In a time when societal consensus, let alone advancement, seems painfully unattainable, the quirky television comedy Ted Lasso has struck a chord. ... At the heart of the show is a question one of the characters raises in the series finale. Roy Kent has just experienced a spectacularly abject failure in his efforts to improve himself. Overwhelmed with dejection and remorse, he is tempted to give up. Will he never learn? In despair, he confides his doubts to his friends and poses the question: “Can people change?”
Roy’s confidants do not leave his question hanging, proposing three different answers.
The first comes from the savvy and sardonic reporter Trent Crimm, a man whose profession is dealing in cold facts: “I don’t think we change per se as much as we just learn to accept who we’ve always been.” ...
[A] second voice pipes up with an alternative—a proposal from a character named Nate Shelley. More than anyone else in the series, Nate demonstrates just how radically and suddenly people can transform, both for better and for worse. “Oh no, I think people can change. They can,” he insists. ... He makes things sound too easy. In this sense, Nate’s glib “yes” is no more accurate than Trent’s fatalistic “no.”
Leslie Higgins, the club manager and sweetly awkward resident sage, takes the third swing at the question. Higgins rejects neither of the proposals on the table but offers a third approach, incorporating insights from both. “Human beings are never gonna be perfect, Roy,” he says. “The best we can do is to keep asking for help and accepting it when you can. And if you keep on doing that, you’ll always be moving towards better.”
In other words: Changing oneself is an uphill battle, where one never reaches the crest of perfection (Trent is right); but incremental advances are possible (Nate is right too). The secret to growth is recognizing one’s own neediness and accepting help from friends along the way; but we also can’t demand too much of ourselves. ...
Roy’s question is a timeless one. Over a millennium and half ago, a debate broke out that lends us some perspective.
The Pelagian Controversy takes its name from an earnest, idealistic ascetic who was persuaded that the primary threat to Christian discipleship was that Christians would give up on change. ... “Recognize your own strengths,” he urges. Don’t impose false boundaries on yourself. “It is possible to do anything which one really wants to do.”
Zealously intoning these inspiring exhortations to any Christians of his day who would listen, Pelagius was the Nate of the early fifth century. ... Pelagius did, when push came to shove, acknowledge the necessity of help along the way, and especially the transformative power of forgiveness—which is also a crucial theme of Ted Lasso. But, as with Nate, Pelagius’s focus was not the difficulty of positive change. His opinion was that change was easily attainable, if one but believed. Like Nate, Pelagius stressed the possibility of change over its attendant challenges.
The most famous debate partner of Pelagius was Augustine of Hippo, the North African bishop who, more than any other extrabiblical thinker, went on to shape the beliefs and piety of Christians in the West, both Catholic and Protestant. Augustine has a reputation for being a dour pessimist, the grim yin to Pelagius’s sunny yang. If Pelagius was a Nate, so the story goes, Augustine was the ancient Trent, whose bleak theology of sin squelched any hope of meaningful advancement in this life. ...
Augustine, much more than Pelagius, gave an answer in the spirit of Leslie’s. He stuck with chastened realism on the question of how hard it is to improve. And he adopted a maximalist stance on how much assistance from without is required. In these respects, Leslie’s answer and the ethos of the show itself is profoundly Augustinian: Moving forward is hard. One inches along in fits and starts. And it requires help to eke out personal progress.
But Augustine takes the necessity of aid a leap beyond Leslie’s response. Because, for Augustine, self-help alone won’t do—just as all the therapy, friendly encouragement, and camaraderie in the world won’t amount to a lick of good on its own. We need a remedy that runs deeper. In the end, Augustine did not think that lasting—or ultimately satisfying—change would come through the independent operation of any kind of creaturely assistance, as excellent and important as many human forms of help can be.
To change for the better, people need more. They need help that comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, from whom every good and perfect gift comes down (James 1:17). Nate says: Yes, people can change. Leslie tells us how: With difficulty, and by getting help. Augustine identifies the kind of help we truly need: The power of a love that is nothing short of divine.
The ultimate change we long for, Augustine believed, is not only a gift from God but is the gift of God. The giver becomes the gift itself—God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. Only when God gives the gift of God, pouring out God’s very self—God’s Spirit of love—into us, are we set free to change in the radical way we long for.
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