Episode 205: Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples
Community S2E5: Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples
Hold on to your hats, this is going to get a little personal!
I’m not a religious person. But I always thought I’m missing something. I come from a long line of wives and mothers, and most of them (never the husbands and fathers for reasons too complex to really go into right now) are (or were) religious to varying degrees: my grandmothers were both pretty devout, while my mom and aunts are occasional but unconvinced church goers. The religion in question is Orthodox Christianity, which, unlike Protestantism, and even Catholicism, is very ritual based and quite spectacular. The rituals are often beautiful and quite moving, especially those associated with the remembrance of the dead: at specific intervals and on prescribed days, the priest will read at the end of the sermon a long list of names of people who have died; the families will bring food and special breads which they will then take to the graves of their loved ones, and then share with the poor. It’s all very solemn, but at the same time, the regularity of the ritual, the relative simplicity of the food, the names being read aloud for everyone to hear create a familiar bond with the dead that is incredibly comforting. It’s hard for me to put into words, and I’m getting very sentimental, but it’s almost like a family gathering: it projects a sense of community, a feeling that the dead still have a presence, and that presence will endure for as long as someone calls their names. More than any belief in Heaven or eternal life, I find this to be an incredibly effective way to stave off the oblivion of death.
Ad yet, I can’t call myself religious. I read the Bible and enough theology and philosophy to speak with a certain degree of competence, I frequent slaktivist (and you should too), but faith as a mode of life eludes me. At the root of my skepticism is a problem of authority: I can’t be part of a club that doesn’t consider me a member with full rights. And since Christianity has a – shall we say – ambivalent relationship with women, I will probably continue to observe it from afar, and wonder if I’m being too stubborn, or too proud, or if I do actually hold the moral high ground.
Which is precisely the reason I wanted to review this episode so badly: I find it to be an incredibly nuanced and moving meditation on the intersection of faith and dogma, and on the nature of sacrifice. It offers a portrayal of Christianity which is sometimes critical, but ultimately loving and understanding, and, most importantly, it shies away from the Bill Mahr-esque cheap, arrogant dismissiveness (oh those Christians, they so krazy, amirite?) that is so often the default tone on network television. It also has a YouTube video entitled “Ski-lift ninja crotch rip,” and a C story featuring Pierce not eating his broccoli and falling in with a bunch of no-goodnick 90-year old hipsters, just so you don’t confuse it with a Robert Bresson movie. And I’m only half-joking here: Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples is the Bressonian counterpoint to Louis CK’s Buñuelesque God. Where God looks at religion and sees a cynical, sadistic and oppressive institution with no redeeming morality or compassion, Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples tries to peel off the dogma and look for grace instead. The whole episode is in fact about the conflict between authority and grace, between punishment and forgiveness.
There are four stories in the episode. I’ll just list them one by one, in order of complexity:
Jeff: “How is that my job?”
Annie: “Aren’t you like…the dad?”
Jeff: “Would a dad walk away from this conversation?”
Jeff: /*Turns and leaves*/
Jeff’s authority mode in the episode is primarily paternalistic. This is of course nothing new. But by casting him into an almost Ward Cleaver-esque role the episode highlights the massive contradictions at the heart of his character. Jeff loves the perks of authority, but hates the responsibilities. And yet, of all the members of the study group, he is by far the most qualified to lead: he has the experience, the craft – hell he even has the physicality! – but none of the desire or ambition. Jeff’s leadership asserts itself primarily on an emotional level: as apathetic as he can be most of the time, he will spring into action to defend the bullied – be they Annie, Abed, or Greendale itself. Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples provides him with a different kind of dilemma, because the person in need of help is neither innocent nor bullied. Pierce, who, having descended to the level of a petulant 4-year old in Basic Rocket Science has by now graduated to surly teen, has fallen in with a group of hipsters (they’re called this because they all have hip replacements) led by the formidable Leonard, and has now forgone the eating of broccoli, and taken to stealing cookies, gambling, drinking, staying up all afternoon and joy riding at 10 mph (side question: what is it about Greendale that attracts so many shady senior citizens? It seems like every illegal activity, except for Starburns’ drug-dealing, is the province of the elderly in this place). Pierce is neither victimized, nor grifted (as it happened the last time Jeff came to his aid, in Basic Genealogy). His rebellion is not only outwardly silly, it’s also entirely voluntary, and poses no discernible danger to himself or to others. So the decision Jeff needs to make this time is one based in both rationality and compassion. It’s very telling that Britta, and especially Annie can’t exactly come up with a clear justification for why Jeff should even bother with Pierce; by the end of the episode they have both disappeared leaving Jeff alone to make his choice.
