I have mixed feelings about the third series of BBC Rev, which finished last night. On the one hand, it made great TV: it’s a good story, well written, genuine characters, some touching and funny moments, and generally very watchable. It also – as the previous series have done – brought to the small screen some important themes, such as forgiveness and even the cross.
And yet, despite all that, I found this series even more difficult to watch than the previous two – and not just because it dealt with some pretty bleak themes. I concluded my review of series two by saying: “Adam Smallbone doesn’t have any good news.” I still think that, and even more so this series: Adam apparently has a very strong sense of vocation, of his calling to be a priest – but he doesn’t seem to have much else apart from that. He seems to have very little idea about what he is actually there to do apart from be a kind of social worker in a dog collar. His faith seems to make very little difference in his life – witness his outbursts that I wrote about last time, again in this series. The third episode (with the artist) I actually found painful to watch – Adam’s outburst at the end would probably have been grounds for instant dismissal in secular jobs. And the way Adam treats people – particularly the way he treats Nigel (the curate) towards the end – is also painful.
I think the problems I have with the series can be summed up in two scenes:
Firstly, the episode on forgiveness seemed to touch a lot of people on Twitter. I mean, it was a powerful episode, wasn’t it? Here’s a guy, someone who has been into images of child pornography (or abuse, as the episode makes clear), who has turned back from his old life and could now help the church through a really difficult time. Instead, although Adam is willing to forgive him, all he receives from the church members is the same treatment he receives from the world: rejection. The congregation at St Saviour’s (or at least the PCC) cannot find it in their hearts to forgive him.
As a piece of television, that was pretty powerful. As a drama about a church… that was utterly painful. Why? Because forgiveness is what the church is supposed to be about. At the end of the Gospel of Luke, we are given Jesus’ vision for the church: “[Jesus says] This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” How does Jesus summarise the gospel here? “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
This is what made that episode of Rev so galling to me. None of the members of the PCC seemed to believe in forgiveness. In fact, they implicitly believed that they were even morally superior to the man who came to the church. This is a massive contrast to the gospel, where everyone is a sinner in the eyes of God, and yet God graciously forgives because of the Lord Jesus. All people are equal in his eyes – all are equally deserving of God’s judgement, and yet all those who trust in Him are equally forgiven. As it is said, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross”. Jesus illustrates this point in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – I don’t want to quote it here but it’s quite short.
A number of times in the Bible, God’s forgiveness of us is contingent upon our forgiveness of others – most famously in the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”). The Christian has no right to withhold forgiveness, because we know we have been forgiven much (See also the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” – the point being, we are the servant who has been forgiven much by God; we should therefore forgive others who sin against us).
So, in a nutshell, Rev manages to do an episode on forgiveness apparently without mentioning the forgiveness that really matters. What’s more, few of the characters seem to demonstrate something so basic to the Christian message. Ouch.
Secondly, what message was Adam’s cross carrying in the penultimate episode trying to send out? It was quite clearly associating Adam’s journey with Jesus’ journey – Colin’s denial of him, the turning on him by all his friends, the scorning by the world, etc. ‘God’ says to Adam at the end of the episode “we all have our cross to bear”. I wondered whether it was specifically referring to the cross which priests in the church have to bear, i.e. because Adam was a priest a one-time slip (which would have blown over quickly for many people) was blown out of all proportion and turned into the Spanish Inquisition (and nobody expects the Sp– I’m sorry, that was inappropriate). This is the cross which priests have to bear.
However it was meant to be interpreted, it seems to miss the point. Jesus does say to his disciples Mark 8:
Then he [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
So Jesus does say that we need to take up our cross and follow him. What that means, however, is dying to sin and gaining a new life in Christ. To give one example elsewhere in the New Testament where this is picked up, Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The persecution Christians receive, and should expect to receive, is not as a result of sin – it’s as a result of following Jesus.
Christ wasn’t crucified because of his own sin, he was crucified because people hated him – because he exposed their evil deeds. John 3:19-20 says, “This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” And it is for this reason that Christians should expect to be hated as well. Jesus says, again in John (15:18-19), “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
Why did Adam go through what he went through in the ‘cross’ sequence? Because, frankly, he had behaved appallingly. He didn’t just make the original mistake with Ellie – that would have been bad enough – but he deliberately tried to cover it up with everyone else, especially his wife, and mistreated Nigel when he filed a complaint about it. (Nigel’s behaviour wasn’t great either, but I’m not talking about him right now).
In short, Adam was reaping what he sowed. Adam deserved what he got, frankly. Why is that so hard to stomach in a program about a vicar? Because – as I said about forgiveness – the central message of forgiveness and the cross is that we don’t get what we deserve. God forgives us despite our sin, because the punishment for our sin fell on Jesus. He died for us in our place – the cross Jesus carried, he carried for us. As the song goes, “it was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished”.
To say what Adam went through is like what Jesus went through is totally missing the point. 1 Peter 2:18-25 expresses what I’m trying to say, and I will finish with this. I should point out that this is in a section explaining how and why Christians should live good lives in a ‘pagan’ society. And when Peter addresses ‘slaves’, it should be noted that he would have meant something quite different to the slave trade we may think of:
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
‘He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.