I am a massive Ricky Gervais fan. I swear by the BBC version of The Office, I laughed myself silly during Extras (the Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan episodes in particular), I’ve listened to every podcast and even enjoyed Cemetary Junction. I may have even felt a little glee during the Golden Globes this past year. And I thought his Christmas column for the Wall Street Journal, “Why I Am An Atheist” was characteristically heartfelt and not at all mean. [Qualification over.] So I was disappointed and even a little dismayed to read his follow-up article this past week, “An (Atheist) Easter Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I Am An Excellent Christian.” A clever angle to be sure, but an embarrassingly revealing one as well. And not just about Ricky.
After rattling off the list of the common complaints – essentially the ole’ Christians-are-intolerant-hypocrites-and-the-Bible-is-inconsistent line – he gets to the thrust of his piece:
I am of course not a good Christian in the sense that I believe that Jesus was half man, half God, but I do believe I am a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians.
If the word “good” doesn’t already have you rolling your eyes, his justification, while obviously a little tongue-in-cheek, is where the real problems lie. He runs down The Ten Commandments in checklist mode, reporting his scores. After the Second Commandment, for instance, he writes:
This basically means don’t make or worship a religious statue or bow to it thinking that it’s holy. Tick. Another point to me.
It goes on from there. Yet it’s not the disrespect that’s troubling here, it’s the superficiality; clearly, the Sermon on the Mount would have made for much worse copy… Indeed, the total lack of psychological acuity makes one feel for the guy, not to mention question whether the whole thing is a put-on. His comedy, after all, conveys a profound grasp of human nature/motivation that is completely out of sync with the claim that he’s got nothing he’s worshiping or giving ultimate importance to in his life. Give me a break! Of course, he wouldn’t be the first person to use hyperbole in a religious debate.
In all seriousness, though, I have a hard time believing that Ricky’s understanding of Christianity is so juvenile, that he doesn’t see through the caricature he’s presenting. There’s simply no way the guy who wrote The Office thinks that living, breathing Christians (at least those with the most elementary understanding of the creeds) view the Bible as a rulebook, the Gospel as a matter of personal goodness, or the Church as a proud collection of supposed non-hypocrites – rather than, say, the complete opposite… Surely a man this brilliant hasn’t been able to tune out 2000 years of not-all-bad scholarship, not to mention the most rudimentary explanations of pretty much any thoughtful, non-Westboro churchgoer around. I almost want to shake him and say “Ricky, please, you can do better than this! There are so many more compelling arguments you could make!”
Perhaps I’m being naive and this is the actual state of willful entrenchment vis-a-vis Christianity in the modern world (or England)? That would be pretty depressing. Or even more so, perhaps Stephen Merchant is the one responsible for all the insight in their work?
No, I can only see two possible explanations: either Ricky’s “having a laugh” or his real objections are emotional in nature. That is, there must be some aspect of personal hurt that’s driving the train and fueling the absurdly selective listening. It feels like a prime example of what David Brooks writes about in The Social Animal, namely that, “our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.” In other words, we tend to dress up our feelings with intellectual language, not the other way around, especially our most deeply held ones. The blindspot is too egregious for any other explanation. I certainly know it works that way with me…
The column, however, is not without hope. In an unintentionally ironic moment, Ricky undermines the report-card nonsense by leering at an authentically Christian anthropology, quoting the very New Testament verse that is hilariously illustrated in every frame of every scene he’s ever shot:
“God or not, if I could change one thing for a better world, it would be for all mankind to adhere to this little gem: ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ I assure you, no more stones would ever be thrown.
On that rather humbling note, perhaps I should surrender as well. Lord knows, there are stones enough for all of us hypocrites this week.