Michael Scott’s (America’s) Modern Religion

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Michael Scott filling up on fettuccine alfredo (pride).

Imperfection is one of the few unifying traits of humanity, but it’s the one trait that’s as covered up and polished as Jennifer Aniston’s age. No one wants to acknowledge their imperfect state because they would see their moral bankruptcy, much like indebted college students avoid checking their bank accounts. Everyone makes mistakes, like eating bad sushi or cheating on their spouse. As the seminal songwriter Montana once wrote, “Nobody’s perfect. I gotta work it again and again ‘till I get it right.” The elaborate performances and absurd hypocrisies of striving to justify ourselves in the face of our imperfection makes for a critical episode of The Office, in S04E01, “Fun Run.” Written and directed by the show’s executive producer Greg Daniels, “Fun Run” is one of the few episodes of the series that directly addresses the topic of religion. When Michael Scott (Steve Carell) accidentally hits his coworker Meredith Palmer (Kate Flannery) with his car, his guilt spurs him on to consider religion/superstition and to plan a 5K run for her. Michael is forced to recognize his imperfections and the grueling need to take responsibility for his mistakes. Through Michael’s spiritual journey, Daniels offers a critical commentary on Americans’ relationship to religion and its uses for self-justification in the face of our most severe mistakes and imperfections.

The episode criticizes how we will do whatever it takes to deny our imperfections and win the approval of others, even if it means using religion for our purposes. Daniels ultimately takes a critical jab at both religious and irreligious people who use belief to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes. In other words, Daniels exposes how ridiculous we look when we realize we’re not perfect and we do everything possible to prove otherwise. I recognize that this is just one interpretation of the episode that may run against the grain of what Daniels intended with it. My goal with my interpretation is to use this episode as a comedic framework through which I may offer a critique on the state of modern American religion and relativism. I think that Daniels does most of the legwork of making this critique, and I aim to illuminate how he does so while putting forth a polemic against the state of the modern American religious landscape.

***

The episode’s opening scene shows Michael during his commute, in which he tells us the things that are going well for him and his optimism for the year, until he slams his brakes as Meredith tumbles over his car hood. Michael stares blankly in shock of the freak accident as the unbearable journey of recognizing his imperfections begins. Michael tells the office that he ran over Meredith with his car and that she’s in the hospital, then indulges in denial of the severity of his mistake. For example, while speaking on the phone with the company’s CFO David Wallace (Andy Buckley), Michael trivializes Meredith’s injury as “a little crack in her pelvis.” Michael’s chronic insistence to not make a big deal out of his mistake serves as a discomforting mirror to our own rationalizations when we ponder our mistakes. Daniels critiques our effort to diminish the severity of our mistakes by overtly regarding them with levity. Although this diminishment largely takes place in our thoughts, we can comfortably point at right-wing media that relies on claims of ‘fake news’ when faced with the severe mistakes of its figureheads. Daniels highlights the absurdity of trivializing grave mistakes when faced with clear opposition from others, which is ultimately a stage for Michael to undergo in his spiritual journey of reckoning with his imperfections.

After Michael is overshadowed by the receptionist Pam’s (Jenna Fischer) idea to visit Meredith in the hospital, he bitterly confesses that he has flaws, saying, “I sing in the shower, sometimes I spend too much time volunteering, occasionally I’ll hit somebody with my car.” In this talking-head bit, Daniels illustrates how we bargain with our mistakes by half-admitting our fallibility while citing our good works in a thinly veiled attempt to justify ourselves. For example, job-seekers who insist that their biggest flaw is that they work too hard when asked in an interview. Michael continues in this bargaining stage when he visits Meredith with his coworkers, and he says that “it would be sort of fun” for her to forgive him in front of everybody. When he’s met with silence, Michael cites a false scripture from the Bible that says “forgiveness is next to godliness” in an attempt to cajole her into forgiving him, but instead she says, “you’re not forgiven.” In an interview following this scene, Michael claims that he doesn’t have a “compulsive need to be liked” and that it’s different from his “need to be praised.” Daniels employs Michael’s chronic lack of self-awareness as a hyperbolic manifestation of our selfish desire for acceptance without doing the hard work of owning our mistakes. Michael exhibits a comically tragic hypocrisy that is not beneath us; Daniels pokes at the tension between our need to be liked and our refusal to admit such a need. For instance, consider the ubiquity of social media posts that showcase a positive self-image and never (or rarely) confess serious flaws and mistakes. If Michael had a Facebook, he might post a selfie with Meredith in her hospital bed and humbly brag about caring for his employees without mentioning the fact that he hit her with his car. Although Michael is an exceptional idiot, Daniels uses his self-justifications to illuminate a common, unspoken desperation to be liked by others. Michael’s tireless dance of denial and bargaining concludes with a clumsy curtsy when he realizes no one is applauding, so he turns to (or uses) religion.

