Thursday, 17 April 2014

The BBC’s Rev: Christian or “just” nice?


One of my favorite TV series of all time is Rev - the BBC comedy about an Anglican priest in a London inner-city parish, with a minuscule congregation of misfits, and facing a barrage of trials both internal and from within and outwith the Anglican Church. The casting and acting are superb, the story lines varied, the contrast between the Rev’s psychology and the supporting cast’s caricatures comedic and the insightfulness of observation razor sharp.

Unlike other religiously-themed comedies, like the legendary Father Ted, Rev is not only about laughs, but very much also about a portrayal of a man’s sincere desire to love God and his fellow men and women. It is a love that falters and falls, but a love that is sincere and persistent.

In one episode we see the Rev go out of his way to be welcoming to a sinner (a sex offender just released from prison) in spite of his entire congregation’s opposition and his own revulsion. In another episode he struggles with his Church’s and his own views on homosexuality while going out of his way to be welcoming of his gay friends. In yet another episode he goes out of his way to work with the local Imam in spite of the humiliation that their financial imbalance brings him.

In fact, the formula of a Rev episode is a going out of one’s way, in pursuit of the excluded, the peripheral, the needy, regardless of the cost to oneself. And throughout these trials and adventures, the Rev converses with Jesus, with whom he pleads, to whom he complains, but in whom he trusts and whom he loves. In many ways, Rev expands on Blessed Mother Teresa’s saying: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”

Why, you may ask yourself, have I gone to the trouble of writing the above, albeit short, review of Rev? The reason is simple - an article in yesterday’s Telegraph, where Rev is denounced as un-Christian by reducing Christianity to being merely “nice” and leaving out “that Christians do nice things not just because they are nice people but because they are commanded to by scripture.” The article’s author then proceeds to list 8 “against”s that Christians need to be, and concludes with the following, peculiar piece of moral theology: “Christians who fail to point out these sins are surely as culpable as the people who commit them.”

However, the most offensive aspect of this article is not so much its twisted view of Christianity, but the following anti-atheist statement: “Nice atheists don’t have to [tell people when they’re going wrong] because there’s no commandment to rescue others from themselves.” This is offensive not only because it suggests that Christians only do what they do because they are commanded to do so - rather than because they (like all men and women!) are made in the image of God and have a deep-seated call to participate in the Trinity’s life of mutual self-giving - but also because it suggests that atheists don’t have a desire to correct wrongs. This is absurd, offensive and factually incorrect. Rather than try to build an extensive case, let me just point to a single counterexample: Albert Camus speaking to Dominicans about what atheists expect of Christians, showing great concern for them and being an exemplary “external” conscience for them.

In an attempt to bolster its credibility, the article also refers to Archbishop Justin Welby, who “disagrees with the show’s depiction of Anglican life because he notes that many churches are growing.” That is quite true - and a point I wholeheartedly agree with. However, it conveniently fails to mention that - in the same piece by the Archbishop - he also says that it is “great viewing.” Furthermore, the former Archbishop of Canterbury - Dr. Rowan Williams says that it tells us “something about the continuing commitment of the church to run-down and challenging areas. It also shows us someone who prays honestly.”

Finally, let me put one more card on the table - Pope Francis’ ever-versatile Evangelii Gaudium, where he has the following to say:
“[A] missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. [...] What counts above all else is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Works of love directed to one’s neighbour are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: “The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love”. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 108, a. 1.)” (§35, §37)