Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Half-Man-Half-Biscuitism: Why I Can't Stand Ricky Gervais

I am not a fan of Ricky Gervais. I just don't find him funny. Clips I've seen from Extras have proved that, for me, celebrity self-mockery with a wink to the camera is not half as funny as Brass Eye-style send-up of celebrities who don't know they're being mocked; last year, my plan to watch all of The Office UK collapsed with the first episode, of which, judging by its profound tediousness, I accidentally watched the eight-hour director's cut.

So my attempts to engage with his work have failed, and I don't much care for his persona either. When he guests on The Daily Show, I am mystified by his ability to charm Jon Stewart and the audience into fits of giggles with every sentence that emerges from his mouth; when he promoted his film Cemetery Junction on Mark Kermode's show, I got very irritated by him; when he caused a stir by making some cheeky remarks as host of this year's Golden Globes, he seemed altogether too pleased with himself.

That, I think, is the heart of my dislike of Ricky Gervais (or rather of the Ricky Gervais persona he projects; obviously, I don't know the man personally): he always comes across as incredibly smug. I have no problem with lampooning the Hollywood elite, many of my favorite sitcoms were influenced by The Office's comic sensibilities, and I am happy for people to publicly profess their atheism, but it's nice if they can do it without being so damn smug.

In April, the Wall Street Journal blog ran a piece by Gervais entitled “An (Atheist) Easter Message From Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Excellent Christian”. I'm not sure I've ever seen an article that took more cheap shots at tired targets, misrepresented Christianity more wilfully, or was smugger in tone than this one.

For a start, Gervais refers to Christians' belief “that Jesus was half man, half God”. It takes about eight seconds of engagement with Christianity to know that this is not remotely the Christian view of Jesus. In John 1:1 and 14, in Philippians 2:6-7, in Colossians 2:9, in the Nicene Creed – the core of Christianity is that Jesus is both fully God and fully human (it's called hypostatic union, y'all!). Confusing? You bet – ink and blood have both been spilled in vast quantities in attempts to make sense of this doctrine for most of the past two millennia. Glibly dismissing the complexity of the issue for the sake of a cheap soundbite is intellectually dishonest and doctrinally na├»ve. It's like saying, “If God would kill his own son, he must be eeeevil!” Well, gosh, thank you for that innovative theological insight – it has never occurred to any Christian before, and it certainly hasn't been under debate for 1600-some years. It happens in feminism, too (“Someone should really call the third wave and tell them about these important revelations”). I hereby dub this practice – of thinking you've trumped your ideological opponents by bringing up a question that has long been discussed within their movement – “half-man-half-biscuitism”.

Half-man-half-biscuitism strikes again when Gervais takes lazy (and, in the context of the article, irrelevant) aim at the issue of gay people and the Bible. “So remember. If you are gay you are “Bumming for Satan” basically. (That would make quite a good T-shirt.)” Again, the way he talks about it you'd think nobody had ever debated this issue before. It's a very cheap shot, included only to further ridicule Christians, who apparently all share exactly the same narrow view on religious exclusivism, sola fide, and homosexuality. Also, can we call a moratorium on the word “bumming” in British comedy? Please?

The main substance of Gervais' article, though, is taken up with his point-by-point declaration that he keeps all of the Ten Commandments. Now, I know he's trying to be funny, but he's also trying to make a serious – and, undeniably, valid – point about religious hypocrisy, and I can't quite figure out how it's intended. Is he satirizing Christian self-righteousness by demonstrating that anyone who claims to keep all of the Ten Commandments is obviously lying (Romans 3, yo)? Or is he highlighting Christian moral hypocrisy by seriously claiming that he keeps all of the Ten Commandments while Christians don't? (Spoiler: he doesn't. I don't think he understands what the first two commandments mean, and I just don't believe he's never coveted something that belonged to somebody else.)

Either point is valid. It's true that professing your own moral righteousness, either publicly or just to yourself, is an immoral act for a Christian; it's also true that non-Christians often act more morally than Christians do. If you're going to make either one of those points, though, it helps if you can do it in a manner that's coherent, honest, and fair. Or – at the very least – funny.


