I didn’t want to watch the show. For no particular reason. Well, maybe because of the soccer – forgive me, football. But my daughter insisted. So we sat down as a family to watch Ted Lasso. Before episode one’s credits were rolling we were hooked.
A big part of this show’s success is that the main character, Ted Lasso himself, is so nice. To the point of making you cringe. But, surprisingly, this niceness is quick to charm any viewer sceptisism.
This show currently sits behind an Apple TV paywall so for those who have not yet had the pleasure, let me introduce you to the show’s premise.
Rebecca is the new owner of struggling football club, Richmond. Ted Lasso is hired as the new coach. There are only two problems. Ted’s an American college football coach who knows nothing about English football. And unbeknown to Ted and everyone else, Rebecca is out to torpedo her own club as revenge on her cheating ex-husband (whose pride and joy is the same football club, which Rebecca now owns as part of the divorce settlement).
Which is why Rebecca has hired Ted who arrives fresh from Kansas City with his wingman, Coach Beard. Rebecca is expecting Ted to fail. Ted believes he can turn the club around. So the scene is set, with everything in chaos from the team’s divided loyalties and egotistical talents to an owner out to sabotage her own club. So what does Ted do?
What he does best. He plays it nice. Real nice! At the start of each working day, Ted arrives in Rebecca’s office unannounced with a freshly baked cookie which she finds irresistible and temporarily disarming. Ted starts a suggestion box for the players which as you might imagine is ridiculed. Only one real complaint is made – there’s no hot water in the changing room showers! So Ted fixes the plumbing. And to everyone’s bemusement, Ted just keeps on being nice despite what gets thrown at him.
I think the initial fascination of watching Ted Lasso is morbid sadism. You’re slouching on the edge of your couch for Ted to get whacked and go home crying. But abuse and ridicule slide off Ted like Teflon. How can anyone be this nice and survive? It defies the narcissistic wisdom of Trump’s America in which this show first aired.
Ted Lasso acts like he’s from another planet. And he just doesn’t give up on being nice no matter how much he gets slapped around. So your morbid fascination wanes into glowing admiration. How does Ted Lasso manage to be this nice and forgiving? It’s just not humanly possible. It’s like he’s Jesus.
* * *
And this is the conclusion that many have come to. Although a few have reservations. Not about Ted’s niceness. It’s hard to find any reviews or opinion pieces where the writer doesn’t like Ted Lasso. I couldn’t find one. But some worry about the allusions to Jesus.
Mike Frost expresses disappointment with Ted Lasso, albeit not until the second season’s extended Christmas show. The critics have already pounced on this episode as being too big, too long, too obvious, too nice, even for Ted! Frost adds to this list of dissatisfaction – and too devoid of Christ.
Frost sees the Ted Lasso Christmas episode as a ‘series of snapshots of the Kingdom of God.’ Higgins, the club director of football, hosts an open house Christmas banquet for players away from families. The door to door street search for a dentist to fix Roy’s niece’s bad breath problem (stole from the scene of Hugh Grant as Prime Minister knocking on doors looking for his love interest in Love Actually). And Rebecca and Ted delivering gifts to disadvantaged children in public housing flats.1
But, opines Frost, it was Santa’s birthday being celebrated, not Christ’s. And so? This show suggests you can be Christ like without Jesus. Frost quotes from Mark Sayers book, Disappearing Church, for support. ‘Today we want the kingdom without the king.’ (I argue the world is actually looking for a king in my post Ground Zero 20 Years On: 9/11 and the return of the king) Frost’s conclusion is that Ted Lasso offers the promise of a Christless Christianity.
I can see the point of Frost’s grumble. But I’m not sure if Ted Lasso’s capacity for ‘nice’ is so much a reflection on our culture to deny Christianity as it is to do with our culture not seeing Christ in us, the church. A reflection of a deep searching for an authenticity that can only be found in Christ.
What if the world of Ted Lasso hasn’t encountered the Christ of the Church. So it is inventing it’s own Christ aspirationally. And the church, instead of seeing this as a threat could just as equally recognise Ted Lasso as an opportunity to speak of the real Christ echoed in the show’s protagonist.
* * *
Other commentators have said much about grace and forgiveness in Ted Lasso. Which is indicative of the What would Jesus do? evangelical hermeneutic. Ted Lasso seems to be begging the question WWJD if he was here today? But not quite, as Christ has not been mentioned. Only Santa.
A Catholic commentator, Franciscan Fr. Daniel P. Horan, believes Ted Lasso is “the most unwittingly Christian program on air today,” and draws a parallel with Karl Rahner’s anonymous Christianity which seeks to acknowledge “how God’s presence is not limited only to those who consciously assent to Christian doctrine.”2
Although such theology is likely to make most evangelicals uncomfortable, it does shed light on why many whom we might not label or accept as Christians can make better neighbours than professing Christians. But it flies in the face of a WWJD hermeneutic that according to James Hudnut-Beumler “offers an easy-to-grasp incarnational theology based on the earthly work of Christ that fits nicely with the individualism of the American mind.”3 According to this gospel, the work of Christ’s spirit in the world lies exclusively within the power of the individual who is given over to Christ.
Rahner’s anonymous Christianity recognises a Christ working in people outside the church. Something reminiscent (but, I hasten to add for those Calvinists who might be reading, very different) to Calvin’s prevenient grace that precedes our salvation. According to Calvin we cannot be saved unless predestined by God for salvation, and in our total depravity we cannot respond to Christ’s gospel unless God’s grace calls us first.
