Month: January 2012

A story of discipleship in The Office

“The Christening” (season 7, episode 7) is the most explicitly religious episode of The Office yet, and interestingly, it contains a subplot which illustrates Jesus’ teachings about discipleship.

The setup: the entire office turns up at the christening of Jim and Pam’s baby, Celeste, and the episode revolves around the misadventures during the service and then at the reception in the hall next door. The church is not identified; it seemed to me the writers were striving to make it generically Protestant. But it’s obviously not Baptist and there is a woman minister; furthermore, several seasons ago Pam mentioned she was a Presbyterian.

In one of the subplots, the christening service is also the send-off for the youth group, who are heading off to Mexico to build a school for the poor. Michael Scott, the office’s selfish and immature boss, is enchanted with the level of community and meaning which the youth group enjoys, wishing he could be a part of it. He tries to convince the others from the office:

Look at that, look at that – that’s fun! We need to do stuff together, outside of work. Let’s go help Africa… Let’s go build an airport. We’ll start small, we’ll have a carwash, we’ll send some cheerleaders to regionals.

When the others object, Michael says:

Okay, we don’t have to volunteer, but I think we should hang out together more… Look at these people – these are churchgoing people and they know how to party… What is wrong with you guys? What is so horrible about trying to get together and do something nice?

Michael (and then Andy) decide to get on the bus and join the youth, who embrace them. The idealistic youth leader says:

If the whole world were like you guys we wouldn’t have so many problems! … Nobody I know would leave their jobs and friends and families to do manual labour for three months.

A little while into the trip all the youth are trying to sleep and Michael is bored:

Michael: How long till we get to Mexico?

Andy: Well, two days minus, how long we been on the road… forty-five minutes… so like two days, basically.

Michael: What are we building over there again? Like a hospital? School for Mexicans?

Andy: I don’t know – I thought it was like a gymnasium…

Michael: Why aren’t they building it?

Andy: They don’t know how.

Michael: Do we know how. I don’t know how – do you know how?

Michael and Andy’s conversation might suggest some of the pitfalls of short-term mission trips – how much better do we rich white people know? But more than that, it is the falling apart of Michael and Andy’s resolve to do good and be a part of this community which seemed so attractive forty-five minutes ago:

Michael: I didn’t sign up for this. You guys are young! You want to give back to society! I’ve done that – I need to take!

Michael and Andy get off the bus. They hadn’t counted the cost, and they didn’t want to pay it.

It is a flattering portrait of Christianity – it shows Christian community as attractive but difficult, and the Christians themselves as welcoming and genuine.

*

‘Why have you always got to be so mean to me?’ – the only clip I could find from this episode isn’t from Michael Scott’s counting-the-cost story. Instead, Toby was once training to be a priest, and it’s his first return to church, presumably since his divorce. He hides outside (in the extras, even in a tree) before coming in alone to ask God the big question.

On coming late to The Great Divorce

I’ve just finished C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for the first time. It is a strange genre of writing, certainly not a novel in a conventional sense. Somewhat like Pilgrim’s Progress, it has a series of encounters with representative people in heaven, hell and in-between, whose responses to their situations have much to teach and warn us about our lives today.

Despite its disclaimer (‘a dream’), the book must surely horrify many evangelicals with its set-up of the afterlife. People’s fates are not fixed; they have the opportunity of visiting heaven and even staying. Their entry seems to depend upon their letting go of the sins which they have become attached to.

Lewis performs a deft twist at the end to exculpate himself and maintain his orthodoxy; the encounters we have read of are perhaps ‘only the mimicry of choices that had really been made long ago’ or perhaps ‘anticipations of a choice to be made at the end of all things’ (107). Better to say neither, advises George MacDonald (C.S. Lewis’s literary hero and his guide in heaven) – ‘do not ask of a vision in a dream more than a vision in a dream can give.’ MacDonald, warns him to be sure to ‘give no poor fool a pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows’ (108).

It is one of those rare books which inspire me to be a better person. Actually, perhaps it scares me to be better as much as inspires me – it is frightening to see parts of myself in all these people who are shutting out heaven and holding onto sin. The worst sin in The Great Divorce seems to be joylessness – those who shut out joy will shut out God. This is hard for a gloomy person like me to hear. It’s not the sin Jesus spent the most time on, but I see much truth in Lewis’s depiction of a series of people who will not embrace joy and truth because they are holding onto resentments of various kinds:

…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. (60)

Also frightening is Lewis’s depiction of a liberal bishop, who would rather return to the ambiguities of his theological reading group in the gloomy city (hell) than embrace the certainties of knowing God face to face. This is how he became what he is:

Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. (28)

There should be more books like this. The Shack probably belongs in the same genre, but unfortunately not in the same league.

Good News For Anxious Christians: that voice inside you is not God, says Phillip Cary

It’s not a book for Christians with an anxiety disorder; instead, Phillip Cary’s book claims that the ‘new evangelical theology’ is making Christians anxious by leading them to believe God works in ways God doesn’t work. (He calls ‘new evangelical theology’ the charismatic-influenced evangelical mainstream, particularly what you find in Christian living books for non-academic audiences.)

Chapter 1 is called “Why You Don’t Have to Hear God’s Voice in Your Heart: Or How God Really Speaks Today”. It certainly does challenge present day evangelical practice, whereby many evangelicals are ‘listening out’ for God’s promptings in their heart. Cary insists God doesn’t speak to our hearts; what we’re hearing is our own (fallible but often helpful) inner voice. Mistaking it for God can only give it an absolute authority it shouldn’t have. Instead of speaking in our hearts, God speaks through the Gospel, Cary insists – particularly, I suspect, the proclamation of the Word.

If he’s right, does this mean God’s silent, even as we pray to God? Is the Holy Spirit not even prompting or prodding us gently? I think I’d find it hard to pray if I completely agreed with him.

Anyone remotely charismatic will find themselves at odds with Cary. I’m keeping an open mind. He has a good point when you think of the way God speaks in the Bible – dreams, visions, audible voices, proclamations by prophets, but not so much voices in our hearts. But what about the charismatic gifts in the assembled church? I’m sure God speaking isn’t meant to be the private affair evangelicals make it, but I think Paul would say that God speaks new words to the congregation through people with the gift of prophecy, a gift God particularly poured out on a diverse range of people.  Not sure what Cary would say to that; in short my hunch is that’s right in relocating God speaking away from the individual’s heart, but that he has not given enough consideration to God speaking to the body in Pauline churches of the NT.