Two well-known men — not connected with each other — passed away on April 27, 2023.
Probably, the more widely known of the two was Jerry Springer, who died at age 79. He is remembered largely for his namesake tabloid talk show, which aired almost 5,000 episodes between 1991 and 2018. “The Jerry Springer Show” is considered the pioneering program in reality TV and the first of what some of us called “Trash TV.”
The other man who died the same day was Rabbi Harold Kushner, who was 88. He is known for his helpful books in which he sought to answer life’s most troubling questions about loss and the goodness of God. In doing so, he brought comfort and courage to people across the world.
Springer’s show included provocative topics such as guests talking about their incestuous relationships and married men admitting to affairs with their wives’ best friends, with the wives present to hear the admissions. Chaos often ensued when these guests were put on stage together. Verbal abuse, physical fights and chair throwing took place on camera, while the studio audience cheered on the whole mess.
The show debuted on September 30, 1991, and it started as a politically oriented talk program addressing serious topics. Guests included Oliver North and Jesse Jackson, and topics included homelessness and gun politics. But the show didn’t bring in many viewers, so a new producer revamped it to garner higher ratings. The new format targeted tabloid-type sensationalism, and Springer was willing to stay with it.
People who knew Springer personally say he was a generous and nice guy. In the years before “The Jerry Springer Show,” he worked in politics in Cincinnati and was even the city’s mayor at one point. But the legacy that sticks to him most is the show, which made hay out of the depths of human dysfunction and depravity.
Five months before his death, Springer was interviewed and asked if he considered himself the “granddad of reality TV.” Springer responded, “No, I just apologize. I’m so sorry. What have I done? I’ve ruined the culture.”
Harold Kushner was a serving rabbi when his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, was published in 1981.Written following the death of his son, Aaron, who had the premature aging disease progeria, the book deals with questions about human suffering, God, omnipotence and theodicy. It explains why even the best of people sometimes suffer from adversity and how we can turn our pain into something meaningful instead of lamenting it.
Kushner aimed to assist individuals in maintaining their belief in God’s benevolence despite experiencing personal tragedies. The book resonated with readers across religions and was translated into at least 12 languages. Four million copies had been sold by the book’s 20th anniversary. Kushner went on to write other books aimed at helping people understand more about God and deal with the difficulties of life and the pains of being human.
Different men, different aims and different contributions to life. The differences between them resonate with a line from 2 Peter.
Peter is concerned that some influential people in the church were denying that Jesus would return. He writes that the world, which was once destroyed by water (the flood in the time of Noah), will in the future be destroyed by fire (an idea possibly derived from the persecution then being inflicted on followers of Jesus).
There’s an old spiritual song that picks up that message. It includes the lines, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time!” But Peter was less concerned with what elements would be used in the destruction of the world and more interested in getting his audience to take advantage of the delay in Christ’s return and use the interlude to repent. Thus, he writes, “The Lord is not slow about his promise [of returning], as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance” (v. 9).
Peter also wanted his audience to use the interim to move on this question: “… what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for … the coming of the day of God …?” (v. 11).
“What sort of persons ought you to be?” This, of course, is a question for all of us.
It can be argued that unexpected events helped determine what sort of persons Jerry Springer and Rabbi Kushner would be. If, for example, the first version of Springer’s show had received good ratings when it was a serious talk program about politics, the tabloid version wouldn’t have come to be. And if Kushner’s only son had not had that illness that caused him to die at age 14, perhaps it never would have occurred to Kushner to write that first book. It wasn’t fate that determined the directions these two men went, but their own choices. And those choices affected the impact they had on their fellow travelers in life.
Religious understanding of life often helps us determine what sort of people we will be. As a rabbi, Kushner was obviously Jewish, and his famous first book offered a fresh interpretation of the book of Job. But Springer was also Jewish, and is on record as saying, “Life is 99 percent luck. One percent is left to your own effort. But I also believe in God, because someone created this wonderful thing [life] that I experience every day. And under any moral code you say thank you.”
There’s no doubt that Judaism calls people to make good choices about the kind of people they will be, and we know that Christianity does as well. Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor and the editor of The Christian Century, recently wrote in that magazine about the life he seeks to live. He names three things:
There’s also an explicitly Christian theme in how the author of our text put the question: “… what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for … the coming of the day of God? …” We Christians are the ones who pray the Lord’s Prayer with the “thy kingdom come” petition, and the “waiting” for the day of God is what our hope thrives on. Our hope and trust that God — not evil or chaos — will be the ultimate victor keeps us working for the kingdom to come.
It’s quite possible that when talking about the world as we know it ending in fire, Peter was not thinking of literal fire but a transformation of the world, through justice and mercy, into something glorious. Because nonbelievers don’t have that hope in the eternal, they may put more confidence in the temporary and transient things of this earth. But Peter calls us to live lives of holiness and godliness, and those qualities belong to the eternal order. They are things, which like “faith, hope, love” (1 Corinthians 13:13), abide when all else is consumed by flames, literal or otherwise.
Being people of holiness and godliness sounds good, but that doesn’t come naturally to most of us, even after we commit ourselves to following Jesus. But that’s why acquainting ourselves with the wider range of Scripture is important. If, for example, we turn to Colossians, we find Paul addressing this very problem. He says, “… clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12). While “clothe yourselves” is no doubt metaphorical language, it gives us a way to think about how to become the people we want to be, and that we believe God wants us to be.
Clothing yourself can be akin to putting on a costume, dressing to look the part of something that is not really in your identity. It’s unlikely that Paul meant his words to be taken exactly that way, a sort of “fake it until you make it” approach, but there’s still something to be said for that. Probably Paul realized that such virtues as meekness, kindness, a forgiving spirit, gratitude and so on do not occur spontaneously to everyone. For those of us to whom they don’t, we need to work them into our personality. For example, those of us who don’t naturally express our gratitude to others and to God can put on our gratitude suit and try to get comfortable enough in it so that appreciation of others and thankfulness to God becomes a natural a fit for us.
In today’s reading, Peter made the point that the delay in the Lord’s return should be understood as God giving us time to repent. The underlying Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means not only a change of conduct, but also a change of mind.
A Christian man tells about his realization that when annoyed at inconveniences, he tends to lash out verbally at the individual whom he views as causing the problem or delay — but not every time. It dawned on him that he was much more apt to spew verbally if the perceived offender was a woman rather than a man. He recognized that as an “ugly truth” about himself, and since then, in keeping with his intention to follow Jesus, he has worked at being much more respectful and less discriminatory in his criticism of others. He admits this new approach doesn’t come naturally, but it fits his new understanding — his change of mind — regarding what being the sort of person God calls him to be should look like.
Paul’s words in Colossians and Peter’s words in today’s passage suggest that they would agree that making the effort to change our behavior should be a result of changing our mind on this Advent journey to the coming of the Christ-child.