No Paradise: HBO’s “The White Lotus” and the Limits of Natural Theology

This reflection does not contain specific plot spoilers for the HBO seriesThe White Lotus” but it does refer to the overall trajectory of the storyline.

If you are looking for the key question that underlies HBO’s limited series The White Lotus, you will find it in episode 4, during a dinner conversation among the wealthy white Mossbacher family and their daughter’s BIPOC friend, Paula. In the midst of a terse intergenerational argument over race, class, and social change, the normally quiet teenage son Quinn erupts in frustration:

What does it matter what we think? If we think the right things or the wrong things, we all do the same shit. We’re all still parasites on the earth. There’s no virtuous person when we’re all eating less fish and throwing all our plastic crap in the ocean. Like a billion animals died in Australia during the fire. A billion. Where does all the pain go?”

Where does all the pain go, indeed? Who pays the price for widespread abuse and destruction, be it climate change, systemic social injustices or otherwise? 

Although it looks and sounds like a straightforward TV series centering intertwined human dramas, it is the tension between ethics and ecology that is, in truth, the force propelling the stories of the indolent guests at The White Lotus resort. Certain questions linger and prod at us throughout the series: can we (especially we white, economically-privileged westerners) insulate ourselves from the raw forces of nature, including the self-destructiveness of our own predatory instincts? Will nature eventually humble us into a greater sense of mutuality and interconnectedness with our neighbor and our planet?

For The White Lotus, at least, the answer is yes to the first question and no to the second.  Without giving away any specific plot points, it is safe to say that there is no dramatic comeuppance for the hotel guests. They emerge from their vacations largely unscathed, still ensconced in their entitlement, while those who serve them or tread in their wake are left to bear the brunt of the tragedy that ensues.

This can feel a bit disappointing, especially if you were hoping for the emotional gratification of seeing some problematic people get their just deserts. The sinister, sickly-golden artifice of the resort, which at the outset of the series hints at the possibility of some moral reckoning lurking among the hibiscus flowers (like a modern-day Fantasy Island) gives way to an even more sinister truth at the end: there is no reckoning, at least not for those at the top of the food chain. The world, the show seems to admit, continues to reward the dominant and chew up the vulnerable. There is no moral arc intrinsic to the natural order of creation. 

A bleak takeaway for an intelligent and entertaining TV series, perhaps. However, there is much here to consider through the lens of Christian faith—especially for those of us who operate in generally progressive Christian circles or who frequently emphasize the inherent goodness of creation. Here’s why.

If you or anyone you know has ever said something like, “I sense God’s presence most clearly in nature,” you have participated to some degree in what is called natural theology, which explores “what can be known of God through the natural world without any divine guidance or revelation” (McGrath, Christian Theology, 141.) When we behold the beauty of a sunset or marvel at the intricacy of an ecological system and then consider how those things might reveal something of their Creator, we are, in that moment, natural theologians. In our wonder we echo the words of the Psalmist who cries out that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the heavens proclaim the work of God’s hands” (Psalm 19:1). 

This can be a sacred and life-giving pursuit. Natural theology is a deeply important approach, especially because in an age of overly-spiritualized Christianity it emphasizes the goodness and the preciousness of the created world and our responsibility to it. For if nature bears some imprint of God’s own majesty, then presumably we are called to honor it and care for it, just as we do for our neighbor whose own face reveals to us the face of Christ. In the era of destructive climate change, this perspective is more urgent than ever. 

But natural theology has its limits, and we must be mindful of acknowledging them. For as much as we celebrate in the Christian faith that God created the earth and called it good (see:Genesis) this ought not send us into a mawkish romanticism that sees nature simply as a benign object of admiration. For example, it is unarguably lovely to imagine God revealed in a sunset or a rainbow, but far more troubling to consider God as exercising Divine prerogative in an earthquake or a hurricane. And although the record of Scriputure does both, it is far too easy to reject the latter while blithely retaining the former. God becomes the object of our pleasure rather than our awe, and God then suspiciously begins to look a lot like us, as malleable as the landscape we exploit.

And while they do not seem to profess any particular faith, this is, in fact, what the characters of The White Lotus are prone to do in their Hawaiian pseudo-paradise. They are natural theologians in extremis. They admire the waves and the flowers and the hula dancers as scenery while carefully ignoring their own complicity in the subjugation of the land and the people in whose midst they are traveling. Nature is beautiful and largely banal to them because, as those residing at the top of the ecosystem, they can afford to ignore the ugly, brutal stuff. But others (the hotel workers and those in more precarious social circumstances) cannot help but notice that stuff because they are the ones left to clean it up, both literally and figuratively.

