and the early promotions for the show imply that this is going to be a sitcom about women in their 40’s trying to hookup with guys and their 20’s. It probably doesn’t help that the DVD set of Season 1 that I own is bright pink with a picture of Courteney Cox wearing a “40 is the new 20” t-shirt.

I get why people giggle a little and question my manhood when I tell them I’m a fan, and they would have had a point for the first six episodes or so. That is exactly what the show was at the beginning, but it didn’t really work so the show changed into something else, something far more entertaining than a hackneyed title.

Cougar Town evolved into a show about middle-aged friends who drink a lot of wine and have a series of fun and wacky adventures as they stumble their way through life. It became what any good sitcom ultimately becomes, a group of people you like spending time with and who you find entertaining and interesting. The show could have changed it’s name to more accurately reflect the new narrative dynamics of the show, but “Likeable People Who Living Close to Each Other Talking and Having Fun” isn’t particularly catchy or descriptive.

You see the problem Cougar Town has experienced is not an identity problem, it’s a perception problem. The show and those involved know exactly what they’re doing and what they intend to do, but the wider world still thinks the show is about Courteney Cox trying to score young guys and relive her 20’s. The name and the baggage that comes along with the name has restricted the shows ability to bring in new viewers. At the same time, the show runners can’t change the name because it might confuse or alienate the dedicated fan base they’ve already established despite the name.

I think this situation is very similar to the way Christianity is forced to use the word’s “church” and “religion”. These words have a very narrow definition in the minds of outsiders and therefore possess a lot of baggage. A lot of Christians have worked incredibly hard to recover the meaning of these words and explain to the wider world that despite what they may think church and religion are not oppressive and divisive terms, but are intended to be a path towards liberation and community.

Christianity cannot abandon either term because it disconnects the faith from its tradition. The Christian faith has traditionally used these words, even in their inadequacy, and therefore they are themselves part of the Christian tradition, much like the early iteration of Cougar Town is still part of its narrative canon. Christianity should not run from its tradition. Instead, it should embrace this tradition along with its flaws, cracks and failures.

During the second season of Cougar Town, the producers and writers of the show made clear to the audience that they too understood the how ridiculous the title was. Each title sequence included some inside joke about how terrible the title was, while still keeping the shows title.

I think Christians can learn from this as well. Instead of running from the idea of institutional religion, wink at it and acknowledge that we also understand how ridiculous this can look from the outside. Steer into the skid and laugh at the insanity like the everybody else. Yes, we Christians understand that sometimes our tradition and our traditional language can be silly. But it’s still ours. We own it, even when it becomes a burden.

There was a Christian rock station in Columbus that I listened to growing up. They used to always use the tagline, “It’s a relationship not a religion.” That sounds lovely and everything, but it’s not totally true. Christianity is a relationship AND a religion. It doesn’t stop being a religion because you don’t like the word. In the same way, church doesn’t stop being church because you call it a “fellowship” or an “assembly” or a “gathering”. Changing the signifier doesn’t change what you’re signifying, it just makes you seem flaky.

So call it church and own that it’s religion even when people misinterpret what you mean when you say those words. Even when they think that means your oppressive and mean. I promise you’ll be able to convince them if they give you a chance. Also, you should watch Cougar Town because I want to play penny can and none of my friends know what in the world I’m talking about. Get on it!


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

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