Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Where is Thy Sting?

This episode begins very shortly after the last one left off. Connie and her mother are going through Mildred’s things, and they discover a lovely music box that plays “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” is inscribed with “From Bill, First Timothy 6:17-19, in my prayers that you may find true treasure.”

Then they go pick up Connie’s father, Bill, at the airport. He is surly, but rather than rest up at a hotel, he wants to go straight to the funeral home and discuss arrangements. They meet with the funeral director, a local pastor and Mildred’s pastor from New York. As they talk, Connie says that she wants the funeral to be more than just a standard dour experience. She has been thinking about how hopeful Mildred was at the end, and how for Christians death isn’t an end, but a transition to a new and better life. She wants the funeral to focus more on celebrating that. Bill is furious.

“If you’re thinking that my mother’s funeral service is going to be some kind of a party, well then you’re on the wrong track.”

The others try to calm him down and suggest a balanced service, in which they talk about the sadness of her loss but also the hope she felt for a life afterwards, but Bill isn’t interested. He continues to mock Connie’s idea, accuses everyone else of ganging up on him, then storms out.

Now, usually I give a full summary and save my thoughts for the end. This is going to be one of the exceptions. There’s just too much to talk about here, and too much that changes from scene to scene, so I have to give my analysis as I go. Here, Bill is clearly being an asshole, and I don’t think his grief is an adequate excuse. Everyone else in that room is grieving too, with the possible exception of the funeral director. What’s more, all of them will need different things to help them through. That’s a pretty normal situation after someone dies. Connie shared the thing that is helping her through this, and how she would like to incorporate that into the funeral. But she didn’t demand it; she merely brought it up, which is what this meeting is for. Bill clearly needs something else, and doesn’t seem to know exactly what that is, which is rough. But his first response is to attack Connie, who is hurting just as much as he is. That’s only okay if you’re about five.

Afterwards, Connie talks the situation out with Jack and Eugene. It’s Eugene, of all people, who takes it upon himself to explain how Bill is probably feeling.

“Alas, take it from one who has explored many philosophies of life and death. If he considers death a void, then it may make him wonder if life itself is a void as well.”

This introduces us to the idea that, without God, there is no such thing as coping. They illustrate it with Bill, who is not only an atheist, but a nihilist. Contrary to popular belief among fundamentalists, most of the time those two don’t go together. I’m not going to say it’s never accurate, only that nihilism is not a sustainable ideology. We don’t do well with lacking meaning – it’s a human thing. To be a nihilist is to crave for a reason to be anything else. But that reason is not necessarily found in religion. I find it primarily in the people I love and the fight for social justice. I’ve known atheists who find it in a futurist’s utopian vision, an artist’s work, a family to care for, or a never-ending search for self-improvement. All of these things have value, here and now. It’s just a matter of discovering what speaks to you.

The idea of a nihilistic atheist being the norm is common. Fundamentalist Christians cling to it particularly hard, I think partly because they spend so much time putting down the worth of the world we have here. It is constantly compared to the value of the glorious, eternal afterlife. The present world is, at best, a pale facsimile, and at worst an active distraction. Switching mentalities from that to one where earthly love and human well-being is a perfectly valid reason to live and have hope is well, a bit awkward to pull off, even if you’re just switching your thinking temporarily to empathize with an unbeliever. I also think there’s a bit of confirm bias and survivor’s bias mixed in. Confirmation bias because fundamentalists want to see atheists this way, rather than consider that someone might be satisfied and happy without God, so they assume any happy atheist is lying. Survivor’s bias because the rare nihilistic atheists are the most likely to convert, and thus are the former atheists Christians are most familiar with.

This idea is impressed on the audience more when Connie’s mother talks to Bill, back at the house. She tries to reiterate Connie’s point about the balance of life and death, and the reward for believers.

“Well, that’s great, but if you believe the way Bill Kendall believes, you live and you die and the people you leave behind spend years trying to get over losing you.”

She also shows him the music box, and asks if he knows what the inscription means… kind of a weird question, given his clearly expressed disinterest in the Bible. He doesn’t know, he’s annoyed by the whole thing, and he goes for a “walk,” and isn’t seen until the viewing is almost over.

When he turns up, at the very end of the viewing, he is staggeringly drunk. He cries, snarks, and waxes poetic… if you expand the definition of poetry to slobbering doggerel.

“I am grieving the loss of my mother the only way I know how. You do it by having happy funerals and I do it by trying to forget.”

