I watched the Ricky Gervais Netflix special SuperNature the other week on the plane home from Sydney. Flights to Sydney from Perth are four hours of work. Flights home from Sydney to Perth are five hours (yes five, thank you ornery jet stream), in which brain mush means I watch downloaded series of something, cos work is beyond me.
Now I have to say, I don’t watch Ricky’s comedy specials because they are generally tasteless and graceless. I loved the UK The Office (nothing comes close, especially the US version!). Indeed nothing since the sheer terror of the Doctor Who theme music back in the 1970s has ever made me hide, cringing, behind the couch daring not to look, like the original The Office did, especially when David Brent “didn’t get it”.
But given that a good number of folk sent me the link to the new Netflix special and told me to watch “the first ten minutes”, and given it was around the whole gender and sexuality conflagration going on culturally, it seemed like something I might want to watch.
And a lot of it was funny. I’m glad I had to wear a mask on the flight, because my guffaws at times could be interpreted as the start of another round of COVID/monkeypox, rather than laughing at a comedian,
As he said of himself, in describing himself as part of a minority group in the UK:
“Now I’m a white, heterosexual, multi-millionaire, right? There’s less than 1 per cent of us. Do I whine? No!”
So you can see why it’s funny. It’s very funny.
Gervais’s act goes on to have a right laugh at the current transgender debate. And he is, er, transgressive, and excoriating. I suspect the laughter from the audience, – and there were shrieks of it-, was the fact that they had been given permission to laugh at something that they are not permitted to laugh at elsewhere.
Gervais, being the multi-millionaire he constantly says he is (which has become a tiresome routine in recent years), is clearly too big to cancel. Activists went online and tried to issue all sorts of not-so-veiled threats, but Netflix knows a good pay day when it sees it. In a sense he’s the school yard hero who suddenly stands up to a bully, while everyone else who has cowered for the last term, stand behind him cheering him on.
The online conversation, and indeed the media debate, was around whether Gervais was punching up or punching down. For Gervais such categories don’t exist, as indeed one of his more crass moments in this show went on to reveal. It’s irony, it’s comedy, he’s poking fun at sacred cows, so get over it.
Gervais is not a good barometer as to whether the direction is “up or down” that he is swinging his fists when it comes to trans issues, but he’s joining a comedy conga line that includes Dave Chappelle as well. There’s a sense in which both men are giving permission to people to push back.
However, if you’re a Christian can I caution you not to take too much glee from this? My concern is that we too will hide behind the likes of Gervais and give ourselves permission to go that much harder in terms of scorn when it comes to these matters. Gervais and his ilk are not the solution to what currently ails us. Gervais is not giving us the permission we need to be scornful or crass about these issues.
How do I know? All I have to do is watch ten more minutes of his show in order to realise it. He’s just as tasteless and graceless about God and the biblical view of sexuality as he is of the current Sexular Age. Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Gervais is out to scorn everyone, and make a mint from doing so. He’s implacable. That’s what makes him great and terrible at the same time.
Look, I totally get why someone who holds to a biblical sexual ethic, and is getting panned for it at home, or work, or school and university, would jump on the Gervais scorn bandwagon. But in the end I think it’s a sugar rush we don’t need.
What’s been lost in much of the debate in Christian circles around the trans issues is that tone matters. It matters a lot. It matters especially when the tone against you is scorn or ridicule or even hatred. If we think that the solution is to come back with a sort of sanctified PG rated version of Gervais, I don’t think that is all that helpful.
Now at this point people will pull out the Elijah and the prophets of Baal moment and show how ridiculing the gods is perfectly justifiable. Yes it is, but within Israel. I will no more let a conservative conflate Israel and the secular nation in terms of morality lessons, than I will let progressives do it. If churches fall for the Sexular Age, then by all means go hard, but sort out your ecclesiology first.
This is not to say that we do not stand up for justice issues in the public square, and I indeed see freedom of conscience and association as a justice issue, to say nothing of the long term injustices being promulgated by lawmakers, corporations and content creators in this space (especially when the panaceas on offer to the sexually broken prove to be toxic).
But as Christians we wade into this fight with one hand tied behind our backs, and that’s because tone matters for us in a way that it does not matter for the likes of Gervais and Chappelle.
How we come across in an argument or difference of opinion is just as important as what we say. And that’s especially so when we’re on the back foot, and there’s the temptation to go in hard. It’s easy to feel like the already condemned person who, knowing that they’re going to lose their head over this, goes full-Gervais and becomes tasteless and graceless.
And I say this as someone who is known for jumping on the front foot with my words from time to time and refusing to take a verbal beating. And then justifying it.
Our model is Jesus. At his trial he was on the back foot par excellence, yet decided not to revile or threaten in return, rather entrusting himself to the One who judges justly. And not just Jesus as our Saviour, but Jesus as our Creator. Why am I so aware of why my laughter, while an initial response, should not be my final response? Because, unlike Gervais, I don’t believe that we’re all just happenstance atoms put together by some impersonal cosmic force. People are made in God’s image, and it’s destructive to themselves – ourselves – and others when this image is marred, denied or denigrated.
I think that Christians should have their say on these matters when asked. And I think that Christian organisations should be very clear that a truly pluralist society cannot compel mediating institutions such as churches and schools to teach and preach what they believe is both untrue and wrong.
But when it comes to tone, can we keep our powder dry? I think that in the future chickens that Gervais is calling out will come home to roost. The trans and sexuality issues will rack up a body count; boatloads of cultural refugees looking for somewhere to find true rest, true identity and true acceptance. Secular revolutions have never been those places, because revolutions always, always, eat their young.
Let’s make sure when that happens that we don’t have to scrub our history or drastically change our tone when we find ourselves having coffee with someone for whom Gervais’s current schtick is painful, discouraging and graceless.