Yikes

Michael Metzger

When you hear yada yada, do you say Yikes?

From 1989 to 1998, Seinfeld introduced iconic idioms such as “Master of My Domain” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that…” Created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the show was a fictionalized version of Jerry’s life with friends Elaine Benes, George Costanzo, and Cosmo Kramer. But it also fictionalized faith. All you have to do is see how Seinfeld flipped the ancient definition on yada yada.

Seinfeld was a stitch. Its success lies in clever script writing and an admittedly superficial take on life. It was a show about “nothing.” Much like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the point of the show was to point out that there is no point to life. We live in a “whatever” world. Hence, the iconic idiom was yada yada—whatever. Who cares?

This is the polar opposite of yada’ in the scriptures. Yada’ is knowledge with the responsibility for creating shalom. It is loving people by taking seriously this knowledge of reality and willing the wellbeing of others—shalom.

Yada’ is to know in a relational sense. It is knowledge of reality with a focus on building flourishing relationships and institutions. To yada’ is to discern and distinguish that which is true and wise and loving. Knowing God, yada’ Yahweh, is the purpose of creation, of reality, and of love. Yada yada is not whatever which assumes three things: faith is a fiction, Ultimate Reality is unknowable, and responsibility to others optional.

In today’s world, yada yada has become synonymous with I know, I know… whatever… who cares? It’s the fruit of faith communities no longer defining reality. Instead, other institutions such as NBC and Seinfeld name reality. This is the most important thing anyone can do—name something, Albert Einstein said.

There is a great deal of skepticism today that anyone can name reality. Philip Rieff wrote that we live in an age when faith is considered a fiction. There is an underlying suspicion about describing reality inside a moral order. When individuals describe a sacred canopy, they’re shrugged off. Confidence in a moral code is considered bad form. Seinfeld’s yada yada fits the warp and woof of a “whatever” culture.

Today’s rendition of yada yada is another example of what Dallas Willard describes in Knowing Christ Today—how the American faith community is no longer viewed as a public resource for knowledge of reality. Our definition of reality is rarely if ever taken seriously and acted on. In fact, as the current rendition of yada yada reveals, reality has been flipped on its head. Simone Weil saw it coming in the 1940s.

After World War II, French audiences were hungry for American films and Hollywood sent a backlog of film noir. These were dark dramas, emphasizing moral ambiguity and a “whatever” attitude about life. Simone Weil, a French philosopher, reminded readers that, in real life, “nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good. No desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring as evil.” In film noir, “it is the other way round,” Weil wrote. “Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound, and full of charm.”1

Film noir flipped reality, but Seinfeld was more influential because it also hit the funny bone. As Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “Humor makes all things tolerable.” More than tolerable, Seinfeld made yada yada sound terrific. Face it, yada yada has become common currency in the coinage of our culture. If the Judeo-Christian definition of reality was instead the common coinage, people would hear yada yada being shortchanged and shriek Yikes.

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1 Simone Weil, “Morality and Literature” (an essay published in Cahiers du Sud, January 1944)

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5 Comments

  1. Mike,

    Good work on giving us an idea of how art shapes culture and how our society has become the “whatever” people.

    What I read implicitly in this article is a call for the church to seriously consider the role of the artist, and perhaps even becoming a patron of moral artists. (As a qualifier, I do not mean “moral artist” as a person who sprinkles Jesus throughout their work, but someone who, regardless of genre or medium, seeks to seriously grapple with the complexities of life out of love for their neighbour [the person viewing their art]. J.R.R. Tolkien was a moral artist, even though he never explicitly mentioned God in his work. I believe Mark Twain was a moral artist, and as much as he denigrated religion, he also offered a valuable critique of it.)

    If art can and does shape reality, then it is imperative that the Church find ways to embrace this aspect of life. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her book Walking On Water, “Seances and trips in the astral body are on the increase, and the church condemns and draws back. But if we do not offer a groping generation the real thing [a tangible, relational experience with God], they will look for it elsewhere, or, they will fall, as George Tyrrell observed, for the garbage of any superstition.”

    The challenge for the Church’s moral artists is to find ways to make art that glorifies God while still ringing true. The challenge is not to merely make works that people like, such as Seinfield, but to seek to help people grow. David Foster Wallace would say good art is that which “disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed.” I would add that good art finds a way to transform the self-centred blasé of yadda yadda life into the relational reality of Yada’, of loving God and loving neighbour as one loves oneself.

  2. Michael,

    Thank you for your weekly message. I really look forward to them.

    What a blessing they are to me and what an opportunity to grow every week through your thoughtful research and insight.

    Blessings!

    In Him,

    Tim Young Eagle

  3. As I read this week’s blog, I thought about Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” show on CBS. The lead piece was an interview that Steve Croft did with best selling author, Michael Lewis (The Blind Side). The focus was Lewis’ latest book, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.”

    Lewis, himself a former trader on the New York stock exchange, identified the cause of last fall’s economic meltdown not as the result of corruption at the highest levels of our nation’s major financial institutions but the result of incentives gone awry. Without using the words, he was saying that a culture of ‘yada, yada’ prevails on Wall Street. In essence he was saying, no one was yelling, “Yikes!” and should have been.

    My mind also went back to your December 7, 2009 blog titled, “The Best Little Auto Shop in Maryland” in which you cited Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards” and his, “research indicating financial incentives—bonuses, commissions, and options—undercut workers’ motivation to take a company’s purpose seriously.” You wrote that he said, “‘They pull people toward mission and profits and away from purpose.’”

    What I got from Croft’s interview is that Lewis has concluded purpose matters, that the purpose (not mission) of companies like AIG and Standard and Poors got lost in a culture of incentives and a myopic focus on “making my numbers.”

    We may be prone to think that yada, yada is just yada, yada and no more; but after hearing Michael Lewis Sunday night, I doubt he would see it that way. Thanks for the insight, Mike!

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