I have mixed feelings about this scene. On the one hand, I love how, despite his relentlessly dickish behavior, you are made to feel for Bill. He’s no simple villain. He’s a human being who is expressing his pain destructively, but you are made to feel his grief along with him nonetheless. On the other hand, it’s clear that the writers of AIO struggle to understand how a non-believer truly thinks and acts. Even for a nihilistic atheist, Bill’s statement is a little too on the nose, too perfectly aligned with where the writers are determined to take us.

Bill manages to behave through the funeral, and afterwards he goes up with Connie and her mother to view Mildred one last time. He reflects that the service was actually quite beautiful, contrary to his expectations. He also reveals that he and his second wife are getting a divorce. He feels like a failure on every level; he can’t keep his marriages together, he missed his mother’s final days because he was off on a cruise, and he can’t help making a mess of the mourning process, swinging his grief around like a club that keeps everyone at bay. Connie comes in with her solution. He needs to become a Christian. She emphasizes that the Bible verse on the box was an exhortation to pray for unbelievers, especially those obsessed with money and fancy living, and how it proves that Mildred wanted nothing more than for Bill to accept Christ. Bill reiterates that he can’t believe, and can’t forgive himself either. Connie tries again, and Bill runs off. Connie’s mother reflects that they probably won’t see him again, and how she’s realized that she has a choice between handling life the way Connie does or handling it the way Bill does, and it’s about time she became an official Christian.

I’ve already explained how bad that dichotomy is, so I’ll go into the other big problem with this scene. Based on my experience, there are two ways to deal constructively with someone acting like Bill; someone full of pain who is simultaneously incapable of caring for themselves and lashing out at others. First, you can put up some boundaries to protect yourself from their attacks, and focus on your own healing. Second, you can sit down with them, listen to them, let them vent while taking nothing they say personally, and hope that somewhere along the line you both figure out what they need. Both are valid choices. The latter can be noble and admirable, but when you can’t juggle your pain and theirs at the same time, which is typical, there’s no shame in the former. Better to successfully heal one person than try and fail to heal two.

What’s not okay is to insist on this being the moment the other person radically change their worldview, so they can grieve correctly and heal in the way you’ve decided they need to. Healing is complicated, beliefs are complicated, human development is complicated, and all of the above are incredibly personal. In the scene at the funeral, what Connie does is like trying to collect an insect with a sledgehammer. She is saying he can’t heal and grow unless he somehow acquires a belief in God. He doesn’t believe, and can’t will himself to accept it, because nobody can even at the best of times. Bill is too raw for her statements to do anything but drive him deeper into a feeling of hopelessness.

I do agree that, in the long run, Bill needs deep, transformative change in order to become a functioning adult. But Connie, at the end of this episode, expects him to convert entirely to her method of coping, and offers no other way to help him. In a way, she’s doing the same thing he did to her earlier in the episode. She goes about it in a nicer way, but she is still more hurtful than helpful, for exactly the same reason; she’s refusing to acknowledge that his pain needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

Final ratings

Best Part: When Jack and Eugene go to the funeral and are just their adorable selves. Which is to say, Jack quietly listens and hugs and makes everything feel a little warmer, and Eugene goes on a ramble about “the historical development of necrology and it’s impact on Etruscan archaeology…” and then remembers he’s at a funeral and apologizes a few thousand times. It’s sweet. 

Worst Part: It’s a tough call between the various lines that oversimplify the nature of unbelief, and how unbelievers can cope with death. The worst, I think, is actually Eugene’s. Eugene is a kind of intellectual jack of all trades, and at this point in the series he’s actually something of an agnostic. Eugene is probably my second favorite character after Connie, but all too often, AIO uses him as a legitimizing mouthpiece. He confidently asserts something that we are to assume is well founded, because A. he’s smart and B. he’s not a full-fledged believer so it’s also coming from an objective perspective. But of course, those statements are written without any actual research. His statements don’t follow his character or a coherent philosophy, but are simply what the writers want him to say, dressed up with the aide of a thesaurus.

Story Rating: Honestly, if I just look at the bare bones plot, without the ideas explicitly discussed, it’s a pretty good idea for a story. The central conflict is between two different methods of grieving; that’s interesting. The execution isn’t all bad either. Many of the scenes are well constructed and much of the dialog sounds like how actual humans talk. There’s still a bit that’s stilted, but overall… B – 

Moral Rating: “If you don’t believe in my exact religion, clearly you can’t cope with death and you’re doomed to misery forever.” D – 

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