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Cheating

Mark Beuving —  February 6, 2013 — Leave a comment

Boom Mic Guy NBC’s The Office has recently been raising a fascinating topic of discussion: cheating. The show is a comedy, and most of what the show portrays is lighthearted and funny. But the writers have never shied away from storyline and drama (the humor often flows from these aspects rather than cheap gags), and the show has introduced some heavy and important themes from time to time. [Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen any of the January episodes and don’t want to find out what happens, read this later.]

Cheating in relationships is not new to The Office. Angela, Michael, Andy, Dwight, Stanley, and Oscar have all been involved in relationships where someone was cheating. For the most part, however, these characters and their relationships are so flawed that their moral failings are brushed aside (“Of course she would do that!”). I’m not suggesting that’s right, but that’s why these subplots have never caused much of a stir.

Recently, however, there have been hints of cheating amongst more relatable characters. Most notably, Pam has developed (has been developing for quite some time, apparently) an emotional relationship with the guy who holds the boom mic for the supposed documentary crew (henceforth known as “the boom mic guy.”)

The crazy thing is, they haven’t done anything. All we’ve seen thus far is a touch of flirtation, an emotional connection, and some very sweet comforting. Compared to what other characters have done, this is nothing. But it makes me furious. This form of cheating really bothers me. Pam is married, and her husband Jim has been busy and unavailable. So Pam’s connection with the boom mic guy is dangerous. Pam’s form of cheating is troubling because we’re rooting for Pam and Jim. We believe they ought to be together, so we don’t like outsiders messing with their relationship.

But look at it from another angle. Pam and Jim got together because Pam was acting exactly like this in a previous relationship. In the first few seasons, Pam was engaged to Roy, and Jim eventually won her over by subtle flirting, an emotional connection, and some very sweet comforting. Pam and the boom mic guy in season 9 are basically Pam and Jim in season 1.

This shows how manipulative television can be. We believe that love involves loyalty; that love is something greater than sticking with the person who makes you feel happiest in a given moment. But we don’t seem to hold these views when it comes to television characters. We wanted Pam to leave Roy. The only reason we’re not rooting for the boom mic guy is that we still like Jim. (By the way, a while back I wrote about this very phenomenon in the movie Water for Elephants).

The Office - Season 9An interesting comparison is Erin cheating on Andy with Pete, one of the new guys. Like Pam and the boom mic guy, this one is subtle—nothing much has happened. But in this case, I find myself rooting for Pete. Why? I think it works the same way. When Erin was dating Gabe, she was connecting with Andy, and we were rooting for Andy because we liked him and we didn’t like Gabe. Now that Andy is treating Erin poorly, we’re rooting for Pete. It will be interesting to see how this relationship develops when Andy returns.

The point is this: we need to be careful that our view of love is not shaped by the television shows we watch. I love The Office, but all good things must be enjoyed with discernment. I am certain that the writers will keep Pam and Jim together, but the recent bumps in this relationship brought my attention to the other forms of cheating on the show, and I was surprised to analyze which relationships I was rooting for. And ultimately, love is love—whether our favorite characters realize that or not.

 

By most standards, NBC’s The Office has been dominant for the early part of the 21st century. Some would say the show is past its prime—I would argue otherwise, though I would acknowledge that its best seasons are probably behind it—but The Office is now in its eighth season (11th if you count the original British version) and is still popular. Its unique style of comedy has produced a handful of jokes and one-liners that have proven persistent in many circles—some for better, some for worse.

Funny though it may be—I consistently find it hilarious—The Office is not an obvious choice for Christians. The show frequently features subject matter that is crass, sexual, and racial. Though the Christian demographic is represented (in the character of Angela), it is more of a caricature than anything else.

Many Christians have watched the show and decided, “Never again!” Others continue to watch the show, but feel a measure of guilt each time a crass joke pops up. What should Christians think about watching morally ambiguous shows like The Office? I can’t decide this for you (please hear me carefully: I am not advocating watching The Office or any other show on tv), but I will tell you why I watch it.

I find the concept behind the show brilliant. Ever since the movie Office Space released in 1999, there has been a undying fascination with “office humor.” Many films and tv shows offer people an opportunity to escape from their everyday lives—some viewers were actually depressed when they walked away from a screening of Avatar because they had to re-enter the real world (I’m not joking). But The Office doesn’t pull its viewers into an exotic new world. Instead, it finds humor in the very ordinary, very boring real world that mercilessly consumes 40+ hours of so many people’s weeks.

There are many dehumanizing factors in our modern machine-centric world. But none is more dehumanizing than the modern office, where human beings are forced to act as robots—sitting in cubicles, making cold calls, doing paperwork, interacting with anything other than an unmediated human being. Every human interaction is buried under layers of technology and protocol: phones, fax machines, emails, client lists, and the infamous memoranda.

