However, is it really that media has really embraced religious expression, or is it doing what it has always done, intersect entertainment with life?
Think about it this way, there are always a few different types of television shows that have existed throughout the past 60 to 70 years. One of the major “genres” of media deals with families. Whether it is Leave it to Beaver (’57-’63), The Brady Bunch (’69-’74), Different Strokes (’78-’86), Full House (’87-’95) or Modern Family (since 2009), television has consistently used the family unit as a medium from which to frame entertainment.
Why is that? While we may not all go through the antics seen on Modern Family, we can all somehow relate to shows that portray the family unit in their culture and time. Simply put, it is highly relatable. We can easily put ourselves in the shoes of the characters.
The same goes with religion. In some way, religion affects almost all of our culture, especially being in America. While there are a few TV shows and movies that directly speak about religion (The Ten Commandments, The Young Pope, The Path, Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings and so on) there are a lot more TV shows and movies that intersect with faith as more of a medium from which to frame the show. The Seventh Seal (’57, for all my Swedish, eerie, dealing with death, life and the afterlife, black and white movie loving fans); Bruce Almighty (2003, a comedic look into what life would be like to be “God”); The Tree of Life (2011, whose religious overtone are so deep, they are often overlooked); Lost (2004-2010, arguably the religious undertones of this show were quite, yes as a pun, lost on viewers) and so forth.
Sometimes this intersection of religion with media is apparent, and other times it is not. For instance, while Star Wars has very evident religious Buddhist and Taoist overtones, Star Trek shows religion from a cold perspective (e.g., science is supreme and only cultures and worlds without an in-depth knowledge of science need religion).
So here is the point. Religious TV and media provide both a unique struggle as well as an exciting opportunity for Christians.
The struggle is that religion in media can create a barrier between Christian culture and those who do not know about Christ. The Path provides a clear picture of how producers, writers and directors perceive organized religion. The striking similarities to the Church and the “cult but not a cult” portrayed in the show conveys to us an idea about how people outside of the Church might actually perceive the Church.
Those who watch this show may begin to be swayed by the way religion is portrayed. Worse, those not personally familiar with the Church may start to think of Christian families and the Church as similar to the cult and characters of the show as the analogy between the show and the Church is not hard to find. Some shows, like Family Guy and South Park, never seem to pull their punches when they make stabs at religion, from Christianity to Islam and more.
What they have to say about religion is much more pointed and direct than even what The Path says. However, this is where religious TV and media may actually help us as Christians. As someone who grew up in the Church as a pastor’s kid, went to a Christian university and now teaches at a Christian university, it is easy for me to be disconnected to how those who are not a part of my Christian worldview actually perceive the world in which I live.
How religion is portrayed in TV and media helps us as Christians to see religion from a perspective of people outside of our Christian communities. Paying attention can help us to be more self-aware. Being more self-aware in turn helps us better interact with culture.
Fruitful relationships are always more easily cultivated when we learn to listen to what others have to say about our way of living. Rather than be offended by how some shows display religion, let’s take the time to listen to what they say. I think more often than not, there is a grain of truth in the critiques and statements of media that we need to understand.
Religion is part and parcel within our culture. Because of this, media will always use religion as a means to entertain us because we are so easily connected to it. Whether the critiques provided are correct or wrong, religious TV and media gives us the opportunity to reflect on our way of life and talk with others about religion. It more easily opens up the door for the conversation to be had, if only we first take the time to listen.