The Gospel According to Edith Bunker

This article appeared in the CHRISTIAN CENTURY on March 27, 1974. I recently wrote about Henry Fonda quoting from it for “The Best of All in the Family,” which celebrated the 100th episode of the series.  This is included in the DVD set of the Fifth Season of All in the Family, on disk 2,  a little over 20 minutes into the program.

THE GOSPEL is being discovered in unexpected places these days – in Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” in Mother Goose, James Bond, Andy Capp, Mad magazine. If the gospel can be discerned in these unlikely guises, then surely Good News can be found in yet another post canonical Gospel – the Gospel According to Edith Bunker.

In Norman Lear’s TV sitcom “All in the Family,” the Good News is uttered not by Archie Bunker, by Mike or Gloria, by Lionel or the new neighbors, but by Edith, who will never be regarded as possessing an overabundance of brains or beauty; a woman disparaged by her husband as a bumbling, fumbling “dingbat.” Truly she “hath no form nor comeliness that we should esteem her.”

Edith is without pretension. Archie, Mike and Gloria may pretend to be more than they are; they may take off on flights of fancy. But Edith is always there to welcome their return, with the coffee pot on the stove or a full dinner on the table. Often it is one of her innocent remarks that cuts short their flight, bringing them down more surely than the barbs of a cynic. If Archie attempts to pull off some dishonest scheme, it is invariably Edith who blurts out the truth that is his undoing.

Archie chides Mike for allowing Gloria to take a job: “In the old days, the husband worked and the wife stayed at home. Even during the Depression we was proud. Right, Edith?” Edith: “Yeah … and hungry, too!” Or when Archie is angered by a TV’ editorial advocating gun control and his son-in-law urges him to call the station and make a rebuttal: “What’s the matter? You got cold feet?” “No, I ain’t got cold feet!” Edith interrupts with, “Oh yes, you do, Archie. The other night in bed…”

Edith is the “debunker” par excellence, but she is more than that, even as the gospel is more than deflating of our false pride and illusions. Christ punctured the puffed-up egos of Pharisee and Scribe, lawyer and rich ma and disciple. He was truth-bearer, but more than this, he was cross bearer or love-bearer. We see these qualities in Edit, as she greets Archie at the door and hears out his complaints; as she calls own an overwrought Mike; as she comforts Gloria. She is go-between, intercessor, or mediator for Archie, and whomever he has decided not to talk with—for example, Mr. Jefferson, the black neighbor down the block.

Occasionally Edith succeeds in throwing off her dingbat image, and for a moment we catch a glimpse of a warm, perceptive human being—and we wonder what she might have become had she not married Archie. In one episode, Mike insists that the family, together with Michel Jefferson, play the game of Group Therapy. Archie refuses to play and stalks off to his tavern. In the living room, things don’t go quite to Mike’ satisfaction. To his chagrin, each member of the group, prompted by the rules of the game, tells him things he doesn’t want to hear: that he’s not as open-minded as he thinks, that he has real problems relating to others. He is especially upset at Lionel’s suggestion that he is patronizing and condescending toward blacks. Raging out of control, Mike upsets the game and stomps upstairs. Persuaded to return, he becomes enraged again and rushes out to the kitchen to pout. This time it is Edith who pursues him

As always, their conversation turns to Archie: “Mom, Archie hates me!” “No-o-o, Mike, Archie doesn’t hate you.” “Then why does he always say, ‘Get away from me, Meathead!’ when he comes in the door?” “Mike, Archie is jealous of you.” “Of me?!” She points out that Mike is young and Archie is growing old: “He’ll never be more than what he is now, even though he had dreams once, like you. He ain’t gone to college like you. He had to drop out of school to help support his family. He never will go to college. You have your whole future ahead of you, but most of Archie’s life is behind him. So you see, he’s jealous of you, Mike.”

Mike forgets his rage as this unexpected insight sinks in. Presently, Archie returns from the tavern and comes in the door with his usual greeting: “Get away from me, Meathead!” But this time, instead of returning the hostility in kind, Mike throws his arms around Archie and cries out, “It’s all right, Archie. I understand!” Fade out slowly on Archie’s wide-eyed puzzlement.

As a “little Christ,” Edith is Paul’s “foolishness of God” incarnate. “Despised and rejected of men,” she does not reign even in her own kitchen, but is constantly at the call of an arrogant husband and spoiled children. Occasionally, however, she asserts her humanity, often enough to show that though she might be a fool, she’s not a damned fool.

Over the course of the series, as the characters are developed, we will see, I suspect, a growing consciousness in Edith. The quality of the writing is high, though I doubt that the writers have any theological intentions. Just as there is no pretension in Edith, there is little to the show itself. Its very theological innocence makes the insights of the show- particularly those of Edith – all the more remarkable.

Edith might think that Plato is a Walt Disney dog, that Aristotle is a Greek shipping magnate, and that Marx is a great comedian, but she possesses something better than factual knowledge: a knowledge of the heart, an insight into the soul. *

If Archie shows us Everyman and his foibles, Edith depicts what we can become when integrity and concern overcome our limitations. Critics who have viewed “All in the Family” as a liberal diatribe against conservative rednecks may be missing the point. A theology that comes in half-hour, humorous segments is not Barth or Tillich, but the insights into human nature in each episode ring true. And that, after all, is what the theological quest is all about – the search for truth.

*This is the paragraph quoted by Henry Fonda in the “Best of Archie Bunker,” aired in honor of the 100th episode broadcast in 1974—my one claim to main, especially sweet in that he is among my top ten favorite actors.

For more details on the broadcast, the link below will tak you to my FaceBook posts. Scroll down to find all 3.   (20+) Facebook

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