I have no idea why people watch Rev. I mean, my husband and I love it. But we are both clergy. So watching a show about an Anglican priest is cathartic. Our lives have been filled with weird churchy moments. We’ve had a Pentecostal Korean congregation secretly use our church at 5am for months without anyone knowing (I found them one morning on my way to spin class, like you do). And we’ve had parishioners walk right into our rectories (church owned housing) without knocking and tell us they didn’t like our paint color choices. Sure, there are moments of valor. I’ve seen my husband drag himself out of bed in the middle of the night to go hold the hand of a parishioner as they die. But, like Rev. so beautifully captures, there are a lot of days when ministry consists of cobbling together sermons and emptying trash cans.
And yet Rev. is so entirely compelling. And obviously their viewing audience is more than just a handful of church pastors looking for painful exposure therapy. I believe the appeal of Rev. is widespread because it documents something familiar to all of us. Rev. tells the story of what happens when our lives completely fall apart.
The show chronicles the life of an inner city London clergyman named Adam Smallbone. He’s not cute by TV standards. He is short and looks tired most of the time. Like all of us, Adam is a man full of dichotomies. He drinks (a lot) and overworks himself on behalf of a tiny congregation. He is a loving husband and father while also completely neglecting the attentiveness that those relationships need. There are at least 3 episodes where his wife complains about how little sex they manage to have. And in one humorous and painful scene, Adam lets the local homeless guy watch his infant daughter, who proceeds to give her nips of rum.
Adam’s earnestness and sin are so relatable that when his life begins to fall apart you don’t even realize its happening. Which, frankly, is a fair statement about any of our lives falling apart. One day, you realize that everything is coming to a screeching halt: divorce, loss of health, financial ruin. Unbeknownst to us, our personal demise is often methodical and years in the making. And yet when it happens, you find yourself standing there empty handed, with the reins of control lying at your feet.
For Adam, the beginning of the end was marked in the first few episodes. He had been hounded by church hierarchy who insisted that if he didn’t bring in more people, the church would be forced to close its doors. Imagine the pressure that must weigh on a person when such a gauntlet is thrown down. And while it would be easy to claim, as many of us do in our own personal breakdowns, that Adam “cracked under pressure,” I actually think Adam just decided to hold up the white flag of surrender. And then I think his give a damn got up and went.
In my own life, I find this possibility terrifying. What would happen if I just gave up getting it all right? We will fight tooth and nail denying reality when our lives are unforgiving and overwhelming. Culturally speaking, I think this might be why we have so many platitudes to make ourselves feel better when such turmoil unfolds in our own lives. When catastrophic life changes find their way into our purview, we tell ourselves to “go with the flow” or to “breathe deeply.” If we are feeling particularly holy we might spiritualize the whole ordeal and insist that we should just “give it to God.”
Of course, all of this is just our automated mechanism of control kicking into overdrive. Even when our lives fall completely apart, we want to have some way of qualifying it for a higher purpose. When the scary truth is sometimes things just suck and chasing the tail of justification will only make our situation more miserable.
Of course, there are loads of compelling television shows that document people’s lives falling apart. But Rev. is different. Because on this show we get to see what happens when a Man of God just gives up. I mean, it is acceptable to move to the woods and write poetry if you’ve spent your life being an investment banker or a corporate lawyer. But to give up on being a priest? That can’t be allowed. You’ve got to hang with the program, pray harder, preach better, and encourage others. You aren’t allowed to fall apart on the sidewalk. What the hell kind of Christian witness is that going to provide?
Rev. is so brilliant because Adam does fall completely apart. He crosses the threshold of lost control. In fact he dances across it.
In the second to last episode of the series (which should be mandatory viewing in seminary), Adam’s life is rapidly unraveling. The church is doomed to close. Adam has kissed a woman on his staff. His marriage is just barely recovering from the fall out. So Adam does what a lot of us do when the air of our lives is too thick to breathe: he takes a long walk holding a cross. And he ends up on a hill. And he starts to sing and dance.
I wish I could tell you that Adam sings and dances to a theologically profound hymn. But, instead he starts to belt out one of the goofiest church songs ever: “Lord of the Dance”. At first he looks awkward, just sort of singing and bouncing by himself. But after a moment or two, God joins him.
According to the writers of Rev., God is a joyful Liam Neesen, dressed in a mismatched track suit, holding what appears to be a morning beer. Let the record show, I’m on board with that idea. And when God sees Adam singing and dancing, God joins right in.
This scene in Rev. provides the opportunity for some of our scariest questions to be answered. Will God really continue to love us if we admit that we cannot keep our lives together? Will God abandon those who give up on His church? Will He always be with us? Even me?
Yes, it turns out. The answer is always yes.
Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.