It is usual that when my wife and I watch TV or movies together that we find something to relate to. As I’ve documented extensively on this blog (sorry dear readers, sometimes it feels more like an amateur entertainment blog), there is usually a character, a concept, a plot line that I can relate to and from which I can draw some good life application.
But as a follower of Jesus, it seems to me like most of the time, the Church and Christianity at large seems to be described without the level of nuance and care that even the vilest of characters are treated. We empathize more with a murderous, venomous miner on Deadwood then we do with the charismatic believer who bordered on mental illness in that program. More with vengeful, self-centered, pursuers of power in Breaking Bad then we do those with faith who are often characterized as simplistic. More with a serial killer of serial killers on Dexter than with the superstitious and maniacal Christian zealot on the drama.
Too often, the Fred Phelps of the world have dominated how the mainstream has seen Christians, and still too often the faith’s better representatives have been too reticent, too quiet, and too embarrassed to say something different. When Christians do show up in TV or movies, it’s “God’s Not Dead” or “Son of God.” Movies for Christians by Christians. Of course, combatting stereotypes is made harder when we are always talking to ourselves.
In two recent shows that we watch, I noticed characteristics of Christianity that I thought novel. Though they had stereotypes that I don’t think the average Christian embodies, and they didn’t portray the radical call to follow Christ they were unique enough to make me think twice. I thought I might share them with you.
In a recent episode of FX’s The Americans, a show that tells the story of a 1980s Russian spy duo (Keri Russel as Elizabeth Jennings and Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings) who double as normal, married travel agents, the protagonists’ (if you can call them that) daughter (Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings) found a friend on a bus who was kind to her and empathized with the teenaged disillusionment she was experiencing. Especially regarding his secretive parents who are always “hiding” something, it was comforting for Paige to find someone with whom to relate. Her circumstances pushed her to friendship with a stranger, and that stranger introduced her to faith. She secretly attends a youth group and starts to read the Bible. Her incarnational connection is noteworthy.
Her Soviet mother Elizabeth is enraged—she thinks that relational connection is propagandistic. She is upset about the fact that her child is trying to be a Christian (she uses the Marxist “opiate of the masses” to describe Christianity). Her father, Philip, on the other hand, is less melodramatic, and prone to being upset because of his daughters’ dishonesty, not her finding of faith. Of course, faith can be an opiate, but it can also be an amphetamine used to fight classism and racism and replace it with the fairness dignity of the Kingdom of God.
Side step to another political thriller, the lauded House of Cards. A character (Rachel Brosnahan as Rachel Posner) who is used in a murder in the show, and is protected (and taken advantage of) by the Vice President’s chief-of-staff (Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper) buys in to a massive cover up. Rachel is so oppressed that somehow she agrees to have her every step chaperoned. She can’t be known—not at her job, certainly not be the press, and not be any acquaintances. You can see how secrecy and isolation can be so damaging in both of my examples.
Finally, she is so worn out that she violates the rule that she can’t speak to anyone, she finally meets a friend (again on a bus), and shares her headphone with her. This friend invites her to spend some time with her group of buddies, which end up being at what appears to be a church plant. Again, another incarnational connection to faith. She finds Jesus, and not surprisingly, her overseer demands that she stopped attending the church.
Unfortunately, her friend ends up being a sexually-repressed, closeted lesbian with whom she starts a relationship. My take was that the relationship was kept secret from the church. Of course, that might not wrong–but either way it’s a good portrayal, since the church’s potential homophobia isn’t a focus. But there is still a stereotype potentially buried that. However, it still goes a long way to show that Christians and faith can be a place of solace, decency, and respite for people worn out by the evils and trials of this world.
And for us? That’s all we can be. Extend an open hand to a friend, offer them a seat at the table, and see if they can accept. We’ll be hated and shamed and nervous to do it—who would want to be called an opiate? Who would want be summarily dismissed as repressed? Those attacks will come, but rather than respond with more hate let’s do something different. As the Apostle Paul says, quoting the Proverbs, On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”