An LCMS "TV" Series: Leaving Eden
Leaving Eden is an interesting project. It is based on notes written by Greg Batiansila the son of an LCMS pastor. It is a web-based series (I created a YouTube playlist of all ten episodes below).
[Note: if you want to watch YouTube videos on your TV, one way to do this is by streaming through your Roku player from your smartphone by using a free app called Twonky. It isn't nearly as complicated as it sounds. Here is an article that can point you in the right direction.]
The series is set in an LCMS congregation called Good Shepherd. It openly makes references to being a Lutheran congregation, to Luther, to Walther, using words like "district" and "synod." The storyline focuses on the pastor (the Rev. Ben Nicholson), his family, and the newly-arrived vicar (Lucas Carlove).
The series has a "documentary" look and feel. Each episode lasts only between 12 and 15 minutes. It strikes me as a postmodern video version of The Hammer of God that addresses the church's challenges in our own day and age and cultural setting. It shows the behind-the-scenes struggles facing pastors and their families, as well as those plaguing their congregants.
I do recommend it, and find it to be remarkably realistic - in spite of its glaring weaknesses, which I will address first: its portrayal of Lutheran worship and preaching.
There is very little by way of worship depicted in the series. And in its defense, it is primarily about what happens during the week as people struggle day to day plying their vocations in a fallen world and post-Christian culture. Nevertheless, when worship is portrayed, it is un-Lutheran. The pastor wears no clerical garb or vestments, there is no liturgical dialogue between pastor and people, and a drum kit is clearly visible in the front. This is a terrible missed opportunity to not only portray authentic Lutheranism, but to demonstrate how Christ comes to His suffering people (preachers and hearers alike) in Word and Sacrament.
There is not a single instance of someone taking the Lord's Supper, receiving this most holy comfort for the troubled Christian. There is no portrayal of confession and absolution - in spite of sin and its effects being front and center in the series. There is not a single reference to Holy Baptism. In one short scene of worship, parishioners are holding up their hands Pentecostal-style. When it comes to worship and sacraments, this congregation could change its name to "Good Shepherd Methodist" and it would not have altered the series one bit, and in fact, it might have increased its authenticity.
When the pastor prays, the prayers are likewise un-Lutheran. It isn't just that they are exclusively ex corde prayers (which every parish pastor makes ample use of), but they are vacuously worded imitations of the worst type neo-evangelical prayers that are largely fluff.
Needless to say, there is no reference to praying the psalms nor the comfort of turning to Scripture or to prayer books as a means to leading a prayerful Christian devotional life.
The other unfortunate weakness in the series is the way preaching is portrayed. One of the strengths of our Lutheran tradition is our homiletics. Lutheran pastors are trained to craft Christocentric and Christological sermons. In the real world, pastors quickly learn that gimmicks are not what people need in their day to day struggles with sin, death, and the devil. The series blew a golden opportunity to show the world the gem that is a proper Lutheran proclamation of Christ crucified, of law and gospel, and of the biblical centrality of our preaching.
Instead, we see the pastor preaching off the cuff holding a garbage bag that he says includes dirty diapers. The vicar shows up to preach wearing some sort of beach flotation device. The preaching is, in the typical manner of non-denominational congregations, vacuous and experiential without much Christ.
What the Series Does Well
In spite of the above criticisms, there is much that the series has going for it.
It portrays pastoral care in a post-Christian, postmodern context quite accurately and authentically. The pastor's neighbor, a young woman who has become good friends with the pastor's wife, is a typical young American. She is a good neighbor, nice, helpful, but utterly unversed in Christianity - which she approaches as a quaint curiosity comprised of "Jesus people." A young couple who are in the pastor's office for marital counseling are extremely accurately portrayed as absolutely uninterested in the faith. They are jumping through hoops just to get their wedding, their body language displaying that familiar passive-aggressive hostility that every modern pastor has seen with young couples who do not attend services but whose relatives want a "church wedding."
The series does a great job of showing how categorical theology as practiced theoretically (in the idealism and naivety of the vicar) becomes messier and more complicated and nuanced in the real world where people actually live and breathe and have their being.
The series portrays the parochial antagonist, how bad church meetings can be, the pastor's and congregation's financial struggles, the pastor's constant failed effort to make time for his family, the stress in the lives of the pastor and the laity of the church, health and heathcare issues, the pastor's fear of "losing his job," the impotence of the district (which is truly a "best construction"), the fact that the pastor and his family are giving of themselves to the point where they struggle to receive spiritual help and friendship themselves.
All painfully true for pretty much any clergy family that has been in the parish for any amount of time.
The series deals with real-world matters such as divorce, how to tell who is lying, dysfunctional personalities, alcoholism, jail, death, the cancer ward, bad checks, complicated relationship issues, and the children of the pastor who are constantly placed at the back of the queue for dad's time.
The series clearly reflects an insider's view of the real-world life of the pastor's family, as well as a behind-the-scenes view of the good, bad, and ugly in parochial life, including a new convert, a teacher in what seems to be the parochial school, members of the church council, the church secretary, and of course, the vicar.
And yet, it is not all bad. The pastor's ministrations are not in vain. People do manage to receive pastoral care even in a culture of unbelief, even with horrific struggles, even as the pastor basically sees his work as triage at best, always tottering on the edge of failure. And like real life, there are a few surprises along the way as people often behave in ways contrary to what we might expect.
The series is authentically Lutheran in its portrayal of the Theology of the Cross. And that, I think, makes it worth overlooking the bad worship and preaching while seeing how the wheels of grace meet the highway of the fallen world in a way that is not contrived or idealized. That is the one thing that redeems the series and makes it worthwhile.
The filmmakers are raising funds to put out a second season. Here are some interviews. [Note: Thank you to my parishioner Louise for bringing this to my attention!]