“Another day. Gotta keep it together. Face the world.”
That quote could come from either of the two current streamed series which I’ve been following: Ricky Gervais’ After Life on Netflix and Martin Freeman’s The Responder on BBC One. Both very different but with the same central theme: life is unrelentingly bleak.
Basically, how do live your life without God (whether he is there or not)?
I note that Gervais, who abandoned religion at the age of eight, received the 2019 Richard Dawkins Award, which recognises people who proclaim "the values of secularism and rationalism.”
I’m only halfway through the second series of After Life – and so no need for a spoiler alert. Gervais plays, with considerable skill, the central character of local newspaper journalist Tony Johnson whose entire life has fallen apart following the death of his wife from cancer. Poignantly she has recorded a whole series of MP4 clips, which he frequently refers to.
When a well-meaning colleague seeks to console him with the prospect of heaven, he responds “I’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her.” And that’s the dilemma for anyone who wants to live their life without God, in a world devoid of hope. And devoid of meaning.
For if we inhabit a universe which has come into being through sheer chance, if there is simply no purpose in existence, where do we fit in? And the answer is bleak, as our hero explains: “Humanity is a plague. We’re a disgusting, narcissistic, selfish parasite, and the world would be a better place without us.”
And so the challenge for anyone who would dismiss God is how to live. The apostle Paul can see the dilemma only too clearly. “It’s resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection, that undergirds what I do and say, the way I live. If there’s no resurrection, “We eat, we drink, the next day we die,” and that’s all there is to it.” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Except Tony can’t just eat, drink and be merry, however hard he tries. He is too deep in mourning, alone and enraged.
People try and help him, of course. Like Anne (played by Penelope Wilton), who comforts Tony on a bench in the cemetery with such reliable patience and sensitive humour. As it happens she has no hope in God either and so she simply chats to her husband’s grave as if he is still with her. Self-delusion offers some escape but not much.
So Gervais’ character gropes toward some understanding on how to live “I realize that everyone’s struggling and I feel like I should help the people who helped me.” But even so he is floundering and while he seeks some understanding on how to live, there is simply no foundation, no basic belief, just a cheery nihilism. “Good people do things for other people. That’s It. The End.”
Martin Freeman’s character couldn’t be any different. He may be a seasoned Scouse cop but not much humour here. In this five-part BBC One drama The Responder, he plays Chris Carson, a police officer gripped by rage, suffering and despair. He operates in the dark, literally as we follow him on a series of night shifts in Liverpool that threaten to push him over the edge.
I don’t want to give anything away but every single character in this bleak police drama is not just flawed but hopelessly and completely damaged. Even the vicar who appears late in the series is a totally broken human being: it seems everyone is.
Having said that I enjoyed watching out for the different location shots. Carson’s mother lives in a residential home – which clearly is the Royal Hotel in Waterloo, just down the road from the residential home where my mother lived. In fact, the view he sees over the Mersey is identical to the one I used to enjoy when visiting my mother.
It is while visiting his mother that Carson reveals the depths of his loneliness and despair. He tells her: “I did a good thing – just a thing for somebody who normally doesn’t matter.” “Everyone matters,” she responds. “They really don’t,” he says.
The same: how to live, how to find meaning in a universe devoid of purpose. Responder ends with a kind of resolution (I won’t say more) which has some sense to it but is morally flawed and entirely superficial. It speaks of our current culture in which, to quote Henry David Thoreau, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
No wonder the Gospel is Good News, for the resurrection of Jesus changes everything. Creation, yes, is flawed. As Paul describes it is in “bondage to decay” and “subjected to futility.” (Romans 8:20) But the victory of Jesus is merely the beginning of a whole new future, in which in the words of the prophet Isaiah “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10) Creation wonderfully healed and restored.
We find our meaning in the cross of Jesus which demonstrates that everyone is important and has value. After all we are each made in the image of God and no one is to be excluded from God’s Kingdom for being who they are.
And once we are grabbed by the love of God, then we should even without thinking share the good news with a world in despair. Whenever you see Tony Johnson or Chris Carson, characters conceived from a world view which would contest God’s authority, we long for them to experience the incredible love and grace of God. We have a gospel to proclaim.
For as Gervais’ character speaks the truth without even realising its import: “Hope is everything.” He’s right, of course.