Parsing Forgiveness on The Chair

Robert Hubbard

In the premiere episode of The Chair, Dr. Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), an admired English professor at the fictional Pembroke University, delivers a spontaneous joke during his packed lecture entitled “Death and Modernism.” While making the important point that absurdist writers Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett both resisted fascism during World War II, Dobson ironically blurts out “Heil Hitler” as he role-plays a facetious Nazi salute.

A student records this unscripted moment on a mobile phone and soon shares a contextless and doctored video of Dobson’s salute to social media. The resulting tumult from hyper-charged activists in search of outrage threatens to destroy an impressive teaching career. When the show’s title character, English Department Chair Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), tries to defend her embattled colleague, she too faces the wrath of the woke mob.

The provocative new Netflix series, created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, pulls off an impressive and delicate balancing act. The Chair simultaneously (and justifiably) lampoons the “old boys” network of higher education while also warning of the destructive dangers of uncritical cancel culture. This is to say, The Chair confidently advocates for much-needed diversity in higher education. More pressingly, however, the series reveals that authentic accountability works best when informed by the biblical norms of grace and forgiveness.

At the start of the series, prospects may be looking up for the English Department at Pembroke after years of sagging enrollment. For the first time in its storied history of white male leadership, the department elected Kim as Chair, a Korean-American woman and brilliant mid-career scholar. With idealism and pluck, Kim dreams of revitalizing her beleaguered English program. She strives to bring her erudite yet self-described “dinosaur” colleagues kicking and screaming into the 21st century, encouraging them to focus on things like teaching evaluations and curriculum assessment.

One such project is the irascible Dr. Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban). When his American Literature course under-enrolls yet again, Kim saves his fledgling section by combining it with an overflowing class taught by Dr. Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), a dazzling yet untenured African-American professor. McKay struggles to collaborate with her inflexible senior colleague, who believes that McKay panders to her students. He also obliviously treats her like his teaching assistant. Kim tries to mentor McKay towards some empathy for the elder Rentz, highlighting his stature as a Melville scholar and his past as a popular teacher during his younger years. Agreeable yet frustrated, the upstart McKay counters, “I see why you feel sorry for him. He only got to rule his profession for 40 years.” She is not wrong.

Noble efforts to modernize her department will not go smoothly for Kim. As his first directive to his new Chair, her sniveling Dean (David Morse) hands Kim a list of three senior colleagues to force into retirement because of their high salaries and low enrollments. In the center of an impossible situation, Kim laments, “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb so that a woman is holding it when it explodes.” The bomb does explode when the video of Dobson’s faux Nazi salute circulates. Kim’s embattled department seems doomed.

To be clear, Dobson—while a gifted teacher and scholar—is far from perfect. Mourning the loss of his wife to cancer, he drinks too much, brings pot to faculty parties, and cannot be bothered to get to his courses on time or without a hangover. He also suffers from a malady which commonly afflicts brilliant people: vanity. When the video blows up, Dobson doubles down. He ignores Kim’s wise advice to apologize for his attempt at humor and instead invokes academic freedom. (His impressive education must not have included a close study of Philippians 2:3.) Dobson’s pomposity only makes things worse.

But the real problem here, of course, is not Dobson’s pride or his critics’ ridiculous assumptions of academic fascism. It’s the lack of discernment both parties exhibit in the aftermath, an inability to pursue faithful civil discourse, especially in the wake of missteps and misunderstandings.

The series reveals that authentic accountability works best when informed by grace and forgiveness.

Thankfully, Christianity offers clear direction for when the stone-throwing starts. As fallen creatures, we all mess up; of course, we deserve to be held accountable. But the story cannot end there, at least not under the profound shadow of the cross. The Chair testifies that care must still be taken to ensure that accountability does not preclude the eventual possibility of grace and forgiveness.

Before going too far down this road, however, two points must be made clear. First, recent cultural movements seeking accountability—particularly for the mistreatment and abuse of women—are long overdue, including in the field of higher education. These calls for justice hold the promise for reform and a belief in restoration of God’s Kingdom. What’s more, some Christians have misused Christ’s miraculous promise of forgiveness to bypass the need for accountability. Consider Rachael Denhollander’s testimony in the wake of her sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nasser. “Christian platitudes like ‘God works all things together for good’ or ‘God is sovereign’” can be “misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of the evil of abuse,” she said. The call to forgive can be as blunt of an instrument as the call to condemn.

Fortunately, the women who created The Chair have no interest in blithely pretending that sexism does not exist in higher education or in defending the old-boy’s network. But Peet and Wyman’s series does ask its viewers to thoughtfully consider contemporary calls to condemn. The show wants us to acknowledge that human failings must be judged individually, that false equivalencies do at times exist, and that wisdom abides in those who can tell the difference.

Christ died for all of us, including mildly arrogant college professors. With shocking grace, Christianity implores that we move beyond simply cancelling them or any other lowly sinner who inevitably falls short, even as we hold them accountable for their actions. As a college professor myself, I hope to humbly live into the gospel wisdom found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Topics: TV