Shame Day: The Portrayal of Christians in Popular Media

I’ve ragged on Christians and Christianity alike, both in practice and doctrine, and I’ve never felt unjustified in doing so.  Nevertheless, and for all its issues, it really can’t be denied that in the past 20 to 30 years the religion’s really gotten the short end of the stick. In the interest of equity to all, we’re going to spend some time hashing out some of the more popular portrayals of Christians and explaining why they’re unfair, inaccurate, or even just plain spiteful.

I. Christians as One Group

Evan’s already covered the topic of how we’re drifting further and further away from a common cultural understanding- especially when it comes to religion. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but it is starting to have some negative effects.

There was an episode of Weeds (gah- there’s hours of my life I’ll never get back) depicting the creation of this megachurch in the suburb that the show was (at first, anyways) largely centered on satirizing. And that’s fair; these things do exist, and usually in the wealthier, WASPier neighborhoods of this nation. And that was all fine and well until the episode where the zealous church-goers started speaking in tongues.

Someone with no familiarity with the subculture might think “Hey, that makes sense, doesn’t it? Speaking in tongues is a Christian thing, these are Christians, therefore…”. Of course, anyone familiar with the subculture knows just how jarring this looks. Simple fact of the matter is that the whole “speaking-in-tongues” thing is relegated to a pretty small minority, and is often viewed by other denominations with suspicion (heck, outright hostility, depending on the sect). In simplest terms, it’s just really out of character.

Let me throw another example at ya: type “American Church” into a Google image search, and what do ya get?

For the first page or so, it’s pretty much evenly divided up between pictures of your standard white chapel and hulking, ornate cathedrals, and it’s the cathedrals that I want to talk about. Think about all the churches- the church buildings, that is- that you’ve seen in movies or on TV. How many of ’em are Gothic-style cathedrals? Probably more than a few, eh? With clergymen, you’re probably getting the same ratio, with men in flowing robes (or at the very least, cassocks and neckbands).

For the most part, all of this is pretty Catholic, the issue with that being: America doesn’t have an especially Catholic background. Catholicism wasn’t really a huge part of America (barring the South West) until relatively recently in US history and today Catholics stand at a 1  to 2 ratio with their Protestant neighbors. Yet the portrayal of the media always focuses in on elements you’d more typically associate with Catholicism, largely because it just looks a lot nicer.

This doesn’t exactly inspire an air of aged tradition and ceremony…

And while I get that, it still presents a false image which just lumps random groups together for the purposes of style. In small enough doses that could be forgiven, but this portrayal is rapidly becoming just dismissive of hundreds of years of cultural and historical differences. I know it sounds petty, but in essence, it’s based on the same logic as presuming that there’s no difference between Iranians and Arabs, or Ethiopians and Zimbabweans, or Japanese people and Koreans. It’s just plain incorrect.

II. Christians as Prudes

This tends to be a favored joke and/or criticism when it comes to the media’s portrayal of Christianity. There’s been a long-standing tradition of presenting Christians as asexual prudes who view anything remotely carnal as being abhorrent beyond description.

In fact we use the term “puritanical” to describe just that very mentality, which is unfair solely on the basis that the Puritans actually had a pretty big teen pregnancy issue- but that’s neither here nor there.

Simple fact of the matter is that while there is a thing or two to be said about contemporary Christian attitudes towards sexuality, the idea that Christians are somehow opposed to anything physical is just plain wrong. It’s simply arrogant to label an entire group “prudish” just because of different values of modesty. Same thing, by the way, goes for Muslims.

And while the whole “sex is evil” image has been plastered on Christianity for ages, every once in a while you’ll come across a portrayal which takes things to the opposite end of the spectrum. Consider, for example, The Simpsons episode “A Star Is Born Again” (S14E13), in which Ned Flanders has extramarital sex with his then-girlfriend.

I’m not saying that this wouldn’t happen- heck, just look at pretty much any televangelist for proof- it’s Ned’s flippant attitude towards it (before and after) which is just inconceivable. Christianity isn’t the bastion of austerity that most media portrays it to be, but it would still never take extramarital sex so lightly. We can debate the theology of this till the cows come home, but the simple fact of the matter is that the sins of the flesh are treated, for good or ill, as being especially heinous in Christian culture and a portrayal otherwise is simply surreal.

III. Christians as White Westerners

Whenever I’m talking about Christianity, I’m almost inevitably finding myself taking a moment to clarify that I’m addressing predominately White, Protestant Christianity in the West. Simple fact of the matter is that Christianity is neither a Western creation nor a religion that West holds a monopoly or even a majority over. The African continent is actually seeing some of the most rapid and wide-spread growth of Christianity, and by volume Latin America and the Philippines easily outstrip most of Europe. Yet Christianity is nevertheless depicted as a “white” religion while the rest of the world is painted as varying shades of heathen (Western Christian media is guilty of this too, it should be noted).

