Saturday, August 07, 2010


This is by way of a response to Jon who thinks I'm too harsh on Adam Smallbone and who argues "Smallbone's 'I'm tired of having to tell people what they want to hear all the time' is something that I would guess most of us think at some stage in our ministry. Moments like those have been the basis for much of the comedy in the series and, in my experience at least, seem an authentic reflection on an aspect of being in ministry. In the context of the story told in the final episode, that comment was then deliberately undercut by the writers in the denouement to the episode where he says exactly what his dying parishioner wants and needs to hear and this is restorative both for the parishioner and himself."

Trouble is, if that is the truth - and yes, all good art is open to multiple interepretation - but if that is the truth then, for me, the ending is denuded of all value. Let me explain.

I read the climax of the series, when Smallbone is collected by the police and taken off to do his proper work, as a moment of anagnorisis. In other words, in the midst of his drunken gropings, the overflow of self-pity and self-hatred, Smallbone is recalled to his essential vocation, a vocation expressed in ministering with truth and dignity in a sacramental fashion. In other words, there is a break with what has gone before - which, in retrospect, is seen unfavourably. That had great power for me - it is why I liked it.

If, however, Jon's analysis is true, and Smallbone is still saying 'exactly what his dying parishioner wants and needs to hear' then there is a consistency between Smallbone's behaviour leading up to this moment and what he then does. In other words, there is no anagnorisis, there is no crisis, there is no growth in self-knowledge. How dull!

The trouble is that I really could believe Jon's analysis of the writers' intention to be true. That is, I found the ending so wonderful because it undercut what had gone before, not because it was consistent with what had gone before.

Something else needs to be touched on.

The problem is that 'saying what people want to hear' is a consistent part of Smallbone's nature, and it ties in with what I see as a lack of character. A previous moment that I felt was telling was when Smallbone half-apologises to his wife that they have never had children, and the wife responds that she already has one, ie him! Perhaps they should have called the character 'Adam No-Backbone' instead.

There is all the difference in the world between refraining from speaking the truth - out of pastoral concern and sensitivity to kairos, say - and speaking what people want to hear. The one is a prudent forebearance that keeps at least one eye on the main purpose, the other is a rootless drifting in the currents of the world. It is because Smallbone had seemed to be so much of the latter kind that I found the ending so wonderful a contrast.

I would not wish to argue, either, that this is a matter of strength of character. Indeed, that is to perpetuate the most fundamental theological error in the programme. God is more than happy to make use of weak vessels to accomplish his own ends, indeed, as St Paul tells us, this is in some ways the essential point in being a Christian. Again, this is what I found so wonderful and true about the ending - a weak man being the means of divine grace.

The trouble with Smallbone is that he lacked a place to stand outside of himself, somewhere that is not comprised of (and compromised by) his own narcissism. He lacked, so it seemed to me, any sense of the otherness of God, of that power greater than himself within which he found his own true calling and nature, which loved him and enabled him to be himself - to precisely not be a false self, presenting what other people wanted to hear. I don't think it a coincidence that there was so little exploration of worship in the programme - perhaps they couldn't, as it was a comedy - yet without that, any true presentation of priesthood collapses. I often felt that the programme could have been changed into a non-religious context without any serious alterations of character being required - Smallbone could easily have been a social worker or government bureaucrat, and much of the comedy would have remained.

To put it succinctly, Smallbone had no fear of God in him. That is why I shall continue to see him as the construct of the secular, liberal elite - they have no understanding of the fear of God, no sense of it as a living (and life-giving) reality - and their presentation of the faith shares that failing. They don't understand it, therefore it doesn't exist - other than as a quaint delusion shared by the uneducated or mentally deficient. Smallbone is a nice guy, doing his best.
Forgive me, but I believe that there is more to being a Rev. than that.


  1. Sam, I also found that though Adam 'redeemed himself' to some extent in the final episode, it still left an unconvincing caricature of ministry and priesthood overall, from my experience of real clergy, not to mention God.

    I blogged on it recently, along with thoughts on Vianney, on:

  2. A perceptive & fair review, well done.

  3. Amen to that, Sam. I agree. Especially your last para.

  4. Surely when the Last Rites are given to someone who has requested them, the person receiving is being given what they want, expect and need! This doesn't mean, though, that there is a simple continuity between this action and Smallbone's earlier statement. I said in my initial comment that Smallbone's original comment is undercut by the ending but not, I think, in the way that you suggest. What Smallbone surely learns to acknowledge, as his vocation is reaffirmed by administering the Last Rites, is that there are situations where it absolutely the right thing to tell people what they want to hear (this being one of them) and that to do so is to be a channel for God's grace. Prior to this point he only thinks negatively of telling people what they want to hear and condemns himself for doing so.

