Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mainstream Christianity on your t.v.

Among the many things that I find remarkable about Friday Night Lights (whose second season I'm now midway through) is its matter-of-fact portrayal of contemporary Christianity. Which is to say, just about everyone appears to belong to a church, there's a locker-room prayer before every game, and there's a plot line about one of the characters getting born again. All of the characters appear to be nondenominational Protestants and some of their churches are clearly megachurches--but nothing about their religiosity is depicted snidely or ironically or played for laughs. At the same time, the church-goers aren't romanticized or presented as unusually good people. They're just people: flawed, complicated people, trying to live up to their professed pieties. And as realistic as all that sounds, I'm pretty sure I've never seen anything like it on t.v.

I've long maintained that contemporary fiction (broadly conceived as novels, movies, and television) tends to ignore religion, and especially white Protestantism. I can think of novels that deal with religion in a complex way when the characters are Catholic or Jewish, or when the characters are immigrants or racial or ethnic minorities. But unless the characters' religiosity is intended as a sign of their shallowness or hypocrisy, I've virtually never seen an exploration of mainstream, middle-class Protestantism in a novel; the only exception I can think of is Marianne Robinson's Gilead (which is set in the 1950s).

T.V. and movies strike me as even less likely to depict religion in the variety of ways it actually gets lived in America. One of my all-time favorite t.v. shows, Six Feet Under, managed to do so: the fifty-something mother of the family goes to church every Sunday. . . but so does her 30-year-old gay son, who met his partner there. And when his sexuality eventually causes some friction in that particular church, he doesn't abandon his faith; he finds a more liberal church with a female pastor.

But I'm not a cultural omnivore, and I've probably missed plenty. I'd love any of my readers' thoughts about or examples of how religion gets portrayed in contemporary fiction.


squadratomagico said...

I'm trying to think of Protestants in particular, and came up with Charlotte on Sex & the City, who was active in her church.

A more ambiguous portrayal is the John Lithgow character on one of the later seasons of Dexter. Though Lithgow is the "trinity killer," I would argue that the role religion plays in his character is not to demonstrate his shallowness or hypocrisy (OMG, Killer Christian!!), but more to suggest how average he is in daily life. It's part of a broader package of things that make his character the likable guy next door in most ways, and it's predicated on the idea that religion is a normal part of life. If anything, the more actively hypocritical part of his portrayal has to do with the facade he portrays as a loving family man, versus the terrorizing patriarch his family experiences.

That's all I got for now... if I think of more, I'll check back in!

Unknown said...

Aaron Sorkin had some interesting Christian characters. In The West Wing President Bartlett was a Catholic, and there were other reasonably realistic Christian characters. In Studio 60 on the Sunset Beach, one of the main characters, Harriet, is smart, attractive woman who's also a born-again Christian.

I agree that it's unusual though, and probably even more so on British television. Christians tend to be either completely wet, hypocritical, or psychotic.

Renaissance Girl said...

Does X-Files count as contemporary? Because Scully, the science-minded FBI partner of paranormalist Agent Mulder, was Catholic, and the series occasionally depicted her struggle to reconcile the mysteries of the supernatural (of both religious and Roswell varieties) with her empiricist urges.

squadratomagico said...

Here's two more, both from ensemble-cast fantasy genres: On *Firefly* there was a character called something like the Preacher, or maybe the Minister, who was a cleric and plays the role of "elder wise man" for the ensemble. And for a few early seasons of *Lost* there was a African character (I forgot his name) who was almost exactly the same type: the clerical wise man for an ensemble cast that's adrift together.

Interestingly, these characters are extremely similar, and are both black players in a predominantly white cast... one could probably analyze some interesting ideas about racial types in TV writing, there.

Tenured Radical said...

The other things it does well (I am a long time fan, and am embarking on season 5) are marriage (Tammi is one of the best TV characters *ever*) and the uneasy social fracturing of class and race in the post-industrial south.