Essentially Jeff has to choose between punishment and forgiveness. Pierce and the hipsters have crashed the Dean’s car after a thrilling joyride during which speeds as high as 10 mph may have been reached. Now busted and locked up in Greendale jail, Pierce calls Jeff to bail him out. In a very touching little aside, we find out that Jeff is Pierce’s emergency contact – a detail that hasn’t really come up ever since, and which provides a subtle insight into Jeff’s more compassionate and altruistic side. Jeff is initially tempted to not only leave Pierce stay in lock-up overnight, but to also abandon him, by removing himself as his emergency contact. But then being told by the rather oddly-breasted woman at the front desk that Leonard acts out because his kids no longer care about him, he changes his mind and bails Pierce out. Pierce, acting perfectly in character as both himself and a scowling teen storms out of Greendale in a huff without as much as a thank you.
Richard the hipster: “Who were those people that ran away? My friends?”
Pierce: “That’s a good question.”
Pierce’s story is a little different, because he doesn’t have to wield authority, but rather evaluate it. He has fallen for the siren’s lure of stolen cookies, broccoli-free lunches clandestine gambling sessions deep in the bowels of Greendale, and general waywardness. All in all, it’s a charmed life until Richard (who flew Zeros during the war, because Greendale also attracts a sizable contingent of retired enemy combatants, apparently) has some kind of episode and crashes the Dean’s car very slowly into a light pole, and the Hipsters promptly evaporate. Well, not as much “promptly,” as “eventually, and with great difficulty” and not as much “evaporate” as “shuffle out of frame,” but you get my drift.
It’s interesting how much the Hipsters superficially resemble Pierce’s Laser Lotus cult: they both provide the promise of a perpetually arrested, idealized state – not transcendence as much as more of the same. The Laser Lotus promises Pierce’s mom a return to the kitchen and sandwich making for him and Troy, while the Hipsters present the possibility of irresponsible, perpetual adolescence. But Pierce’s rejection of the Hipster ideals actually serves to strengthen his belief in energon pods and the Temple of Renewal. For all its mercenary tiered structure and shoddy pod craftsmanship, the Laser Lotus’ most important promise is not even that of a return to your earthly body, but rather the shimmering, Hawaiian-punch tasting ocean of knowledge that everyone will become a part of once Buddha returns. It‘s the promise of meaningful togetherness that proves the most enduring, and it’s precisely what the Hipsters are lacking. In fact, once captured, the group quickly degenerates into bickering and cackling.
Pierce’s refusal to acknowledge Jeff’s friendship and compassion serves as the entry point into the extraordinarily complex and moving arc he will undergo in Season 2. At a rational level, Pierce understands the difference between the selfishness of the Hipsters and the empathy of the Laser Lotus (it’s irrelevant if the Laser Lotus is a crass scam or not; Pierce can more than afford to pay for the energon cubes, and while the overall concept is clearly a dig at Scientology, the actual ideology resembles more a kind of harmless New Age pastiche; besides, what’s important is not the religious legitimacy of the cult, as much as how Pierce integrates their “teachings” into a personal ethics – it’s here where the authority of the Hipsters loses to Reformed Neo-Buddhism). But what is clear to him at a rational level, proves insurmountable at an emotional level – Pierce’s empathy, wounded by years of dismissive parenting and constant fears of rejection at the hands of Cornelius Hawthorne, actually seems to atrophy with each caring gesture it receives. It will quite literally take a mirror-Pierce: Gilbert – a man damaged in similar ways and by the same monster – for this empathy to finally assert itself.
Pierce’s lack of gratitude actually elevates Jeff’s gesture, by, paradoxically, keeping it hidden. Jeff’s “sacrifice” (the term is obviously relative, but, hey, I promised a theologically themed review, and besides, considering Jeff’s general apathy, doing this for Pierce really is quite a big deal) is meaningful, precisely because it’s silent and entirely altruistic: it expects no thanks and requires no recognition. It accepts and bears Pierce’s selfishness without trying to punish or even correct it.
Abed: “No. I want to tell the story of Jesus from the perspective of a filmmaker exploring the life of Jesus.”
Shirley: “That sounds… very appealing to filmmakers.”
Abed: “See, in the filmmaker's film, Jesus is a filmmaker trying to find God with his camera. But then the filmmaker realizes that he's actually Jesus and he's being filmed by God's camera. And it goes like that forever in both directions like a mirror in a mirror because all of the filmmakers are Jesus and all of their cameras are God. And the movie's called ABED – all-caps. Filmmaking beyond film. A meta-film. My masterpiece.”
Shirley: “I… don't like it…”
Abed: “You're reacting the way the world did to Jesus.”