Natural theology, unmitigated, can result in a subtle sort of idolatry in which the world as it is is interpreted as an end in itself. Our reverence for creation risks turning into reverence for ourselves with creation as a soothing backdrop, which might sound like a harmless form of self-empowerment until you see it at work among those who hold all of the power and who claim that this is both natural and divinely sanctioned (see: white supremacy.) At the risk of gross understatement, we’ve seen too much of this, and there must be a corrective.

Thankfully, there is. A central aspect of our faith, which can get lost in our contemporary enthusiasm for natural theologies, is that Christianity is revealed—that is, God’s activity and self-disclosure in Christ are outside of the natural order. This activity is characterized by intervention, by miraculousness, and what might be called a loving antagonism against the established natural and social order of the world. 

Because if we, like the creators of The White Lotus, observe that nature is inherently amoral in its ordering, such that “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14), then God has provided a revolutionary new thing (Isaiah 43:19) in the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. This new thing  is categorically unnatural, because it overturns the tendencies of death and domination that pervade nature as we know it. 

And in its unnatural character, God’s work in Christ liberates us from the expected outcomes. It is a promise that those who feast and laugh (and, ahem, take expensive and exploitative beach vacations) at the expense of others must eventually be accountable for their share of the world’s suffering.  

Divine judgment, which tends to make us progressive Christians squirm, is actually a promise that the brutality of nature is not the end of the story. Hence Mary’s jubilant song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53). 

This is the moral outcome which is utterly lacking in The White Lotus, but our dismay about that absence is actually a sign of encouragement. For if nature itself (and the society we have built upon its back) is largely indifferent to our basest impulses, then from whence comes our longing for justice and our capacity for selflessness? How can we imagine pure benevolence when we have no direct experience of it in the world around us? That these questions are inherently “unnatural” and unsupported by prevailing evidence suggests that there is more going on in God’s universe than what we can readily perceive.

This is our hope: that the answers to these questions transcend the limits of natural theology and invite us into something more vast than the largest ocean and more beautiful than the most perfect sunset—something made known to us not by human wisdom or striving, but only in the revelation we receive as followers of Christ. While Jesus does not deny that domination and death will still shape our experience of life and discipleship (see: Calvary), he also promises through his conquering of death that yes, there is place where all the pain goes. It goes to a place where it is held and transformed and redeemed by Love itself. We usually call it the Kingdom of God. It is a realm where we are are not just on vacation, but where we—and all of creation—can finally experience what the hapless travelers at The White Lotus never actually find: true peace. 

Home: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 15, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Proverbs 9:1-6 and John 6:51-58.

This past Wednesday the parish gathered outside in the garden (or the garth, as we call it) for a party to celebrate the beginning of a new program year here at Trinity—and, I think, to simply revel in the joy of being together after a very long and challenging year and a half. 

I saw and heard so many beautiful things as I wandered around—friends visiting and reconnecting; some of our downtown neighbors who showed up and appreciated the opportunity to receive a hot meal from the food truck; the sound of music and laughter bouncing off of those old stone walls. It felt so good, like the love that we speak of and cultivate here in the nave of the church had spilled out into the streets. 

If you were there, I think you have a sense of what I am talking about. And if you couldn’t be there, please know that you were thought of, that you were in a sense still part of things, because no matter the day or the week or the year, this place belongs to all of us who have loved it, to all whose lives have crossed this threshold, to all whose hands have tended to its care, whose feet have trod the well-worn path to the altar rail. And so, as we begin another season of worship, study, and service at Trinity, I say again to you what will always be true, every time you come through these doors, whether for the first time or the last: welcome home. 

Now for some, the language of “church home” and a “church family” can come off as overly sentimental or disingenuous, an attempt to gloss over the broken parts of a complex institution, claiming a spirit of welcome and mutuality when what is actually expected is compliance and conformity. I know that many have been harmed in the past by those types of environments, and thus it is so very important here, in this place, that we mean what we say. That we come together in our diversity and difference and live as though there is space enough for everyone at this table, in this house of prayer, because God has told us that, indeed, there is. The door is open to every willing heart.

In today’s reading from Proverbs, the personification of Wisdom calls out to passersby, “you that are simple, turn in here! To those without sense…come eat of my bread.” In other words, no matter how foolish or stupid you are, you are welcome here!

