A Divine Comedy? – My ‘REV’iew of BBC2’s latest religious sitcom…

Recently, I have been enthralled by the BBC2 show REV which chronicled the highs and lows of a CoE vicar  in an inner-city church. Being a huge fan of The Thick of It and its feature-length spinoff In The Loop, I was looking forward to Tom Hollander’s performance as the beleaguered Reverend (with the brilliant, Joe Orton-esque name of Adam Smallbone) . Surprisingly, considering the media’s traditional disdain towards organised religion, I found REV’s portrayal of Christianity to be – in parts –  sincere, respectful and authentic.

Tom Hollander was 'In The Loop' but is now in the ghetto

However, the show also suffered for mostly portraying a Christian faith that I did not recognize the face of (hopefully this is not the early onset of theological Asperger’s Syndrome). For me, Adam seemed to have a hugely impoverished faith – one in which Christ was not central, but instead a touchy-feely one filled with benign, ineffectual moralism and unnecessary, repellent ecclesiastical legalism. Ultimately, a faith that was more British than it was biblical.

Smallbone showed all the flaws of a lukewarm, liberal vicar who loves people but doesn’t love Jesus:

A non-existent congregation, bi-annual crises of faith, a sense of purposeless…

All of these would have been remedied by a good appreciation of the Gospel.

As such, Adam represents the liberal wing of the CoE today. Dying, irrelevant and confused. A reminder that once you let go of the Gospel, you will grab hold of anything. Meanwhile, in the evangelical churches, the pews are filling up because the Gospel is being preached faithfully, with love and without compromise.

Controversially, the prime example of this would be Darren – the terrifyingly hip yet slimy evangelic Charismatic from ep2 – who [I’d like to think intentionally] was a spitting image of popular emergent Church skengman Rob Bell. Darren represented everything Adam was not – socially contemporary and theologically conservative. More importantly, Darren believed it all and was liberated by it – which made ministry a whole lot easier and fruitful. Certitude can be a beautiful thing – if a little offensive to the relativists out there.

Heard the joke about the liberal and the charismatic?

To avert my tide of sanctimonious judgment, I want to also applaud the authenticity of REV. Hopefully REV has broken down some misconceptions about the Church and Christianity. Whilst the show did not make a particularly strong case for Jesus and why Humanity needs him, REV has helpfully dispelled some of the popular prejudices of church culture – that vicars are culturally removed and have no idea about contemporary life or that being a Christian makes you better and more moral than anyone else.  Or that Christians are killjoys who don’t drink, don’t go to parties and are allergic to sexual intercourse (I do hope the writers did not think portraying a vicar with an active sex life was satirical or dissenting in anyway – even a vague awareness of Mark Driscoll’s ministry would show that sex is encouraged in a healthy Christian relationship – role-playing and all) How deprived and uninformed are people’s understanding of Christianity if they reduce to it merely a system of elevated morality and upstanding behaviour!

I had no qualms about the congregation who were a delight.  From Colin the bottom-pinching hobo to Adoha’s lascivious ways – all of them have a place in the church which should be filled with all sorts. If anything I found their foibles to be too staid. Typical Sunday congregations are filled with a litany of miscreants, ‘characters’, rehabilitated criminals, unrehabilitated criminals, oddballs, wrecks and occasionally sweaty, disheveled gentlemen that have the church leadership deliberating tensions between Christian acceptance and child protection laws. The idea that even the most fundamentalist church is exclusive is a myth – a good church will hate the sin and love the person.

There is loads more discussion to be had about REV – which was a sublime little comedy in many ways if you overlook the theological omissions. Needless to say, I’m seriously looking forward to a second series.

***If you are unchurched or see Christianity as an irrelevant mythology (Naughty secularist! – read Ravi Zacharias, William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel or some basic apologetics), I encourage you to pop along to your local church. Challenge the people there, ask questions and keep searching. Please don’t sit passively and allow the media to spoon-feed you the mediocre – if frequently hilarious – view of Christianity as shown in REV.

SAFE.

Whether you are a Christian or not, what were your thoughts about Rev?

About jonathanrose

Raconteur. Intellectual. Showerman.
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18 Responses to A Divine Comedy? – My ‘REV’iew of BBC2’s latest religious sitcom…

  1. David Singeisen says:

    Jonny,

    Thanks for the review. Excellently written and well-argued.

    I can’t add much to what you’ve put, as I’ve not been watching much of the series (I’m not a huge fan of observational comedy). I’d like some of the background characters to be developed more in the new series. The Rev is well drawn (and acted by Tom Hollander), and as a developed character I quite like the Archdeacon (who strangely never seems to be doing any ecclesiastical work). Surely for every liberal reverend out there we must also pull up the Archdeacon perpetually off to the day spa/Chris Hitchens book launch?

