The Last Taboo in Hollywood

The Last Taboo in Hollywood March 26, 2013

Ask my wife: I’ve been known to be a sucker for some fairly wooden programming on the likes of A&E, National Geographic, and the History Channel when they turn their attention to the Bible.

Proof of Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat? I’m in. The revolt at Masada? Fire up the popcorn.

If it’s possible to make a disclaimer, it would be that at least these programs—or at least the ones for which I have a soft spot—have been more in the documentary than dramatic vein, featuring noted scholars and talking heads over bad actors and talking godheads.

Reenactments in their basic cable mold tend to send me running for the hills of Judea.

That said, I’m a screenwriter who would love nothing more than to bring certain stories from the Scriptures to life on the big screen, in ways that would do justice rather than pay mere lip service to the source material’s epic complexity.

So with both curiosity and dread I tuned in to the recent premiere of The Bible, a ten-part dramatic miniseries on the History Channel produced by Mark Burnett, the force behind such artificial juggernauts of reality TV as Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Voice.

I guess one could argue there are plenty of survivors, apprentices, and cantors in the Bible to suggest that Burnett would be perfect for the job.

But I had my doubts.

Sure enough, they were affirmed so fully and immediately that I had to change channels after twenty minutes. By the time we got to Abraham I was ready for the Crucifixion. Here was Abraham, something of a middle-aged patient in a one-man desert nursing home with no walls, wandering about repeating to Sara and Lot that he had heard from God.

No wonder Sara couldn’t conceive a child for him: the body knows best.

Perhaps it was unfair of me to write off the entire series based on those twenty minutes alone, but the prevailing critical consensus only assured me that my initial disappointment might devolve into rage.

Not that any such consensus had the slightest effect upon the show’s ratings, which drew a whopping 13.1 million viewers for the premiere.

While that’s good news for advertisers, it may not bode well for those of us who, like James Poniewozik of Time, lament what the project’s success likely will and will not spawn: “So we may see more TV for religious believers as a result of The Bible. What I’d love to see—but am not so sure we will—is more TV about religious believers.”

He doesn’t mean specifically or only Christian believers, of course, but for my purposes here the C-word in Hollywood apparently stands for this faith tradition more than anything anatomical, Christian characters being perhaps the last taboo after all of the industry’s self-congratulatory progress in portraying women, minorities, and gays.

Quick: Name a memorable Christian character in recent TV or film—say the past thirty years—who wasn’t either a loser or a wing-nut, a despicable charlatan or a pathetic saint, but a likeable and, yes, flawed character, and one whose central flaw wasn’t his or her faith.

If you can name one, can you name two or three?

Poniewozik lauds Friday Night Lights for treating faith seriously, and, most importantly in my opinion, matter-of-factly. It was simply part of the picture, not a freak brushstroke on an otherwise relatable canvas.

He also cites The Good Wife for its brave pairing of the openly atheistic main character played by Julianna Margulies with a teenage daughter who turns to Christianity.

There have been other such exceptions to the rule, including Aaron Sorkin’s ill-fated Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip in 2006, which featured not only a born-again Christian character, but a funny one at that! That her quick wit was meant to be surprising, though, only betrayed the (general) underlying prejudice: Christians, especially those of the born-again stripe, aren’t funny, or even particularly enjoyable.

That same year there was the short-lived The Book of Daniel whose main character was an Episcopal priest addicted to painkillers with an alcoholic wife, a gay son, and visions of a very white Jesus in a very white robe whose conventional appearance was countered by his challenge to conventional dogma.

I never saw the show, one reason being it only lasted four episodes due to the beating that it took from the Christian Right. Surprise, surprise. I had my own problems with the premise, which was that its overt appeal to controversy right out the gate felt not only like an apology for its main character being a priest, but worse, like a surefire way to shoot not only itself in the foot, but any more measured efforts that might follow in its wake.

The power play made by the Christian Right with the show’s advertising base speaks to a larger accountability for the persistent taboo in Hollywood. For many, anything not Touched by an Angel must be touched by a devil if it features an unsanitary portrayal of seekers and believers.

Since I’m a provider of screen content as well as a consumer, perhaps it’s best that I let someone else finish the crucial argument on my behalf. Again, Poniewozik:

Religious faith (or the passionate lack thereof) plays a huge role in billions of people’s lives. Primetime TV, however, has a habit of dealing with faithful characters badly or—more often—not at all. And more widely, TV characters are simply—nothing. They’re not unreligious, necessarily, but their faith, if any, is somewhere offscreen…

The reason TV series should have religious characters and take them seriously is the same reason they should have racial and cultural diversity: not as an act of charity, not to pander to demographics, but because it makes for better stories. People who believe things are interesting. People wrestling with the big questions are interesting. And TV shows that depict actual lived life—with characters who are specific rather than generic—are interesting.

Some taboos are in place for good reason. This isn’t one of them. I hope to see it broken in my lifetime, and perhaps help the cause.