It is also the best series about high school since "My So Called Life" (no, "Glee" does not count.)

squadratomagico said...

There's also, of course, "Big Love."

Sisyphus said...

Are you going for tv, here? Cause pretty much *everything* I teach is about Protestants, and that gets annoying, but there's plenty of nuance among all the crazy.

Want a syllabus? ;)

LanglandinSydney said...

A Prayer for Owen Meany is the only thing close to Gilead I can think of. The reviews of Gilead could NOT BELIEVE its portrayal of a clergyman wasn't satirical.

Dr. Virago said...

The Simpsons!

There's a variety of religions and religious experience on Glee -- non-denominational evangelical protestant; AME (or possibly Baptist); various types of Catholics (from INO to devout); and a surprising number of Jews for Lima, Ohio. (Well, also, to be fair, a surprising number of large malls, ethnic food sources, and upscale stores for Lima -- the CA writers have no idea.)

And fictional polytheism and fictionalized Christian-like monotheism featured prominently in Battlestar Galatica.

Dr. Virago said...

I'm trying to think of novels, but I don't read enough contemporary American novels that aren't genre fiction. But Sarah Vowell's non-fiction work addresses American protestantism -- but usually in its historical modes -- a *lot*.

Anonymous said...

De-lurking (hi!) to throw out Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher. The nondenominational Protestant characters are complex and not perfect, including some (nuanced) hypocrisy.

Ooh - now I'm thinking about it, things that are more or less relevant but still not much mainstream Protestantism: Salman Rushdie; The Bee Season; lots of religious imagery in Sue Monk Kidd's books (again with the minorities angle); Pamuk's Snow (Islam and politics in Turkey). And John Irving has lots of depictions (and subsequent rants by his characters) of hypocrisy in religion (Cider House Rules, Hotel New Hampshire). Ok, I'll stop now.

On the clearly satirical side, Saved! was a very funny movie.

Dr. Virago said...

Ooh, just want to second that _Saved!_ is great movie! Satirical, yes, but also pretty complex in its depiction of the varieties and devotional practices of evangelical Xtnty, even within one community of kids.

Flavia said...

Ooh, thanks for all these good suggestions. I'm not totally sure that some of these are quite what I mean, though: I'm looking for realistic depictions of contemporary Protestantism, that deal in some depth with both the external or social (church-going, Bible-reading) and the internal (what spirituality means/how it affects the characters). In other words, not just characters who as part of their background happen to be identified as Christian or are shown occasionally at church, nor characters who happen to have a nebulous spiritualism. But lots of these obviously qualify, and there are more out there than I'd assumed.

And TR: it's a pretty amazing show, isn't it? It's one of the few I can think of that takes both the teenage and adult plots quite seriously, privileging neither, and yet showing how both sets of characters (all sets of characters, really) misunderstand and talk past each other.

Anonymous said...

I watch rather a lot of TV, and I think about religion all the time. I am therefore astonished at how few non-psycho religious characters I can think of. Including Catholics, Protestants, space aliens and everyone else, here's what I've got:

The father of the wholesome "Seventh Heaven" clan was a minister. I never watched much of that, but he was never shown as a hypocrite or a psycho.

I never actually watched "Touched by an Angel," but I'm assuming it had generally postive depictions of faith?

Dr. Chase (one of House's sidekicks) is Catholic, but I think that is mostly a plot contrivance to give him a guilt complex.

Seely Booth (an FBI agent on Bones) is also Catholic. On the rare occasion that scripts make note of this, it is to contrast his faith with Temperance Brennan's obsessive rationality. There is also a Muslim intern, but he is a minor character.

One of the main characters on V is a Catholic priest. At least in season one (which is all I watched) he seemed to be one of the good guys, but I don't remember his faith actually being central to the character.