    The problem lies in two things. Firstly that I don’t think the makers of ‘Rev’ have decided quite what they want from their show yet. The Guardian has tended to think of it as ‘Dibley’ in London, which it isn’t. It still hasn’t got it’s own clear identity though. Secondly that I tend to recognise quite a bit of myself in Adam Smallbone, while agreeing with what you’ve written above.

    One last thought. The only episode I have watched all the way through was the first. If I had to take something from that, it would be the sight of a troubled Rev praying over his dilemma with the MP and the school place and then going to do the right thing. A man of faith prayed and then (admittedly, it is implied) was guided by that prayer to do good. I will always love ‘Rev’ a little for those scenes.

    • jonathanrose says:

      Agreed. One of the things I *really* appreciated about REV was the earnestness in which it showed Smallbone’s prayer monologues. They reflected an man speaking to God with no affectations or pattern – just a heartfelt conversation which is what prayer should be.

      That the show doesn’t know where to go or what it wants to be, I also agree with. Some of the scene were a bit uneven. Indeed, whole episodes were uneven, meaning that if you tuned in one week you got a laugh a minute comedy and the next you had a comic drama.

      Character development is a must for the next series – the ArchBishop was delightfully underused and Machiavellian! I also thought the Black crackhead was also a superfluous character that should have either been developed or omitted.

  2. Kato Harris says:

    although I still have no plans to embark upon a religious lifestyle of any sort – I will teach my children an ethical code based on pure right and wrong, rather than an ethical code based on being rewarded in the afterlife – I read your blog on Rev with an open mind and thought it was absolutely beautifully written, showing great insight and clarity. Thank you for posting it.

    • jonathanrose says:

      Many thanks to you for taking the time to read the blog and having the courtesy to respond. Also, thank you for your compliments about the content and writing-style – very encouraging! :)

      Re: Religious ethics – altho…ugh I didn’t articulate it as well as I could have in the post, I’d want to impress that any argument towards a Christian morality (whatever that is) would show it as a natural response to the Gospel rather than predicated upon the promise of a cosmic pat-on-the-back/reward points scheme when we die.
      I.E. Salvation has nothing to do with what I do and everything to do with what Christ has DONE for me. My ethics are a response, not a requirement, and may even be irrelevant. The idea that how I act affects my salvation undermines the work of Christ and misunderstands God’s grace.

      Furthermore, I have no doubt that non-Christians act ethically. To deny it which would be offensive, grossly ignorant and plain incorrect. As well as a good moral code, I hope your children are also inculcated with your rapier wit ;)

      • Kato Harris says:

        Yes, you’ve certainly pinned down a critical difference between evangelicals (dare I call you that?) and old-school Christians. People like you (“I love Jesus”) appear to take a positive philosophy. Many of the Christians I know are of the older variety (“I feel so guilty, Lord forgive my sins”) and seem to live in a state of advanced neurosis.

        HOWEVER, the bottom line is, all Christians, that since I haven’t (a) accepted Jesus, (b) accepted that I am a sinner, and (c) repented, then I will ultimately go to hell, even if from a moral and ethical point of view I live an identical (or even purer) life than a believer. And to coin a phrase, “for that reason, I’m out”.

  3. Hannah Alderson says:

    Hi Jonny. Couldn’t resist leaving a reply. As others have said, this review is really well written – good work man! I’ve hugely enjoyed the series, and I too appreciated the authenticity of Tom Hollander’s character and found him likeable, relevant and, most crucially, human. However, as someone from the *takes deep breath* liberal wing of the church, I have a different perspective on certitude. While I think the Evangelical church was slightly unfairly portrayed in episode 2 (all smoothies, hip hop and gimmicks!) like Rev I do find certitude hard to stomach. The way I see it, we’re human, and that means we’re complex and questioning creatures. A lack of certitude does not always lead to lukewarm and dying churches, but can lead to vibrant, questioning, diverse and loving Christian communities. But that’s my tuppence! I await the 2nd series with interest!

    • jonathanrose says:

      Hannah,

      I’m SO glad that you enjoyed my review and took the time to comment. I realise that in some parts it reads in an incredibly cold and caustic manner which I had not originally intended it to do. SORRY :S

      I LOVE what you have said how a lack of certitude “does not always lead to lukewarm and dying churches, but can lead to vibrant, questioning, diverse and loving Christian communities”. This is VERY TRUE and I would not dispute this; mainly because I have experienced this myself. In fact, “vibrant, questioning, diverse and loving” are all adjectives that could be accurately attributed to evangelical circles as well. Furthermore, in the same way that you have noted that the evangelicals were slightly unfairly portrayed, the very same should be said for the Anglicans who – in real life – usually don’t complain when the coffee is substituted with smoothies!