And while I don’t know that that exact wording will show up on any of our parish event invitations, the point is this: we are all, in one way or another, lost, stumbling around, distracted and confused by both the complexity and the banality of our days, and we are all seeking the place that is home. The place where we don’t have to earn our sense of worth. The place where we are loved simply for being there, AND the place where we are invited to lay down our burdens and grow into the fullness of life. 

This is that place. This community, this altar, this moment where our life encounters God’s life is that place. Or at least, it can be, if we will let it be. If we will show up and receive what is offered.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” Jesus tells us today, and as much as we sometimes like to equivocate and dance around the bold claims of Christian truth, there is, in these words, a stark choice. Take part in the life of Christ, feast at his table, follow where he leads, or do not. But know that if you do not, you may very well spend the rest of your life searching for home in the wrong places. 

Because your true home is not the house you live in. Your true home is not your political identity. Your true home is not your nationality. It is not found in the private realm made up of your hobbies and tastes and preferences. It is not even found within your “self” as we tend to use that word, the amalgam of your memories and thoughts and experiences.

All of those things are part of who you are, they all matter, but they are not your home. Your home is here, in the presence of the living, beating heart of God. Your home is beneath the loving, penetrating gaze of Jesus, who knows you better than you will ever know yourself. Your home is here, in the Sacraments and in the service of Christ’s body, the church—in the place where our individual stories are enmeshed with the stories of our forebears, the generations of those who came before us, who sat right where you are sitting, who knelt and stretched out their hands and received the bread on a thousand Sundays, just as you are about to do.

Here, among the great cloud of witnesses, at the Eucharistic center of creation, this is where you truly belong.  So yes, you that are simple, turn in here. You that are lost, turn in here. Come home, no matter what you have done, no matter how long it has been. Come home!

And I don’t say all of this merely as a sneaky way to convince you to attend Mass more often or to join in all of our fall programming, though I certainly hope that you will, because I continue to be amazed by the transformation of the heart that I witness among those who engage deeply with prayer and study and fellowship in this place.

I want you to hear and know that this is our true home because we are living through a time when so many people do indeed feel lost—a time when the very idea of home and belonging are unraveling concepts—when it is easy to feel disconnected and divided and estranged from any sense of community, any sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves. People are desperate to find somewhere that feels like home, but they don’t know where it is.

Because maybe at times, you have felt that way, too, wondering: is there a place for me in the world? Does anything I do actually matter? In the face of so much uncertainty and loss and suffering, is there any sense to be made of this life? After all of my wandering, when will I arrive? When will I know that I am truly known?

These are hard questions to answer with mere words. There is no simple phrase or formula that makes everything in this life easy or clear. But there is this place, where we wrestle with the questions and we strive to live into the enfleshed, incarnate answer that we find in Jesus. 

Because I guarantee you, if you stood where I stood on Wednesday and watched the little ones laughing and running in circles, like fish swirling through a pond; if you stood there and saw friends and families of every age and circumstance sitting together sharing a meal on the grass; if you sensed the solid and reassuring presence of this church building huddled there in the twilight, inviting you to rest against its warm stones; and if you can perceive the life that radiates outward, every moment of every day from the Body of God resting in this tabernacle, the Body that will soon be placed in your hands…if you have experienced these things, or if you can simply see how important they are, then you have already glimpsed the answer. The answer to everything. It is here. It has always been here, where God offers himself to you freely. 

“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed,”  says Wisdom.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” says Jesus.

In other words, God is saying to you: Come, take all I have, take my very life, so that you can truly live.

Come, and eat, and know that you will never be a stranger here. Just come. 

Welcome home. 

Parting Words: A Sermon for Good Friday

I preached this sermon on Good Friday, April 2, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is the Passion Narrative from John’s Gospel. A recording of the service can be found here.

What can we say, now that we have arrived here?

This is the moment in the Christian year when words fail us, when our platitudes turn to dust. What meager phrase is adequate to express what we see, what we feel, what we fear in this place: the first and only time in the history of creation when we face the prospect of being truly, utterly alone in the cosmos? What could we say that would ever be a sufficient offering, a word of consolation to our God as he hangs on the cross?

For that is what we are doing today, on Good Friday: we are keeping vigil at the side of our Lord as he dies for us. We plant ourselves here, amid the skulls, at the foot of his cross, and we wait, and we watch, not because we can change anything or solve anything, but because somehow we know that to love him is to be present in this moment. Nobody should have to die alone. 

