Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Lightning In A Bottle: What The Hobbit and Arrested Development Mean for the Church

by Ben Howard

I watched The Hobbit last weekend, and before I say anything else, you should know I was a big fan of the Lord of the Rings movies. I never read the books because I saw the movies first, but I liked them a lot. I was even excited to see Return of the King win the Oscar for Best Picture. It felt right. It felt good.

So now you know that I wanted to be a fan, but even with my fan-boy glasses on, The Hobbit was only okay. It felt like the first of the Harry Potter films. You know, the one where they’re all going through wizard-puberty and you don’t actually care that much. It all felt kind of cartoon-y. 

It just wasn’t the thing that I loved the first time around.

In a few months Netflix is set to make the TV nerd world explode, or at least stop functioning for about a week, when they release the 4th season of Arrested Development. I’m in my twenties so I’m contractually obligated to love this show. I’m also contractually obligated to say that it’s the greatest sitcom of all-time. (Note: I’ve never really watched Seinfeld, and no thank you, I don’t think I would like to.)

The contractual obligations may have made my love of the show sound sarcastic, but I promise that isn’t the case. I remember watching the first episode on the TV in my parent’s bedroom because my dad was watching Fox News or some other thing I wasn’t interested in when I was 16. I remember my roommate sophomore year (Hi Braden!) owned every season and we spent a lot of the time sitting on a wildly uncomfortable futon watching episodes on my cheap, tiny TV.

But I’m worried. I’m worried that the magic will be gone. I’m worried that it just won’t be the thing I loved the first time around.

A few years ago in one of my grad classes, we were given an article to read by Dallas Willard. I don’t remember the name of the article (I searched for a bit, but to no avail), but I remember the argument it made. Willard pointed out that when something is successful it becomes nearly impossible to replicate that success.

The first success is lightning in a bottle. It comes about because of passion, timing, chemistry, and all around hard work. It comes about because someone is trying to do their best. Then when people try to recreate that first success, they fail. Why do they fail? Because they’re trying to be successful. They’ve stopped aiming at the original goal which yielded success as a by-product and started aiming at success itself.

I grew up in a Christian tradition that glorified the First Century Church (trademark pending). We talked about it a lot. The First Century Church was invoked as the pinnacle of Christianity. It was the standard to which the church was held. If they didn’t do it in the First Century Church, then we shouldn’t do it either. Of course, this leaves out that Paul spent a good chunk of his letters excoriating the First Century Church for their moral failings, infighting, and syncretistic religious beliefs, but that’s not really the point. No, the point is that if you’re constantly trying to re-create the success of something that was, you’ll ultimately fail to be what you can be.

That’s the message of The Hobbit. It’s the concern of Arrested Development. And it’s something the church should take seriously. You can’t be what you were. You can’t live in the past or try to recreate it. Life doesn’t come with a rewind button. There is only one direction and that direction is forward. Learn from the past, but do not doom yourself to fail in your attempts to repeat it.

It won’t be what you loved the first time around.


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  1. Interesting thoughts. I align somewhat with that you have said here. I have always thought that it's impossible for the church today to pattern itself after the First Century Church. But I have never thought of it as trying to recreate success rather than simply living out of passion and desire to do our best in following God.
    Also, I loved the Hobbit. Saw it twice in two days. You should reconsider your position. haha!

  2. I can definitely see that aspect of the FCC, but I still don't adhere to it. We are rooted in our context and should work out of that. That context includes a knowledge of the FCC, both history and myth, but it is not constrained by it.

    Also, I didn't dislike The Hobbit, I just felt every minute of its 3 hours.