A Theology of Jackie Gleason

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11.28

Jackie Gleason was not a Christian as far as I know. In fact, his reputation for sin may or may not been as big as Reginald Van Gleason III, one of his famous over-the-top characters. Likely, Mr. Gleason was, like most of us, a mixture of good and bad. Which means that, like all of us, he needed a righteousness not his own. I do not know if he found that in Jesus Christ. I leave that to a just and most merciful God. May the Lord have mercy on his soul.

jackiegleason.jpegBut last night my family and I enjoyed some of the old “lost episodes” of the Jackie Gleason show. We laughed a lot: at Ralph and Alice Kramden, Ed and Trixie Norton, living life together in the Bronx. Like our most beloved stories, the Jackie Gleason Show had a common plot: Ralph, the poor bus driver who wants to make his wife proud of him, or find meaning in life in some way, cooks up a grandiose plan. He gets his buddy Ed, a happy go lucky “city worker” (in the sewers) to go along with him. Alice, wiser and more in tune with their actual condition, desirous as her husband at improving their lives, must put the brakes on. Ralph doesn’t listen. He gets into troubles. We get schadenfreude — enjoyment of other persons’ misfortunes. But in the end, Ralph comes to Alice. He confesses his scheme as bigger than his gifts. He admits that he wants something more for his wife. Alice understands. She receives him. And we are left with, sometimes, a tear for the big clown.

One of the most useful courses I ever took in seminary was on theological reflection: finding God in everyday life. As I watched Jackie Gleason last night with my family, I realized that I am so often like Ralph. I have some big plans. Now I have never told my wife, “One day, Alice, right in the kisser!” or asked her, “Do you want to go to the moon?” But I have done some pretty bone headed things in my life. And my wife, Alice-like, has been there. She has used her femininity, not to manipulate me, but to help me. She sees things I can’t, including parts of myself that need shaping. And she is always there.

Prodigal SonBut of course the story-line, like all great story-line is a Gospel story: the story of a prodigal who is, in the end powerless and depleted of resources, and a loving God who is always there to welcome him home. It is the story of Jesus Christ, a God we can touch, the lover of our souls, who knows our motivations, and who shapes us, not with coercion, but with loving, divine patience, putting up with our grandiose, Peter-like plans, and then loving us to the end.

I know that watching old Jackie Gleason shows isn’t like watching a Billy Graham crusade, but last night as I watched these old episodes and thought about these things, I kind of wanted to sing, “Just As I Am.”

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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