With a show that has been as brilliant and as creative as NBC’s meta-humor sitcom Community (2009-present), one is hesitant to point out any flaws, but this scene in particular aroused great interest and seemed to strained by ‘the box’ to possibly even try to think outside of it.tumblr_l9hlhwcGiT1qac7d6o1_400 It occurs in episode 16th of season one, the central premise of which is that Britta Perry, the love-interest of the lead male- Jeff Winger, had called Jeff presumably for sex in a sea of intoxication, in which her and her friend ‘drank everything’. The call for sex had upset the social order of their study group because Britta had accidentally revealed her attraction to Jeff, thus losing her upper hand. Jeff decides that he needs to restore the balance to the group, and seeks his friend, Abed Nadir’s, help. Abed suggest that Jeff ‘drunk-dial’ Britta in return and thus level out the playing field. After several failed attempts in creating a believable impression of being drunk, Abed suggests that they actually need to get drunk in order for it to be believable. Here’s the trouble though, Abed comes from a Muslim family and considers himself to be a faithful Muslim, thus resulting in the rightly assumed by Jeff assumption that Abed would not be allowed to drink alcohol due to religious restrictions found quite explicitly and commonly in Islam (see for example Qu’ran 5:90-91). Nevertheless Abed is able to write off this religious restriction with the passive suggestion that “Scorsese drank with De Niro”.

            At this point perhaps someone who considers themselves a multi-culturalist would rejoice in the portrayal of a Muslim who drank because that is portraying ‘real people’ or some other vaguely defined ideal. However it is at this point that the writers of Community appear to be at their least creative peak….they cannot possibly imagine a student in college that does not engage in drunken revelling. Abed is certainly not the only character on the show that we assume doesn’t drink because of their social identity, but who actually does. Shirley the Christian housewife drinks excessively, yet is ashamed; Troy the Jehovah’s Witness drinks because ‘it helps’; and Annie is too young to drink, but her fake ID allows her to drink anyways. Why was it so hard for the writers of the series to imagine any community college students interacting without alcohol?

            College/university culture throughout much of North America it may be fairly said in a general manner involves a great deal of alcohol for a variety of reasons such as the desire to alleviate new found social anxiety, or to finally be ‘grown up’, or simply just to ‘get trashed’ so one can escape what they view as the miserable monotony of student life and venture onto the wild side. Wide spread as it is, it naturally becomes almost a form of social bonding, it creates an excuse to get together. People can’t find out what they have in common, so alcohol is a great place to start. Some claim that they are more honest when they are inebriated, but one cannot help having the suspicion that just because one processes their thoughts less before they speak, by no means, means that they are being any more honest or truthful.  However the other side of this tool of social bonding, of course is that those who abstain from alcohol whether for religious, medical, not being of age, or simply just not liking the taste of it, marks them out as a social pariah. One is asked why one is not drinking, but no one asks anyone the question as to why they are.

            In anthropology one will often enough hear a contrast made between the values of Honour/Shame that governed ancient societies and the value binary of having a good conscience versus guilt. Honour/Shame cultures were governed by the external references of the culture of your day, one was constantly observed, and honour only counted if others recognized it. In our culture, it is said that our reference is much more based upon our internal conscience, that ones actions and words are not so much evaluated based on communal external response but upon one’s own ‘inner compass’. If one feels guilty then one probably should not take such action, but if one is comfortable then its okay for them. Anthropologists are right to point out the distinction of emphasis from honour/shame to confidence/guilt, but one would be wrong to think that we have moved beyond honour/shame culture. Consider: if you ever pass on drinking at the bar, you are less likely to feel inner guilt than to face outward ostracism. Even in contemporary Christian contexts of groovy Christian hipsters or what not, where you would expect drinking to be shameful and abstaining to be honourable, the opposite can be the case. Sure, in Puritan societies drinking alcohol was shameful, but now not drinking may serve as a negative example of how we haven’t actually moved beyond an honour and shame culture.

