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.
But this only deals with EXPLICITLY Christian characters. A vast majority of characters on TV and in movies are Christian, just not overtly so. Christianity is normalized in the media in a way that no other faith is. That does not necessarily justify poor or stereotypical depictions of overtly Christian folk, but doesn’t it serve to mitigate the impact of these representations when there are so many neutral or positive Christian characters?Report
Of course I’m only addressing explicitly Christian characters. Universalized characters devoid of explicit religious identity afford us little if any meaningful opportunity to consider the role of religion, and in particular the dominant religion, in our society.
And a character who is not assigned a specific religious identity may very well be assumed to be Christian. But all that really tells us is that Christianity is the dominant and therefore “default” religious identity for our culture. And we all already knew that. It doesn’t tell us whether Christianity is acting as a force for good or evil, for instance, or anything else.
But a character who we are told is Christian, well, that character requires us to confront Christianity, at least a little bit. That’s when it gets interesting.Report
So when all those characters celebrate Christmas or get married in church, but otherwise never mention faith, they don’t qualify as Christian? Their normalcy doesn’t translate to Christianity being “normal”, which means a whole hell of a lot when determining whether it is a force for good or evil…Report
Well, Christmas (in mainstream hollywood depictions) is about Santa and presents and turkey and eggnog and family and tradition and big trees. It is less about any actual theological content. People are therefore not confronted with Christianity as a religious and moral motivation its more about the background trappings of living in a dominant christian culture. But that is merely an accident and one kind of decoration and custom could easily be replaced by any other.Report
Nay nay nay, Mr. Murali. Even most Westerners and/or Christians couldn’t tell you why that’s not so, but it is not so. The dignity of the human person is the foundation of rights, and it has a unique origin. You can’t get there from paganism, Confucianism, even Buddhism, as cool and wise as they are.
Well, Mr Van Dyke, although I might (or might not) disagree with you on the origins of classical rights theory, I was talking about movie depictions of Christmas regardless of whether said depictions reflected reality or whether there was more social value to Christianity than just tinsel.
As far as movies go, its all about trappings. I’m even willing to suppose that trappings is what most nominal Christians are about also. This is not necessarily a criticism though. If I were more of a conservative or a Straussian I may worry about the lack of ethos, but I am not. I do think that trappings are important precisely because they make life more colourful and give context to our lives.
Also, don’t throw Habermas at me. Reading him always makes me want to shoot him. He’s like Freddie de boer in that way. Also, I’m so post-Christian, I’m not sure that I’m any kind of egalitarian except in the most thin and trivial sense.Report
But what do you mean by “Christian?” Are you talking about Evangelical Christians? Protestants? Orthodox? Historically Black Churches? As Kazzy noted Christianity would be the norm for a character. When every character is essentially assumed Christian unless noted you are going to get a much wider sampling of human behaviour, then for groups which have little presentation in the media. How many Jews in movies are presented as some sort of Woody Allen/ Jerry Seinfeld hybrid?Report
I think you’re overstating the difficulty of conveying spiritual experiences, for both filmmakers and actors. It does take a certain amount of visual cleverness, but both crisis and serenity of faith have been successfully depicted in any number of movies, many of them quite famous. For instance, the ending of “Places in the Heart” – which I would point to as an excellent example of a movie that is Christian without being “Christian” – shows the main characters going to church and taking communion. As the communion is passed, several of the characters shown taking it are people who died earlier in the movie. It’s a beautiful moment that in a single shot demonstrates what their faith means to them.
Having attended Reed College myself back in the day – and having spent a large amount of time in the company of members of its tiny Christian Fellowship – I can imagine that someone could probably make a pretty good movie about that community, or one at a similar school like Oberlin, etc. Modern evangelicals rarely have the experience of being an extreme minority, at least in the developed world, and such a setting offers up a lot of dramatic and comic possibilities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like this movie is very successful in taking advantage of them.Report
I don’t know.
The portrayals of characters which are centrally Christian that come to mind are those from Queen Margot (about the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre) and Thomas More from some Showtime series.
I see nothing objectionable in that.
