This episode comes shortly after A Touch of Healing but before Letting Go. For those who haven’t read those reviews, Zachary is a kid who became paralyzed and lost his father in a car accident. When introduced, he is angry and defensive but over the series he learns to deal with his pain and let his guard down. At the end of A Touch of Healing, Jack Allen (friend of Whit who briefly fills in for him) converts both Zachary and his mother Eileen to Christianity. This is their first episode after that conversion.
It opens with Zachary and Eileen arguing. We don’t get the cause of it, only the tail end, when things have already spiraled beyond whatever began the fight, when they are just reflexively flinging familiar rebuttals at each other. It ends with exhaustion, rather than resolution, and Eileen says, “I don’t get it Zach, we are Christians now, both of us. Things are supposed to be different.”
The idea that Christians are supposed to be inherently better has underwritten a lot of my issues with the other episodes in this theme, and this show as a whole. When they focused only on the (valid) negatives of secular pop psychology, but did not apply the same scrutiny to Whit’s brand of lesson teaching, well, acknowledging this “Christians are better people” bias explains a lot of that discrepancy.
For what it’s worth, though, I grew up reading cringeworthy books where literally every Christian had only minor flaws, every non-Christian was horrible, and religious conversion created an instant transformation from shitty to nigh perfect. AIO does not do that. While secular and non-Christian characters tend to fall lower on the hierarchy of Rightness, they can still have endearing or sympathetic character traits, and Christian characters still have significant flaws that they need to work on. Their stance is not that Christians are perfect, but that conversion to Christianity is essential to beginning the process of self-improvement.
And, for the record, I think that many people use their faith as a framework to help themselves grow, and that’s fine. I don’t take issue with self-improvement in a religious context. It’s just that, if you really think Christianity is the only means to grow and mature, I can only assume you have not met many non-Christians. It’s a bias that does not survive more than a cursory encounter with large numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, agnostics, wiccans, Jains, neopagans, people from a denomination you were told wasn’t “real Christianity,” Baha’i….
Anyway, in the next scene, Zachary is in a fight with his friend Erica. He’s mansplaining the toy train to her, and in the ensuing fight, it kinda breaks. Erica storms away, and Jack comes to find out what caused all the commotion. Zachary confides that he has been fighting with everyone lately. He says the whole point of being a Christian is that you become a better person. So why is he still picking fights with people, losing his temper, and being a general brat?
Jack says that self improvement takes time. He advises Zachary to pray and meditate on Scripture, and also invites him to join a Bible Study specifically geared towards new Christians. At that very moment, Connie is also recruiting for the Bible study. Eugene has recently converted, and his experience is very different from Zachary’s. Connie has given him a book to read that was extremely formative to her faith, but Eugene actually found it somewhat boring and elementary. As a curious, academically inclined person who has worked at Whit’s End for years, he is already well versed in the various doctrinal issues. He attempts to say this tactfully, but being Eugene, he doesn’t quite avoid coming off arrogant.
Connie feels mildly miffed, but she understands that Eugene isn’t trying to be hurtful and condescending. She invites him to Jack’s Bible Study, and he gladly accepts.
At the school library, before the first Bible Study meeting, Zachary tries to check out a book, but Erica is volunteering at checkout. She deliberately makes the checkout drag on, clearly messing with him in revenge for the other day. Zachary blows his temper, but does apologize, and Erica is frankly a bitch. She even picks on him for getting a book on being a new Christian, digging at him for how many times he will probably need to renew it.
Damn, Erica, way to not practice what you preach.
The study is just Zachary, Eileen and Eugene, plus Connie and Jack, which is kind of weird. The writers could easily have inserted minor one-off characters to round it out. It makes it feel like Jack didn’t actually have a full Bible Study lined up, and just threw one together when he realized Zachary and Eileen needed some extra support. Actually, that’s exactly the kind of thing Jack would do… headcanon accepted. Anyway, Zachary tells the group about the library incident, as an example of how he keeps losing his temper. Everyone is encouraging, pointing out that he apologized, which is not something he would have done before. He is also aware of his flaws, which Jack says is the first step to getting better. Zachary can’t grow without being aware of what he needs to work on.
Now it’s Eugene’s turn. Having spent so much time around Christians and Christianity, Eugene knows exactly what Bible Study is really for; humblebrags! He lists his rigorous schedule for daily meditation and Bible reading, and rejoices that he has had no trouble sticking to these rituals of daily spiritual stimulation. Again, he doesn’t mean to come across as an asshole, rubbing Zach’s face in the difference in their religious experiences. It’s just that when you’re as great as Eugene, you can’t help but come across as showing off.
Jack and Connie don’t really have a response to this, so they suggest breaking for snack. Eugene won’t be partaking, as he is fasting to better understand the plight of the underprivileged. But he is happy to say grace for everyone else.
His idea of a blessing… let’s just say it contains the word “eschatological,” a word which never belongs in a pre-meal prayer. First of all, it means “related to the theology of the end times,” and if that appropriate to a meal than somebody has definitely overused the hot sauce. Second, most people don’t know what that word means, and so they will spend the entire meal trying not to wonder why he felt the need to bring up the study of poo.
