18 December 2011

Patterns of Portrayal

The people of ancient Judea struggled with legalism in Jesus’ time, just as we struggle with it now...in our own, newer, flashier ways. They knew, and we know, that God’s laws are good, growing firmly out of his will and wisdom. But they lose their potency when we cut them off, take them into our own hands and make them into what is easiest for us. Sometimes we twist his words so badly to make them do as we wish, that we end up abandoning the mess we’ve made of them, tossing this and that word entirely out of our vernacular. We bounce back between legalism and relativism and never seem to hit the center-mark.

When Jesus admonished the Pharisees for giving a tenth of their mint and cumin, while neglecting their elders, he chastised them, not for obeying the law down to their very kitchen spices, but for doing so having cut the heart of God out of the law. They made the law their very own, and in so doing, ruined its purpose...like a child plucking out a flower who then wonders why it starts to wither from that moment on.

Some time ago, I inadvertently come across three television shows, each which had an overtly “Christian” character wherein celibacy is the primary indicator that they are Christian. Oh that and, of course, a small cross on thier neck. At first blush, I was foolish enough to think that this was a positive trend. I’m afraid I was mistaken.

The trouble with this TV “Christian” is that it is simply a caricature that settles amongst the classic list of high-school style stereotypes: the jock, the rebel, the punk, the slut, the goth, the geek, etcetera. As with most caricatures, the depiction is exaggerated, lacks nuance…and by and large, it’s grotesque.

The first example I encountered was on the posthumously popular “Arrested Development”. It is a clever off-center comedy about a severely dysfunctional family which I can recommend for wit, but not for content. The Christian featured in this story is the young girlfriend of a teenage character. She is presented as a drab girl who goes about protesting morally questionable people and events, and is generally disliked (no, despised) by other characters on the show. How much they all hate her is, in fact, a running gag.

At some point during the series, she claims (at age fifteen) that she wants to get married so that she can have sex. She asks her boyfriend to whisk her away to the secular world. Her Christian mother makes a very similar statement of wanting to learn ‘secular ways’, as though she has been living in a nunnery.

The theory seems to be that these poor indoctrinated girls are sexually repressed and secretly wish to escape thier cloistered Christian world. The girl’s “protests on behalf of morality” are also depicted as a hobby, or an opportunity to exercise intense emotions otherwise forbidden to her, rather than as derived of any sort of conviction. She is not a main character...she's mostly there for laughs in this ensemble show:

The second example seems more moderate at first glance but, ultimately, is just as damaging. Strangely, this example does not seem as though it is intended to be negative. Yet it still manages to leave a bad taste in the mouth about what the world believes Christians to be and represent. It comes from the show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” about a pregnant teen in high school. (I could not stomach more than a couple episodes of the show, but I looked up the events. Not my kinda show).

Theoretically the show’s objective is a good one; to teach teens the truths and consequences of sex. At least I’m guessing that’s what it is. It even seems to offer not having sex as a viable option. One character and her boyfriend are painted as strong Christians who speak loudly about abstinence. Yet the girl’s boyfriend grows increasingly desirous of sex and ultimately accepts a solicitation for oral sex from a girl he barely knows. He apologizes to his girlfriend for seeing someone else, but lies about the sexual nature of his behavior.

This does not scratch the surface of the unchecked hypocrisy enacted by the supposedly Christian characters in this show. The boyfriend pays someone to do his schoolwork for him. He lies and cheats and is a generally unsavory sort of boy. But of course he is a square-jawed, popular jock.

The girlfriend—initially quite genuine—is a blonde, peppy cheerleader who is very vocal about her Christianity. Later in the series, however, she gives in and has sex with her boyfriend, afterwards feeling shamed and recommitting herself to abstinence. This is a severely mixed message.

On the one hand, we all fall and we can all be redeemed. If that were the crux of the message, not only could I stomach it, but I could support it. But so far, the all-consuming factor for these Christians is sex: i.e. whether or not they’re having it. Purity is important, but what about all the other interacting facets of a God-centered life? Kindness? Justice? Honesty? What about the basic tenants of the faith? What about our Author and Creator? What about any other factors of what it means to be a person of faith?

I should point out that this show in particular was well-versed in ‘Christianese.’ The girl wore a purity ring, invited friends to church functions and her prayers made her sound like someone who had been to a youth-group meeting or two.

The third example is the most troubling by far. It comes in the form of the show “Glee,” about classic misfits finding a place and some joy in show choir. Interestingly enough, it’s about defying stereotypes, as it goes on supporting them every which way. It’s fun, musical and peppered with enjoyable quirks.