It’s likely a different matter in a non-historical context.Report
…and later, it occurred to me that religion is portrayed as political movements in both of those instances; Catholic vs. Protestant. A checkered past to both.Report
Exc piece, Burt. I need to read it at least twice, but I wanted to prop your formal observation that film has great difficulty conveying a character’s internal dialogue. Usually, religion is no more than speechifying, not genuine drama.
“…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.”
Maybe. Sure, there are lots of denominations within Christianity. Or, one might look at it in a generalized sort of way. Or, one might make an assumption — an assumption that the audience might challenge, an assumption that is as revealing about the culture as is the assumption that a character with no assigned religious identity is generically Christian.
An artist might wish to explore the impact of particular denominations on the culture, or that of Christianity in a more generalized sense. That’s up to the artist.
I’m pointing out that there are some things about visual media that are going to come into play no matter what level of focus the artist chooses to use.Report
That’s reasonable. There is a lot less art in movies then commerce, so i don’t there is much push to find ways to communicate internal experience. There is a reason many great books are terrible movies ( i’m looking at you The English Patient)Report
One thing I notice is that not many films do realistic nuance all around, or even zealot vs zealot. People tend to want some delineation of Good vs Evil set in front of them, or at least someone to root for.Report
Great post. I think the comparative dearth of devout (weekly or more) protestant Christians (we can assume that a lot of the characters of indeterminate religion are vaguely protestant) is attributable to a number of factors, most of which actually comparatively benign. They can be difficult characters to feature because of limitations on the sorts of immoral behavior viewers find… well… interesting. I’ve tried to insert some explicitly Christian characters in my writing and it’s actually harder than one might think. Now, the fact that so many of the explicitly devout Christian characters actually has, in my view, less benign explanations. But I’ll avoid opening that can for the moment.
I can understand the frustration, but they are asking for something difficult. I think the best move forward would be for side-characters and characters in casts. It’s hard to make them central, but less difficult to add them to the menagerie. The main obstacle in this is that TV shows tend to take place in parts of the country that do not actually have large numbers of devout residents.
I’ve tried to insert some explicitly Christian characters in my writing
Do you write fiction? Is it published anywhere? (If you do and have talked about it before, I apologize for not noticing sooner.)Report
Four novels so far. None published. I’m good at the writing part, bad at the going-back-and-making-it-presentable part.Report
The Simpsons might have been the single best representation of everyday, mainstream religion in television.Report
I almost mentioned this exact thing! Not super devout, but it plays a role in their lives in a way it is conspicuously absent in a lot of other places.Report
The episode where Homer decides to give up church (before renegging) should be required viewing.Report
I have not seen Blue Like Jazz, but I did spent the better part of 10 years making movies that were explicitly about faith, and have had both successes and failures in trying to convey the profundity of religious experience without tipping over into lampoonish caricature. The difficulty of conveying internal experiences is well understood in film, but often not well solved.Report
It might help of course, if heads of particular denominations or religious groups stopped acting like Lifetime Movie villains. Bill Donahue comes to mind, the megachurch people in general, the statements of even “moderate” evangelicals like Rick Warren, the behavior of the Catholic church writ large…
In general it seems like explicitly Christian characters are generally only likable in an historical context. For example the depiction of William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace I thought was done rather tastefully (and he an Anglican minister). Whereas, say your usual Kirk Cameron flick has protagonists that are deeply unlikable in themselves.Report
“Dear Jesus, save me from your followers!”Report
Bill Donahue is the Al Sharpton of Catholicism.Report
I’m Catholic, and a blogger at the League, but may I never be associated with the Catholic League.Report
I’m Protestant. And may I never be associated with this Megachurch Millionaire Jesus bullshit.Report
Some people are just so white it hurts.Report
Well done, Burt. Well done.
Devout Christian that I am, I’ve come to feel that my coreligionists deserve a good dose of ridicule in film and television, if it’s done well and truthfully. Lord knows we could use a good humbling.
Of course, I like a good variety of depictions, and I agree with you about Chief Elgin in Three Kings, one of my favorites. Paul Thomas Anderson may be the master today of religious depiction, though. Magnolia and There Will Be Blood capture the dramas of religiosity as well as any film I’ve seen.Report
Anything worth believing in will survive all the jokes made at its expense.Report
So a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar…Report
… the Aristocrats!Report
…the atheist ducked!Report
I am surprised no one has mentioned Shadowlands.Report
Yeah, good point. Watching “The Problem of Pain” Lewis become “A Grief Observed” Lewis was sweet and sad and lovely and very, very well-told.Report
I thought of The Song of Bernadette, The Nun’s Story, and Agnes of God.
