I’ve been wondering for some time now about the pervasive absence of God-talk from popular television and movies. To be clear: I’m not wondering why God is absent. The entertainment industry has collectively decided that talk of God and spiritual subjects is potentially controversial and alienating, and therefore better avoided. Thus you can watch countless movies and television shows in which characters go through their lives, confronting issues of life and death, marriage and childbearing, and so on, without ever once considering whether God exists, whether there is a soul or an afterlife, or whether Jesus Christ is who he claims he was.
What I’m wondering is: What is the effect of this absence on the people, and especially on the children, who watch movies and television? Because this way of avoiding God-talk is, in itself, making a statement of spiritual significance to the audience.
My doctoral dissertation was devoted to Kierkegaard, and among the manifold influences on Kierkegaard were the German Romantics. The German Romantics had a tendency to examine literary and dramatic genres in terms of the worldviews they expressed, and Kierkegaard picked this up. So ancient tragedy was not merely a genre; it reflected a particular way of dealing with reality, a particular way of living in the world, and a set of beliefs and values came along with it. One of Kierkegaard’s earliest pieces contrasted the worldviews expressed in ancient and modern forms of tragedy. Attending the theater was attending training in how to live. By watching the motions, the passions, the decisions of those upon the stage, we are trained for our own motions, passions and decisions.
Which leads to the question: What is the worldview communicated by now-contemporary movies and television? When children watch thousands of hours of movies and television, in which untold thousands of characters face untold thousands of decisions, including extremely important decisions, without once asking what God would have them do, or how this will affect their souls and their eternal destinies, or whether there is such a thing as eternal truth and salvation, how does this effect them? Are we illicitly training our children to face life’s decisions without reference to God, by showing them an endless succession of fictional characters who do precisely that (and get along just fine, thank you very much)?
All of this was brought to mind when I watched a recent episode of Glee entitled Grilled Cheesus. One of the male leads produced a grilled cheese sandwich which bore the apparent outline of Jesus Christ. It was a clever play on Pancake Jesus, the Holy Toast, Cinnamon Nun and other gastronomic apparitions that strike many of us as silly. It was also profoundly condescending toward the kind of simple faith that is lived by billions of people around the world. The entire episode featured the gay student, Kurt, who is far the most articulate of the students (and a sort of avatar for the gay creator of the show, Ryan Murphy), offering impassioned and eloquent criticisms of (mostly Christian) faith, while the Christian students offered lame defenses, acted befuddled, or got upset that someone had the audacity to question their faith. At the end of the episode, Kurt tells his father (whose coma-inducing heart-attack was the event precipitating the discussions about faith) that he does not believe in God, but he believes in their love for one another. The faux profundity was disappointing.
I am a fan of Glee. But let’s be honest. Its depiction of faith was by and large cynical, skeptical, and mocking. One character, Sue Sylvester, says that “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, isn’t a moral thing to do. It’s cruel.” (Yes, she later accepts her special-needs sister’s offer to pray for her, but this is never accompanied by an intelligent response to Sue’s statement.) Or, when one character offers the lame apologetic that “you can’t prove God doesn’t exist,” Kurt replies (as though these were remotely analogous), “You can’t prove that there isn’t a magic teapot floating around the dark side of the moon with a dwarf inside of it that reads romance novels and shoots lightning bolts out of its boobs, but it seems pretty unlikely, doesn’t it?” Kurt also says that God is “like Santa Claus for adults,” and that churches hate gays, women and science.
I’ve seen some assess the episode more positively, but the fact is that there was not a single genuine defense of faith (or even theism) presented in the entire hour. The only positive portrayal of faith came in a visit to an African-American church (even in the most skeptical precincts of academia, I always found that the one unassailable form of Christianity was the African-American church). But even the young black woman who takes Kurt to the African-American church can only offer this defense: “you’ve gotta believe in something,” because otherwise “life is just too hard.” As though Christians have not been presenting intelligent and compelling defenses of their faith for two thousand years.
I am going to write a column on this shortly, but for now I wanted to ask you: Which would you rather have? A television show that has the courage to raise and address questions of faith and salvation, even if it does so in a way that is broadly disparaging of faith? In which faith questions are at least shown as relevant? Or would you rather have movies and television shows that ignore those questions and essentially train us and our children in going through life without reflecting on God or incorporating God into our lives? In which faith appears not so much untrue or unreliable as merely irrelevant?