The Image staff compiled a list of all the Good Letters readers’ recommendations for films and television shows that feature more nuanced portrayals of faith, in response to Bradford’s question. See the whole list here. For more on this topic, read our interview with writer Patton Dodd on Christian film villains. 

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  • T.Martin Lesh.

    1 ) Thank you . I was beginning to wonder if I was the only person on planet earth that though Burnett’s ” The Bible ” was a trivial , overly dramatic and inane treatment of the Word . Unlike you I made the mistake of suffering thru a couple of 30 minute segments … like you I came to the same conclusion . Survivor with a Biblical subtext …. emphasis on the word ‘ subtext ‘

    2) Shepherd Book … from the ” Firefly ” TV series . Ironic that a blatant atheist ( Josh Wheedon ) would write what is perhaps the most correct Biblical characterization of what a Pastor / Reverend should be … complete with all the complexities of the human character that come with the package whether the package him/herself is willing to admit it . The Pastor that given his preferences would save your soul …. but comprehends the human condition ( sin ) and though he doesn’t accept your flaws ( sin and its results ) … he deals with them and lives along side you as a comrade . Or as one commentator from a major Reformed Seminary said about ‘ Book ‘ ” He’s the kind of pastor that’d gladly save your soul one minute ….. but willing to kick your _____ the next if need be “

    • Brad Winters

      That kind of pastor reminds me of Robert Duvall’s in “The Apostle,” his loss to Jack Nicholson that year for Best Actor being one of the more blatant manifestations of the taboo — or, rather, the price one pays for daring to break it.

  • Shannon

    The short-lived “Nothing Sacred” disappeared far too quickly… “Joan of Arcadia” broke all sorts of wonderful ground.

    • Brad Winters

      I wanted to comment about “Nothing Sacred” among the exceptions to the rule, but didn’t have space. Far too quickly indeed.

  • Laura Chambers

    I’ve enjoyed shows like Sue Thomas FBEye and Twice In A Lifetime. And I agree we need more Christian TV. Most of the shows our local Christian network shows in the fictional vein are only “family friendly”, if barely.

  • Sara

    I agree with T.Martin. Book on Firefly was an excellent character. Also, Blue Like Jazz was a great film with a real-world portrayal of doubt and faith.

  • Jess

    Couldn’t agree more that this taboo definitely exists, and that it needs to go.

    Is Burnett’s “The Bible” the one where they cast the Obama look-alike as Satan? If so, did you get that far? Yikes. That was shameful.

  • Gaylan Mathiesen

    I was pleasantly surprised recently with the portrayal of a new young pastor in Italian for Beginners, directed by Lone Scherfig. The most compassionate, moral and sane guy in the bunch–and the other characters actually liked him.

  • “Name a memorable Christian character in recent TV or film—say the past thirty years—who wasn’t either a loser or a wing-nut, a despicable charlatan or a pathetic saint, but a likeable and, yes, flawed character, and one whose central flaw wasn’t his or her faith.”
    – Reverend Smith on HBO’s “Deadwood.”
    – Richard Harrow on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
    – Ben Hawkins on HBO’s “Carnivale.”

    • And then in film (just to name a few in only about the last decade):
      – Richard D. Winters (Damien Lewis) in HBO’s Band of Brothers (2001)
      – Abbe Faria (Richard Harris) in The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
      – John Rolfe (Christian Bale) in The New World (2005)
      – Ashley Johnsten (Amy Adams) in Junebug (2005)
      – Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) in Sophie Scholl: The Finals Days (2005)
      – Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) in Gone Baby Gone (2007)
      – John Adams (Paul Giamatti) in HBO’s John Adams (2008)
      – Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) in The Last Station (2009)
      – Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) in Get Low (2009)
      – Céline vel Hadewijch (Julie Sokolowski) in Hadewijch (2009)
      – Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) in True Grit (2010)
      – Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) in HBO’s The Pacific (2010)
      – the ten or more protagonists in Of Gods and Men (2010)
      – Janusz (Jim Sturgess) in The Way Back (2010)
      – Black (Samuel L. Jackson) in HBO’s The Sunset Limited (2011)
      – Pieter Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) in The Mill and the Cross (2011)
      – Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt & Jessica Chastain) in The Tree of Life (2011)
      – Hannah (Olivia Colman) in Tyrannosaur (2011)
      – Sam & Lynn Childers (Gerard Butler & Michelle Monaghan) in Machine Gun Preacher (2011)
      – Karenin (Jude Law) in Anna Karenina (2012)
      – Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in Les Misérables (2012)
      – Christopher & Sylvia Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch & Rebecca Hall) in HBO’s Parade’s End (2012)
      – Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) in To the Wonder (2012)

      • Brad Winters

        Thank you for both comments, and for the long enlightening list. Some of the projects you mention I’ve seen but didn’t recall, and various others I’ve never seen. Originally my point was to name a handful, then I revised that to one for (arguably ill-advised) effect; glad I stand corrected to the extent that you can name a bunch of handfuls! And I probably should have weighted the argument more toward television. But I think the overall point still stands: a major subject in the real world for the most part seems to suffer short shrift in the screen world. Even sympathetic characters don’t always mean the subject in question gets its narrative due.

