On Getting Churches Totally Wrong

On Getting Churches Totally Wrong April 16, 2018

There is a widespread impression that the US mass media are deeply anti-Christian, and that this hostility echoes through film and television.  I am not arguing with that basic idea, but the situation is actually worse than that. Generally speaking, the people who write scripts and make movies honestly have no idea of what Christianity is, or its most basic concepts, themes and institutions.

This came to me forcibly when I saw yet another film in which fanatical Christians emerge as the enemy, the advocates of fanatical homophobia, and the exemplars of personal hypocrisy. Well, we can argue with all those points but for present purposes, look how these far-Right intolerant churches are depicted in production after production. Virtually always, a church in such productions is a stereotypical church, with a tower, stained glass windows, clergy in robes, and all the signs of a pretty high liturgical life.

If you know anything about the actual spectrum of contemporary American Christianity, you would likely object as follows: actually, some churches are far more accepting or open-minded on issues of sexuality than others, and the kind of elaborate liturgical churches you are using here are at the far liberal end. They are classic mainliners, Episcopal or Lutheran or  Methodist. The intolerant or homophobic ones, such as exist, are likely to occupy very plain structures, often virtual warehouses, without crosses or stained glass, and they actively despise such symbols as idolatrous. But when a studio sends out someone scouting for locations, they want a church that looks like a church. Or at least what they vaguely think a church might look like. And so they rent the local Episcopal church to symbolize homophobic fanaticism. Good grief.

Note to directors and studios: Christians actually cover a broad political and cultural spectrum, and you probably have people working around your offices who know something about it. Ask them.

Just to make one thing crystal clear: I am not using code-words. In making these comments, I am making no suggestion whatever that the hostility or ignorance concerning Christians arises from the Jewish origins of many people in the entertainment industry. Time and again, Jewish leaders and organizations have been among the most vocal in denouncing anti-Christian prejudice and persecution as it occurs, usually much more so than Christian churches themselves. And the mass media do a consistently lousy job of reflecting the views of any religion or faith, not just Christianity. The fact that Hollywood dislikes Christians and loves Buddhists doesn’t mean that it does a vaguely credible job of presenting either one of those faiths. If Jews are well represented in Hollywood (and they are), so are others of very diverse ethnic backgrounds, and certainly people who grew up in Christian families. I am describing a religion-impaired secularist culture, in which the ideologies are so deeply ingrained that members of this culture don’t even realize they are present: they are just part of the the air people breathe. This is not a conspiracy, and certainly not an ethnic one.

You can actually understand the religious agenda from another perspective. For a quarter century, homosexuality has been a key social issue for Hollywood, the flagship cause on which film-makers feel the need to Make Statements and Send Messages. In order to make any story dramatic, you need some element of conflict or opposition, so you need villains. With few exceptions, that means enlisting Christians, caricatured in the grimmest possible light.

There are indeed churches that actually are fanatically anti-gay, to the point of using violence, but they are extremely, extremely rare, and should not be invoked casually as plot themes. In one indie film I saw recently, a subplot concerned a promising young lesbian artist in New York City, who has the misfortune to live near a church. Christians raid her apartment by night to destroy her sexually daring work as blasphemous. Um, this has ever happened in modern times? Christian vigilantism and anti-gay militias in lower Manhattan? Wouldn’t we have heard about it? Are we thinking of fifth century Alexandria?

I can’t back this up with social science, but I offer a theory. When film-makers think of Christians, and especially evangelicals, they are often imagining the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps’s Merry Men (“We put the fun in fundamentalist fanaticism”). Worse, they are imagining Westboro as a significant presence within US religion. In reality, the maximum total membership of Westboro constitutes about one three-millionth of all American Christians, so they are not quite a majority as yet.

Look at Kevin Smith’s 2011 film Red State, which is a thinly disguised version of the Waco massacre of 1993. It uses the grimmest possible vision of the besieged cult, the “Five Points Church at Cooper’s Dell,” which is based on the Westboro Baptists as much as the Branch Davidians. Members are depicted as bloodthirsty trigger-happy fanatics led by an utterly evil demagogue, and they double as a clandestine death squad killing real and alleged homosexuals. But as the title suggests, this is day to day religious life in the “red states.”

To look at such films more broadly, when Christian characters are introduced, they rarely have any function in the story except to exemplify intolerance and stupidity, above all in matters of homosexuality.

Spoiler alert #1.If you see a film character who is aggressively homophobic, then he is a closeted homosexual, and thus a sleazy hypocrite.

Spoiler alert #2. If you see a church in a film or TV show and it is explicitly described as Catholic, then the priest will turn out to be a sexual predator and child abuser. As well as a homophobe and a hypocrite. It’s exactly what American TV would have been like if they had invented it in the 1840s.

To take another recent example. I am a fan of the series Santa Clarita Diet, a heartwarming family-oriented saga about how everyone pitches in to help when Mom is transformed into a ruthless, ravening, undead cannibal. (Honestly, it’s funny). Consider it for your church’s film night. And then they introduce a Christian character, who is anxious to have her new lesbian lover baptized. I puzzled over this religious element, until I realized the plot needed a credulous fanatic who would interpret a spectacular series of events as miraculous. So, what else, they chose a Christian, specifically a white one.

Back in the 1940s, if you were making a madcap comedy and you wanted a credulous, superstitious buffoon as comic relief, you always chose a black actor (more often than not, Eddie “Rochester “Anderson). You might even depict said black character at a happy clappy revival meeting, pursuing his child-like faith. Today, all that demeaning racial baggage has transferred to white Christians/evangelicals – do they actually know there are distinctions there? These are likewise presumed to be uneducated, primitive, backwoods idiots. So this is racial progress?

And if they ever chose a Muslim to symbolize religious intolerance? The heavens would fall right then and there.

But getting back to the baptism. The film-makers know this “baptism” is a Christian thing, possibly involved with the “Bible,” and certainly involving the use of water, but that ends their awareness. Hence the act in the show is done in a wading pool in the back yard, with a party. Aren’t many actually done in churches, in the context of services?

Even in my old favorite series The X Files (the 1990s version, not the recent atrocity) they had an episode which sincerely attempted to treat faith seriously and respectfully. That continued right up until agent Mulder remarked that the phenomenon of bilocation was actually described in the Bible, specifically in the passages concerning Saint Ignatius.

Once again, they could have asked someone. I bet plenty of the staff around the halls have memories of their Christian past, or even attend churches presently.  I understand that Christians of various shades abound in southern California. Ask them.

As you watch films and TV programs, you’ll find it easy enough to collect your own examples.

So here is a question. Granting the reality of the anti-Christian bias, how much of that might diminish or disappear if media folks actually took the trouble to investigate what that weird Christian thing, that incomprehensible cult, is actually doing? They might even learn to like it. Are they educable?

 

 

 

 

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