Church, people

Did anyone see last week’s episode of “The Office”? I’d been about ready to trash the show for good last season, especially after the unforgivably heinous “Scott’s Tots.” But dang, they had to go bring Timothy Olyphant in as a guest character. Now that, I’m afraid, is just not playing fair with Miss Conduct. I adored “Deadwood,” and am also a big fan of “Damages.” In both those shows, though, it’s never clear if Mr. Olyphant can act, or if he can just clench his jaw meaningfully.

So of course I had to watch that episode, and then I wound up watching the rest of the season, which has definitely been on an upswing. (And yes, Mr. Olyphant can act, as long as there are no guns around. As Anton Chekhov famously said, “If there is a gun in the first act, do not cast Timothy Olyphant, because all he will do is stare at it and clench his jaw meaningfully.”)


I thought last week’s episode, “The Christening,” was one of the best television episodes about church, and church people, and how non-church-people cope with church, ever. Television doesn’t do religion well, by and large; it’s either ignored completely or made the utter center of things in a way that doesn’t reflect most people’s lives. (“Six Feet Under” was a notable exception.)

“The Christening” was, perhaps obviously, about the christening of Jim and Pam “Halbert”‘s baby. (This is the one thing I found wrong. In my experience, no clergyperson at such an intimate, high-energy church would agree to christen a baby if she didn’t even know the couple’s last name. Clergy make mistakes, but they’re performers: they keep it fresh every time, remember names, and realize that babies aren’t reliable at ritualized events and have plenty of options on hand at naming ceremonies, christening, and brisses in case things go wrong. Regardless of how good your scriptural exegesis is, you don’t graduate preacher school without knowing how to handle a vomiting infant.)

But aside from that … it was about church. I grew up with church people, and that’s what they’re like. On the down side, they can honestly believe that going to a Mexican city for three months to build a school will make them “practically Mexicans.” On the plus side, they accept, and love, and have fun, and enjoy dorkiness. It was brilliant how even Michael Scott, a man who expects to be welcomed as a hero wherever he goes, is taken aback by genuine Christian hospitality. Deep down, he never really expected anyone to like or accept him — but Christians will. He is faced with people who are willing to believe in his goodness, in his capacity to transform himself, who believe in dreams and making them come true — and he is terrified, and runs from them.

William James described the two types of religious temperament as “healthy-minded” and “sick-souled.” Jim and Pam, the youth group — for people like this, religion is … calm. An ordinary part of life. Community, moral and emotional support, the beauty of the Scriptures, saying a prayer at night. No drama.

Michael, though, wants the drama. Religion can teach you the truth about yourself or it can bolster your self-delusions like no other power on earth, and for some of us sick-souled ones, it can do both with vertiginous speed and force. Michael yearns for an authentic life, at the same time as he clings desperately to the very delusions that keep him from having one.

And Toby? Toby, who wanders outside the church for almost the entire episode, unable to step over the threshold. Toby, who when he does, walks up to the altar and asks, simply, “Why you always gotta be so mean to me?”

A prayer for the ages.

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