There’s no way to put this delicately: Abed’s story is one of arrogance and misplaced artistic authority. Like most stories where he gets creative, Abed functions as both a surrogate for Harmon’s aggressive perfectionism, and a parody of auteurism gone amok. What he takes from the New Testament and from the many movies he identifies as being in some way inspired by Jesus, is not the theme of the sacrifice (seriously, Abed? You watchSuperman Returns and you somehow miss that?), but rather that of specialness.
I’m not entirely sure how to interpret all this. The story is certainly related to Abed’s established difficulty to empathize (the ABED posters are nicely referenced in Virtual Systems Analysis which explores this theme to great detail). It’s likely connected to the fear of loneliness and abandonment that would become central in Season 3: in a sense Abed losing himself in the role of ABED/Jesus is a rehearsal of his complicated relation with Inspector Spacetime, and it certainly anticipates his interest in exceptional but distant heroes.
What is certain though, is that Abed learns a lesson in empathy here that he somehow seems to forget by the time Virtual Systems Analysis rolls around. I’m very reluctant to criticize VSA, which is an episode I liked very much, so I’ll do a little mental pretzeling and say that perhaps Abed needs to have this types of emotional lessons reinforced and spelled out (“Because they’ll say what they mean/ Instead of making a face”), or that, as his bonds with the group streghten and his emotions awaken, he needs more reassurance. Maybe like Pierce, he closed himself up when the group got too close. Or maybe the bond he creates with Shirley is a fluke, something unquantifiable and irrepeatable because he and Shirley are so fundamentally different, that it will take a soul more similar to his to really drive the point home. Annie shares with Abed insecurities that Shirley doesn’t possess – where Shirley does have a life, a family and a certain sense of fulfillment, Annie and Abed bond over their shared fears of inadequacy and loneliness.
What do you think? Help me out? I’m really at a loss here.
You humble me too.
And with this, we finally get to the point of my review. And it only took 2500 high-on-their own drama words! I said I’ll prove the episode is all about trying to understand grace, and I’ll do it, damn it (PHRASING!), if it takes me three more days and LloydBraun reaches out through my laptop and punches me!
Throughout Season 1 and most of Season 2 Shirley has been a particularly difficult character to pin down. She was defined by her domesticity and her faith – both rather traditional values which have been particularly hard to express intelligently on network TV. It would have been easy to make her the butt of the joke, but the writers felt clearly uncomfortable with that approach too, and instead let her linger at the margins of the group, occasionally throwing her a conversion story (Comparative Religion) or hitting on just the right combination of happy-threatening (The Science of Illusion). And yet, as Loki100 (I think) amply proved some time ago, Shirley is actually one of the most interesting members of the group: her domesticity is not a passive acceptance of an antiquated gender role, but rather a combative stance: her life is such that she has to constantly fight to maintain her status as a wife and a good mother – fight not just external obstacles (like Andre’s infidelity), but also her own darkest impulses. To the show’s immense credit, the writers have chosen to play Shirley’s central conflict (her “real bad anger” barely staved off by her “mother hen” cloyness) mostly straight. It doesn’t mean that Shirley isn’t funny or that her rage can’t be the source of great comedic moments (just look at her when she awakens something in Jeff by calling him a “turkey” or when she out bad cops Annie), but the conflict itself remains very raw and very real. Shirley “Big Cheddar” Bennett is, to borrow a phrase from a mostly unknown movie called The Avengers, “always angry.” She’s a better Hulk than Jeff could ever hope to be, because her anger is a fundamental part of herself, not a temporary product of chemically enhanced narcissism.
Shirley’s relation to religion is therefore extremely complex. On one hand her Christianity is obviously a core component of her personality, one that informs her choices and her ethics. It’s what has allowed her to overcome her alcoholism, hold on to Andre and raise her kids right. On the other hand, her Christianity acts as an outlet for her anger, and in the process legitimizes this anger, by couching it in the guise of righteousness and moral authority. This side of Shirley reflects the classic defects of Christianity at large and of Evangelism in particular: strict dogmatism, constant judgementalism, and a tendency to regard morality as simple tribalism: you’re either one of ours or you’re bad.
And yet Shirley’s dilemma in this episode is hardly a hypocritical one. Why indeed do people flock more to “Car crash camel toe” than to the teachings of Jesus Christ? Her initial answer however misses the point just as much as Abed does.