And then there are the evangelicals, those progressive libertarians, that inherited Pelagius’ doctrine of free will and potential perfectionism passed down through John Wesley to us. It is this branch of the church that I belong to, sometimes reluctantly, and often with difficulty.
My difficulty here is the bias of personal salvation that bypasses or at best discounts creation. There is a built in assumption with this soteriology that if you change enough peoples hearts you can change the world – the culture we live in. But you could just as easily believe that you can’t really change culture and that what really matters is saving souls for eternity.
In either one of these scenarios, revival (more recently expressed as church growth) is a silver bullet bringing heaven down to earth or taking us up to heaven. This is what I have called gnostic Christianity in other posts because it divorces salvation from creation and culture as in the world. ( See my post Are You A Christian Gnostic? Why we need to get back to the planet before it’s too late)
We either impose on culture our own version of God’s kingdom on earth (bringing heaven down) or we give up on culture and escape into cultish ghettos waiting for Christ’s second coming to take us to heaven. But we are not called to either of these. We are called to herald God’s kingdom coming to earth through preaching Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23).
* * *
At the heart of this gnostic Christianity, as I have defined it, lies our divorcing of the God of creation from the Christ of redemption. Another way one might put this is we have unbalanced the doctrine of the trinity (which was birthed in maintaining the dual natures of Christ – both fully human and fully divine).
But what if the intricate fabric of our universe including the broad sweeps of history to the personal details of our lives are imbued with divine meaning because God is both creator and redeemer.
Eugene Peterson, commenting on David and Goliath in Samuel, writes that “God is the commanding and accompanying presence who provides both plot and texture to every sentence…. God is the reality that determines human history, not giants.”4
If this is true it would mean comprehending that God speaks through our culture. And why not? God spoke through Balaam’s ass and could have provoked the stones to cry out in praise of King Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem (Numbers 22:28-30; Luke 19:40). If God speaks into our culture, it would mean that Christian theological critique trumps all other criticism and has more power for change than any other political force.
It would mean that there is truth to be found in the critique and analysis of The Matrix and Ted Lasso and all the other pop artefacts of our culture that speak something of the divine symphony of God’s redeeming work in history. The church is commissioned to preach the gospel of Christ to the world. But does that mean God can’t speak apart from the Church? Can God also speak in other ways into his creation?
The prophetic task of the church is to discern the echos of Christ in the world’s culture held in tension with a prophetic critique of the cultural idols of its day. We see this tension in the Christian critical responses to Ted Lasso. My own critique, adding to the chorus of what has already been voiced, is do we, the church, protest too loudly to a Christless Ted Lasso?
Should not, we as Christians, be moved to be more ‘Christ like’ in response to the cry for ‘Christ like’ heroes as seen in Ted Lasso. Of course, whether we see Ted Lasso as inspiration or consternation really is a matter of interpretation. But it is also a matter of how we practice our theology and mission.
* * *
Discerning Jesus figures in film and TV doesn’t turn the lead character (hero) into Christ. Rather it recognises (discerns) the Spirit of Christ in the world. And how sad when the church is caught left footed in its discernment of where the wind of the Spirit blows.
We don’t see the spirit of Christ moving in the world because we have trained our eyes to be more receptive to idols. Discernment, such as recognising the figuration of Jesus on TV and in movies, requires a prophetic insight that sees the world through God’s eyes.
We are looking for the perfect Jesus read through the WWJD evangelical hermeneutic. A perfect Jesus with all the doctrinal boxes ticked correctly. That is the only Jesus that will save the world. But that Jesus has already arrived and is working in creation through God’s Spirit to bring about the consummation of all of creation (Colossians 1:20), God’s kingdom on earth.
What we should be looking for are signs of where God is working, the Spirit is blowing, where Christ is being found by the church – yes, even in the world outside the church.
I’m not writing to defend Ted Lasso. I believe it’s the mission of the church to show Christ to the world not Apple TV or any other media platform or entertainment channel. We can do this by pointing out the obvious glitch in Ted Lasso or any other cultural meme or show that hints of Christ.
But to whom are we pointing out the obvious flaw that Ted Lasso is not Christ, not even a Christian. Even though he may look and smell like one. Ourselves, the church? Shouldn’t we already know? Or are we telling the world who may not know? And if so, what do we say when we are called out as the church for not being the same as the Christ like Ted Lasso?
The only way to combat a Christless Christianity is to practice our hermeneutic of WWJD. Our mission is to bring Jesus to the world in how we live our lives and practice community. It is not for us to point out the obvious flaws and glitches in what others may see as Christ working and reflected in the world (Mark 9:38-40).
Our job is to preach Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23) which starts with us laying down our lives for others. Much the same way we see Ted Lasso do.
- Ted Lasso – The Promise of A Christless Christianity
- The anonymous Christianity of ‘Ted Lasso’
- Hudnut-Beumler, James. In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar (p. 8). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.
- Eugene Peterson, 1 & 2 Samuel, The Message Devotional Study Bible, NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2018, p297
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Ted Lasso sounds like a great movie and watched thru particular cultural conditioning will present a challenge and reaction within the church. It is almost an expectation that sacrificial behavior equates to Christian or religious like the infamous “anonymous” Christian. Its a good point the article makes whether such programs reinforce or detract from the exclusiveness of Christianity. Lewis also achieved a modicum of implicit religious thought in his literary works as did Tolkein with symbolism from the Bible. However, these cues will only be decoded by our own religious presuppositions. The challenge as the article so succinctly raises is to demonstrate gospel content and behavior not just one or the other.