    What he learns to acknowledge (and this was, I think, often the resolution of many of the episodes) is that his expectations of what ministry is and can be have to continually be nuanced because grace can be received and shared in wholly unexpected ways. This is essentially your point, by another route, about a weak man being a means of grace, which I think is absolutely right theologically and in terms of comedic resolution in this series.

    You didn't deal with the point that, as well as frequently revealing himself to be weak in this exercise and practice of his faith and ministry, there were also a number of significant moments in the series where he does not tell people what they want to hear. Cathy instances some of these in her comment on your original post.

    The fact that Smallbone is portrayed as doing both - showing a lack of backbone and acting with integrity - and that both cut both ways at different times (i.e. sometimes grace comes through weakness and sometimes through strength of character) is part of what leads me to say that he is a nuanced character osscilating humanly between faith and doubt, integrity and failure, and that that portrayal has been the secret to the success of the series.

    Cathy is also right, I think, to point to the prayers in each episode as key turning points in each narrative. They are one of the plot devices which mean that Smallbone could not be a social worker or government bureaucrat and the comedy remain wholly in place. Prayer is portrayed as reorienting him to his vocation and triggering the moments in the narratives when he either grows in faith or becomes a channel for grace.

    At the end of the day, where would the comedy be in the character as you wish to see him?

  5. Jon - I think where we begin to differ (and I'm starting to think that this will be best discussed when we next share a drink, mine a pint, yours of your choice ;P ) is that I do not believe that the logic of 'giving a parishioner what they want' can ever be a proper factor in determining our course of action. Giving someone the last rites is the right thing to do, not quite 'irrespective' of what they personally desire, but the grounding of the action does not lie, ultimately, in a personal desire. Perhaps I'm holding out an ideal (one that I fall short of, to be sure) but I think that there is a truth which I serve which is independent both of my own preferences and the preferences of my parishioners. When I fall short of them then I fail in a real sense, not just in terms of what I expect of myself but in terms of what the Lord is calling me to do and to be.

    What you call an oscillation between faith and doubt is, to me, not a middle ground, but an extreme position conditioned by secularity. Perhaps I'm just a fundamentalist at heart ;)

    Cathy's point, which I do not dispute, makes me think that I want to watch the series again. I would accept that there are things in the series that I haven't seen yet - but I would re-affirm that I enjoyed it and want to see more of it. I just got frustrated with one (crucial) aspect of his character.

  6. PS (with thanks to Alastair) a confirmation of my point from an interview with the writer: "I come from quite a churchy family. I'm a wandering, doubting person, but like a lot of us I grew up with a church childhood. And Tom's the same. Yes, we do have enormous affection for the church, even if we don't necessarily always believe in God..."

  7. Fear of God? Oh well, that puts me out of Christianity too, I've never had any of that. Awe, wonder, love, yes. Fear? No, not in any permutation.

    I'm not sure I agree with your analysis that the ending of Rev has to be either a "continue as before" or anagnorisis. I don't usually find human lives quite so linear.
    The truth is always a bit of both. Faith is a bit more like spiral staircase, where you seem to go round and round in circles and have to cover well trodden ground again and again, only to find that you are, indeed, slowly moving upwards.

    And so I'm happy to believe that Adam discovered something new, that was very much like what he had previously discovered and lived, for example when he first felt called to the priesthood. This new old revelation will give him strength to continue in his vocation, but he will also again be plagued by telling people what they want to hear and falling into despair and self-pity.

    Unless, of course, he's a much better person than I'll ever be.

  8. Sam, very happy for us to discuss this further over a drink. One final comment though from me based on your last comment. The difference between us, seems to me, to be because you've mainly been writing about motivation, while I have mainly been writing about actions. I agree we should be very careful of making the logic of 'giving a parishioner what they want' a factor in determining our course of action. Our motivation should be to do what God calls us to do (as best as we can discern this) not what others are calling for us to do simply because that is what they want.

    I'm simply pointing out, however, that what Smallbone did and what we often do is what people want, not because that is our motivation, but because what people want is lined up with what God wants, as, for example, in requesting the Last Rites or receiving communion. So all I'm saying is that if we are beating ourselves up over the idea that we are just giving people what they want, as Smallbone was doing in that episode, we can think (again as he is depicted as doing) that the whole of our ministry is invalidated when this is not actually the case. This, it seems to me, is, therefore, part of what he accepts and understands at the end of the episode.

  9. Erika - see here for my understanding of the fear of God:

  10. Thank you, Sam, a fascinating post!
    I think what you call "fear" of God I would call "deep awareness", and then I would agree with every word you write.

    Only... then I would also contend that Adam Smallbone has it, but maybe combined with the typical liberal doubt that this God we're so aware of will actually ever genuinely intervene in our lives in a meaningful day-to-day way.

    And maybe with the occasionally excessive sense that his vocation may have been a mistake, that God didn't really want to use him because he is so often so patently ineffective.

  11. I haven't seen any of the show, but I loved your final few paragraphs.


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