Like a lot of Christian (and by Christian I mean mostly Evangelical and proselytizing) entertainment, Shirley assumes it’s only a question of an inadequacy of narrative. Side note: I find the phenomenon of Christian rock almost comically deluded; I hope I’m not offending anyone here when I say that – and I’m talking only of the Faith + 1 kind of bands – is there any other type, anyway? Deluded, because it’s largely based on a cheap trick: it appears to assume that if the message is wrapped in the – poorly approximated – trappings of a subculture, it would become somehow more attractive; it assumes that the communication breaks down because the medium isn’t adequate, when in fact the message is what’s lacking, because an exaggerated concern with form has completely pushed it to the side
Instead of focusing on what the story means, Shirley focuses on how the story looks and concludes the problem is easily solvable with a change of scenery, by casting Jesus as a rapper. Medieval religious interpretation (look at me getting all professorial…) presupposed that there were four levels to the Biblical text: literal (what the text was about at its most basic level – say, a profligate son returns home full of shame and contrition); allegorical (a story about how God’s grace can redeem the soul); moral (a lesson in the necessity of forgiveness) and anagogical (pointing to the spiritual reality of redemption). Shirley stops at the literal level, assuming that repetition of the story is all that’s needed to create the message. Her attitude is thus no different than Abed’s, who similarly, after listing any number of movies (from Back to the Future to The Matrix) with a Christic theme (why Back to the Future, though?) concludes in the most tautological way that Jesus was special because he was special, and casts himself in the role.
What both Abed and Shirley miss is that the New Testament is not a story of entitlement, but the story of a sacrifice. It’s not about not being recognized and celebrated, but about doing good with no expectation of a reward. It’s about being humble. Shirley’s gift to Abed is one of incredible generosity. She already knows his film is awful, so she has not only nothing to fear from it, but can even hope that she will be vindicated, since Abed will be exposed as, essentially, a false prophet. And yet she willingly casts herself as the villain because she realizes her friend’s suffering is more important than her self-satisfaction, more important than even her well-being, since, by destroying the movie, she is making herself hated by the entire school. She becomes a Judas to everyone else so she can play Jesus for Abed, and in the process redeems both him and herself, by finally tapping into the allegorical and moral levels of the story that she had forgotten about.
In a very sly way the episode even manages to have its Charlie Kaufman cake and eat it too. While Abed’s hilariously convoluted ABED is an obvious dig at both the meta-ness of Community and to movies like Adaptation and Synecdoche, NY, the story of Abed and Shirley realizes precisely the permanent inversion of roles ABED was predicated upon. Shirley and Abed are both hero and traitor at the same time; they’re simultaneously Jesus and Judas to the point of becoming indistinguishable. Abed betrays Shirley and Shirley betrays Abed, and in the process they both find grace.
It’s here in fact that Shirley and Abed’s story intersects with Jeff and Pierce’s. Jeff’s gift to Pierce is similarly humble and understated. It’s a more minor sacrifice, since it only costs Jeff some gas and an outing in a less than colossally flattering outfit (excellent wardrobe choice from the costume department, by the way!), but it’s made meaningful by the fact that Pierce obviously has no idea what’s happening, and that Jeff doesn’t in any way attempt to explain it to him.
Grace depends on the permanent realization and acceptance of the imperfect nature of human beings. It’s not judgement, but forgiveness – recognizing your own flaws in the flaws of others and loving them unconditionally. It’s the creation of bonds and connections. It’s the realization that humility is beautiful.
Abed: You humble me.
Shirley: You humble me too.
Community has created many emotional and heart-wrenching moments, but for me none is more touching than this, because it’s an expression of faith I wish I could be capable of.
Geez, how unfunny and preachy was this episode then?
Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples gets a rather bad rap sometimes, with some people absolutely loathing the Shirley/Abed plot for its preachiness and meta-ness. I’m not entirely sure it’s a warranted criticism. I’m loath to attribute the backlash to the fact that this is an episode that deals very overtly with Christianity but is in no way dismissive or very critical of it, so I’ll leave the debate to you. Todd gave it a A though, and I completely agree with him (or maybe I’m just brainwashed because I like hugging and learning so much…).
It is however a very, very funny episode, with a special mention going to the Hipsters and their love of stolen cookies and hard liquor. It’s a great showcase for a lot of physical humor (again, the Hipsters, and Troy and Britta’s hilariously despondent shuffle in Shirley’s video).
“Mice love cats there/ Cats love mice/ The mice have little hats/ And the hats look nice.” If that’s not a heartwarming vision of community, I don’t know what is.
“Fresh and stolen!”
“Every minute of our lives is a world premiere, and my Father’s already bought the popcorn.”
“Jesus, did you really die for our sins? That’s dope!”
“You think that’s dope? Check out these… beat-itudes.” Donald has very little to do in the episode, but the way he delivers this line is fantastic.
The music – obviously inspired by Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ is excellent. The Abed/Shirley ululations are very funny, and, in the case of Shirley destroying the video camera, also oddly mythic.
Other than YNB and Danny Pudi, special props go to Chevy, who, as always, manages to inject an air of quiet dignity into deeply ridiculous situations, and to Joel who absolutely aces the scene where he goes to pick up Pierce.
Danny as Jesus is really doing it for me.
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-562542297 (page 127)