There’s a reason we love This Is Us. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking, capturing the many facets of family life and the ripple effects of loss. We laugh. We cry. We resonate and see ourselves in the characters.
We applaud it—but as much as we do, This Is Us should give us pause.
Millions of Americans, my husband and I included, have tuned in to watch the smash hit. We’ve recommended the show to friends, enjoying its compelling storyline and relatively clean content. Yet, for all the values the show explores, This Is Us is strikingly devoid of religion.
Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this. It’s a secular show created for an American culture where the primary “religion” is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, interwoven with relativism and moralism. But we should take careful note of the gaping, godless hole in This Is Us. We can enjoy the show and be thankful for its themes, while still recognizing the absence of ultimate truth.
When Family Is Everything
Rebecca and Jack Pearson (Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia), along with their three kids, Kevin, Randall, and Kate, are the picture of an all-American family. They love, they fight, they strive for harmony, and they deal with the disappointment of dreams deferred. Jack is portrayed as a model father-figure, involved and nurturing, yet tough as nails. He’s a humble guy-next-door who owns up to his mistakes while attempting to lead his family in what’s right.
While we should applaud the unique way This Is Us upholds family values (a rarity on television these days), we should be concerned about the degree to which it does. Jack’s family is his saving grace, his identity. “You are the love of my life,” he says to his wife, “and our kids are our everything.”
But what happens when a man puts his wife and kids on a pedestal, elevating them to the height of gods? We see the repercussions mainly in Kevin, Randall, and Kate in their adult years: At the root, their hardest battles revolve around their dad, the one who practically worshipped them, and the one they worshipped. Their identities are wrapped up in their father. And (spoiler alert!), as we see after Jack’s unexpected death, to lose the person you worship is to lose some part of yourself.
No human being can be or supply what only God can in Christ; to expect our family to fulfill us is a dead-end road. While family is a wonderful gift and can be a place of safety and security, it was never intended to be our “everything.” It simply can’t be.
When Addiction Is Unbeatable
While Jack Pearson passes down many wonderful blessings to his kids, along with these comes a genetic curse: addiction. Randall is addicted to perfectionism and control, suffering periodic mental breakdowns. Kevin abuses painkilling drugs and alcohol, while Kate struggles with weight and an addiction to eating.
Many viewers likely find consolation in this theme, seeing how they’re not alone as they battle their own addictions. But we see the show’s godless hole in how it suggests we can overcome addiction: by firm resolve and trying hard enough.
Years after his father’s death, and right after his release from rehab, Kevin visits his dad’s favorite tree and talks to him. He resolves to beat his addiction and do better, to overcome it and make his father proud. But is this enough to beat alcoholism?
What about Randall? Is his resolve to chill out by quitting his high-stress job enough to defeat his perfectionism and anxiety? What about Kate’s resolve to beat her food addiction and lose weight?
Human means to overcoming addictions (or any other struggle) certainly have value and can be effective; Jack’s commitment to Alcoholics Anonymous is one example of this. But Christians know that our ultimate hope is the Holy Spirit’s power to transform us at the core—our desires, affections, and subsequently, our actions. No amount of resolve or good intentions can change the heart, the seat of our decisions, apart from divine help.
Because our enemy makes us slaves to sin, the chains of addiction bind us unless someone frees us, and the heart remains hard and unmoldable unless someone replaces it. And this is why Jesus came into the world: to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), and give us new hearts by his Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26). In the words of Tim Keller, “When we behold the glory of Christ in the gospel, it reorders the loves of our hearts, so we delight in him supremely, and the other things that have ruled our lives lose their enslaving power over us.”
When Death Is Hopeless
Perhaps the most striking of the godless holes in This Is Us is the theme of death. While babysitting Randall’s daughters, Kevin tells them about a painting he made, one that expresses his view of life and mortality:
I think I scared you before. . . All that talk of ghosts and. . . dying. . . all that adult stuff we were reading about. . . There’s no dying. There’s no “You” or “Me” or “Them.” It’s just “Us.” And this sloppy, wild, colorful, magical thing that has no beginning, has no end, it’s right here. I think it’s us.
Kevin draws out the show’s thesis here: Death is inescapable and everywhere, but the memories of our loved ones are preserved through “us.” There’s no heaven or eternity. People just live on through our thoughts and recollections. It’s a man-centric, fluid view of life and death, meant to comfort and bring peace to viewers.
But it actually has the opposite effect.
If “there’s no dying” and our loved ones live on purely through memories, then what happens when the memories fade because everyone who holds the memories has died? And if life—purpose and identity—is based on memories from the past, how will a person ever be satisfied with the present or find hope in the future?
The gaping, godless hole in Kevin’s explanation (“I think it’s us”) should leave us deeply concerned and unsettled for viewers who lack clarity over spiritual realities. It’s confusing at best and damning at worst. Christians should grieve the culture’s God-less, Christ-less view of life and death; and we should also rejoice that, in our Savior, death is confronted and destroyed, leading to life that literally “has no end” in his presence.
For in Christ, there’s no gaping hole, but a lasting hope outside ourselves—a past, present, and future that’s gloriously God-centric.
[Post Credit: The Gospel Coalition]