There’s a proud history of mixing comedy with religion – just ask Monty Python, or Bill Hicks, or Tim Minchin. So, as someone who can sing Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” off by heart, when I saw Radio 4 had a sitcom about a University Christian Association struggling to remain relevant in this apathetic age, I was intrigued.
God Squad follows UCA president Sophie, cheese-loving theologist Phil and evangelical hardliner Kat fighting over the soul of their college society. Outsider Dan – a swanky eco-activist who does yoga in the multi-faith chapel – enters and shakes things up. His actual level of faith is questionable (“Late nights with my twin poisons: Hitchens, Dawkins – shot, chaser”), but while Phil and Kat have their doubts about the newcomer, Sophie is convinced Dan is the answer to making Christianity cool again. In a plot development clearly borrowed from Life of Brian, UCA splits between the Modernisers and the True Believers, and hilarity ensues.
Or rather, it doesn’t. God Squad trundles along with a narrative reminiscent, ironically, of a student sketch show. The jokes are painfully obvious – Phil gets his foot stuck in a mop bucket, for instance, purely so that Kat can exclaim “Forget your wet shoes, there’s a more important soul at stake here” (soul/sole – geddit?). The climax might have been vaguely amusing (“I’m Protesting! I am, after all, a Protest-ant!”) if we’d been given some reason to care about any of the characters.
Everyone is so terrified of causing offence – either to Christians or to those who find religious zealotry distasteful – that they can’t decide whose side they’re on. Are we meant to laugh at the fundamentalists, or see them as loveable misfits staying true to their beliefs? God Squad doesn’t know. There is definitely something witty to be written on student attitudes to religion – about naivety and intolerance and the blind faith we all have that our world-view is right – but this isn’t it. If your punchline is a pun on the pronunciation of Jesus in Spanish, you should probably stop now.
BBC Radio 4, 29 October, 11.30am
[see also: Storytime with Seth Rogen is a fresh take on the celebrity podcast]
This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West