Battlestar Galactica is set in a polytheistic world, but there seem to be both theistic and non-theistic characters. As I recall, both believers and non-believers were capable of both great good and great evil. (The bad Cylons, on the other hand, were monotheists. I'm not sure what that means.)

Joan of Arcadia featured God showing up in various guises to give the protagonist advice and direction. There was also a straight-talking nun in an episode or two.

Star Trek: Next Generation tended to present religion as "one of those things that the human race got over as it became more rational and tolerant," but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had some religious aliens (the Bajorans) whose faith was generally dealt with respectfully.

(I could come up with a longer list of negative portrayals, starting with the Simpsons and South Park, but that wasn't the question. Obviously, I watch way too much TV.)

I've never seen Friday Night Lights. I think I may have to start watching it, just because I'm really not coming up with any realistic representations of faith (especially Protestantism) on TV.

As a historian, I'm always fascinated by the limited picture of the past we get from various kinds of evidence. Until you posted this, I had not really grasped just how invisible the average Protestantism of so many Americans is on TV.

I teach a course in the history of religion in the US. I have a feeling that when it rolls around again, I may ask students to do some kind of project about depictions of religion in TV or movies. Full credit to you for this idea -- thanks!

Flavia said...

Sisyphus: not just t.v.! Would be happy to have other examples from other genres.

And Squadrato: to return to just your first example, the SATC example proves my point. Charlotte is never depicted in church or as involved with a church, though she's frequently referred to with epithets like "Daddy's little Episcopalian princess." When she meets the man who will become her second husband, however, she decides to convert to Judaism, and we see and hear A LOT about that, including seeing her at the temple, with the rabbi, etc.

So, the show imagines her experience with Judaism much more fully--presents it as much more real--than her alleged 30+ years as some kind of Protestant.

My working theory is that the kind of people who write novels or who work in Hollywood tend to have little exposure to mainstream, middle-class Protestantism. Religion is okay as a minority thing--you know: when it's ethnic, or about culture--or when it's really about metaphysics or ethics or The Big Questions, rather than doctrine and practice. But the lived experiences of most American Christians, and the variety within that community (yes, there are gay people who go to church! who aren't self-hating! and yes, there are liberals, and people with Ivy League degrees, and not all conservative Republican small-town Christians are smug hypocrites who hate furriners and poor people) gets little if any attention.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed at least in film that there are many Catholic filmmakers (active or lapsed) who manage to pull off sophisticated and interesting depictions of Catholic faith in all its complexity. Thinking of TV, I thought the Sopranos, especially early on, did a spectacular job of portraying that honestly and from a variety of perspectives.

With Protestantism, I agree that it's a good deal harder to find examples like that. But then mainstream middle class Protestants are perhaps not as often filmmakers or tv producers...? Or if they are, they've rejected their childhood faith and are hostile to it? I just told my class this afternoon that even if they never set foot in a church, people who were raised Catholics are still more likely to call themselves non-practicing or lapsed than straight up non-Catholic.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and my point is that Protestants are often less connected with that identity if they aren't going to church. You never hear about a lapsed Presbyterian.

My basic point being, i agree with you and I'm not sure all of the examples here meet quite the criteria you set out in your post.

Flavia said...

Anastasia: that's a really good point (and I agree with you about the early seasons of The Sopranos); there's no identity that's simultaneously atheist AND Methodist, in the way that one can be simultaneously atheist and Catholic, or atheist and Jewish. (Someone might narrate their history: "I was raised evangelical, but now I'm an atheist," but there's not a way of simultaneously inhabiting those two identities, or at least not one that the culture at large understands.)

In the period that I study, it's a truism that most of the work on popular religion focuses on Catholics and Puritans, because those are the people more likely to show up in the records than the basically conforming majority. And maybe there's a little of that phenomenon here--the minorities (and the weirdo freak hypocrites) are more interesting, and we think we know what the majority are like. But I don't think that's all or even most of it--esp. since, after all, the majority we're talking about is still alive! I think it has to do with the misconception that Protestantism is monolithic, and it's everything the writers themselves are not.