In all three, religious faith and experience is at the center of the story. Having been raised Catholic, I might be a bit obsessed with nuns, though.Report
I thought of A Man for All Seasons. But movies are good at larger-than-life, so it’s easier for a film to portray a religious hero than a religious regular guy.Report
“I think Christians have a legitimate gripe with how they are depicted in the media”
If you change “Christians” to “any human being who identifies with some group” I will agree with you. It’s odd you would make the quoted statement above and spend the rest of the post very ably laying out the reasons why any identifiable group would run into the same problems that Christians do.
“Christianity, at least in our culture, is uniquely vulnerable.”
I don’t see how you demonstrate this. I see that you ably demonstrate that people are complicated and drama simplifies people and their group identities. I don’t see a uniqueness for Christianity.
“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.”
Must be why The Passion of the Christ is so popular amongst evangelicals.Report
I understand criticism of Christianity in popular media. My issue is that, when it comes to film and TV shows, I can’t think of a single time when I’ve seen it portrayed in just a positive manner. Any time it comes up, the work has to address whatever issues viewers or writers may have with Christianity. Or there have to be some good Christians, but some genuinely awful one, or some horrible action connected to some twisting of the Bible, to “balance” things. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is far from the only popular work to involve someone committing crimes connected to Bible verses. I can’t think of a any work with a similar premise where a criminal uses verses from the Qu’ran.)
Other religions aren’t treated that way. You can portray Muslims positively without explicitly going out of your way to remind viewers that some Muslims do bad things. Judaisim is pretty much invariably portrayed as positive or neutral. Buddhism, when mentioned, is almost always portrayed as good and offering wise insights into our daily lives (although I’m sure the shallow, Hollywood version of Buddhism typical of media annoys actual Buddhists). Now, one could argue that people of religions other than Christianity already suffer from negative stereotypes in society, so media is just trying to correct that, while Christians aren’t in a similarly threatened position and thus are the best default when a writer wants to question religion generally.
I don’t agree with Kazzy that “a vast majority of characters are Christian”. The vast majority of characters and media are agnostic – they don’t comment on religion at all. Character celebrate Christmas, but they celebrate it as time for family and presents and Santa Claus and Christmas carols, not as the time of Christ’s birth; it’s essentially turned into an irreligious event. The only times Christianity or religion at all is mentioned is when something particularly terrible happens and a character has an emotional crisis, goes to talk to a priest (or, a little less often, a rabbi) about God, and typically concludes that it would be comforting to believe in God but they can’t really believe due to all the suffering in the world.
If someone in a show is 1) a practicing member of a religion and 2) one of the protagonists, odds are they won’t be a Christian. Jewish is most likely; Islamic is also possible.
That’s just my subjective perception based on the shows I’ve watched. If anyone has counterexamples I’m open to them.
Anyway, thanks for the post, Burt, it’s a interesting look at things.
Well, the first thing I think of is Shepard Booke in Firefly.Report
That’s another example of a show where there’s a good Christian to balance out the villainous Christians (the Operative, who wants to create “a world without sin” and asks people which of the seven deadly sins is “their” sin before killing them).Report
Can you point to some examples of the “good Muslim” in film or television?Report
Well, there’s Little Mosque on the Prairie (a Canadian show). Other than that, typically crime shows that have a terrorism episode where there’s even a suspicion that a Muslim might be the culprit will have a very nice imam show up for one scene to show that Muslims are nice and not at all scary. And there’s a good chance the culprit will turn out not to be Muslim at all. Probably necessary, given the political climate.
(The exception to this tendency is 24, especially in Season 4 when it seemed to merge with Bush’s re-election campaign.)Report
After I asked that question, I thought of Sleeper Cell. That’s a really fun show, by the way.
I disagree with you about Christians, though. I see Christians represented pretty much as they are all the time. It would be weird to always present them as wonderful, but it would be equally weird to always present them as evil. There are plenty of both, in the world and on the screen.Report
I’m pretty sure Thugs are nearly always portrayed really, really poorly.Report