But in our waiting and watching, still, perhaps, we wonder how to express to him what we feel—all the things that we always wanted to say, but never quite could.

My Lord and my God, how quickly the time went; how much more I wish I had told you while we were together. But now we are here in this valley of shadows, and you are slipping away, and there is so little time left. Please don’t leave us. But if you must leave us, what would you have me say?

If you have ever lost someone close to you, you know that this is not just a Good Friday conundrum; when death is imminent, when it is time for that last conversation, we often struggle with what to say. We are often not very good with endings. 

And in those moments, beside the hospital bed, in the moment before we must finally turn away, memory and regret and fear can leave us as inarticulate as Mary and the Beloved Disciple, gazing upon the face of the one who is leaving us, but saying not a word, our tongues parched by grief. 

For what can we say, now that we have arrived here? 

I recently read, though, that, in the end, there are, in truth, just four things that are most important to say to someone you care about before they die. Four statements that we can offer: Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

So perhaps that is what we can offer today; perhaps that is the best we can do, to give our dying God the same, humble tenderness we might offer each other. To say to him: Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

Lord Jesus, forgive me. Forgive me for all the times I forgot you, while you patiently waited for me to remember. Forgive my stubbornness and my smallness, and all the times that I got in the way of the joy that you yearned to nurture within me. Forgive me for all the ways that I have passively accepted a world that still crucifies the vulnerable and disregards the poor and the meek and the hungry, whom you have blessed. Forgive me for my silence when I ought to have spoken; and for my careless words when I ought to have been still. Forgive me for holding you at a distance, for trying to preserve myself from the transformational intensity of your love. Lord Jesus, forgive me.

Lord Jesus, it may sound strange to say it, but I forgive you, too. I forgive you for not being present in the ways that I needed you to be when I felt so alone. I forgive you for inaugurating a church that at times, in your name, has harmed so many people. I forgive you for creating a world that allows for sin to break people apart, for this mortal life where we seem to lose everyone we love. I forgive you for being so hard to understand at times, and so hard to follow. I forgive you for not being the type of strong and mighty savior that I expected, the kind that would keep me safe. I forgive you for all these things, mostly because I need to let them go, in order to see you properly, in your fullness, and not the incomplete version of you that has been distorted by my own pain and confusion and resentment. I forgive you because I want to know you as you are, not as I wish you were. Lord Jesus, I forgive you.

Lord Jesus, thank you. Thank you for loving me beyond comprehension. I know that your love is why you hang upon the cross, why you choose to lay down your life for your friends, and although I cannot fully understand it, I feel it—its saving, healing power—deep in my soul. Thank you for showing us what it means to live as a human being fully alive, fully in communion with our Father in heaven, fully in partnership with our neighbors and with the web of all creation. Thank you for the outpouring gift of your grace in water and bread and wine and oil; for giving your flesh and your Spirit to us, unworthy as we may be. Thank you for your church, which, at its best, has saved my life and taught me the meaning of community. Thank you for the invitation to live a life caught up in the joy your life, and to love with a heart enraptured by your undying love. Lord Jesus, thank you.

Lord Jesus, I love you. Not perfectly. Not as consistently as I might hope to. But I love you. I love you for challenging me to be better; for believing in us, in our potential, these wayward children that you have fashioned out of the dust of the earth. I love you for your tenacity and your gentleness; your courage and your peace. I love you because you have taught me how to be myself, the way you created and intended for me to be. I love you because you were yourself, purely and utterly yourself. And as your life slips away on this day, know that I will carry you with me now, for all the days to come, until death is but a memory, until I see your face again. But for now, Lord Jesus, just know that I love you. And it’s ok to go, if you must. I know you must. 

What can we say, now that we have arrived here? 

Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. 

And then, it is finished.

But is enough. It is, perhaps, all he ever wanted us to say.

The Church that is Willing to Die: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 21, 2020 for the online services at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 10:24-39

What does it mean to be the church in a time such as this? At this turning point in our national life, when old values, old practices, old ways of being are called into question, when the mythic landscape of American history is being challenged and reordered by pandemics, protests, and political turmoil, when certainties are few and far between, here and now we are urgently led to revisit this question: what does it mean to be the church? Who are we Christians in this fraught moment: this moment of lament, this moment of reckoning with the unjust systems we have built and sustained, this moment of questioning the bedtime stories with which we have comforted ourselves about blessing and destiny and progress? 

What is the church now when the wind comes howling in through the open window, when the doors to the building are locked and the bottom drops out and we are falling, falling down into the gloom of an unknown tomorrow? What are we then? Who are we then?

