Good guy Ted Lasso and bad guy Christianity

“Be the best bad guy you can be.” In other words, if the secular mainstream is always going to cast you – a Christian – as a villain, don’t worry too much about your reputation. Just get on with the business of being a good neighbour to everyone. Or so runs a prominent theme in Christian writer and speaker Stephen McAlpine’s book Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t.

It’s novel advice for Christians feeling under pressure and besieged in the face of growing hostility, as well as a culture increasingly sceptical of Christian values and motivation. McAlpine’s advice is shrewd, too: if you’re regarded as a bad guy, don’t play to type. Rather than be “confused, despairing and mad about it,” he writes, “find a way to be calm, clear-sighted, confident and even joyful in it.”
Let’s be honest, though: who wants to lean into the prospect of being maligned and misunderstood – and do so cheerfully? I, for one, am going to need plenty of encouragement. Lucky, then, that I’ve found the perfect companion series to McAlpine’s book: Apple TV’s Ted Lasso.

I get that no one needs yet another streaming service in their life. But Ted Lasso is worth it. For millions of viewers in lockdown in 2020, the feel-good sports comedy was a very bright spot in a very dark year. “In the midst of winter and the start of Lockdown 3.0, this [was] tonic for the soul”, raved The British Psychological Society. A reviewer in Variety confessed that the show “chipped away at my scepticism until there was none left – just like the character himself does to everyone he meets”. Then there was Slate’s sly headline – Ted Lasso Makes America Good Again – alluding to the show’s potential to rehabilitate a tarnished reputation. This is exactly why the ears of bad guy Christians should be pricking up right about now.

Season 1 introduced us to Ted, a small-town American football coach who’s employed to run AFC Richmond, an English Premier League team, despite having no knowledge of the game. He’s an upbeat, relentlessly cheerful, “dumb” American let loose among the cynical British – easy to mock as naïve and foolish. Perhaps just like bad guy Christians? But don’t write Ted off so easily. Here are four reasons why:

  1. Ted has a pastor’s heart. However much AFC Richmond, manager Rebecca Welton, and jaded journalist Trent Crimm roll their eyes at Ted, they can’t deny that the coach genuinely cares about people. For instance, Ted continues to root for star player (and arrogant jerk) Jamie Tartt long after he needs to, even if that means he hurts his own team’s chances of an outright win on the field. But Ted’s commitment to everyone’s wellbeing shows his real heart for people – whether or not they’re a team member, a player no longer at the height of their powers, or a timid and diminished team assistant. People may scorn Ted’s methods, but no one can doubt that he really cares.Similarly, Christians can expect to be derided and spurned for their beliefs and values. But bad guys who nonetheless care deeply for everyone – not just those they happen to agree with – challenges everyone’s conception of what it means to be the bad guy in the first place.
  2.  Ted plays an entirely different game. “Winning isn’t everything,” goes the cliché. Yet Ted may be the only character in the show who actually believes it. For him, “success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young men be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.” Ted Lasso holds up a critical mirror to our conventional idea of success, especially when it comes to contest: we define success as publicly wiping the floor with our opponents. But Ted shows us that you don’t have to play by these rules. He knows that good players may be one thing, but good people are another, and so there’s always a bigger game at stake that doesn’t take place on any field. Ted is always playing with that bigger game in mind, and by playing by its different rules, he winds up changing the game.For bad guy Christians, the lesson might be: think of winning people as much as winning arguments.
  3. Ted inhabits uncomfortable places with ease. One scene in the show particularly stands out: when Ted challenges Rupert, his boss Rebecca’s arrogant ex, to a game of darts. Ted knows very well that Rupert sneers at him through smiles, but what’s striking is Ted’s settled refusal to be intimidated. Nor does he go on the defensive, either; he remains surprisingly at ease in a potential fight-or-flight situation. More than that, Ted shows that he can take Rupert’s provocations with grace and good humour.In the scene, Ted goes on to explain why: because of his “be curious, not judgemental” philosophy. Ted’s motto is a pretty good encapsulation of theologian Miroslav Volf’s description of the way Christians might best relate to their sceptical neighbours – through “soft difference”. This approach means that Christians “have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves” and where Christians “seek to win others without pressure or manipulation”. Volf is really describing the Christian’s quiet confidence in God – see 1 Peter 3:15-16 – that can help Christians cope with slights and blows in the meantime. Such security in God means that, while neither expecting nor resenting the lack of a warm welcome, you can make yourself available and responsive to others’ needs as well as the needs of the moment.
  4. Ted believes in miracles. If Ted Lasso believes in anything, it’s the power of belief. But belief in what exactly? The show is more coy about that. Instead, it more neutrally depicts belief, positivity, and optimism as virtues by themselves. We come to see that Ted’s sunny outlook and persistent kindness represent a defiant shaking of the fist in the face of the harsh realities of life: the fact that people deliberately hurt each other, they get things badly wrong and, even when people have good intentions, they still fall short of them. Ted’s relentless belief in belief may be admirable, but it’s difficult to see how it can be sustained over the long haul. Unless, of course, the object of that belief is both substantial and trustworthy.Belief, in other words, is not enough. And this is where Christians – even bad guy Christians – have the edge over even the best good guy contemporary culture can currently offer. For Christians aren’t told to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in their stride just because this is the best option available. Rather, the foundation of Christian hope is that God has not abandoned the world but has acted to reconcile it back to himself. That rock-solid hope is the basis of “soft difference” (see point 3) and is what enables and empowers Christians to act with hope and without fear since they are confident that God has got their back.

Yes, Ted Lasso is just a TV show and not a handbook for Christians to cheerfully accept being misunderstood, marginalised, or pegged as the villain. But the show isn’t a bad model for what it looks like to be cheerful even under pressure. Bad guy Christians could do a lot worse than looking like good guy Ted Lasso.

Season 1 and 2 of Ted Lasso is available on Apple TV.

Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of the little book Achievement Addiction.