Over at the Atlantic, Eleanor Barkhorn complains that the closeted young Christian characters of Blue Like Jazz depict rather than shatter stereotypes about evangelical Christians in the movies. For her, the promise of the movie was to present a positive, nuanced, and lifelike view of Christians in the real world and instead resorts to many of the cheap shots and tropes that so irritate Christians about the movies.
As a threshold matter, I’m sticking with the theory that one can be Preachy or one can by Funny but it’s very difficult to be both at the same time. Yes, there are exceptions. But I’m willing to bet that this movie isn’t one of them and that strikes me as a strong candidate for a primary source of Ms. Barkhorn’s dissatisfaction. But there’s more to it than that. I think Christians have a legitimate gripe with how they are depicted in the media, although I don’t know what sort of solution to offer them. I do have some observations, though.
To some extent, looking at a picture painted by someone else, and seeing a bit of yourself in there, is inherently uncomfortable. I’m not always particularly pleased by how nonbelievers are depicted in the movies; seems like in movies where a point of the story is that one or more characters are godless, those atheists are often portrayed as politically hapless victims of religious prejudice, typically victims of their own naïveté when confronted by irrational evil Christian fanatics. If there’s truth to those charges, that truth makes me uncomfortable; if there is no truth, that makes me uncomfortable too.
But it’s that frequent depiction of Christians as the irrational, evil, and fanatical antagonists of innocent atheists which is what I think Christians legitimately have to complain about; not only that but also the depictions of Christian people as hypocrites concerning sex and money; as cruelly vain and superficial; and as collaborators in fascism. In reality, almost all Christians are morally no worse or no better than any other kind of people, and we all know that. So it’s easy for me to see how Christians who incorporate their belief into their personal identities dislike seeing onscreen reflections of themselves looking like that.
First, the act of storytelling inherently tees up these sorts of challenges in ways that Christianity, at least in our culture, is uniquely vulnerable. Storytelling depicts moral conflict, often in which authority is one of the antagonists. If a story fails to depict the tension of conflict, it stops being entertaining, it stops having something interesting to say. If the story addresses Christianity in any way, one or more Christians will have to be participants in the conflict. We want authority to be harmonious with justice and morality, and we all know that sometimes it is not. Challenges to authority are emotionally resonant because of the fear involved in the threat of authority behaving immorally. Should such a thing happen, we want someone to set matters right.
Moreover, common experiences are a foundation for popular media. We’ve all been subjected to scolding at some point in our lives. It’s unpleasant and we all can remember wanting it to end. Religion (not just Christianity) frequently sets down moral rules, assumes a position of at least moral if not temporal authority, and uses that authority reminds you that there are consequences for one’s bad moral behavior. That sure seems like scolding especially when you’re on the receiving end of it. So, the audience gets a satisfying emotional release when scolding authority figures are exposed as hypocrites, morally no better than the victims of their lectures.
And storytelling relies upon symbols and personifications to achieve emotional resonance. For our purposes, the association of religion with authority, and of religious institutions with religious belief, are intuitive and readily-understood. So, while an individual Christian may not be a morally good person in real life, an individual Christian who morally misbehaves in a story gets conflated with Christianity. Since Christianity is the dominant religion of western culture, it thus stands in for Authority.
The visual media — television, movies, video games — will always going to have to work with the fact that their primary mode of communication is visual. This inherently inhibits depiction of the nonvisual, and to a large extent nonverbal, nature of real-life religious activity. Too frequently, we see over-the-top, maudlin, terpischordian exclamations of body language, with the emphasis on “over-the-top” in the actor’s performance of it. And inherently, someone who has not had this experience (me) is not going to have the same sort of empathetic reaction to seeing a portrayal of that experience as someone who has had it. While I cannot say that I have shared the faith experience of Christianity, it seems to me that it must be a significantly internal experience. Faith is felt within oneself. The presence of the Lord, if it is felt, is felt subjectively and within oneself.
Then, consider the challenge faced by the actor. The actor’s job is to use his or her body, face, and voice to portray a character having an emotional experience, in a way that elicits understanding and hopefully empathy from the audience. Consider sex: an actor can readily depict the pleasure, energy, and exhaustion of the sexual experience in a way that even a virgin watching the performance might easily understand what the character experiences in the story. But how is an actor to depict a genuine internal religious experience, particularly to a nonbeliever in the audience? A nonbeliever watching a visual depiction of a spiritual experience interprets what is shown in terms that are non-spiritual: blissfully orgasmic, perhaps, or maybe squinty with concentration, or weepy with emotional release. A character experiencing religious doubt, having a crisis of faith, also presents a challenge of nuance and expression for the actor — it’s easy for an actor to try to portray “wrestling with doubt” and produce a result that looks like “wrestling with a touch of constipation” instead.
What seems most likely to me to be the expression of someone having a real faith experience is a relaxed, peaceful, and still face. Maybe that expression is happy, or at least contented, or at worst coming to terms with a bad turn in life. Relaxed, peaceful, still faces do not afford the sorts of dynamic opportunities that actors use to demonstrate their characters’ emotional experiences; the camera can’t capture what’s going on behind the eyes of the character. The camera likes to capture action, not stasis, because that is how conflict is expressed.
One portrayal of a religious, spiritual character that I really liked comes from a while back. But it was so good that it still is the one that pops into my mind when “positive portrayals of Christianity in the movies” comes up. Ice Cube played the deeply spiritual Chief Elgin in the late 90’s movie Three Kings. While the movie had other flaws, and I think we were supposed to focus more on the character played by George Clooney, but Ice Cube’s character really stood out for me. His faith was not directly the front and center, defining characteristic, and the character did get involved with the highly morally questionable plan cooked up between the other two protagonists. Along the way, tricky moral issues came up. Ice Cube and the director did a very nice job, I thought, of showing the character silently praying and meditating on morality, and the camera dwelled on him just long enough so that the audience understood what was going on. The focus was on the character’s actions; prayer was part, but not the totality, of what the character did to resolve his moral tensions.
So the inherent limits of visual storytelling media seem very likely struggle with a positive portrayal of religious characters. Certainly, characters who are superficially adherent to the society’s dominant religion can also be the morally good characters, but from a storytelling perspective, this passes up a powerful opportunity for conflict and tension. And whatever real religious experience is like, it’s an internal, behind-the-eyes sort of event, which takes a delicate touch if it is going to be a primary and positive focus of the visual storyteling experience.
Delicate touches in the visual media, however, are in short supply.