      In truth, I have reread the paragraphs lambasting the liberal wing of the CoE and considered moderating my tone for fear of a) hyprocrisy b) arrogance and c) stupidity (all of which I am prone to indulging in frequently and with relish). However, I’ve chosen not to in the interests of honesty since I *ultimately* agree with what I’ve said. Forums for questioning and a space for deliberation in Christianity are very important, however I feel it is to the detriment of seekers if the leadership exercise doubt, compromise or a sort of noncommittal universalism which I feel are the hallmarks of some in the CoE.

      Again, this may have read as though I’m an embittered hater but I hope it can be seen that it comes from a real joy and delight in the Gospel (and wanting others to experience it in its fullness rather than a tepid version) and not an angry rant against those with a different viewpoint. Also, I’m fully aware that I lack the rigorous theological know-how to do this nuanced debate justice!*

      Your tuppence is highly valued Hannah and I’ve put it in an ISA for you. Looking forward to your return to my blog to collect your interest ;)

      PS DEFO looking forward to a second series too :)

      *Let’s hope Gorringe doesn’t see this!!

  4. Paul Alderson says:

    Awesome!

  5. James Goodman says:

    What, Jonny, could be a better way of engaging people with liberal Anglicanism than a vicar in a false moustache getting down to dizzee rascal?!

  6. Sam Rich says:

    I flipping hate religion too but believe in Jesus and his claims. I’m also glad its not about living good because if it was nobody could live good enough to please an infinite God anyway.

  7. Peter Hardy (@Kato) says:

    I’m a Catholic and I’d like to give some balance to where this conversation has dwelled upon Christianity from an Evangelical perspective.

    I can match your andecdotal account, as out of the hundreds of Catholics I’ve met I’ve honestl…y never encountered anyone paralysed by guilt or sick with any kind of morality-orientated neurosis (it’s a typical negative stereotype, but I’m sure it has a glint of truth to it, especially pre 1960’s). And I can raise you one critical point: if someone *was* suffering from such mental problems participation in Christian spirituality and believing in God’s liberating forgiveness (whether or not it is real) would be a great help for them. This was of course was part of Jesus’ crtique of the over-religiousness of the Jewish Old Law. Perhaps this is also why you know so many so many Christians like that- because it’s in the interest of those people to be Christians.

    Also, were you simply quoting Dragon’s Den in your 2nd post or is that really a key reason why you’re not a Christian? I doubt it is, but I say this because that’s Evangelical doctrine you’re objecting to, not Catholic, so it’s actually onl…y the opinion of a minority – far from the ‘all’ of – Christians whom you address. The view of the Church (and of most Anglicans) is that Christian living and Christian beliefs are two important phenomena that should arise from an individual’s good character and trustworthy disposition, but it is this character, the dispositions at the innermost heart of a person upon which they are judged (and not their deeds or beliefs).This is what the Church means by a person who has faith (as in ‘justification through faith’), not ‘what you happen to think to be historical fact or metaphysical truth’. After all, a benevolent God couldn’t send someone to hell just because they through no fault of their own did not live in such circumstances that allowed them to become a Christian.

    This can be seen very clearly in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1960s), and to my knowledge was most recently elaborated by John Paul II in 1993- an occasion when he publically affirmed that atheists can and are often saved. Vatican officials have made a point of this saying that a Buddhist is more likely to be saved than many Christians are!

    Thanks for the Rev review, I avoided it orignally but I’ll probably catch it on i-Player now.

    • Kato Harris says:

      Okay, to respond very briefly to your two points.

      1. “I’ve never encountered anyone paralysed by guilt or sick with any kind of morality-orientated neurosis”.

      Nobody could expect a Christian to diagnose his or her belief system as neurotic or paranoid or guilty. Those who suffer from mental illnesses are not expected to self-diagnose either. I wouldn’t expect you ever to have observed morality-orientated neurosis yourself.

      A more succinct response would be “physician, heal thyself”.

      2. “A benevolent God couldn’t send someone to hell just because they through no fault of their own did not live in such circumstances that allowed them to become a Christian”.

      Yes he could, and yes he does. That is absolutely the position of the Anglican and Catholic Christian churches.

      Just because the 1994 Catechism (not 1993) makes a totally contradictory attempt to revise this (you know full well it refers to those who seek god, so does not include atheists, so you’ll still watch me burn) does not alter the doctrine of two millennia of Christianity nor does it alter the teachings of the church. Your 1994 Cathechism is just a vague attempt to make the church more approachable, which seems to be at odds with what Jonny is saying.

