Original Sin and Parks and Recreation

In a recent episode of Parks and Recreation, Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) offers to manage Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) meeting with local businessmen to help revitalize her fledgling campaign for city council. Tom rents out a warehouse and invites business leaders from Pawnee to attend the event. Rather than using the event to promote Leslie, however, Tom uses it to promote his business, Entertainment 7Twenty. Tom decorates his room with images of himself and his company logo and interrupts Leslie during her address to show a short promotional video and call in the 7Twenty girls to collect the names and addresses of each company’s contacts. Despite telling Leslie before the event, “I want you on message and the message is Leslie Knope,” Tom cannot help talking about himself. “I talk about myself constantly,” he admits to Leslie earlier in the episode, “and people love me for it.” Yes, well.

While Tom has a particular penchant for self-aggrandizement, all of the characters in Parks and Recreation exhibit flaws that lead to some form of self-destruction or harm of others. Leslie Knope possesses a self-centered drive for success that often disregards the feelings of others—-particularly her best friend, Ann Perkins, and her boss, Ben Wyatt. Leslie’s boss, Ron Swanson, is unmanned by his lust for his ex-wife Tammy. Chris Traeger, Pawnee’s city manager, worships his body and good health, subtly dehumanizing both himself and others. All of them reflect, in other words, the goodness of humanity perverted by original sin.

In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine notes that Adam’s original sin was that of pride. He possessed, Augustine suggests, “a certain self-aggrandizement,” an “unjustified” and “presumptuous opinion of himself.” From Adam, Augustine argues in Answer to Julian, we inherit a natural inclination for evil. For Augustine, this inclination is located in our bodies, and it brings a division between our “souls,” where the faculty of reason is housed, and our bodies. Calvin argues that Adam’s original sin affects both our souls and bodies, both our reason and our natural desires for food and sex. In his Institutes, Calvin writes, “the whole man is in himself nothing but concupiscence.”

Important but often misunderstood, the doctrine of original sin does not state that human beings are composed only of evil. It states, rather, that sins touches our entire nature, and self-centeredness regularly spoils the good we are capable of doing.

Totally Depraved, But Not Entirely Deplorable

The reality of our fallen goodness is captured wonderfully in Parks and Recreation. None of the characters is entirely deplorable. In fact, they are often likeable and variously exhibit moments of true charity, right reasoning, honorable perseverance, and self-sacrifice, though divorced from the only truly good end—-the glorification of God. Ron Swanson, for example, takes a particular interest in the dim-witted but lovable Andy Dwyer. In “The Smallest Park,” Andy wants to take a course at the local college but cannot afford the tuition. Ron offers to pay for the class, not because Andy wants to progress towards a degree but because he wants to learn for the sake of learning. Yet even this soft side of Ron is somewhat more complicated than it sometimes initially appears. In “Meet ‘n Greet,” Ron repairs an exposed wire in the shower of Andy and his wife, April, during the couple’s Halloween party. He moves on to repair the sink, the wiring, and other problems in the house. Why? Not so much because it helps Andy and April but because such repairs produce, in his words, “a good feeling, a sense of accomplishment and pride.”

Moreover, this “division” that Augustine discusses in The Literal Meaning of Genesis is evident in the various video “confessionals” used in the show and common in “mockumentaries.” Having characters speak directly into the camera is an easy way, no doubt, to provide depth to characters and increase a sense of verisimilitude, but it is also used by the directors (like the chorus was used in ancient Greek tragedy) to reveal the motives, hopes, and rationalizations of the characters. Leslie Knope’s inability to accept that she bulldozes others as she single-mindedly pursues a particular project is regularly revealed in her attempt to rationalize her actions in the video confessionals. In the confessional Ann Perkins shows her unexpected infatuation with Chris, and here, too, Tom regularly deludes himself.

One might ask whether sitcoms celebrate rather than simply identify the concupiscence we all share. Some no doubt do, but even with these, the laughter they produce is, at the very least, a recognition of the essential disorder—-absurdity, even—-of human sinfulness. Others, like Parks and Recreation, treat the consequences of the characters’ foolishness with a measure of seriousness, often acknowledging the need to somehow deal with it.

In the episode, “The Comeback Kid,” for example, Ben, depressed following his resignation from the parks department, spends his days making a claymation video. Chris recognizes his self-loathing and confronts him: “What you are feeling right now is regret and shame, but we are going to get through this.” In fact, most of the episodes end with some acknowledgment of failure on behalf of one or more of the characters and a commitment (though sometimes half-hearted) to reform in some way.

A secular religiosity of willpower and hard work is not a very satisfying answer. Yet this tacit acknowledgement that something must be done in response to our sinful folly is no less true for its misguided answer.