Scott Black Johnston: The Loser Edit

I am a fan of the television show Great British Bake Off. A BBC production, the Bake Off is a reality program that pits aspiring bakers against each other in a series of culinary challenges. Like most reality shows, the conclusion of each hour-long episode involves one of the contestants getting voted off the program. Week after week, judges narrow the field, until only the battle-tested champion of British baking remains.

What sort of things will get you voted off the show? Overbake your cake. Underproof your dough. Get messy with your chocolate work. Have bland flavors. Any error can result in a contestant being told: “I am afraid it is time for you to go.”

At the Black-Johnston house, we enjoy speculating who will be asked to leave. Will it be Ruby whose scones were a mess? Will it be Rahul whose cake had a decided tilt to it? We watch for scowling judges, for melting icing, for any mistake that indicates, “Clearly, this baker has made a critical mistake.”

When you make the right call, it’s easy to feel smug about your predictive abilities. “I saw it coming; that guy had failure written all over him! After all, he scorched the sweet rolls.” It turns out, I am a pretty savvy critic of televised baking. At least, that’s the way it felt right up until I read a fascinating article by pop-culture critic Colson Whitehead.

Writing for The New York Times, Whitehead pulls back the curtain on a television production technique that’s so doggone obvious, I can’t believe I fell for it. Reality shows, he argues, work best when they incite a state of righteous judgment in their viewers. They accomplish this through what industry insiders call the “Loser Edit.”

A loser edit works like this: When a character is about to get the heave-ho, the director stitches together a coherent story explaining the person’s departure. Over the course of an hour-long show, she sprinkles in scenes putting the soon-to-be-gone person’s flaws on display.

According to Colson, “Anyone tuning in for the first time catches up quickly. The loser edit is not just the narrative arc of a contestant about to be chopped, or voted off the island, whatever the catchphrase. It is [a] plausible argument [for] failure.” [Colson Whitehead, “The Loser Edit that Waits Us All,” The New York Times, March 3, 2015.]

In other words, so-called “reality” television is deliberately guiding us, leading us, bringing us to a point where we blurt out, “I saw it coming. That guy had failure written all over him!”

Our world is really good at whipping up loser edits. Politicians and pundits love loser edits. Let me hang a few ill-advised quotes around this candidate’s neck. Snip. Snip. Splice. Splice. “There you go! Now, do you see who he is – who he really is?”

Loser edits confirm our prejudices. Let me cite a few facts and figures about these people, this ethnicity, this sub-set of our population. Snip. Snip. Splice. Splice. “There you go! Now, do you understand who these folk are? Do you see what dangers they represent?”

We cobble together loser edits at work too. Ugh, that Archie. Don’t get me started… First, he messed up the commodities presentation. Then, he sent that stupid email around. And last week, he quoted the wrong numbers to accounting. Grumbling at the local watering hole, with barely restrained glee, we screen and re-screen the film of Archie’s fumbles and flaws. Snip. Snip. Splice. Splice. We are smart. We know who Archie is.

We can even apply loser edits to ourselves. We piece together mental videos – a montage of our mistakes and missteps. “Why did I say that? How could I have done that? How did I end up with this – this failure of a me?” Been there? Done that? Our friend, the disciple Peter, owns the T-shirt.

In today’s text, we find the disciple on a beach hanging out next to a fire. The last time Peter warmed himself over burning coals, he denied knowing Jesus. Big deal, right? So, he denied Jesus. We do it all the time. There are worse crimes.

Except… except for Peter, renouncing Jesus called into question everything he wanted to believe about himself. I denied knowing the man who gave my life purpose and meaning and joy. What does that say about me? Am I the sort of guy, when faced by trouble, who abandons his friends? Did I just kick everything I hold precious into the gutter? Is that the kind of man I am?

It may be the season of Easter, but the stories the church serves up are not marshmallow chicks. Shame and guilt chase each other through Peter’s head. You can see it, can’t you? Peter is strangely quiet. He knows what’s coming: the cold shoulder, a reprimand, final confirmation that he is a loser – a bundle of selfish choices and bad decisions.

Peter flinches (you know he does) when Christ sets down his plate of fish and asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” There is a lot at stake in this poignant question. Right out of the gate, Jesus throws the fisherman off balance. He addresses Peter as “Simon.”