The denial of our own imperfections may likely spur us on to consider the moral implications of our behavior, which are explained in different religions. We may then relativize religious ideas for maximum convenience and autonomy in our lifestyle choices, much like Michael does in his own moral reckoning. This relativism is yet another thinly veiled attempt at justifying ourselves in the face of our imperfections, because we refuse to acknowledge the ideas that condemn behaviors that we find permissible. Consequently, a relativistic approach to religion requires a polished view of oneself, even if it’s at the expense of admitting one’s own flaws. Michael’s spiritual journey reflects such an absurdly selfish (albeit common) pursuit among Americans, who have  increasingly identified as “spiritual but not religious,” with 19% in 2012 and 27% in 2017 (pewresearch.org). Although “Fun Run” aired in 2007, the American religious climate in 2008 lended itself to modern relativism, as seen by the 36% of liberals who said religion was unimportant in their lives, before the term “spiritual but not religious” was an option in surveys (pewforum.org). Liberalism and paganism intuitively produce relativism, because they both emphasize human autonomy. Daniels may have been criticizing relativism at large in 2007, but the episode asserts itself as strikingly relevant in 2018 in view of the recent spike in “spiritual but not religious” Americans.

Michael’s religious (relativist) journey begins when Pam tells him that Angela’s (Angela Kinsey) cat has died, which prompts him to proclaim that the office is cursed and they need to do something about it. This beat marks a tonal pivot in the episode to focus exclusively on ideas of religion in order to incubate Michael’s religious musings as he (very slowly) comes to accept his flaws. In an interview, Michael claims that it’s his responsibility to “get rid of the curse that hit Meredith with my car,” adding that he’s not superstitious, just a “little stitious.” The American trend to distance oneself from religious doctrine is implicated in Michael’s insistence on not being superstitious despite, well, being superstitious. Daniels highlights the futility and hypocrisy of assuming religious postures by attributing events to the transcendent while denying the doctrines upon which those attributions are based. For example, universalists who suddenly believe in Hell when someone like Charles Manson dies. Religious people are also the focus of criticism in this sequence, because Michael is still not claiming responsibility for his actions by attributing them to a curse. For example, a Christian husband who blames Satan for tempting him into having an affair, as though Satan pushed him to fall in between his mistress’s legs. Daniels is exposing how we use religious ideas to evade condemnation and make ourselves appear benign by operating within the religious narrative of our mistakes.

Michael calls for a meeting in the conference room to discuss everyone’s religious backgrounds in order to understand how to undo the curse of the office. Although Daniels makes several critiques of Americans’ relationship to religion in the following scenes, I will focus on the evolution of Michael’s religious postures. Michael’s religious fluctuations are caused by his guilt of hitting Meredith with his car, which dabble in the extremes of a belief spectrum, with one end being nihilism and the other being charismatic Christianity. During the meeting, Michael reflects that he spent his whole life trying to get people to like him, but when he hits someone with his car, everyone turns against him. He adds that it doesn’t make any sense and that God is dead. Michael’s Nietzsche-like declaration marks his first step into nihilism, which is yet another tactic to avoid taking responsibility for his mistake. Daniels uses Michael’s emotional descent into nihilism as another critical vantage point to expose how irreligious people can assume no responsibility for their actions by claiming a nihilist worldview that implicitly justifies the reckless nature behind their mistakes. Michael moves from superstition to nihilism to paganism to Christian charisma in a matter of minutes, with each movement starting as soon as he sees an opportunity to avoid taking responsibility. In other words, Michael relativizes his religious postures in order to retain maximum autonomy over his self-justification.

When Dwight (Rainn Wilson) tells Michael that Meredith is receiving a rabies vaccine after doctors ran tests, he fearfully says that the office is “so cursed” despite saying earlier that he’s only a “little stitious.” Dwight says that it was lucky for Meredith to be hospitalized because the only way to treat rabies is before symptoms begin, which prompts Michael to take another relativist step into self-justification. Michael tells the office that, thanks to him, Meredith went to the hospital to get treated for rabies and he saved her life. He then triumphantly proclaims that the curse is broken and that there is a God and “he has a plan for us after all.” Daniels offers a critical view of basing one’s beliefs on circumstances, which might even be a blow to relativism at large. The predominance of “bad Michael” (hard to like) in this episode implies a critical vantage point, because his religious fluctuations are explicitly punctuated with contradictory statements that reflect nihilism and charismatic Christianity. Michael’s relativism underscores the selfishness of such a religious posture because every change of belief is oriented around his need to exonerate himself from hitting Meredith with his car.

