Rev, the brilliant TV comedy that undermines the church is the title of an article which has attracted some attention over at The Guardian today: Sian Neilson kindly brought it to my attention, and asked if I had the same kind of reservations about the piece’s arguments. Essentially James Mumford seems to be arguing that the show doesn’t dramatize the “reality” of shared faith and worship, that the representation of churchgoing isn’t positive enough and that there is no coverage of transformative experiences such as faith healing. A few of us have been kicking around responses to the piece which I thought I’d share with you, as a way of asking what you all think about it.
One friend produced a straightforward six-point critique of how Mumford’s article missed the point of both TV drama, and perhaps even the theology behind its characters:
1. It’s a comedy-drama, not a PR film from the CofE, so it shouldn’t be aiming to prop up or undermine the church, it should be aiming to be funny/dramatic.
2. ‘The reality of shared faith’ is pretty hard to televise, and probably not that interesting for a lot of viewers. I agree Rev could occasionally show services that aren’t either the hilarious hyped-up nonsense of the ‘evangelical’ service in Series 2, or the ‘usual’ handful of people mumbling hymns and prayers in Adam’s church, but it’s not supposed to be televised worship, after all.
3. I think it’s dangerous and unChristian nonsense to suggest there’s something wrong with Colin or Adam’s faith because Colin hasn’t been “healed of his addiction”.
4. You have to pick a side if you’re going to televise the same-sex marriage issue in a programme set in the CofE. There is no neutral objective stand on that.
5. It’s unfair to say it doesn’t show the supernatural. And personally I think it would be irresponsible to show a miraculous healing without also developing a robust and kind theology of why God might heal some people miraculous while apparently ignoring the steadfast prayers of others. Not to do down TV, but I think developing or showing such a theology is probably outwith the scope of a half-hour show on BBC2.
6. (There IS a good critique of Rev to be made, which is that it increasingly doesn’t quite straddle the comedy/drama line in the right way for me – too farcical to be drama, not funny enough to be comedy – but this article isn’t it.)
After that careful response, I only had a few ways I thought the critique could be developed:
All of the above! Also this piece seems to be looking for a “God of the gaps” in drama – an uncaused item which betrays the existence of God/religion because it stands beyond the “normal” operations of TV drama. Why does the reviewer expect a drama about people in the Church to have a visibly different metaphysic? They did an awful lot of research for this show, by all accounts; perhaps in talking to the clergy and congregations they interviewed not many of them talked about “churchy” reality being different from “normal” reality in terms of its scientific laws (if only because, to state the bloody obvious, I should think the vast majority of clergy don’t think there are two entirely separate daily realities, one for believers and one for non-believers. I hope they don’t…)
The point about the dramatic representation of faith and worship is better focused, but I still think it’s wrong. Firstly, I think the camerawork and scripwriting is slyly excellent at depicting the subjectivity of particular characters: the sequence in which Adam fantasizes about his spiritual power if he put on a biretta borrows wittily from horror movie tropes, and to me those dramatic monologues feel like a very consciously performative “a clergyman speaks to his God, except we’re not Robert Browning any more, which is sort of a shame” which again represents Adam’s religious subjectivity and his attempts to carry it out. Considering the other options in representing worship – as the commenter above says, I’m not sure what it would mean to film a more “satisfying” service in a way which attempted to get into the experience. Or rather, I think I do, and it looks a lot like Songs of Praise, which deliberately sets out to represent worship in a way which interpelates the spectator. I think a lot of viewers would be troubled by a dramatic representation of a religious service which was itself a religious service, in the middle of a drama (as opposed to SoP if you like that sort of thing, or the radio broadcasts of Evensong.) Finally (sorry for the rambling!) why isn’t Colin and Adam’s continual morning meeting and conversation about religion regarded as a “shared faith”? It’s not pretty or indeed very nice or morally pleasant a lot of the time, but that is two people who regularly meet and talk about God. It’s almost the textbook example of a religious practice, yet it was curiously missed by the reviewer looking for “proper shared faith”.”
Another friend, an ordinand who publishes research on the psychology of religion, had a more pithy response:
“Dr. Mumford’s paradigmatic example of a Christian version of Rev seems to involve parlour trick-style miracles. That’s strange.”
What are your thoughts? I suspect there may be more than a few Rev-watchers in the readers of this blog! Do you think Mumford’s critique is fair? More broadly, what do you think about the representation of religion on TV? And how should drama approach issues of faith?