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29.05.2020

Normal People, Normal God?

‘It’s the most relatable thing I’ve ever seen.’

Such was my housemate’s review of Normal People, the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel, and what finally convinced me to watch it. Twelve half-hour episodes later, I can confirm: she was right.

When I was growing up, I inexplicably longed for a film or a book or a TV series that contained no real drama. No deaths, no explosive break-ups, no extraordinary wealth or unbelievable meet-cutes… just something that showed life as it is.

Normal People does just that. It is deeply, profoundly ordinary. It charts the relationship between two Irish teenagers – Marianne and Connell – as they navigate the journey from secondary school through university and into young adulthood. No high drama, no cliff-hangers, and yet it is never dull. There are – just as there are in life – moments of quiet misunderstanding, unexpectedly intimate admissions, and deep, aching disappointment and regret.

Normal People is so profoundly relatable because it speaks of the human experience in both its simplicity and its specificity. Friendship, love, intimacy, betrayal, forgiveness. How family forms you in irrevocable ways – for good or ill. How growing up is so beautiful and so painful all at the same time. How those we do life alongside change us in deep and unexpected ways.

The relatability of Normal People is, I think, what has made it so popular. To see something so very ordinary played out on the screens we’re used to watching high drama and light-hearted entertainment on catches you by surprise, and then somehow scratches an itch you didn’t necessarily know you had.

For those of us who are Christians, it is perhaps this that makes our faith so compelling. It is relatable. It is not about a far off, distant deity with whom you have nothing in common, who demands things of you. Instead, it is about a God who makes himself profoundly, deeply relatable.

The intimacy of the incarnation, the deep relatability of Emmanuel – God with us – somehow scratches an itch you didn’t necessarily know you had. This God is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He knows friendship, love, betrayal, forgiveness. He understands the parallel beauty and pain of life on earth – the messy mix of goodness and brokenness that we face on a daily basis.

And that, now perhaps more than ever, is a God for whom our world longs.

 

Nell Goddard
Nell is the Church Partnerships Manager at IJM UK. She tweets as @alianoree.

Author

Nell Goddard

Comments

  1. Just adding to an already exciting mailing by email

    By Wesley Loane - 29th May 2020
  2. Thank you Nell. Being of an age to have teenage grandchildren, actually the oldest is 21, I probably won’t watch this but will certainly send them the link.
    Last Tuesday I witnessed for the first time a dragonfly in the process of emerging from its nymph state and flying away. Stunningly beautiful. Several hours later my wife, fifty years married later this year, fell and tore the skin round her ankle so badly that we had to go to A&E. Patched up but totally immobile.
    This morning, a gorgeous sunny day and off to A&E again to have the wound dressed.
    Life is indeed wonderful and deeply painful at times. Crucially we have a Saviour who knows all this at first hand.
    God bless you in his work. Steve P.

    By Stephen Parkinson - 29th May 2020
  3. Thanks Nell. Interesting angle!

    I’m still trying to work out why I found it so binge-worthy, but I suspect it had more to do with production values than story content, as I didn’t find the book so compulsive.

    I find am always drawn to stories with sad, inconclusive or otherwise unresolved endings – to the occasional frustration of my bookclub. I love it when secrets are never revealed, answers never given, love stories where they never get together, escape stories where they don’t make it out, endings which ruthlessly kill off the main character. I’ve been challenged on a few occasions recently as to why, as a Christian, this is the case. Knowing, as I do, that the cosmic story ends in redemption, forgiveness and love, why am I happy with stories that don’t follow the same arc? Is that not somewhat perverse?

    Aside from the fact that art does not always have to be true to be engaging (and that’s probably a subject for a whole other conversation), my first thought that it was precisely because I know Jesus that I can bear stories that are ‘un-redemptive’ or even ‘un-redeemed’. If they were simply echoing a truth about the miserable and unresolved nature of reality, they would be unbearable. But that doesn’t explain why others in our culture with different philosophies of life might be drawn to them too. Any insights, beyond what you’ve helpfully said above?!

    By Rachel Smith - 29th May 2020
  4. A superb piece, Nell, ‘at a time such as this’ – both content and timing are are a gift to all who read it and for those with whom we share it.

    By John Samways - 29th May 2020
  5. But was it really necessary to have such a significant amount of sex and nudity?

    Whilst noting that Connell clearly sought Marianne’s consent, and made a point of putting on a condom, do we feel that presenting this level of sexual intimacy so early in their relationship as “normal” is helpful to today’s young people?

    If I had early teenage children would I let them watch it?

    I’m not saying that it wasn’t good, but I am saying that it would have been a whole lot better.

    By Richard Emery - 29th May 2020
  6. Perhaps I am out of my depth interacting with my betters, but I was shocked and disappointed by this review. My book club chose this book and after fifty or so pages I felt so violated I couldn’t bear any more. How does this story measure up to whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy? I noted even secular reviewers remarked the programme bordered on porn and questioned why such a proportion of the broadcast was intimate sex and nudity.

    By Jennifer Smith - 29th May 2020
  7. As Richard mentions, your readers should know (and indeed I think your article should say up front) that it does need to come with a big health warning over language, nudity and sex. Whilst I admit it is very powerful, and probably would be less powerful and believable without them, on balance I’d not recommend viewing it to a Christian teen/young adult. That is a big shame, because to the none young, like myself, it does tell us much about the life of young adults and reminds me to thank God for my relationship and forgiveness through Jesus, and of course of the urgent need to share Christ with them – they are not as sorted as they might appear.

    By Andy B Menary - 29th May 2020
  8. Sorry but I think Nell got this one wrong. Is the relationship between Connell and Marianne normal for young people today? Is it how I would want my grandchildren to behave? Don’t think so. I would hope they would avoid nudity and sex before marriage. Surely we need to teach them a better way…the way of restraint and of Biblical standards where the precious gift of sexual intimacy finds its fulfilment within a loving marriage. No doubt some will think this old fashioned but I do believe that God’s standards are best and perfectly designed for our well being. What does Nell think Jesus would say to Connell and Marianne? I think he would tell them that he loved them and wanted to show them a better way to love and relate to one another.

    By Bill Sanderson - 29th May 2020
  9. Compare to this website’s review of the book
    https://www.licc.org.uk/resources/love-time-snapchat/

    By Alfred - 30th May 2020
  10. While I understand the reservations due to some extensive sex scenes, there were some episodes with none at all. I think the one episode with a very long sex scene probably blurred many people’s view of the whole series.

    If my children were older and teenagers I probably would let them watch it. Many opportunities arise watching the show to bring up the issues that we all need to talk about with teenagers – mental health, popularity, sex, navigating leaving school, having housemates, friendships, alcohol, misunderstandings, relationships.

    By Nicola - 4th June 2020

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