'Friends', with Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox,
David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry - reviewed from
the standpoint of a follower of Jesus Christ, by Ben
'I'll be there for you, 'cos you're there for me too ...' Six friends who stick together through thick and thin, sharing one another's pain, rejoicing at their happiness. What could be more Christian?
The problem some followers of Christ might have with the adventures of Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe is that for all their character strengths, their lifestyles are so unChristian. Story lines have included:
- Phoebe acting as a surrogate mother for her brother's in vitro fertilized children
- Ross's wife Carol, pregnant with his unborn child, leaving him for another woman, whom she eventually 'marries' in a travesty of a traditional wedding service
- Chandler's father leaving his mother for the pool boy and now enjoying a career as a drag singer in Las Vegas
Sex is the beginning rather than the consummation
All six enjoy a lifestyle in which sex is the beginning rather than the consummation of a relationship: if you are lucky it can lead to love, then to moving in together, and ultimately to marriage - though so far only Chandler and Monica have made it through to this last stage (and Ross -- three times) whereas the others are lucky to reach even the second.
Supportive these friends might be, always ready with a shoulder to cry on and a hand to hold as people they love go through crisis after crisis; what never occurs to them is that these crises are all too often self-induced. Yet because their skewed idea of morality is their idea of normality, they can't understand why they cannot get what each of them ultimately aspires to -- a stable, loving relationship.
'Friends' is not an advertisement for this kind of living -- instead
it satirizes elements already abundant in western life. Their attitudes
to life are not confined to the studio but are all too prevalent out
in the real world.
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To help with this real-world identification, each of the six has a particular character flaw that is exaggerated for comic effect, and from which much of the humor is derived. The basic character of each is friendly and likable, but: Ross is a tedious academic pedant; Monica is a control freak; Chandler fears commitment; Phoebe is a New Age evangelist; Rachel is a spoilt little rich girl; Joey is unashamedly promiscuous. Much of the humor derives from these traits -- it is not that we laugh at the characters, rather, these traits help them get into situations that amuse. We have all met someone who is a little bit like Ross, a touch of Rachel, a dash of Chandler.
Jesus himself was not averse to this kind of humor. Consider the parable of the feast (Luke chapter 14 verses 16-24). The humor of this is all too often lost in a po-faced Sunday morning Bible reading. The excuses of the invited guests are clearly pathetic: one has bought a field without inspecting it first; another has bought some oxen and only now wants to try them out. A modern equivalent would be buying a house and then getting it surveyed, or buying a car before taking it for a test spin. Jesus was talking to people who lived in a highly mercantile society. They would have recognized these deliberately exaggerated stupidities and would have been splitting their sides laughing, at the same time as they took on board the message.
I am not claiming that 'Friends' is a modern-day parable. I am claiming
a similar effect in that as well as entertaining, it provides insights
-- sometimes uncomfortable ones -- into the modern Western lifestyle.
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There are many strengths to Friends. Religion is present: every marriage or funeral depicted in the series has been at least approximately Christian, even the lesbian 'wedding'. ('Nothing makes God happier than two people, any two people, coming together,' declared the presiding minister in her address. Perhaps she has never read Luke chapter 15 verse 7.) The main theme of one Christmas episode was Ross's determination to teach his young son Ben about Hanukkah and his Jewish heritage.
Although marriage and sex come completely the wrong way round in 'Friends', marriage is still the end to aspire to in a relationship. There have been episodes dealing with adulterous affairs, committed either knowingly or in ignorance, and 'Friends' pulls no punches in condemning such activity. Marriage is acknowledged as an institution requiring trust and fidelity. Ross, though now thrice-divorced, has made every reasonable effort (and some unreasonable) to save each of those marriages. The characters in 'Friends' are sexually immoral by Christian standards, but they are not into free love.
At least one of
the two pregnancy storylines in 'Friends' was due to the real-world
pregnancy of the actress, conceived in lawful wedlock with her actual
spouse. (Actress Lisa Kudrow, who plays Phoebe, has stated publicly
that she was a virgin on her wedding night.) The producers of the show
had to do something to explain her obviously pregnant condition, so
they took the situation and used it. The story of Phoebe and her surrogate
pregnancy for her brother's children, as well as being played for laughs,
also raised serious issues about the whole idea of surrogate pregnancy.
Rachel's baby was conceived in a more conventional manner, the result
of a one-night stand with Ross and a failed contraceptive; but again,
as well as being played for laughs, the storyline raised issues of single-parenthood
in the modern world. Rachel, who entered the show as a spoilt, air-headed
prom queen, has had to face up to the fact that her carefree days are
well and truly over.
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All the friends are honest, upright, tax-paying citizens. They earn their livings; they do not do drugs; they do not lie, cheat or steal; and when they are in a relationship, they are faithful within that relationship. They are the kind of people that you would not mind having as your neighbors -- unless, perhaps, you actually had to talk to them.
And it's this all-round 'niceness' that is the key to understanding 'Friends'. It simply reflects, and amplifies for comic effect, the natural state of a life without God.
All of us have been asked at one time or another why we need to be Christian. Why go that last extra step? If you do not murder, cheat, steal, why do you need Jesus? Can we not just a lead a good life?
'Friends' shows us that we cannot. Our sinfulness means that without
the help of the Holy Spirit we cannot begin to work out what God wants
of us. We have a vague idea that we should be nice to one another; that
love and fidelity are good things; that tolerance is to be encouraged.
But without the real and worthwhile guidance of the Scriptures we follow
the instincts of our nature and go off course exactly as shown in the
series. The Bible tells us what the Lord requires of us: to do justly,
love mercy and humbly walk with him (Micah
chapter 6 verse 8). 'Friends' - and most people out in the real
world - only manage two out of these three at most, and this is a case
where two out of three is still bad.
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This article has concentrated on those aspects of 'Friends' that might be disturbing to some followers of Christ. But ninety percent of the humor in 'Friends' is good, honest comedy, based on nothing more contentious than witty scripting and good acting. It can even be useful for Christian students as an endless source of case studies and examples from the non-Christian world. And it is a pleasant and amusing way to kill half an hour on a Friday evening.
Questions for group discussion or individual reflection:
- How much is 'Friends' an accurate reflection of contemporary lifestyles? How much is it an exaggeration or parody?
- 'It simply reflects and amplifies.. the natural state of a life without God.' Is this true? What do you think?
- Is it possible for us to live a good life without reference to God or Jesus?
- Are there specific illustrations from 'Friends' stories that would help you share your faith with others?
- Should Christians avoid watching programs that portray unChristian behavior? Are there any limitations on what we should and should not watch, and if so, how do we decide? (You may want to look at 1 Corinthians chapter 6 verse 12, chapter 10 verses 23-24, and Philippians chapter 4 verse 8)