“Bad Earl”

“After everything that happened, Karma had me pretty confused.” –Earl

Entering its third season, My Name is Earl spent much of the season following Earl’s misadventures in prison. A lot of his life prior to finding out about and following the ways of “Karma” were spent breaking the law and showing up on episodes of Cops. However, Earl was imprisoned for trying to do right by his ex-wife, Joy. This led to a string of largely mediocre episodes, but watching Joy and Darnell lead a church service (“Oh Jesus you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Jesus!”) was a series highlight. The episode “Bad Earl” follows Earl’s crisis of faith, what some call a “dark night of the soul.”

As a scientist, a writer, and a practical theologian, intellectually speaking, faith hasn’t come easy to me (the question of faith has always hiccupped my spiritual journey). Some days I find myself wondering if I’m even a Christian. You pour yourself into people, befriend them, only to have them turn on me and/or leave the faith. It can be disheartening and you wonder if maybe you’ve gotten everything somehow wrong.

Some people find the prospect of doubt in one’s faith akin to leaving the faith entirely. They stand firm on “knowing” and “certainty” and “assurance” which can be understandable because people hate the idea of not knowing. Truth shouldn’t fear critical examination, and while there may be a point where you end up questioning for its own sake, every now and then it can be a healthy thing to question and re-evaluate our worldview.

Faith can be a relatively simple math problem: History/evidence + personal experience + intuition = faith. The personal dimensions to our faith, however, can be outlined in three phases: discovery (the kingdom of God/way of life), acknowledgment (this is true), and then reckoning (wrestling with it). Sometimes it seems like we chase after God and He’s playing hard to get. Paradoxically, or at least somewhat counter-intuitively, we can still draw closer to God through times of doubt and questioning.

“I’m pretty sure this Karma thing doesn’t exist.” –Earl

The Christian story on its face can seem ridiculous: God, this completely Other—sometimes seen as an imaginary friend, sometimes as the Creator—becomes flesh and blood, born of a virgin. This story unfolds in the context of angels, miracles, and fulfilled prophecy, only for him to die as so many had before and after on a Roman cross and then rise from the dead.

The journey of knowledge begins with an assumption: atheists begin with human reason (“I know through my reason, I know because I’ve reasoned that”); people of faith with theirs (“The Bible is the word of God because it says it is”). Oversimplified, I know, but minds of inquiry and genuine intellectual curiosity can journey together.

Doubting proves thought. How you arrive at truth, the contemplation of your own existence, demonstrates our ability to think and reflect. In the Christian tradition we typically draw on four sources: Scripture (the Bible), the historic church tradition (we learn in community, with time merely being a dimension to community), reason (both intuitive and deductive), and personal experience.

“I’m sick of people expecting more from me. How come I always have to act better than everyone else?” –Earl

Earl had certain expectations of his faith, a sort of “prosperity Karma”. Faith was almost like an investment scheme: after two years of doing good, things were supposed to be better, not worse. Things didn’t seem fair and we find ourselves (intellectually/behaviorally) spiraling. We can get so hung up on the possibility of missing the mark that we miss the point of being here. We end up asking the wrong questions (“Am I saved and thus ‘in’” vs. “Am I living in the way of Jesus?”).

The whole world is blessed and God is at work in all of us, working out His kingdom plan. Ironically, it’s Randy, Earl’s dimmer-witted brother, who stumbles over the secret to getting back on track: “Maybe you should go ahead and do something on your list. That always makes you feel better.” His list was his “Scriptural” guide for missional living. Living out one’s faith, the parts you clearly understand and know to be true, doesn’t make the questions irrelevant, but it certainly puts them in perspective. I may not be able to exegete every passage in the Bible, but I can grasp the concept of “love others as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“I had no idea where I was going to, but I knew where I was going from … but Karma came looking for me.” –Earl

In the silence, God is there, or, in Earl’s words, “I thought Karma was dead, but she was just laying low.” You can turn your back on Him, but He won’t turn His back on you. And sometimes we need the silence in order to learn, if only to learn to listen. Having a life of faith means accepting the difficulty of living between paradoxes; it means getting rid of the arrogance and judgmentalism because you don’t have all of the answers. Having a doubting faith isn’t an easy road to walk. It can be filled with many dark nights and the weight of unanswered questions can sometimes be unbearable. But if you let it, a doubting faith can leads you to having to recommit to the journey daily. In the end, that’s all we can ask from our faith. As T.S. Eliot said, “Doubt and uncertainty are merely a variety of belief.”

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