In an interview with Sojourners’ associate opinion editor Josiah R. Daniels, actor and author Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight Schrute in The Office, explains that he had never thought about the show in explicitly religious terms but does associate it with redemption and healing. “I think too, there is a warm, forgiving heart at the center of The Office that is about this community,” said Wilson. “It soothes anxiety and it’s healing.” Wilson continued on to explain the reason for this is because “ultimately … The Office loves its characters. Every character has some kind of redemption and there’s moments of love and connection in the awkwardness.”
I first began watching NBC’s The Office soon after the series aired its final episode and hit Netflix’s streaming service in 2013. The show — a documentary-style, TV sitcom that follows the lives of regular people who work at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company based in Scranton, Pa. — quickly became my white noise. In total, I watched the series 11 times.
Like many during the COVID-19 pandemic, I returned to The Office because I craved something familiar. Rewatching the show led me to this realization: The Office is the first TV series to portray the good, the bad, and the awkwardness of religion in a way that I relate to as a Christian. I have been reflecting on this in preparation for my chapter in the forthcoming book Theology and The Office (Fortress Press, 2024). Likewise, I think religious people, especially Christians, can find humor and insight in the show’s portrayal of daily life.
Christians aren’t always nice coworkers
What I continue to love about The Office is its honest depiction of how faith, when lived out, is often messy and inconsistent. The most iconic example of this is the character of Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey). Her Christian piety, contrasted with her slew of public misdemeanors, is clearly a caricature meant to poke fun at self-righteous Christians.
When I first began watching The Office, Angela’s character often frustrated me. I believed Christians should be the easiest people to work with because of our selflessness, honesty, and commitment to hard work. But when I watched the show, it seemed as though Angela was more concerned for her cats than she was for any of her coworkers. Whether it was the way that she treated her deskmate Oscar (Oscar Nuñez) — a gay Latino man who refuses to say “under God” when reciting the pledge of allegiance — or the fact that she carried on a relationship with Dwight while she was engaged to her coworker Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), Angela was the perfect “Christian hypocrite” archetype.
However, by the end of the series, Angela is given a redemptive arc. Following the embarrassment of her infidelities and divorce from the closeted gay senator, Robert Lipton (Jack Coleman), Angela receives a strong dose of humility. She moves in with Oscar, who helps care for her child and begins to reconcile with her coworkers. The pinnacle of her redemption arc happens in the series finale when finally, absent of any infidelity, she marries Dwight Schrute.
Watching the show years later as a seminarian, I could only laugh at my previous irritation. I started to see Angela not as a source of aggravation but as a terribly honest depiction of how many Christians behave at work. Angela offers us an example of how we can attend church on Sunday, dress modestly, read our Bibles, and care for our cats, but if our religious beliefs don’t compel us to love our desk neighbors as we love ourselves, then our faith is dead. Ultimately, the hypocrisy of Angela’s character made me wonder how Christians should respond to coworkers who think differently from us and may even subscribe to a different religion than our own or no religion at all.
Some people who care about their faith find it hard to go to church
Because I watched the series during seminary, Toby Flenderson (Paul Lieberstein) ended up becoming a surprisingly relatable character. In season five, we find out during one of the show’s iconic “talking head” interviews that Toby attended seminary for a year, but dropped out to chase a girl to Scranton where he took the first job he could find as an HR representative for Dunder Mifflin. This helps us understand Toby’s hesitancy to walk into a church building in the season 7 episode “Christening.”
In the episode, Jim and Pam Halpert (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer) are christening their daughter Cece at a Presbyterian church. The entire office is invited to attend which creates a conundrum for Toby: Not only does he have an ongoing crush on Pam, but he also has unresolved questions about his own faith. What I found most relatable in this episode was Toby’s honest evaluation that he and “The Big Guy” — presumably God — had some catching up to do.
Since graduating from seminary, I, too, have spent little time in church buildings. I often think of the scene where Toby is pacing back and forth outside the church entrance under the “all are welcome” banner. I do the same on Sunday mornings, reluctant to enter yet another church building.
At one point in the episode, Toby works up the courage to enter the sanctuary but quickly retreats while mumbling “No, no, no.” I’ve also retreated from a sanctuary after hearing a sermon endorsing violence or enduring an onslaught of congregants asking to heal me in the communion line. Even with the most optimistic perspective, entering a community of faith is difficult work. Beyond the welcome teams and smiling faces, Toby reminds us of the unvoiced expectations and unwritten standards that leave little room for questions and doubt.
Michael Scott as Regional Pastor
Michael Scott (Steve Carrel), Dunder Mifflin’s regional manager, has a knack for bringing up religion in uncomfortable situations. During a conference room meeting in the episode “Fun Run,” Michael asks everyone seated at the table to go around and share their religion. Stanley (Leslie David Baker) identifies as Catholic, Pam and Daryl (Craig Robinson) high-five over being Presbyterian, and Phyllis (Phyllis Smith) admits that she is Lutheran but her husband, Bob Vance of Vance Refrigeration (Bobby Ray Shafer), is a Unitarian. “It keeps things spicy,” Phyllis says coyly.
Michael then turns his gaze toward the South Asian, turban-wearing IT worker, Sadiq (Omi Vaidya). After Michael tells Kelly (Mindy Kaling) she is Hindu, Michael, instead of asking Kelly (Mindy Kaling) if she is Hindu automatically assumes that she is. He then asks Sadiq “What are you?” Sadiq replies, “Well if you’re going to reduce my identity to my religion then I’m Sikh, but I also like hip-hop and NPR, and I’m restoring a 1967 Corvette in my spare time.” Michael, clearly ignoring Sadiq’s rebuke, concludes, “Okay, one Sikh.”
This scene’s depiction of diverse religious practices in the office is humorous but also revealing: On the one hand, Christianity is seen as normal, whereas other religions are exoticized. Rather than jumping on Phyllis’ comment that her Lutheran-Unitarian marriage “keeps things spicy,” Michael turns his attention to Kelly and Sadiq, the only two South Asians and non-Christians in the room.
In an uncomfortable but comedic scene, Michael asks Kelly if, because she is Hindu, she believes in Buddha. In an attempt to correct Michael she replies, “That’s Buddhists.” But when Michael asks if she is sure, she doesn’t know. Sadiq, who Michael racially profiles as a “terrorist” in season 2, is already familiar with Michael’s antics — which is perhaps why he is quick to explain that he is more than his religion.
Michael’s religious practices remain mysterious throughout the show (minus a reference to him “privately” celebrating Groundhog’s Day) but the way he interacts with Kelly and Sadiq reminds me of how some senior pastors interact with Hindu or Sikh people. Michael thinks he is culturally sensitive but, in reality, he is like most Americans today who know very little about world religions.
For the Christian viewer, The Office holds up a mirror and invites us to laugh at ourselves but also interrogate our workplace conduct. For a show that became popular because of its sacrilegious nature, there is a lot that religious people — specifically Christians — can learn from this fictional portrayal of the not-so-mundane office life.