      Jonny’s position is at least more honest than yours. He recognises that the Bible is the Bible, does not bring in Catechisms to water down its word, believes that all non-believers are destined for hell, and wants to reach out and save them.

      The ultimate point, of course, and one on which you are both fullyin agreement, is that your god is not a benevolent one, but a vengeful one.

      • Peter Hardy says:

        Thank you for your response, it is one, unfortunately, that I am coming to expect- i.e. the accusation that I’m lying about my religion because I can’t bear it not being acceptable to people. I do find this bizarre because it is clear that …Jesus’ message is essentially one of confrontation with the world.

        The first point is minor, but yes, I don’t claim that I would be able to give an accurate medical diagnosis of neuroses as you clearly are, but I think it falls within non-specialist knowledge to assess someone’s mental health on the basis of their behaviour.

        The second point is much more important, but perhaps simpler because you are completely wrong. To begin with it is logically contradictory for a benevolent God to do that, so no it is not possible that He could do that. Added to that, I obviously wouldn’t be a Christian would I if I didn’t think that God *is* love, so it is quite insulting for you to tell me that I worship vengefulness.

        Second, this *is* the position of the Catholic Church, but am not here engaged in distorting what it says in the Catechism, this is the message you get from the Code of Cannon Law and the Papal Encyclicals, which are a higher authority. As a Christian I, like Jonny, am committed to helping people, again, if I really did ‘know full well’ the contrary to be the case, how do explain my being a Christian?

        As far as I am aware an inclusive salvation doctrine such as this is also held by most Anglicans and Episcopalians, Quakers and some Methodists. I am not claiming that the Church never taught otherwise, of course it did, but I am talking about what the Church has taught in recent history.

        In saying that ‘the Bible is the Bible…’ you betray the presuppositions that Christian doctrine is arbitrated by the Bible and that your interpretation of the Bible is correct. Catholics do not hold that the Bible is inerrant, but as it hap…pens what I’ve said about salvation is consistent with the Bible (cf. my clarification on ‘faith’ above). Jesus and Christianity came long before the Bible- it is God and man that is the basis of religion, not a few pieces of paper which –as you well know– are meaningless without interpretation.

        The 1993 encyclical says: “The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all. … [Salvation is not denied] to those who, through no fault of their own, have not yet attained to the express recognition of God, yet who strive, not without divine grace, to lead an upright life.”

        This interview with a priest illustrates several of the inclusive aspects of contemporary orthodox Catholicism which might surprise you:

        http://www.meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=albacete&topic=complete

        I would also very much recommend the book ‘What the Bible Really Teaches’ by Keith Ward to all Christians and non-Christians.

  8. ABH says:

    Dear Kato & Peter (I don’t understand this whole @ business).

    Thanks for your fascinating, wide-ranging and perfectly spelt discussion on Jonny’s wall.

    JRo is normally more style than substance, so I thank you on his behalf for balancing th…ings out.

    I’m not very good at dealing with rich and nuanced subjects via a facebook thread, but can only suggest you may find an interesting and surprising perspective on God, Judgement, Hell etc in talk number 41 on this podcast. It’s one i’ve found personally helpful myself.

    http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/timothy-keller-podcast/id352660924

    Have a nice week

    Alex

  9. Rob Sharp says:

    Im with you jonny
    you could tell that the people writing it have NO idea what it means to have a real relationship with God

  10. Colleen Walker says:

    We are behind in TV land here in Australia so we have only recently had Rev (and still not all episodes). I found your review through good old google and really love your review. I am CofE raised but don’t go anymore because I found it to be boring but would probably go again if there were more Revs like Adam. I particularly like the episode where the Muslim group used the church and how Alex is friends with the Muslim teacher and the episode with the football match where Adam’s team was hopelessly outclassed. I live in a country town where there are no other faiths and which is a particularly christian community with 2 christian schools.

    My inbox is constantly bombarded with emails telling me how the Muslims are taking over the country and that I have to act to stop that happening. Personally, I believe that there are people in ALL religions who are good and who are bad. Unfortunately, we only hear about the bad.

    I think there should be more programs like Rev that show people getting along regardless of their religous beliefs.

    Incidently, I travelled to the UK two years ago. Sometimes, I was trying work out how to take photos of people I saw eg. a Jewish family I was talking to at Buckingham Palace where we were trying to get the guard to talk to us. Loved your churches and cathedrals. Ours are really boring in comparison. But why are they so cold. Roslyn Chapel was freezing!

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