Inside Man

Apologies, but I am going to mention a television show, not to praise it or blame it, but simply because it portrays an interesting, troubling character.

Inside Man stars Stanley Tucci and David Tennant, both of whom do a fine job, although Tennant’s character is hard to take. He plays an Anglican vicar. Indeed, he is constantly reminding people, “I’m the vicar” as though he was still “the Doctor” on Doctor Who, the show that made him famous. Given how religious people are portrayed in contemporary shows, it’s easy to guess early on that “the vicar” is likely going to be a bad guy.  And in fact, he is a very bad guy.  But not in the customary way religious people are portrayed. And this is what makes him an interesting character.

The vicar, as it turns out, is a man with a spiritual compass, but not a moral compass.  And this is his undoing.

It’s not that he doesn’t “feel bad” about the things that he has done or is contemplating doing (which in this case is murder).  He constantly “feels bad.”  But not bad enough to stop himself from doing what he plans to do.  He has imprisoned a woman in his cellar and eventually decides he must kill her to protect his son.  How this turn of events has come about, and why this woman thinks his son is guilty of child pornography is unimportant. But she does, and so the vicar has imprisoned her and decides the only answer is to do away with her.

Now, again, what is interesting about this character is that he is not merely a hypocrite in the usual, slimy, obvious way.  He is trying to do something good for someone he knows is troubled, and through an unfortunate series of events, gets himself into a horrible predicament.

You might ask, “Was it unfortunate a matter of fate or fortune  or did he get himself into the predicament by making bad choices?”  The answer is both.  But his troubles begin when he lies to protect his son.  Not only does he lie, but he also lies swearing to an untruth “before God.”  At that moment, you know he is doomed.  And as so often happens, once he has lied, he cannot stop lying, even to himself.  He lies to the son he says he wants to protect, even when his son begs him, “I just want the truth and want the lying to stop.”  But our vicar has stuck himself in his lie, convinced that it is the loving thing to do.

This, of course, is a common plot device in every soap opera and telenovela ever written.  A character must lie, they tell themselves, out of love for someone.  Now the great thing is, this never, ever works out.  Things always end up much worse.  So, you’d think people who watch these shows would learn this lesson from them if nothing else: never, ever lie.  It only makes things worse and leads to other sins.

Sadly, people don’t seem to learn that lesson even people who go to churches in which the Ten Commandments, with the prohibition against “bearing false witness” is posted prominently.  Perhaps such posters need a little postscript that says, “These are commands, not suggestions.”  “We really mean it!” And “This means you!”

What do I mean when I say that this vicar has a “spiritual compass but not a moral compass”?  He is “spiritual” in the sense that he shows he is willing to sacrifice for people and take the blame for their faults, likely seeing himself as very “Christ-like” in this way.  He is willing to sacrifice for a troubled pedophile, for his wife, and for his son.  He even says that he is willing to take his wife’s place in Hell by doing something evil, so she won’t.  He knows he will be hated and vilified as a pedophile, which he is not, but he is willing to take that scorn upon himself rather than allow others to be destroyed.

But he is also monumentally foolish. His decisions are irrational not only because no sensible person would ever do them, but also because they are also so obviously iniquitous. You can’t lock a woman against her will in your basement even if she might endanger your son.  And you can’t plot to kill her no matter how bad the consequences might be if you don’t. His patina of religiosity just makes him more annoying.  I prefer honest thieves who steal for greed to people who rob you deluding themselves that they’re doing something “loving.”

When he is found out, the vicar makes the usual complaint: “Don’t judge me!  I did what I did for love as though doing something wrong “for love” makes it all okay.  But, of course, it doesn’t.  Love calls for moral acts, it doesn’t make acts moral.  Love isn’t a license to sin.  That’s abuse, not love.­­­­

When people claim that St. Augustine said, “Love, and do what you will,” I can’t help but cringe.  First, because the actual quotation is: “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”  That’s a bit different.  And second, because Augustine was well aware that people do very bad things out of “love” when they love the wrong things or love in the wrong way.  He was well aware because he knew he himself was repeatedly guilty of it.

As for the vicar’s comment, “Don’t judge me!” he ends up in jail, so society does judge him.  And let me assure you, everyone watching the show judges him.  He is a miserable character who is hard to watch and hard to take.  But his story should be a signal warning against the dangers of thinking you can be “spiritual” but not “moral.” Or that you can “do God’s will” while violating God’s commandments.


You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s How (Not) to Be Secular

David W. Fagerberg’s A Good Death

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.