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.
great post, Mark. I really appreciate it! Keep those culturally relevant, how-we-live-in-a-world-with-art blogs coming!!