From a theological perspective (from every perspective, really), dehumanization is bad. People are people, and treating them like machines is bound to yield destructive results. And here is where the genius of The Office comes to bear. Much of the humor comes through the characters acting humanly in the midst of a dehumanizing environment. The employees are forced to sit in front of a computer for 8 hours straight. So Jim responds by pranking Dwight and thereby conjuring up human interaction and humor. A business environment is unbelievably impersonal, so the writers of The Office find humor in Michael Scott treating his employees as friends and family.

On so many levels, The Office reminds us of what it means to be human. It calls us away from dehumanization. And as with anything that calls attention to humanity, the show features sin. Sometimes the sin is not condoned (virtually everything Dwight and Michael do is not presented as an example to follow), sometimes it is presented in a favorable light (as when Jim and Pam get pregnant before getting married). The creators of The Office are affected by the fall, so we should not expect them to present a wholly righteous world. (By the way, if you’re tempted to think that the mere depiction of evil is bad, you should read this post.) But I find value in their emphasis on humanity, and I am refreshed by the humor the show creates.

The trick is discernment. Discernment is always difficult, which is why Christians default to either legalism or licentiousness. You have to use biblical principles, your conscience, and your brain to decide whether or not it’s healthy for you to watch The Office or Modern Family or Leave It To Beaver or The 700 Club. There are no obvious choices that allow us to turn off our brains. We can’t avoid a show because some loud voices say we should, nor can we embrace a show because our friends all like it. We have to identify the dangers, appreciate the benefits (and these can include things as “unspiritual” as humor, refreshment, and connecting with other human beings, whether on screen or off), and decide what is healthy for us.

This leads me to enjoy The Office, even though I am sometimes offended by the way it presents life, and even though I know many people who have decided it would be unhealthy for them to watch. The show deals with some fascinating issues, and it often allows me to see the beauty of relationships and the joy of life in ways that evade our 9 to 5 lifestyles, regardless of whether your job is blue or white collard.

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the seriesWhy You Should Care About The Arts

The arts should matter to Christians. For one thing, art is all around us, and the way we interact with what is around us is important. In addition to that, the arts give us insight into what our culture cares about. And yesterday I argued that the arts give us an opportunity to test God’s truth in the real world. Today I will add a simple point: The arts establish points of contact with the unbelieving world.

Let’s be honest, many Christians have a tendency to withdraw from the culture around them. In many ways, this impulse is understandable. Without a doubt, our culture produces many things that are indisputably evil. Even those cultural productions that aren’t outright wicked often contain destructive, deceptive, and desensitizing elements. So it makes sense that Christians want to avoid being exposed to these things.

While this is a serious concern (one I dealt with a while ago in two posts on “good” movies and “bad” movies), the answer can’t be to simply run from culture. On the one hand, you can’t escape culture—it is an unavoidable byproduct of human interaction. Even those that try to escape from culture (e.g., the Amish) end up creating their own culture. But there’s another important reason not to run from culture. As Calvin Seerveld put it: any arena from which Christians withdraw simply goes to hell. Or to put it positively:

“If Christians are to be a force in shaping the contours of their society and evangelizing people in it, they will have to come to grips with the culture in which they inevitably live and move and have their being.” (Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination, 11)

In part 2, I mentioned the fact that the arts are a helpful catalog of the way that human beings feel about their existence. As Christians, we can gain insight into the way the unbelieving world views the world, including the way it views us as Christians:

“Christians, especially those called to preach or share the word, should take a special interest when those ‘outside’ the faith are drawn to deal with its mysteries and should listen closely when they tell us what our orthodoxy has sounded like to them.” (Malcom Guite in Beholding the Glory, ed. Jeremy Begbie, 30)

“Angela” on The Office may be an unfair caricature of what Christians are really like, but there is value in knowing that we have a tendency to look that way to the non-Christian world.

Add to that the fact that the arts give us opportunities to connect with people. We all know that we need to be evangelizing, but we tend to approach evangelism through an awkward encounter where we try to convince our non-Christian friends to care about some point of Christian doctrine that matters to us, but doesn’t matter to them. As I’ve said before, this is not all bad. But what if we had the opportunity to bring the truth of God’s word to bear on the things that our friends and neighbors already think and care about?

I contend that this is exactly the opportunity the arts give us. When my friends listen to Death Cab for Cutie singing about what comes (or doesn’t come) after death, I get an opportunity to engage them in a conversation on eternity. When a runaway bestseller raises the issue of who human beings are at the core (whether that bestseller is written as fiction or nonfiction), we get the opportunity to bring a biblical worldview into a discussion that our friends and coworkers are already interested in.

By avoiding the arts, we are passing up these opportunities. I think that is a mistake. It doesn’t mean that we should listen to, watch, or read everything on the market. But if your friends are interested in some form of art or culture, take the time to check it out. You might be surprised at how easy it is to talk about God’s truth in the context of the things that people are already thinking through.

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