For so much of our nation’s history, to be part of the church has been a designation of institutional membership, a cultural practice encoded in spiritual language handed down from generation to generation; an elegant packaging of some laudable core values, and a safe, enclosed space in which to work out the meaning of life according to those values. In this understanding of church as institution, which patterns itself according to the societal contexts in which it operates—the world outside the walls—there are usually a number of factions, organized along political, liturgical, or ideological spectrums, and whoever dominates in numbers or funding tends to dictate what we stand for and the ways in which we do so. It’s not that we ignore the gospel in this mode of church; it’s simply that the “good news” we share often sounds like the good news we want to hear, or more specifically, the good news that the powerful want to hear. 

For many, being church in this way feels very navigable—it maps rather neatly onto the rest of our lives, it absorbs the language of the zeitgeist like a sponge, such that the progressive and the conservative, whatever those labels happen to mean in a given moment, have equal opportunity to bedeck themselves in Scripture and silk vestments, to continue their eternal struggle via the proxy wars of theology and church politics. 

This is not a new thing, and perhaps, for much of our history, this mode of being the church felt sufficient for the majority of people. Since the peace of Constantine in the 4th century, when Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and later adopted as the religion of that Empire, there has been little distinction between the idealized values of citizenship and the  core teachings of the sacred in dominant Western culture—especially for those of us who enjoyed the privileges and powers that such citizenship affords. The easy mix of civic and ecclesial agendas was simply a given. Church was, in effect, where you learned how to be a good and loyal participant in the realm, to support its structures, to promote the peace of the established order.

But established orders tend to fall apart eventually. Structures give way under their own weight. And what is the church, then? Who are we, then? 

Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel:

Do not think that I have come 

to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, 

but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus’ words today remind us that there is another choice when it comes to understanding the meaning of the church—a choice that is unsettling, a bit scary even—one that looks nothing like the established order in which we are tempted to become comfortably numb. He describes the cost of following him in the starkest of terms—it is to give up family bonds, it is to give up one’s safety, to give up one’s own life, even, in order to find and participate in whatever strange, magnetic sweetness he seems to carry within himself.  This is not a metaphorical invitation. It is quite serious.

To be church in this way—to relinquish, to descend, to die—has little to do with the striving and the strategies that characterize so much of public life in the West.  It is, instead, an intentional upending, a deconstruction of those values, especially whenver they deny life and dignity to the least among us. For, as Mary proclaims, He has lifted up the lowly and the rich he has sent away empty.

To be the church that responds to Jesus’ invitation is to search for the cracks in the veneer of decadence, to find them and to tear them open,  to name what is rotten underneath and, crucially, inescapably, not simply to name and to criticize, but to cast ourselves, with equal measure of grief and  hope, down into the rottenness, down to the places where we do not want to go, down to where we will finally see what is true, what endures, what refuses to die, even there. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Here and now, in our present turmoil, some of that work has been done for us. The veneer is already cracked. Some of the rottenness is already exposed. But we still have to choose whether we will get down there and look at it. We still have to choose whether we will do something about it. Nobody will force us to, not even God; and the urge to look away, to go back to the old mode of being, will continue to be powerful. But what we decide will determine what sort of church we are part of. Are we an insitution of the present order, subject to the whims of history, or are we a community of disciples, of learners, of passionate lovers of God, seeking Holy Wisdom into the uncomfortable places she calls us?

Most days, I doubt that I have the strength and the courage to choose this latter vision. Most days, I just want to roll over and go back to sleep. It would be so much nicer to stay on the surface of my Christian identity, to let church function as an ornament, as a daydream where we talk about forgiveness and love in hazy terms without ever submitting to the fierce demands that such things actually require. 

But then, always, there is Jesus, with his unsettling words and his compelling gaze that cuts through me like a sword. I see him looking back at me from the cross, forgiving my weakness, unimaginably patient with my fear. I see him in the faces of my homeless neighbors, my black and brown neighbors, my lgbtq neighbors, my conservative neighbors, my liberal neighbors, my neighbors of every background and belief, and I hear his voice: 

Follow me. Follow me wherever it might take you. Follow me out past the church you thought you knew, out beyond a brittle, compromised peace, follow me out past certainty and cynicism, follow me into the heart of the world’s sorrows and see what lies on the other side of fear and lamentation. I promise you, everything real, everything joyful, everything good, is there. I am there. 

If we listen to Jesus, if we really listen to him, what other choice can we make?