  1. I cannot recall where or if I've ever seen the guy... (I'd click the links, but I'm afraid my rage-o-meter would go of the charts, considering I've just been reading the article on HuffPost about Billy Graham's poor health and seeing lots of smug, nasty, horrible cheering for the pain and death of a human being on the grounds of "believing something we don't like")... ugh...

    But I recognize the "type" as it were. I've seen Bill Maher. I used to be a regular fan of Family Guy (before it got all strawman on this and other issues, other issues did me in, actually). And, of course, I've been hanging out at the Pit again (HuffPo) against my better judgement.

    I get the feeling that the Christianity these people attack doesn't actually exist, or if it does, it's some small sect they knew as a kid or their own abusive, crazy parents. I've not seen it. It's weird... People seem to think things like we *all* believe the Rapture will happen on May 21 of this year and that we'll all have to deconvert to atheism when it doesn't or be rightly called hypocrites. I used to be Southern Baptist (conservative and kooky) and my church was all about "no one knows the date or hour, picking one is anti-Biblical." Also, while they held the "homosexuality is a sin" view, they thought Fred Phelps was a jackass. So, not even most conservative/fundies believe in the stuff that the smuggies want to ascribe to "everyone who believes there's a God", let alone all Christians!

    And they think we progressive types are just "accomdating" and are therefore "as evil" because we're aiding and abettting evil or something just because of what's in the confines of our hearts. Ugh. They can't even get most of what the actual fundies believe right.

    Tonight (see my blog) I got into a text-conversation with a guy who said that Reason was the cure for my worshipping a "magical sky man." I told him that if he really believes that I believe in a "magical sky man" that he's more deluded than I am.

    It's strawmanning. They set up a Straw-God then yell at us when we're standing there, sighing at the guy who's wrestling the scarecrow.

    Not all atheists do this of course, but on the Internet, it sure looks like it's a majority, doesn't it?

  2. I had a reply to this earlier that got eaten in Blogger's fraz-out.

    Skimmed the article, couldn't make myself read it in detail, though I don't recall hearing of this guy (must have missed that episode of The Daily Show?)

    This reminds me of how, on another blog, someone had a clip of Bill Maher ranting on Christian hypocricy and my response was that I did not click, could not make myself watch it just because I was afraid I'd start throwing things -- Every time I see a clip of that man, I just have this "ARRRagh!" reaction, even if I happen to be "on his side" about something.

    Also, I wonder why people are so interested in pointing out the hypocrisy of others instead of "cleaning their own house." There are plenty of athiests with horrible attitudes out there, they just don't get press, apparently. I guess they get a pass because they don't "follow anything" like religious people are supposed to and therefore don't need to be held to a higher standard?

    And, of course they never believe the Christians who are trying to clean out our house - we're just "accomdationists" to them, or the divisions become futher "proof" that what we revere doesn't exist. *Facepalm.* Everything from Humanism to Objectivism, yet lots of screaming about how we're everything from Westboro to Rob Bell.

    These type of people, too... (run into lots of them online) really seem to get their ideas on theology from third-hand gossip or from vauge memories of having gone to Sunday School once when they were five years old. I have a recent blog post of my own on this. I had to inform a guy that, no, I do not worship a "magical sky man." My ideas on what God is are... not simple like that.

    It's like they set up some sort of weird Straw-Religion or Straw-God and ignore everyone standing on the edge of the field wondering why they're wrestling a scarecrow and shouting "You're wrong! This is your God!" the whole time.

  3. Thanks for reposting! I was a bit gutted about the Great Blogger Blackout of May 2011 because I lost half of a really great discussion about racism on my Game of Thrones post, but c'est la vie.

    Agreed about Bill Maher. It's like, I'm the first to agree that the hypocrisy of many self-professed Christians is appalling, but don't tar us all with the same brush. All too often the moral crusaders on the Christian right and the atheist avengers of the rationalist left sound exactly the same.

  4. (Here via Feministe SSPS)

    I think you've put your finger on exactly why I dislike Ricky Gervais too (or, as you rightly point out, his public persona anyway).

    His manner comes across to me as "I'm smart. If you're smart, you'll agree with me, and if you don't agree with me then you must be thick as two short planks." And nothing annoys me more than that (even though I struggle to avoid doing it myself sometimes)