Depicting Christians

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Pursuer of happiness. Bon vivant. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. There's a Twitter account at @burtlikko, but not used for posting on the general feed anymore. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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45 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:


    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

    • Burt Likko in reply to Kazzy says:

      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

      • Kazzy in reply to Burt Likko says:

        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

        • Murali in reply to Kazzy says:

          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

          • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Murali says:

            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.

            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.

            “Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.” (Jürgen Habermas – “Time of Transitions“, Polity Press, 2006, pp. 150-151, translation of an interview from 1999).


            • Murali in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              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

  2. greginak says:

    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

  3. Maxwell James says:

    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

  4. Will H. says:

    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

    • Will H. in reply to Will H. says:

      …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

  5. Tom Van Dyke says:

    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.”

    Massive.  Homeric!Report

  6. Burt Likko says:

    Are you talking about Evangelical Christians? Protestants? Orthodox? Historically Black Churches?

    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

    • greginak in reply to Burt Likko says:

      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

  7. b-psycho says:

    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

  8. Trumwill says:

    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.


  9. Kazzy says:

    The Simpsons might have been the single best representation of everyday, mainstream religion in television.Report

  10. David Ryan says:

    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

  11. Nob Akimoto says:

    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

  12. Kyle Cupp says:

    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

  13. Paul Barnes says:

    I am surprised no one has mentioned Shadowlands.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Paul Barnes says:

      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

    • Chris in reply to Paul Barnes says:

      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

      • MikeSchilling in reply to Chris says:

        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

  14. Steve S. says:

    “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

  15. Katherine says:

    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.


    • Paul Barnes in reply to Katherine says:

      Well, the first thing I think of is Shepard Booke in Firefly.Report

      • Katherine in reply to Paul Barnes says:

        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

    • Chris in reply to Katherine says:

      Can you point to some examples of the “good Muslim” in film or television?Report

      • Katherine in reply to Chris says:

        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

        • Chris in reply to Katherine says:

          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

    • Kimmi in reply to Katherine says:

      I’m pretty sure Thugs are nearly always portrayed really, really poorly.Report