“Simon”? Why “Simon”? After all, Jesus famously told the man, “I am no longer going to call you Simon, from now on I will call you Peter, Petros, the rock. You are the granite on which I will build my community – my church.” That’s what Jesus promised. So, why does our Lord revert to “Simon”? Is it a not-so-subtle dig? “On further reflection… it turns out you’re not a rock. All those denials. I get the picture. Now, I see who you really are!” Snip. Snip. Splice. Splice.

Is that what Jesus is doing? Has he just labeled Peter “a loser”? To answer, we need to look at the backdrop for this conversation. Today’s story places us on the beach, and not just any beach. The Gospel has tugged us back to the shores of Galilee – back to the boats and the nets – back to the very spot the big fisherman first met Jesus. The scene is familiar. And that’s the point. When Jesus says, “Brother Simon,” he hits the reset button. He takes Peter back to the beginning. He invites the disciple to recall the initial, excited (“Am I really doing this?”) impulse that had him drop his nets and go tramping off after Christ in the first place.

“Simon, son of John,” asks Jesus, “do you love me?”

Doesn’t it always come down to love with Jesus? Love glued the disciples and Jesus to each other in the first place. Love is what they preach and teach and share on the road. And, after all seems lost on Good Friday, it is some kind of wild, magical love that draws them back together again.

“Yes, Lord,” Peter gasps, desperate for this chance. “You know I love you!” “Okay then, feed my sheep.”

Three times Jesus asks about love. Three times Peter responds, “Yes, Lord!” Three times Christ encourages him to feed the sheep. Why the repetition? Some say Jesus wants to give Peter three chances to profess his love to offset the three denials he voiced on Good Friday.

I guess that works; although, I wonder if something more basic is going on here. I wonder if Jesus uses repetition (like a concerned parent) to drum something crucial into Peter’s head, and – by extension – into the heads and hearts of the church.

I wonder if Jesus is saying: You are not the sum of your mistakes. Your identity is grounded in my love for you and your love for me. As you get confident in that love, as you lean into that love, I have a task for you. Take care of my vulnerable lambs.

Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Each time Peter answers, he confirms his truest self, his best heart, his sacred sense of purpose. Each time Peter answers, the narrative changes, and the loser edit in his head fades a bit. Each answer grounds Peter more and more in God’s story.

Jesus loves me. I love him back, and I want to share that love with other people.

The I Promise School is a public elementary school in Akron, Ohio. I Promise is a unique place. You can get a sense of its special nature watching children enter its halls on a Monday morning. As teachers and administrators line the entrances, and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” blares from the intercom speakers, children are showered with high fives and hugs.

Students at I Promise are chosen by a lottery from second graders in the Akron public school system who rank in the bottom 30% of reading scores. And here’s the thing, I Promise requests these kids. One Akron educator remarks that the school basically said, give us the kids who are struggling, and the district obliged. The school calls the children “The Chosen Ones.”

While I Promise is a public school, funded by Akron tax dollars, it also has outside support. It receives additional funds from the LeBron James Family Foundation. Among other things, this allows the school to add an hour to every school day. The extra time is devoted to classes on conflict management and other emotional skills for the children. The additional time also provides a chance for parents to take classes on everything from family finance to parenting.

About 20% of I Promise’s budget comes from outside funding, but it has more than funding going for it. “It doesn’t take money,” says Brandi Davis, the school’s veteran principle, “to teach students how to love.” These beloved students have shown steady progress - 90% of the students at I Promise are meeting or exceeding individual growth goals in reading and math.

Do we really know who the losers are? Is there such a thing as an “irredeemable” grade-school kid? Can hugs and high fives make you better at math? Can conflict resolution and love turn a story around – turn a life around? My guess is that the Apostle Peter would say, “Yes!”

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. Snip. Snip. Splice. Splice. “Feed my lambs.”

Friends, the Risen Christ never stops working to redeem our past, to remind us of our capacity for love, and to put us to work. The Risen Christ holds before our eyes all who have been subject to the loser edit – who have been told that they are irredeemable. And then, he invites us to start singing, with Sister Sledge, “We Are Family. I got all my sisters with me…”

Let us pray.

Gracious God, help us to see ourselves, and help us to see others, as you see us – as beloved children who have a holy purpose. Amen.