Can Television Take People of Faith Seriously?

Modern television shows and Christianity don’t seem to mix. Gone are the old days when, for example, Andy Griffith and Opie went to church. Today we’re treated to shows like TV Land’s Impastor, a show about a conman pretending to be a pastor, which only serves to trivialize Christianity. Many similar examples abound: Christianity was mentioned in the immensely popular show How I Met Your Mother only as the occasional butt of jokes. The Big Bang Theory’s sole Christian character, Sheldon’s mother, is played off for laughs as an ignorant bigot.

Time and time again, television shows give Christianity a bad rap. We all know the archetype. The “television Christian” is almost always portrayed as intolerant and bigoted. They are uptight and prudish (think: Ned Flanders on The Simpsons). Even when they aren’t outright villains, they are never painted as sympathetic characters. But then, last Wednesday, I flipped on the Suits summer finale and was shocked by the show’s positive depiction of Christianity.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Suits follows the exploits of a top tier law firm in New York City, focusing on New York’s top closer, Harvey Specter, and his brilliant protégé Mike Ross. Only there’s a catch: Mike doesn’t actually have a law degree.

The latest episode followed Mike as he prepared for his wedding and considered the consequences of continuing his life of lies, especially since it would put his wife’s future in jeopardy. His journey of enlightenment ends emotionally when he visits the church he attended as a child but eventually left, losing his faith after his parents died in a car accident. Helped along by his childhood priest, Mike decides to leave behind his lavish lifestyle as a fake lawyer. More importantly though, he finally comes to terms with the death of his parents and regains his faith.

How incredible is it that a mainstream show took such a heartfelt approach to religion and actually depicted the way people of faith experience it? The episode didn’t adopt any tired stereotypes about religion. The priest (named Father Sam Walker) wasn’t a bigot. He didn’t hate science. He wasn’t a hypocrite. Father Walker was depicted as caring, intelligent, and a genuinely good man.

Beyond its portrayal of Father Walker, the depiction of faith in the episode was moving. In one episode the show illustrated how God can help heal a broken heart and restore faith. Suit’s departure from the typical portrayal of Christianity in television shows is one among a few shows I’ve found that show Christians, and their religion, in a positive light. Another example is Netflix’s Daredevil (which on a side note is absolutely fantastic). Daredevil also strays from TV’s typical portrayal of Christianity. Daredevil himself is a self-proclaimed Catholic, and his confidante and advisor is his priest. In the world of comedy, Community and The Jim Gaffigan Show also offer main characters that are simultaneously beloved and Christian. The eponymous Jim Gaffigan even attends mass with his family on a regular basis in real life.

While it’s true these shows are still a minority, it’s nice to see mainstream television programming treating Christianity and the lived experience of faith with the respect they deserve.

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  • Madder Music

    Here’s another one that might surprise you–The Good Wife. This show is full of adultery, gay sex and the occasional burst of violence. But it’s one of the best-written, best-acted things on TV. And most surprising of all, it routinely deals with religion, and always does so remarkably well. Like in a delicious episode where Richard Thomas–yep, John-Boy Walton–plays the CEO of an agribusiness company that’s suing a farmer for unauthorized use of the company’s genetically-modified seeds. In the midst of an intense legal wrangle, the two men slip to the back of the courtroom, chat for a bit, and say, “Your honor, we’ve decided we shouldn’t do this. We’re Christians, and the Bible teaches that it’s wrong for us to settle our disputes in a court of law. So we’re going to find a Christian arbitrator instead.”

    So off they head to a megachurch, whose pastor specialized in faith-based mediation. Their attorneys come along, but are utterly befuddled by proceedings in which people try to actually listen to each other and tell the truth, instead of trying to use every dirty trick in the book to win. The entire episode is delightfully intelligent, funny and rather touching. And that’s just one example. Religion often comes up in The Good Wife and always in a smart and enjoyable way.

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  • jaceanderson

    Notwithstanding your good and accurate observations above, I’d like to say a word in defense of Ned Flanders and The Simpsons in general.

    I haven’t watched the show in a long time, but as a devoted fan in the first ten or so seasons, I always loved the way they handled religion. It’s true, Ned Flanders and his family were kind of weird and uptight. But they were something else that you never see from religious people on television: they were sincere. They weren’t just putting on a show of religiousity; that’s really how they were-diddly.

    And I defy anyone to name another TV family in the last 30 years that went to church as regularly as the Simpsons. (Ok, maybe the 7th Heaven family, but that doesn’t count because the dad worked there.) They weren’t very strong on doctrine, but church was portrayed as a regular part of their life.

    I highly recommend the classic episode in which Homer decides to start skipping church. They built a whole episode around that! And dealt with it in a smart, funny, heartfelt way. I miss the old Simpsons.

  • teachworldtosing

    As proven by the man who admires the Christianity of Ned Flanders not because of his lifestyle but because the cartoon figure regularly attends church, NO, TV cannot take Christianity serious and Christians do not mistake TV for reality. BTW many Protestant mainline denominational people faithfully attend church but marry gays and even ordain them as bishops like the Episcopal church. PS That did not work out very well. Arms too short to box with God.

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  • XuUP17

    Nice review Alec. I’m happy to see an article that doesn’t cry for “offensive” shows to be taken off air, but rather highlights the shows that make the effort to go beyond stereotypes.

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