The Theological Inconsistency: Christianity on Television

by Neal Sjaaheim

America has the largest population of Christians in the world. In the 2008 census, seventy-six percent of Americans identified themselves as Christians, though a more recent estimate shows that about eighty-five percent of Americans consider themselves to be Christian.  Since the founding of this country, president after president has quoted the Christian Bible.  “The Neo-Conservative party, led by George W. Bush continually flaunts its ties to the religious right and often speaks in religiously charged terminology when justifying political decisions” (Tatarnic 449). Congress just recently reestablished the country motto, “One nation under God.” Despite all this, it would seem that there is a trend in television where Christians are now being attacked.

As recently as the 1990s the opposite was true; Christians were exalted, held above others and shown as great and productive members of society. In sitcom shows, the Simpsons had characters such as Ned Flanders as their good Christian man. In drama shows, there was the entire family on the show 7th Heaven. In reality television, there was a man named Jon Brennan on The Real World: Los Angeles. These are all examples of people and characters shown as generally decent  people. Compare these to the characters we have today, such as the Veals on Arrested Development, a character on a recent episode of Law & Order who killed abortion doctors in the name of God, and Marguerite Perrin, also known as “the God warrior” from an episode of the television reality show Wife Swap.

Why, recently, has television programming been making Christians “the other”? As Martha Smith Tatarnic says, “religious faith is untenable and the church, in trying to maintain itself as an institution structured around this obsolete faith, is desperate” (Tatarnic 448). Television believes that the Christian church will lower itself to the butt of a joke to gain coverage. The main goal of television shows is to draw viewers, which will bring in advertisement money. Television programming does this by focusing stories on the spectacular, or, as Tatarnic puts it, “the barrage of stories concerning sexual impropriety, abuse, or extreme theological opinions acted out in violent and dramatic ways, results in a very tarnished image of the church” (Tatarnic 458).

In a television sitcom, we can see the split in opinion extremely  easily. Sitcoms sometimes show Christian characters as a contrast to the bumbling main character, but more often, the Christian character will be the buffoon. In the television show The Simpsons, the good Christian man is Ned Flanders, a family man, devout Christian, and all around positive influence on his community. In one episode entitled “Homer loves Flanders,” Ned donates his time and efforts to many different charities including the local soup kitchen, and reading to sick children. Charity is a very large portion of Christian life. Christians always are expected to give ten percent of their earnings either back to the church or to charity, a practice known as tithing. Ned engages in these activities, not because he feels he needs to, but because he wants to engage in them. Ned is providing for his fellow man, and he requires no compensation for his actions. He provides because it makes him feel like a better person, even Christ-like.

Recently on television, sitcoms show their Christian characters in a very different manner. In fact, on the television show Arrested Development, the Christian characters often are shown to be insane, or in some way out of touch with reality. The Veal family consists of a pastor father, his wife, and their children, one of which – their daughter Ann, is dating the main character’s son. In the same episode in which we get introduced to the pastor and his wife, they are shown celebrating young love. Ann and George Michael are in plans to become “pre-engaged”. The Veals plan to celebrate, and even offer to buy alcohol for non-practicing Michael Bluth. Certainly, this is an action of a specific sect of Christianity, but later on in the episode, the mother of Ann makes a sexual advance on Michael. When the Pastor learns of this, he instantly assumes that the non-Christian is to blame for the action and attacks him. These characters act out in ways that are not Christian in nature.

Sitcom television likes to poke fun at all of the facets of life in the world in which the characters live. Sitcoms take shots at any kind of person, including the religiously devout. Since sitcoms point the finger at anybody, perhaps it is not fair to examine only them with such scrutiny when dealing with Christianity.

There is no set date as to when the attitude toward Christianity took this turn, but Michael Wakelin, former head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC commented that when he joined the BBC, “in 1986, religion was certainly more high-profile on TV…I’m afraid the media do tend to treat religion as a problem, and only as a problem. In some ways, [it is] like only covering football from the point of view of hooliganism and never actually showing the game being played” (Bailey 186, 189).

Perhaps then, the problem is not that television is not showing Christians in a positive light but that the media refuses to show the multiple facets that Christianity takes on. Characters are now only shown as fundamentalists, or extreme devotees to certain causes that have base roots in Christianity. From Ned Flanders acting like an upstanding citizen to Pastor Veal starting fights, this is the trend in television as of recent. The spectacle of the few has outweighed the reality of the many.

The sitcom genre is not the only genre to be affected by this trend, however. In the 1990s, there was a show titled 7th Heaven. The show followed the lives of a protestant minister and his family. The Camden family is portrayed usually as moral, upright citizens, while those around them are flawed or in a sense “evil”. In one episode titled “Faith, Hope, and the Bottom Line,” the pastor’s congregation is in need of a new church organist. One of the people to audition is an ex-convict who was recently released from prison. The congregation stands in judgment of this one who has lived a life of crime and is being punished for it, even after serving time. The congregation is shown as pure of heart and free of guilt on their collective conscience.  Comparatively the convict, has the guilt of his crime deeply embedded on his face and must wear the same constantly especially around the judgmental eyes of the churchgoers.