Zach’s next test of patience comes on a school field trip, where he ends up paired with Glenn. I don’t think I’ve talked about Glenn before. Glenn has two passions in life; learning about every horrific natural disaster, conspiracy theory and apocalyptic scenario possible, and using that knowledge to inform everyone in sight of the various gory ways in which they might die. He is less concerned with whether or not anybody around him wants to hear about their imminent mortality.
Like all tragic heroes, he sees all dangers but the one right in front of him, the one most likely to get him in the end; the fact that he’s so fucking annoying that sooner or later somebody’s gonna chuck him out a window.
Speaking of which, after an hour or so of hearing about giant slugs, secretly blind bus drivers, and hidden fault lines, Zach shoves Glenn into a model volcano. Listen, I know this episode is supposed to be about Zach’s lack of patience, but I for one feel this is a well-deserved outcome.
Zachary decides that, after this turn of events, he can’t be a Christian, and he heads to Whit’s End to return the Bible Jack gave him.
Before Zachary arrives, Jack walks in on Eugene explaining the difference between wisdom and knowledge to a kid at Whit’s End. When the kid leaves, Eugene laughs at a “trite little exercise” she was doing, where she looks through verses on knowledge and wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Jack reveals that he is the origin of that trite little exercise. He didn’t just want to give the kid answers, but teach her how to find the answers for herself. God, I just, I have to talk about Jack for a bit, because he is so great. He has so much faith in people’s abilities to grow and improve, and everything he does is geared towards empowering that. He is simply wonderful. I wish he could have replaced Whit forever.
Before Jack make another point, Zachary shows up with the Bible. He tells Jack he gives up. Jack’s response is, “What’s the use of taking a bath? I’m just going to get dirty again.” Everybody sins, he says. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody stumbles. And if everybody gave up on faith after a stumble, there would be no Christians left. He admits that he messes up. Zachary doesn’t believe him, but Jack tells him stories about all the trouble he got into, and how long it took to improve.
This revelation that Jack, his ultimate mentor, used to be as bad as he was, has a powerful effect on Zachary. He takes back his Bible and promises to keep trying.
Eugene starts reflecting on how hard it is to relate to Zachary’s struggle, and Jack decides it’s about time to give him a talk about humility. Eugene literally cannot name a single thing that he thinks he needs to work on. And that’s the problem. He is so absorbed in how well he is doing, he can’t recognize that he’s driving everyone bonkers. Jack, ever the diplomat, gently points out that Eugene’s next project is to develop the humility to let go of the academia and exercises, and really grow as a person.
At the next Bible study, instead of talking about his screw ups, Zachary talks about the things he has been doing to consciously practice patience. He gets into long lines instead of short ones. He asked Glenn to help him on a school project. He even ate an entire plate of peas with a knife.
Eugene planned to deliver a multi-page lecture on some obscure theological issue, featuring heavy references to the philosophy of medieval scholars. But, given what he and Jack talked about, he decides to instead share about his reflections on humility.
With a multi-page lecture. Complete with references to medieval theological philosophy.
Connie comments to Zachary that he is going to have a new test of patience. Zachary says he doesn’t think he’s ready.
Yeah, I fuckin’ loved this episode.
Best Part: Jack’s speech to Zachary about committing to personal growth and getting second chances. It was the kind of thing everyone needs to hear in their life.
Worst Part: I still think the Bible study should have had a few more characters. That’s my only criticism, and I fully admit that it’s a nitpick.
Story Rating: Good, character driven, funny parts that were actually funny. A
Moral Rating: I wish they hadn’t conflated being Christian with being a decent person, but I liked everything else. B+
Final Ratings For The X Topic
Best Episode: Do, For a Change
Worst Episode: The Pushover
Good Things They Said: Growth takes long term effort and real work. Pop psychology needs to be taken with some real skeptical thought. It’s good to remember to reward good behavior, but more important to learn that actual morality does not require the promise of imminent reward.
Bad Things They Said: Growth is something only Christians get to do. Good advice from secular sources is Not a Thing. Manipulative lessons from authority figures are fine, so long as the authority figure is Whit.
Things They Failed to Address: That Whit seriously needs to learn the difference between “please introduce my kid to some nicer kids his age” and “please send my kid into the woods with a self-absorbed bully. Preferably when it’s close to dark and without any adult supervision.”
Overall Rating: Obviously their religious bigotry is a problem, and I don’t think I’m being unfair in using that word. In their eyes, any non-Christian faith is inherently inferior. In reviewing these episodes, I kept feeling like they had a lot of good ideas, but their focus kept being skewed by that bigotry. They kept having to remind the audience and themselves that all the good advice they have only counts if it is coming from a Christian perspective, and they tripped over themselves a bit.
Despite that, I’m still inclined to give this a rating on the positive side. When I’m torn, the deciding factor is often how I personally was impacted. I think that, regardless of their assumptions about where morality comes from, the message that I should keep seeking to be a better person, and not give up when it was hard, had a great influence on me. This feels like a B to me.