Jamesbottomtooth3A bit of a nostalgic, I’ve been finding myself vegging out lately to old episodes of Frasier. (Thank goodness for Netflix!). Perhaps you remember the premise. Always trying hard to be people who are well-recognized in society, Frasier and Niles are a restless duo: members of gentlemen’s clubs, wine-tasting societies, country clubs… the elite of the elite. Naturally this leads to sibling rivalry as they try to outdo each other and fail miserably every time. They are portrayals of all of us living under… well, the law. As with all scenarios in which the self remains front and center, the standard of the ideal self is a tyrant, seemingly implacable, merciless, and unreachable.

And Episode 2 of Season 5, “The Gift Horse”, is no different. Their dad, Martin, has a birthday coming up, and the competition begins to heat up once again. The plot keeps moving along as the brothers each try to give the best possible gift to their father. What’s fascinating about it is that a simple birthday gift—however costly or cheap it might be— is ‘supposed’ to be a gesture of freedom and spontaneity and love; it is ‘supposed’ to be about the recipient and his or her interests. But when gift-giving is transformed into attracting attention to yourself, it turns into a burdensome task.

Near the end of the episode, Niles observes, “I tried to draw Dad out at the party, and he just shot me right down.” “Well you know how he is: he gets himself into these moods; he just retreats,” Frasier replies. And then Niles admits how exhausting it has all been: “It’s just so damn frustrating. Part of me wonders if that isn’t why we go so insane every year trying to find the perfect gift, as if somehow finding the right present will magically change everything.”

Sound familiar? Sensing the unbridgeable gap between God and man, we all attempt to cross it in various ways. Do more; work harder; help yourself; fulfill your destiny. Fill in the blank however you wish. This is what characterizes much of American life in both its religious and secular manifestations, and it turns out that it may not be too far off from medieval piety. Theologian Piotr Malysz writes:

The theology of Luther’s day met this concern with the recommendation “Do your best! Do as much as you can! (Fac quod in te est!)” But this only adds to the sense of restlessness, not to say frenzy. For how do I know that I have done my best? The restlessness is thus plagued by uncertainty. And the inevitable product is hypocrisy: one tries to win God’s favor, while secretly hating God.

What is important to note here is that what began as a consideration of the character of God has almost immediately devolved into a preoccupation with the self. God is presented in a way that requires that one do something; one must do something with the knowledge of God.

Bingo. The new Mockingbird publication entitled Law And Gospel puts it this way: “Knowledge relates to and empowers the self, which helps the self solve the everyday problems and hurdles it faces. But when the problem is the self, help must come from the outside.”

As we’ve pointed out so many times before, to be a fallen human being means being stuck inside the self (incurvatus in se). But when the Gospel that presents the self-giving God outside of us is converted from News into platitudes or information, we become no different than Frasier and Niles, trying to keep up and be ever on the move, obstructing their relationship with their father. Fortunately, while the American spirit teaches man and him improved, Christianity announces Christ crucified and resurrected. For a picture of what it might look like to give up on our efforts to appease (and a glimpse at what often happens next), check out the scene in Frasier’s apartment/condo starting at about the 16 minute mark.