      • to JAA Purves: John Adams was a Unitarian Universalist. Still, he was respectful of faith.
        My favorite Christian character of the past decade is Lars in “Lars And The Real Girl.” Faith works in the movie because it’s not the central focus. The big question hanging over the movie is, ” Will Lars get better?” Not, “Will Lars apply his Christian faith to getting better?” or “Can Christians save the sickest of people?” Still, the theme of the movie shows up in the second scene. Lars is sitting in church, and the pastor says it. “We need not ask what Jesus would do. He said so: Love one another.” And it’s off-camera while Lars is playing with a children’s toy. Brilliant.

  • In the series “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the family was Catholic and this was treated as an ordinary fact. The kids went to Catholic school. When one son wrote a story in school called “The Angry Family,” the family met with a priest to discuss it. Raymond went to a priest to confess how hard it was for him to keep the commandment “Honor Your Father and Mother.” One episode dealt with the family being upset because Raymond wasn’t going to church. In the context of that sitcom, the family’s faith was just an ordinary part of life.

    Although it’s reaching back fairly far in time, in the 80s “Cosby” show, the Huxtables also went to church, and when one daughter got engaged, the grandparents questioned her suitor on his faith. Again, the church-going aspect being just one part of life.

    Finally, in “Home Improvement,” that family went to church, too.

  • I’ve been watching (and it’s been killing my TMJ, I might add) because I want to be prepared if someone watches it and then asks me about a given scene.

    I’m sure, given your profession, that it would be much more painful for you to watch it. My uncle who was a painting contractor can spot flaws in a paint job that looks lovely to my picky-but-amateur eye. It’s like that, I reckon.

  • I love this post and give it a big amen.
    Seconding Joan of Arcadia, especially season 1, though the fact that she’s encountering God directly through various burning-bushes in the form of human bodies feels like less “real people and their faith” and more an exceptional almost-fantasy. (Or is she crazy? Which is one of the questions of the series handled really well, if I recall.)
    There’s a BBC comedy we loved called Rev about an inner city London vicar with a floundering little church. I love the way that character’s prayer and internal life are portrayed, and his foibles are everyday and believable. We found it on Hulu plus but maybe there’s a DVD somewhere.

  • Rick

    TV and movies doesn’t show Christian characters for the same reason they don’t show a lot of middle managers — the point of fiction is to tell a story, not to affirm the mundane details of your life. If Christians need to see a lot of Christians just like themselves on the screen, I think they are essentially asking Hollywood to “make me feel good about myself.” Statistically, about 70 percent of America considers themselves “Christian” (Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, whatever). Asking Hollywood for a shout-out to the overwhelming majority is like asking them to praise everyone who ate cereal this week.

    • Brad Winters

      That’s a pretty big piece of bait on the line, and it’s probably best that I don’t bite too hard. Yes, the point of fiction is to tell a story; but what’s the point of telling a story? Kenneth Burke said it well: “Stories are equipment for living.” The reason I’d like to see more stories onscreen that impinge upon the Christian experience is not so that I can feel better about myself for a shallow sense of inclusion in the public discourse thanks to entertainment; politics does that just fine all on its own. Rather, I’d like to see more of such stories for the equipping function that Burke cites. The logic of your claim that Christians who feel underrepresented onscreen simply want Hollywood to “make [them] feel good about [themselves]” would seem to suggest that this same design has been the motivating force in efforts by women, minorities, and gays toward greater representation. But that logic would be offensive in the latter application, wouldn’t it? (I don’t put Christians in remotely the same camp as these other groups, by the way, just to state the obvious for the very reason of demographics that you cite.) There are ways my argument did go wrong in the post, which I plan to address in my next post; but the implication you make here wasn’t one of them.

  • David Timmer

    I’m late getting in on this thread. But two films that haven’t been mentioned yet are “Places in the Heart” (with its borderline-sentimental yet powerful Communion vision at the end) and the Bob Walker character in “The Big Kahuna.” It’s interesting to read crowd-source commentary on those films at sites like; most viewers are oblivious (or impervious?) to their theological implications.

    • Brad Winters

      Will add those to the list…

  • Luke

    I would (belatedly) add to the growing list the 2006 movie “Longford” based on a true story of British politician Lord Longford (played brilliantly by Jim Broadbent) and his willingness to meet with prisoner Myra Hindley who was convicted of several child murders in the early 1960s. Rather than simply including a Christian character with redeeming qualities, the movie is very much ABOUT Longford’s unabashed willingness to show kindness and forgiveness towards Hindley. Such kindness is driven by Longford’s devout faith.