Is it a good idea to include religious content in our regular TV viewing?
I went into this article thinking about wanting more diversity on TV when it comes to religion (particularly because awareness of peoples’ actual beliefs and honest portrayals would do a lot toward understanding each other and breaking down stereotypes), but after doing some research, I’m not so sure my first thoughts were sound.
What does religion add to our favorite TV shows? What could it potentially add? I think it would be a good idea to showcase a range of beliefs so that people are aware that there are peaceful Muslims, kind Christians, and people who struggle with belief, but I understand why people shy away from it. It’s a divisive topic. Many of us aren’t sure what we believe. Some of us shrink away from religion because of bad experiences in our past. Some of us are devout and would be offended or hurt by how our views are portrayed.
This is why there aren’t many strictly religious storylines or characters on TV shows. It’s difficult to accurately portray religion when we don’t want to offend the audience or lower the ratings. From a practical viewpoint it doesn’t seem like a good idea. What has happened, however, is that, in order to avoid a plummet in viewership, TV has allowed generic stereotypes to be the main representation of religion which I think pushes the audience even further apart and entrenches the stereotypes.
Sometimes, religion is portrayed as cultural with little to no impact on a character’s life. Examples include Rachel Berry from Glee, Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Annie Edison from Community, and Kelly Kapoor from The Office; Shirley Bennett from Community, Angela Kinsey from The Office and Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock round out the examples. The last three are kooky stereotypes (the sweet church lady, the uptight Christian, and the cultish backwoods believer), with their personalities aiding the religious undertones more than anything.
Atheists get the same treatment – odd comments here and there, often without any discussion, like we see with Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Oscar Martinez from The Office, and Britta Perry from Glee. What could bloom into interesting speculations and conversations between atheists, agnostics, culturally religious individuals, and the devout instead gets pushed away in favor of less inflammatory topics.
However, two of the most human moments I’ve seen on the topic of religion revolve around characters who are atheists. Glee’s Kurt Hummel struggles with his beliefs in “Grilled Cheesus” when he doesn’t have religion or spirituality as a comfort during grief. My personal favorite moment, though, is when Toby Flenderson in The Office gets invited to the christening of Jim and Pam’s child (in “Christening). He arrives at the church but he can’t go inside. He works himself up and goes in to stand at the altar and ask, “Why do you have to be so mean to me?” It’s a beautiful, tragic, human moment and I think we need more of those. Not pert answers, not necessarily an indication of what beliefs the writers hold, but a moment of pure emotion when we confront our thoughts and feelings on religion.
I guess there’s some diversity in TV shows if you allow stereotypes or generic templates of religion. Community has a Jew, a Christian, and an atheist in the main character group; The Office has “nominal” Christians, an atheist, and a Hindu; and Bones has a Muslim, a Roman Catholic, and an atheist. There’s even a little diversity between how much peoples’ faith impacts them like in The West Wing. There are two Jewish characters who have different takes on their cultural heritage and religion (Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler) and of course, Josiah Bartlett is perhaps one of the most real portrayals of a human interacting with his religion (in particular the episodes “Shibboleth” and “Two Cathedrals”). There still isn’t enough representation of smaller religious groups, however. What about various Christian groups like Unitarian Universalists or Methodists, or how about Buddhism or Wicca, or traditional Native American and African pantheism?
As I continued thinking about this lack of diversity in religion, I started wondering if perhaps instead of writing about specific religions and the impact they have on characters, there was a better way, and that got me thinking about two of my favorite shows and how they handle religion. I realized that they have shaped my thoughts on religion far more than the shows who have a religious character that I would identify as close to my beliefs. But these shows talk about religion through the veil of science fiction and fantasy which makes them more accessible to a wider audience and creates a safe place for discussions about religion.
I love what Supernatural has done with religion. Instead of choosing sides, Supernatural has humanized religion. There aren’t any truly “good” characters whether angels, demons, or human; rather, they’re all mixed bags of alliances, mistakes, regrets, and occasional bouts of heroism. I love it because it’s a real depiction of life. None of us are perfect, and few of us are truly evil. It allows me to sift through my own experiences and know that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved and that my decisions are my responsibility. It also lets me process through what I believe without judgment or feeling like I can’t have periods of doubt. Everyone goes through this, and I’m not alone.
Supernatural has also written in some surprising twists to the Bible stories some of us grew up with. Think you know what really happened to Cain and Abel? Think again. The whole relationship between Lucifer and his brothers is heartbreaking. They have daddy issues too. The continued search for God is an intriguing component as well, and I’m hoping we get a (hopefully satisfying) conclusion to that storyline.
The show that for me is the benchmark of what a show with religion as an aspect of the entire story could be is Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 series). I loved the depiction of humans and cylons divided over the issue of religion. There are the cylons, who believe in one God (which could be a parallel to monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam), and the humans, most of whom operate in a polytheistic religious system (such as Taoism or Shintoism).
Although humans built the cylons, they have come into their own and are now more powerful than humans. What happens when one religious faction attempts to persuade or indoctrinate another faction in an increasingly violent and hostile way? And which one is right? Are either of them? It’s a fascinating look at how religion plays into our actions, with those who hold to our beliefs, and those who disagree. The humans and cylons war with each other, never quite able to understand the other.
Instead of having a clear “right” belief, Battlestar Galactica instead presents opposing religious beliefs and steps back to let the audience digest. I love this because it allows a safe discussion of religion without pointing fingers or hurt feelings. The reality of religion in our lives takes a backseat to the fantasy version and removes much of the hostility people feel when the topic of religion pops up.
By watching Supernatural and Battlestar Galactica, I acknowledge that I don’t know a lot about religion and spirituality and that the answers aren’t easy to find (if there are answers for all of my questions). I have more respect for others and their beliefs since I know that we are all attempting to answer our own questions and some of us find different answers through our experiences and cultural background. I appreciate the ability to talk to people about these topics via our favorite shows because it allows me to learn from others, expand my knowledge, and perhaps find a way to reach my own answers.
So maybe what we need in terms of diversity of religion on television isn’t a “correct” portrayal of a certain belief system or a politically correct view of cultural beliefs in context but a way to access the topic of religion, that isn’t divisive, through the use of a fantasy universe or science fiction setting that manages to portray religion in a neutral way thus allowing the audience to take from it what they will. More of that in television would be welcomed.