Timothy Dalrymple at Philosophical Fragments wrote a piece earlier this week on the portrayal of Christians in popular media that I found thought provoking. Tim was concerned with the way in which shows like Glee want to be given credit for portraying conservative Christians, while at the same time portraying them in ways that are broadly parodic and simplistic:
Stephen Prothero recently wrote at CNN’s Belief Blog that Christians, like gays, are “coming out” on television. He refers to the popular show Glee, which features a gay couple, a lesbian couple, a transgender singer, and a “God Squad” of Christians whose sole purpose seems to be to provide Glee creator Ryan Murphy a foil against which to make his arguments. Prothero applauds the following conversation, which took place on the show, for showing Christians struggling with their faith and talking about the Bible:
Mercedes (Amber Riley) calculates that since “one out of every ten people are gay . . . one of the twelve apostles might have been gay.” Sam (Chord Overstreet) observes that “the Bible says it’s an abomination for a man to lay with another man,” prompting Quinn (Dianna Agron) go ask, “Do you know what else the Bible says is an abomination? Eating lobster, planting different crops in the same field, giving somebody a proud look. Not an abomination? Slavery. Jesus never said anything about gay people. That’s a fact.”
That it’s a theologically illiterate view of the Bible (the old Shellfish Objection is easily dispensed for anyone who has actually studied both sides of the issue), gives no coherent justification for a traditional Christian viewpoint, and never seriously challenges the prevailing assumptions of the show that homosexuality should be embraced and celebrated, does not bother Prothero because he shares Murphy’s point of view on these issues. Yet, to be honest, if we cannot have the Bible discussedwell on television, then I would rather not have it discussed at all. I don’t really want Ryan Murphy teaching teenagers the Bible.
So, a couple of things by way of throat-clearing here before I get into the meat of Tim's argument. First, I think it's probably a good thing that Tim Dalrymple doesn't get to decide for the entire country who gets to talk about the Bible and how, and on the basis of evidence such as this, I think there are a lot of people who do a much worse job teaching children about the Bible than Ryan Murphy.
Additionally, Tim may think "The Shellfish Objection" (which really needs to be made into a Robert Ludlam novel ... can someone get on this for me) is theologically illiterate to anyone who has carefully reviewed the issue, I will only note that I have a Ph.D. in theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, which Tim also attended. It was impossible during the time I was there to not talk extensively about the Bible and homosexuality, and I had many, many (did I mention excruciatingly MANY) conversations with religious conservatives, much like Tim, about the issue during my time there. And while Tim may think that "The Shellfish Objection" has been adequately dispensed with, I strongly disagree. I don't think it's been adequately addressed by religious conservatives in the slightest (and I've addressed similar points here on multiple occasions).
That said, I think the larger issue toward which Tim is gesturng is an important one:
Think of it this way. The television show Friends showed a group of six men and women living in New York City and, from time to time, confronting serious questions about relationships, marriage, vocation, even death. For those who watched the show: Do you once recall them turning to God with their questions, or even asking any question about God whatsoever? I can recall one episode where Phoebe tried to poke holes in Ross’s confidence in evolution, but that’s about it. Now, expand this out to dozens of television programs, scores, hundreds, where people are facing important, sometimes life-and-death questions, without once asking the ultimate questions about God and afterlife and salvation. Thousands of characters confronting major life decisions, thousands of times, almost entirely without reference to God.
What is the cumulative effect? We often talk about the rise of “nones” and the rise of agnostics and atheists and apatheists (people who don’t know and don’t care), and I wonder if the thousands of hours the average American spends watching television — when television is almost entirely scrubbed of references to God or compelling examples of people of faith — has an effect. I don’t mean to deny other factors, including ones that reflect poorly on Christians themselves. But to deny that this would have an effect is, I believe, to deny the obvious. Are we training ourselves–and training our children–to confront life’s questions without reference to God? When you see a thousand characters confront the question of whom to marry, and not a single one expresses that one should take this question to God, isn’t this sort of putting us through the motions? Won’t we, like those gymnasts, end up mimicking the people whose performance we have watched and enjoyed over the years?
I think what Tim is trying to get at is interesting and important: How should media represent, not only Christians, but the whole breadth of human experience within our most popular and influential forms of cultural expression? But at the same time, I don't think pointing to Glee's influence sheds much light on the issue. While as a show it's been important in providing sympathetic portrayals of gay and lesbian experiences on television (which, I suspect, bothers Tim almost as much as its broad portrayals of Christians), as Alyssa Rosenberg has noted repeatedly, Ryan Murphy regularly drops the ball in portraying even those characters and beliefs with which he has the most apparent sympathy.
However, when it comes to portrayals of religion, television producers are in a bit of a bind: They can present unrealistically rosey depictions of religious people, which don't provide much by way of dramatic payoff and lead to a picture of religion as utterly bland and tasteless; They can present a broad and stereotypical picture of religious people, which risks offending the very groups that they are intending to court; Or they can struggle with the difficulties and ambiguities of actual religion, which may provide a great deal of dramatic punch but also risks creating backlash when religion isn't portrayed in either bland or stereotypical ways.
I remember some years ago now a controversey over a television series that featured a priest in the main role. This priest struggled with his faith and the real issues that confront ministers working in parish situations. But because it didn't shy away from some of the grit and muddiness of ministry, it was condemned and quickly cancelled.
Tim points to some recent examples of more positive portrayals of faith in popular culture, and I certainly have no objections to seeing religion in all of its complexity, and religious people in all of theirs, portrayed on television. But I'm not sure asking Glee of Friends to be the conduit for that is the right way to go. For my money, if you're looking for a comedy that sympathetically presents a religious figure (while not necessarily agreeing with her on many points), you could do a lot worse than Community's Shirley.