The drama genre has also taken a harsh turn toward how it portrays Christian characters as of recent. For instance, on the long-running detective drama Law & Order, an episode titled “Dignity” took on the heavy task of the debate of abortion. As always, a murder has taken place, and the motive was one Christian man’s beliefs about abortion, which were of course instilled in him through his religion. The stance on abortion will always be personal, and many politicians stay away form the issue. Some politicians even can be threatened with excommunication if they go against the church’s stance on abortion (Pederson 130). With pressure from the church not to take a stance and pressure from the public to take a stance, abortion may remain an issue that politicians may never have a unanimous vote.

Perhaps Christianity, is not being the target because of a growing secularism in the media. It could  possibly  be because it is already so well known. As Michael Wakelin says, he feels that “Christianity has taken a bit more of a kicking in a way, because it is so much more exposed” (Bailey 188). Plot lines and stories often portray scenes from the Bible or pay tribute in some way by a contemporary retelling. This may be confusing to some like a teenage audience who “weave together biblical narratives with stories found on television” (Mitchell 6). If the story in question is taking place on a sitcom, which more than likely it is, then the tone is more than likely sarcastic or satirical. This could confuse the audience by implying that the story took place closer to this interpretation. While the actions might be similar, the characters, and most definitely the characters’ attitudes, are not. Television sitcoms such as The Simpsons and Family Guy have showcased re-tellings of biblical stories many times.  Why do television programs so frequently showcase stories that originate form holy Christian scripture? God is “a popular, sellable commodity in today’s culture” (Tatarnic 448).

The final genre in which Christianity is being ostracized is reality television. The reality genre is known for pitting opposite personalities together in uncommon circumstances and having the opposing viewpoints quarrel over the most petty and insignificant things.  Shows like Bad Girls Club, Real World/Road Rules, and The Apprentice are all prime examples of this practice in effect.  When these opposites clash, the result is normally an explosion of emotions ripe with raised voices, and, in certain cases, violence. That is the expectation, but in certain cases the producers of the program will be surprised by with what actually happens.

Such was the case with Jon Brennan. Jon was a contestant on MTV’s The Real World: Los Angeles, during the second season. Jon was a devout Christian, hailing form a small town in Kentucky. He was meant to be the contestant who would be the first to “crack under the pressure,” so to speak. Jon was the youngest member of the house, and had admitted to feeling out of place in big cities. Being a Christian, Jon was also suppose to clash against the outspoken lesbian, Bethany, who was also a recovering alcoholic.  Much to the dismay of the producers, Jon did not clash with any of the cast members in the way he was suppose to, and even grew close to a few. This, however, also led to a ratings peak for the series, as Jon as a character changed over the course of the program, from being uncomfortable with others and with city life, to a confident person, comfortable in crowds and being in Los Angeles.

Recently, the screening process for reality television has been quite a bit more rigorous. Rigorous not in the way that would mean that logical, rational people are accepted to appear on the programs, in fact, it is now quite the opposite. People prone to emotional outbursts are rushed to the producers, then eventually onto the television screen.  Reality television producers created their magnum opus with the characterization of Marguerite Perrin. She appeared on the television show Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy. The show took the idea of pitting two opposite personalities against each other, this time only making the mothers of the families trade lives. Marguerite was an extremely devout Christian woman and was sent to live with a family of new age humanists. She did not much care for the way the family acted, like trying to explain their own beliefs to her when she insisted the family join her at a Christian mass.

Upon returning to her home, Marguerite did burst out emotionally, like what  was expected from Jon. She yelled at her family, accusing them of not praying enough for her. She criticized the other family for not being Christians. She became a spectacle because of the extreme way she reacted to an opposing viewpoint to hers. Marguerite Perrin is now a staple to be compared to in reality television. She has fan web pages dedicated to her. She has made people laugh, cry, scream in fear, and cheer for her devotion for God.

Television operates on a language all its own. It must keep the viewers’ attention while sporadically interrupting the story structure with advertisements. Unlike feature films where the story is constant and uninterrupted, television programming must be able to hold the viewer’s attention well enough that he will return and not be lost in the story. Television holds audience attention by creating story structure that is both spectacular and extraordinary. While most of the general population in its lifetime may never experience a fundamentalist Christian man murdering a doctor, or a narrow minded Christian woman accusing us of not praying correctly, but, ”when discussing the church, the mass media will most likely focus upon stories that reflect divergent behavior or dramatic crises” (Tatarnic 458). This makes for more dramatic and engaging television.

The genres of reality, sitcom, and drama are not the only which have recently shown Christians behaving in ways that oppose are understood practices of the Church. The examples discussed are just the best examples that show the clear contrast between Christians on television of the past and television of this generation. There is clearly an agenda of television makers to make Christians out to be an undesirable group. The fact that less than ten percent of the US population identifies as atheist or non-practicing of any religion, and the overwhelming number of Americans who identify as Christian should contradict this trend, but still the group being othered remains Christians.

Works Cited

Bailey, Michael. “Media, religion and culture: An interview with Michael Wakelin.” Journal of Media Practice 11.2 (2010): 185-189.

Mitchell, Jolyon. “Christianity and Television.” Studies in World Christianity 11.1 (2005): 1-8.

Pederson, Ann Milliken. “South Dakota And Abortion: A Local Story About How Religion, Medical Science, And Culture Meet.” Zygon: Journal Of Religion & Science 42.1 (2007): 123-132.

Tatarnic, Martha Smith, “The Mass Media and Faith: The Potentialities and Problems for the Church in our Television Culture” Anglican Theological Review 87.3 (2004): 447-465.