Again, it’s generally understandable why this has been the traditional portrayal of Christianity in the media, but it has got to stop. There’s just too much development and too much interconnectedness today for ignorance to be used as an excuse. It’s time to stop using an increasingly small minority as being the measure of the single largest religion on the planet. And on that note, it’s time to stop portraying…

IV. Christians as Evil

There are bad Christians out there, don’t get me wrong. A lot of ’em, varying on a scale from “mean spirited” to “genocidal”. Nevertheless, for all the hue and cry raised by the certain Christian groups, they are still a drop in the bucket when the entire population is taken into account. And while we can talk about Christianity’s truly bloody history, we cannot just ignore the irrefutably good people and movements who have arisen out of the religion. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian, as were and are thousands of activists working on behalf of the poor and the oppressed all over the world. Similarly, the whole “Christianity vs. Science” song-and-dance has got to stop. Creationism is not held universally, and for all of Christianity’s struggles with scientific discovery, it must not be forgotten that Galileo, Louis Pasteur, and Tycho Brahe were all Christians themselves. Heck, the very theory of the big bang was proposed by Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest.

I’d like to imagine he was as eloquent…

Again, I understand. I really do. You want to take a shot at an organization responsible for doing a lot of damage, both past and present, and they certainly make themselves easy targets. Only “they” aren’t representative of the people you’re actually punishing here. The smug, wealthy televangelist, the gay-bashing lunatic, the two-faced, self-righteous politician- do you think they care about how you’re portraying them? This portrayal of Christianity is as lazy as it is inaccurate, and serves only to punish decent (enough) people who don’t deserve your ire and giving those who do a diluted batch of contempt and outrage. The issues that actually need to be addressed get pushed to the side so you can attack straw men of your own making.

You want to rail on someone- fantastic- just make sure it’s the person who you’re really angry at, and be ashamed of yourselves for doing otherwise.


10 responses to “Shame Day: The Portrayal of Christians in Popular Media

  1. This is one of the most coherent defenses of Christianity I’ve heard in a long time. Really enjoyed it.

    One thing you touched on that I think bears commenting on is that Christians treated to the same sort Madonna-Whore dichotomy that women are in our society. There are many portrayals in the media as Christians as all being secretly repressed nymphomaniacs. Like on some level it’s believed that Christians are only so prudish because without prudishness the church would just be one non-stop orgy.

    People extremify Christianity. Extremes do exist, but the majority of us are just average people. I want to see more average Christians portrayed and recognized as a real thing.

  2. Sort of echoing what Chris said, I think you really hit the nail on the head when talking about how popular media’s depiction of Christian sexuality is lazy. It’s either people who can’t even whisper the words “vagina” or “penis” or those who treat it really casually like it ain’t no thing.

    The middle ground is obviously the more complex one, and that’s what we really need: characters who aren’t one-dimension in almost any facets of their personality.

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  7. Thank you for addressing the negative portrayal of Christianity in the media. I found your article insightful but I have to disagree when you say:
    “There are bad Christians out there, don’t get me wrong. A lot of ’em, varying on a scale from “mean spirited” to “genocidal””
    To say there are some bad Christians out there is to say Christianity is bad. There is no such thing as a bad Christian – if there is such a case, it is simply a person who claims to be Christian but does not truly carry Jesus in their heart. In order words, a sheep in wolves clothing – an imposter. Christians may be imperfect but they are not “mean spirited” or “genocidal.”
    However, I do have to agree with you when you describe the false depiction of Christians in the media. Like your assessment of Ned Flanders (a cartoon character from the Simpsons), who is depicted to be friendly but annoying, absent-minded, and – most offensively – a so-called devout “Christian.” But Christian is what Flanders is anything but. The show’s animators paint his actions (like adultery or foolishness) to reflect a false picture of Christianity. In fact, they may have decided to animate a “Christian” character in order to make their show more entertaining. Since Christians are supposed to be do-gooders, when a Christian is caught doing something frowned upon like adultery or criminal like murder, it is seen more shocking or surprising than – let’s say – an unbeliever. However, the Christian as a perfect “do-gooder” is a misconception. True Christians acknowledge they are sinners and are just as vulnerable to sin as any other unbeliever but do their best to adhere to the Bible and at times, must rely on God to give them strength against such temptations. However, it was not right for the animators to depict a so-called “Christian” as an adulterer especially one that does not repent to God for his sin. The Simpsons, like most of the media, should be upholding images of the true Christian, the Christian who remains strong in the face of sin NOT the one who gives into basic desires. I can guarantee if the animators had created Ned Flanders to be a Rabbi or a Buddhist (which, in contrast, is considered a very peaceful religion), I doubt he would be depicted offensively in any way.
    In addition, I agree that Christians are depicted by the media to be White and traditionally, from an upper middle class family. Indeed, such families do exist but Christianity is also embraced by several people of color and is not a religion that values Whites over any other. In addition, I notice you didn’t point out that Christians in the media are depicted to be intolerant, downright racist, or radical lunatics. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen in which a man who preaches Christian principles is also preaching corruption – mixing the truth with lies. The disappointing depiction of Christians in the media is no surprise to me. Of course – the media – a very powerful technology that can influence and persuade can also be manipulated to the view of those who control it. The Devil is using it to achieve his own agenda and God allows it to test us – to see if we are truly worthy of going to join Him in the Kingdom of Heaven. So be strong!

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