It’s not uncommon to hear Christians complain about how they are portrayed in the media. But, in the new golden age of TV, many shows have opted for nuanced characters over caricatures and stereotypes.
Despite complaints over hard-to-define bias, many shows and movies have made Christianity a part of on-screen characters’ lives, portraying the faith as an important element of a bigger story—instead of just a punchline.
Here’s a look at some of Hollywood’s best portrayals of Christians.
In some ways, Flanders is the embodiment of evangelical cultural stereotypes: He’s extremely morally conservative, constantly references his faith, has a seemingly perfect family, is prone to cringe-inducing clichéd sayings and is a fixture at the local church. He’s also a nerd-diddy-dork, whose very existence is the bane of Homer’s existence. But, despite his goofiness and perfectionism, Flanders is arguably the most noble person in Springfield—and maybe in all of primetime. The ORU-grad is a perfect neighbor, volunteer worker, organ donor and businessman who’d do anything for his community, and is quick to forgive the many transgressions against him by the Simpson family. Sure, there have been times when Ned took his religious zeal a little too far—like attempting to baptize the Simpson kids without telling their parents—and is prone to the occasional existential crisis (“I think I’m coveting my own wife!”), but at the end of the day, Flanders is a picture of morality, compassion and a life dedicated to making the world a better place.
Like most characters on 30 Rock, Kenneth is sort of a weirdo. But in a cast of lovable narcissists, power-obsessed father figures and insecure TV producers, Kenneth is a constant voice of selflessness, positivity and loyalty. A graduate of Kentucky Mountain Bible College, the NBC page has brought his version of (admittedly weird) Bible-Belt morality with him to the Big City, where he cheerfully serves the cast and crew of a sketch comedy show with unwavering loyalty and ever-present cheerfulness. Like almost everyone on the show, his character—and his religion—is prone to take surreal, absurd plot twist (his denomination is “Eighth Day Resurrected Covenant of the Holy Trinity” and he only reads the Bible in German), but Kenneth isn’t meant to be a backwoods religious kook. Instead, he’s the loyal, good-hearted friend whose religious values (no matter how weird they are) inform every part of his life and relationships.
OK, so technically Jim Gaffigan isn’t a fictional character, but his on-stage persona and ever-present internal monologue have taken on a life of their own. TV Land is even making a scripted sitcom, called The Gaffigan Show, about his life ala-Seinfeld. Along with his stand-up bits about laziness, fast-food and fatherhood, Catholicism and Christian faith are a constant theme. His thoughts on religion, church attendance and the Bible are irreverent, but they’re also relatable. “I mostly day dream in church. I always have that introspective look on my face. But on the inside, I’m like, ‘Did I go to Wendy’s twice yesterday?’” Or, “I love doing that joke, because there’s always one face in the audience [mouthing], ‘You’re going to hell!’ Those are the people I wanna bump into in heaven, and be like, ‘Hey remember me!’ ‘YOU’RE here.’ ‘Yeah, Peter loves my stuff.’”
Peggy Hill is a polarizing character. On the surface, King of the Hill’s matriarch is an annoying parody of a conservative southern housewife, but if you’ve ever watched the show, you’ll see the complexities of a caring mother and wife who’s also wrestling with her faith. The show features Peggy dealing with her own hypocrisy, instilling values in her son, the culture wars, addiction (to cigarettes) premarital sex (to a man who is not Hank), forgiveness and even getting over-committed at a megachurch. Peggy’s far from perfect, but like the Hill family, what makes her endearing isn’t just her good qualities (being a loyal wife and mother), it’s her flaws that make her so human.
While today’s televised depictions of the White House tend toward the pessimistic (Scandal and House of Cards) The West Wing is not only a rosier view of American politics, but an altogether more compelling one. The reality probably falls somewhere in the middle, but in the meantime, it was comforting to see Martin Sheen’s exquisite portrayal of President Jed Bartlett. His social liberalism and frequently voiced frustration with fundamentalism will ruffle some viewers, but Bartlett’s Catholic roots were taken seriously and dealt with powerfully. When a beloved friend and fan favorite tragically dies in the second season, Bartlett’s irate, impassioned tirade against the Almighty in a Catholic Church is like a mirror of Sufjan Steven’s equally frustrated sentiments in “Casmir Pulaski Day”—and, for that matter, of Job himself. All of are them asking the oldest question in history: “Why does God do what He does?” Bartlett finds his answer in (appropriately enough) a storm. It’s as biblical a Divine response as you’re likely to find on TV.
Firefly‘s ragtag cast of outlaws wouldn’t have been complete without a moral center, and that center was provided by a pastor named Derrial Book or, as pastors are referred to in Joss Whedon’s Old West/sci-fi mashup, “Shepherd.” Throughout the show’s brief but much-loved run, Book treated the crew of the Serenity with a refreshing grace and understanding, while still forcefully opposing them when he felt they were stepping out of bounds (notably, his opinions were frequently overruled, but he never quibbled). Book’s dark past was frequently hinted at but never fully explained, leading fans to speculate that Book’s occupation was a penance of some sort. Whedon confirmed as much in a later interview, saying “Shepherd Book is somebody I would probably get along famously with, except we don’t agree about anything.”
Community has some of the richest, most complex characters of any sitcom on television right now, and Shirley (portrayed with marvelous nuance by Yvette Nicole Brown—she should be getting far more recognition) is one of its best. As a vocal Christian, Shirley’s determination to steer the group’s moral code often comes across as judgmental (when Britta, the group’s vocal atheist, forgets to bring a present to the Christmas party, Shirley quips, “I see you brought what you believe in: nothing.”) And yet, she’s also a maternal figure, dearly loved by the Greendale student body and the source of some of its best advice. In Shirley, the Community writers explore the best and worst of Christian culture, by presenting a fully realized, well-rounded character. Very cool. Cool, cool, cool.
Ah, yes. Seventh Heaven. The show was rarely good—at least, not in the sense that many of the shows on this list are good—but it was certainly notable for casting a family of Christians with a pastoral patriarch in a modern setting that seemed neither forceful or obligatory. Instead, the Camdens dealt with serious issues (among them: racism, domestic abuse, teen sexuality and addiction) in a way that was grounded in their faith but culturally aware. Indeed, one episode dealt with Pastor Eric learning that his parents only got married because his mother was pregnant with him. In retrospect, the show lacked a bit of dimension and too many episodes started feeling like one of those “Tonight, on a very special episode of Seventh Heaven…” gimmicks. But during its run, it was WB’s highest rated show, and it deserves credit for taking what was surely a risk.