Monday, April 29, 2013

On Being Enlightened

Laura Dern, HBO, Enlightened
Enlightened starring Laura Dern
by Charity Erickson

HBO’s Enlightened was cancelled last month after two short seasons on the air. (Two very short seasons; there are only 18 episodes in the series, total.) I mourned for it as one might for a not-un-expected death; I binge-watched the entire first season while consuming an entire bag of ginger chews.

My feelings for the show are complicated. They are similar to my feelings for another much-beloved show that will likely be cancelled this year, ABC’s Happy Endings. When I watch these shows, I regularly find myself thinking, “These people are so annoying. Why do I adore them so?” And then I take out my exasperation on a ginger chew.

The truth is that I identify with challenging characters in an intimate way, since I too regularly find myself on the receiving end of squinty side-eyes. Something about me, I guess; I draw them like a magnet.

So, when Enlightened’s protagonist Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern)—a high-strung idealist imperfectly pursuing positive life change—gives an impassioned speech about immigration reform at a baby shower intending to inspire her coworkers, but instead incurring their ire, I can chuckle even as I cringe with pained recognition. (I may have done something similar at my last family Thanksgiving.)

Enlightened paints a painfully recognizable portrait of the “ordinary radical,” at times revering and at other times lampooning Amy’s intensity as she attempts to “be the change she wants to see in the world” while working at the corporate headquarters for an evil pharmacy chain—“Abaddon.” (A word familiar to me only by its mention in Old Testament footnotes. If I remember correctly, my NIV Teen Study Bible said it means “destruction.”)

Mike White, Mel White, Enlightened
Mel and Mike White
Though Enlightened’s creator, writer, and cast member Mike White is not speaking specifically to the Christian paradigm, it certainly informs his work. He is the son of the Rev. Dr. Mel White—who I was shocked to recognize from a Philip Yancey study video—an evangelical pastor who came out as gay in 1994 and now ministers to LGBT Christians. In interviews, Mike White talks about his father and seeing the self-serving side to justice work; the conceit of activism is a major thematic vein on Enlightened.

White says on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross, “Amy reminds me of my father in a lot of ways…when he came out he wanted to, in a sense, make restitution for having participated in the world of the, kind of, right-wing religious extremism…he wanted to tell these…father figures to him how much they are hurting him and the other…gay children in the religious world. And at the same time it was also important, like Amy, to not just do good but to be seen as being good. Because that part of it…it was his own struggle to feel like he's worthy and worthwhile.”

On the show, Amy’s initial transformation—while we know she genuinely wants to change—is nevertheless a bit of a pose, intended to prove to those around her (and to herself) that she has changed, or even more, that she has become a better person. She modifies her hair, clothes, and cadence of speech to project a sense of inner-calm, while right alongside her Zen ambitions, real ambitions simmer; as do other less-lovely motivations, such as envy, revenge, and simple escapism. Of course, other characters see right through her; but to Amy, putting on this other identity is important for her sense of self-esteem. It’s not that she is being false; she is being complex, actually complex—not contradictory—which is what makes her a fantastic character.

And oh, how I get this. One summer during college, when I was trying to get away from evangelicalism-as-usual, I moved into a loosely Christian community house. I started wearing a flowy, earth-toned sundress without a bra underneath. Partly because it fit the more beautiful identity I wanted for myself, partly because I got it for free (therefore I was sort-of protesting consumerism, right?) and partly because I thought I might get asked out by some young bohemian. It was a symbol that helped me feel a certain way about myself; but in the end it was just a brown maternity dress that really needed to be paired with a bra. (Save it. I just side-eyed myself.)

Shane Claiborne, ordinary radicals, Irresistible Revolution
Shane Claiborne
See, the tragicomic portrayal of justice work in Enlightened speaks more to my reality than any teary, beautiful Shane Claiborne story—which I also love, but for different, more aspirational reasons. In my experience with Christian service, the beauty always seems a little harder to find. You know, like when you finally get the hoarder who you are trying to help move to give away the t-shirts she found in the garbage, and you get her to her new place, only to find that it is a motel that rents by the hour. Or like when you get turned away from helping at the soup kitchen. Or like when you’re at a prayer meeting that turns real weird.

Enlightened provides a cathartic outlet for the aspiring radicals out there working so hard to “bring the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven,” who have come to find that their efforts don’t always bring memoir-worthy results. More importantly for the Christian-culture-at-large, however, is its portrayal of the complexity, nuance, absurdity, and ultimately, the beauty of “radical” living. Such a view provides us a necessary counterbalance to other, more agenda-driven visions and reminds us that we are never as enlightened as we think we are.

Charity Erickson and her husband Lance live and work together in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.

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