In this show, there is also a lovely, blonde cheerleader who wears a shiny silver cross. She is aggressively vocal about her virginity and that of others (dare I say “the Lady doth protest too much”...?) She is also rude, malicious and enjoys blatantly drawing her boyfriend to what she then makes clear he cannot have (and I mean very blatantly. The show was at pains to point this out, lest they be accused of 'blaming a girl for the guy's behavior'). The line “we’re about teasing not pleasing” is uttered in the second episode. This character is obsessed with appearances, reputation and is, of course, territorial with ‘her man’. She is meant to be despised and indeed she is despicable.

When this character was leading a school celibacy club (where the girls talk about the wonder of wearing sexy cheerleading skirts with which to tease their male counterparts), I rather sided with the secular teen who, watching the entire absurd display, proceeded to point out how skewed their motives and behaviors were. (Note: the show has veered far from this premise…this was only the launching point to serve the desired aim of pitting the Christian cheerleader character against the main female character)

It seems the secular world has reached the following simple conclusion; these Christian kids are really emphatic about abstinence, but they have no follow-through. Something must exist en force in order to be parodied, and this concept is being parodied left and right. A majority of the creative minds in television seem to have gleaned little more than: Christians are hypocrites and snobs, who either hold thier physical purity out like a vicious lure, or hold it close like a religious security blanket.

I can’t help but wonder if this perspective has its roots in the fact that today’s youth find it easier to claim obedience to a physical command, than submit to a spiritual lifestyle. I hope not, but if so, it is legalism and nothing more and its legs will eventually buckle out from underneath. Abstinence does not a godly person make. It’s supposed to be a strong indicator—an outflow, or by-product—of your life purpose, not the purpose of life itself.

Popular media has been producing its version of Christians for quite some time now, and some of their critiques are unfair. But some are fair. But stereotypes can almost always be distilled down from thier respective hyperbole into some grain of truth--or at the very least a point of origin--which must be examined.

It seems that, with the preponderance of purity conferences and bubble-gum style celebrities with “true love waits” rings, the concept is making its way into the very public sphere as a Christian criterion. The emphasis is perfectly understandable, since abstinence can be a hard ‘sell’ in a culture where the only stipulations for sex are that it be ‘safe and consensual.’ And, y’know, it helps if you kind of like the person too.

But if the virtue of waiting-till-marriage stands on its own to the world, without comprehension of meaning and without roots in a believer’s love for God, then that virtue will fall at earliest convenience. It should be noted that of all three referenced “Christian” characters, two had premarital sex, and one tried her hardest to do so.

The idea of abstinence is definitely on the secular radar screen, but the reason behind it clearly isn’t. Until the deeper motivation becomes clear from the inside out, then the whole thing will continue to be seen as some baseless, archaic idea, when viewed by a world that categorizes abortion under the term “reproductive rights” and says that following the blind-eyed demands of momentary desire is to be known as “sexual freedom.”

However, if our choices flow, not from moral checklists, but from seeking and abiding in the source, our Messiah, then the world will scratch its head in wonder when we refuse to fit into the confines of what we are imagined to be. Then the world will have a reason to search for the answer to such an anomaly, instead of simply labeling it with a cross and slapping on a purity ring…which they, not unreasonably, expect to fall off at any moment.

 POST SCRIPT (because I wrote this article a while ago):

Lo I did find a Christian character on TV that is neither coddled (as on Christian-made TV) nor demonized! Shirley on Community. (Awesome show, by the by). They deal in both stereotypes and complex facts. The show both criticizes her and adores her. She’s not perfect, but she strives to do right. She loves her non-Christian friends, but is often saddened by their choices and behaviors and can sometimes be harsh or judgmental towards them. It’s a rare show where a Christian is treated more as a person than as a concept. There are seventy-five thousand other reasons to like the show—it’s an ensemble cast—but her character is definitely one of them!

A little montage of Shirley clips which may or may not be appreciated if you haven’t seen the show:


  1. Well done! We've talked about this a few times and I think it is also good to mention Candice Cameron Bure's character on Make It or Break It, she is a Christian character on TV that has been a good example without being characterized. Just thought I'd mention...

  2. You finally posted this one!! Yay!! I am glad that you added Shirley at the end.
    I second Brandi...I think she plays that character well because she lives it in real life.

  3. To Brandi: Yes, Shirley is not the only one...she's just my favorite! It's encouraging to know there there really are some portrayals that try to deal with people instead of 'personas'

    To Shannon: Yeah, lately me and my roommates have been having discussions about the (rather depressing) statistics of how few people in the church actually choose to wait till marriage.

    We were mulling over the "why" of the thing, and I think it's just way too easy to say "oh, it's the culture we live in." Yes, that's part of it, but it's also what the culture of the church itself. Up until fairly recently the Church has been pretty skittish about discussing sex--the good and the bad of it--and I think this has been damaging.

  4. * also the culture of the church itself.