            The point isn’t whether one chooses to drink alcohol or not, or what the reasons are, but rather: why do we care so much about and build our interactions around what people may or may not eat or drink? Why was it so inconceivable for the writers of a hit sitcom to create a character who does not drink in college? What is it that limits our imagination from being able to conceive of social relations that go beyond simple the honor and shames of ‘don’t touch’, ‘don’t taste’ etc…? (Col. 2:20-23)

            Now, after having used Community to shine forth an example of how our culture has not moved beyond the values of honour/shame based on trivial things, two other examples might be worth pointing out to show-case that ancient purity laws, taboos, superstition, and having endless codes of tireless meaningless rules have stayed around as an excuse for having actual ethics: weed, and language.

            As for the first, consider the recent example of Rev. John Jackson from Trinity United Church of Christ in Gary, Indiana when he reminisces that,

“I have had several people share with me privately, ‘Reverend, I smoke weed and I know I shouldn’t.’ I say, ‘Let me stop you right there. I don’t believe the God we serve is that small or petty to be concerned about you smoking weed. I don’t think God cares about that.’ I let them know that our God is too big to be concerned about somebody smoking a joint.”(i)

Now, what is so great about this example is that it comes from a church that has decided that the war on drugs is the greater social evil. Its not that they have loosened on their morality, oh the contrary, they have increased their moral standards. Yes, the emphasis has shifted most certainly, but recognizing weed smoking for what it is…weed smoking…allows them to stop focusing on meaningless abstentions or indulgences as small standards of righteousness and asked bigger questions as to how we should treat our neighbour. To some risk of taking away the central focus, the caveat may be added that perhaps taking drugs or drinking heavy amounts of alcohol may not be the wisest thing for it could lead to terrible behaviour, but they in and of themselves are nothing.

            As for the second, consider language for a moment. If one says “That meal was f*cking good!”, who in their right mind would take that as an insult. It was quite obviously a compliment. However, many have taken ethical admonishments not to use foul language or controlling one’s tongue (Col. 3:8; James 3) as simply the petty task of omitting some less than appropriate words. Eminem, can be taken as a great example to illustrate this point. One of Eminem’s, darkest, most violent, most offensive and hateful songs “97 Bonnie and Clyde”, has no ‘offensive/dirty’ words in it, in fact the entire rap is done in baby-talk. And yet, another one of his songs, “Not Afraid”, which is all about him over coming his drug addiction, apologizing for terrible rap, and being a better father, would be considered offensive because it has some ‘swear’ words. Again, the substitution of serious morality for petty rules that are easy and can bring one lots of honour or shame, is made.

            The examples provided here can be supplied virtually endlessly, but they serve one purpose, to expose how often we trade difficult righteousness for simple rules of either abstention or indulgence to display being ‘good’ or that one has good social skills, in order to shame, ostracize, and condemn others and feel better about ourselves. If we think the person who chooses not to drink is awkward or self-righteous we can distract ourselves from the higher call to include them without belittling them. If we think the person who smells like marjuana is a deviant criminal we can pat ourselves on the back for not smoking weed, while performing a grave sin of showing partiality in who we choose to love. If we think that the person who just dropped the f-bomb is immoral and needs to control their tongue, we can excuse ourselves of the higher morality of listening to what they actually have to say.

            Brothers and Sisters, imagine your Abed as a faithful Muslim and honour his decision not to drink. Expand your reach to include the righteous drug user in your love. Open your hears and hearts wide enough to listen to the vile of tongue. Forget your man made attempts to appease your conscience and consume honour, and live in the righteousness of God that knows that the burden of guilt has been freed, and loves those the world shames. Peace.

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(i) Bob Smietana, “God Doesn’t Care If You Smoke Weed; Pastors Focus On Decriminalizing Unjust Drug Laws,” Huffington Post, June 15, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/15/god-smoke-weed_n_3444642.html

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