Daniels’ overall criticism of how people react to their flaws and the extreme lengths they will go to justify themselves is neatly concluded with Michael’s 5K run, in which he hospitalizes himself for eating a ton of fettuccine alfredo before running and not hydrating. The 5K run is for rabies awareness, which is a disease that is already cured, and 25 percent of the funds raised went towards a giant check made out to “science” and given to a stripper dressed as a nurse. The utter uselessness of the event implicates a uselessness to our elaborate performances to show everyone that we’re good people. It took 500 dollars, a useless 5K run, and a hospitalization for Michael to realize he’s not perfect; this is not unlike our overpriced pressed juice, social media justice without actual social justice, and burnout from unnecessarily busy lives. Our lifelong effort into perfecting our self-image is useless because our very effort is flawed with our greedy desire for social approval. We may donate to the ACLU or tithe at church, but if such actions are part of an effort to convince everyone we’re good people, then our good deeds are ultimately immoral. Daniels seems to be making a larger criticism of the sheer futility of running away from our imperfections on stomachs full of fettuccine alfredo (pride) in pursuit of an unreachable finish line of perfection.

Michael appears to learn his lesson when he weepingly admits that there are too many ugly, diseased people in the world and he’s only one man and can’t fix all of them. Although this isn’t a direct admission of guilt for hitting Meredith with his car, he is at least admitting his inability to fix everything. In the last scene, Michael is in a hospital bed when Meredith rolls in on a wheelchair and forgives him in his vulnerable state. Meredith’s forgiveness may imply a Christian posture of forgiveness, because the recipient (Michael) can no longer prove himself worthy of grace with his good works. Although such an interpretation may be a stretch, it’s the only moment in the episode when Daniels appears to take a stance regarding Americans’ relationship to religion. In every other instance when Daniels addresses religion, he assumes a distant vantage point of criticism, whereas this moment conforms to a message of unconditional forgiveness — we know that Michael only half-learned his lesson when he refuses to take back his lollipop she licked out of disgust. He’s a jerk, but still forgiven. Sounds a lot like modern perceptions of Christianity: jerks who are forgiven by Jesus but continue to be jerks.

***

It’s easy to watch someone act stupid in the same way we do because being a spectator doesn’t require us to acknowledge that we’re seeing reflections of our own stupidities. Daniels’ workplace comedy is largely an attempt at showing the absurdities of our innermost thoughts and childlike behaviors through Michael Scott. “Fun Run” is one of the few instances when Daniels seeks to expose our religious/irreligious hypocrisies in our reaction to the reality of our chronic imperfections. We harbor the absurd thoughts that precede Michael’s absurd behaviors, though we (mostly) don’t exhibit those thoughts in our conduct. The centrality of religion in this episode ultimately serves as a mirror to our own manipulations of religion to suit our selfish interests, especially in the current era marked by an increasing number of Americans claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” (pewresearch.org) A more transparent articulation of such a belief might be “moral but not committed.” In other words, we use whatever works best for the moment in order to preserve a desired self-image or identity. Religious cherrypicking (relativism) goes wrong when one only picks the cherries that don’t challenge him to change a problematic behavior. Moreover, relativism lends itself to hypocrisy when those who emphasize autonomy and tolerance often take pride in their own open-mindedness and judge others who are not (Keller). Additionally, the central claim of relativism that there is no universal truth is hypocritical because that very claim is a universal truth.

Although Daniels uses Michael Scott to cut at relativism, he also criticizes religious hypocrisy through Michael’s insistence that a curse hit Meredith with his car. However, even Michael’s religious claims are motivated by his relativism, further underscoring my interpretation of Daniels’ central criticism. Michael is ultimately a religious contagion that properly resembles the contagion currently plaguing the American religious landscape: people’s increasingly common refusal to surrender their autonomy to predetermined principles designed for their piety. The prominence of humanist liberalism in American politics ignited by President Trump’s quasi-evangelical right-wing rhetoric might inform the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon among the younger generations (though this is merely my theory). I choose the word “contagion” to denote Michael Scott’s (America’s) relativism because of the aforesaid problems of hypocrisy in such a loose discourse. Although the episode certainly did not intend to critique American religion in 2018, Daniels criticizes Americans’ fundamental behaviors around religion, which just happen to inform the relativization of religion in the last decade. Whether religious or not, people still behave selfishly to prove they’re not selfish, pursue perfection in imperfect ways, and take the religious path of least resistance. In other words, people often act like Michael Scott when they realize their imperfect condition. Michael Scott is the mirror we don’t want to look at because we’re not as pretty as we thought we were.

Sources

Daniels, Greg, et al. “The Office ‘Fun Run.’” Season 4, episode 1, NBC, 2007.

Hannah Montana. Nobody’s Perfect, 15 May 2007.

Keller, Timothy. “The Centrality of the Gospel.” Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Lipka, Michael, and Claire Gecewicz. “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual but Not Religious.” Pew Research Center, 6 Sept. 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/.

Wormald, Benjamin. “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 1 June 2008, http://www.pewforum.org/2008/06/01/u-s-religious-landscape-survey-religious-beliefs-and-practices/.

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