During the brief period that I did online dating, I noticed something similar: some people, in the place where they could specify their ideal partner's religion, would, instead of saying "any" (which was an option) list seemingly every available religion, from paganism to Buddhism to Judaism to Catholicism, but deliberately leave out Christian or Protestant. I understood that as expressing the belief that to be a Protestant or a non-denominational Christian automatically meant being conservative, or intolerant, or uneducated, or something.

I find that really troubling. But I'm glad that a show as good as FNL, and one on network t.v., is challenging that perception.

Anonymous said...

One great contemporary author who does this very well, and who makes a lot of sense to read alongside Robinson, is AG Mojtabai. She's very big on portraying the quiet daily elements of faith. Called Out or Ordinary Time are good places to start; the former's especially interesting since it takes a Catholic priest in a protestant village as one of its main characters. Like Housekeeping by Robinson, it's a really interesting rumination on chance and the relationship of faith to contingency. Mojtabai is horribly under-discussed in academic circles, give her a go!

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that I see more Catholics than Protestants on TV, and I've always assumed it was because the visual shorthand was so easy. Need to establish that a character is Catholic? Cue the crucifixes, statues, and confessionals!

I was watching a movie set in the 19th century (I want to say "Amistad," but I'm not sure.) To show the audience that abolitionists were religious, they showed these intense, committed, nineteenth-century Massachusetts Protestants with ROSARIES in their hands! I just about fell out of my chair laughing.

Doctor Cleveland said...

The best example I can think of, besides Friday Night Lights, is on radio rather than TV. A Prairie Home Companion has been depicting lots of the Lake Wobegon characters as everyday Lutherans or Baptists for decades now.

Sure, some of that is ethnically linked, and everything in Lake Wobegon is a kind of rural local color, but the religion is perfectly quotidian and sane. The Lake Wobegonners are churchgoers because they're so very ordinary.

Dr. Virago said...

Argh -- Blogger just ate a long comment of mine. (*Must* remember to copy and save before hitting post!)

Here's the shorter version...

Maybe the fact that it's considered a bit distasteful among mainline Protestants to talk about or display your religion publically (or at least it was in my mother's generation) is part of what makes Protestantism more invisible. It's less seen by writers and also less available to a visual shorthand.

Also, contra Anon at 7:11, I always thought of the Simpsons as depicting a kaleidescope of Protestant religiosity -- for better and for worse -- and not always for laughs. Marge's faith was always treated sincerely, and Ned's could be (especially around his wife's death). And the sincerely faithful people like Marge and Ned were also *nice* people (unlike the superficial Rev. Lovejoy and his wife). Just saying.

squadratomagico said...

I've been thinking about the apocalyptic genre, which is dominantly Catholic -- it seems Catholicism can lend itself to supernatural themes, special effects, and suspense far more than Protestantism. Since *The Exorcist* and "Damian" in the 70s -- or you could even go back to *Rosemary's Baby* in the late 60s -- there has been a whole sub-genre of "Catholic thrillers" that has remained steadily popular. Some films in this genre are truly great, but there's also a lot of cheesy schlock.

The only one I can think of in this sort of genre with a Protestant twist is *The Rapture.* Add in the character of "Mother Abigail" from *The Stand* (Hmmm... yet another elderly black religious figure for a mostly white ensemble cast...)

Likewise, there are the "Catholic conspiracy" films a la Da Vinci code.

I don't think Hollywood is anti-Protestant; I think it is pro-money, and that writers, directors, and producers look for themes that can lend themselves to larger-than-life, epic themes of struggle. Quiet faith and religiosity in the day to day are about as interesting to Hollywood as careful character studies -- strictly indy.

Anonymous said...

so, so glad we've gotten you hooked on FNL! We're watching Season 5 now and i've loved them all, but Season 1 is just absolutely Perfect Television. Perfect.