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Religious Themes in the Shows We Love

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Let's Talk about TV and Religion [Jul. 15th, 2010|10:46 am]
Religious Themes in the Shows We Love

churchofjoss

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There's been lots of religious references in various television series recently, but very little of it positive.

For example:

On Trueblood, there's been the poorly-researched and quite offensive 'Maenad' plotline (did you know that worshippers of Dionysus grow monster claws and murder people (after making those around them crazy)? Did you know that centuries-old Maenads build altars with modern Goddess-worshiper idols on them?), and Christians don't fare much better - they're portrayed as being intolerant, hate-filled and violent OR ineffectual and self-congratulatory assholes.

On Bones, there's been a Wiccan group portrayed as out-there flakes (who affect stilted 'ritual language' when being interviewed by the police in connection with a murder!) in order to allow the protagonists to make snide remarks at their expense.

And let's not even get into Supernatural.

I miss the thoughtful tenor of Deep Space Nine, where fictional religions were given respectful voice as complex belief systems. And the best part was that there was a range of practice represented. Some people were devout and holy and good, some were opportunistic and grasping and bad...but there wasn't some shorthand where religion in general was made the villain or the buffoon.

Why is Hollywood so antagonistic to religion (in general) these days? Why do writers use their characters' religious lives as a source of derision? I can't think that it translates to a larger antagonism towards spirituality in the US- while my experience is limited, I see more people with active religious life now than I ever did in the past (which may or may not include worshiping within an organized congregational model of whichever religion.)

While such antagonistic writing is not wholly unexpected in 'mainstream' programming, I find it particularly disappointing to see it in shows that deal with genres that should have (in my opinion) greater tolerance and a wider imagination than the average bear.

Have there been any television portrayals of religion (any religion) that you found particularly infuriating or particularly gratifying? How do you think they inform (or are informed by) the general public?
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Comments:
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[User Picture]From: revdorothyl
2010-07-15 10:40 pm (UTC)
First, I just wanted to thank you for giving 'props' to Deep Space Nine on their handling of religion (which got better and better, in my opinion, in later seasons). When I had to take the place of an injured Anthropology professor for a week back in 2002 just when this "Myths and Legends" course was starting their study of the Star Trek mythos (using the textbook Deep Space and Sacred Time), I showed my students a couple of clips from the DS9 episode "Rapture", and I think that was the part of my lecture that they remembered the best.

Have there been any television portrayals of religion (any religion) that you found particularly infuriating or particularly gratifying?

Within the sci-fi genre, where I would expect more tolerance and open-mindedness but too rarely find it, I remember being appalled at the open dismissal of religion as superstition that all cultures should grow out of in the first seasons of ST:TNG. However, in later seasons, there were a very few episodes focused on Worf's Klingon beliefs that weren't quite so automatically dismissive (or maybe they were dismissive in a more insidious way, suggesting that the non-white, non-human Worf could be allowed to hold these beliefs, while more enlightened and light-skinned humans were above that sort of thing?).

A non-genre show that used to tick me off at times was Seventh Heaven, because its attempted portrayal of a minister and his family in a positive light was all too frequently cringe-worthy from my perspective as a Presbyterian minister, making my faith look shallow and/or ignorant even while patting itself on the back for its 'good values' (and let's not even get started on the caricature-ish, one-dimensional depiction of Judaism on that show when oldest son Matt suddenly married a Jewish girl). That may be more a personal gripe, though, since many years later I'm still outraged at their poorly-researched scripts which suggested that the middle daughter could go straight from High School to seminary and become a minister without first getting her college degree. Call it 'Bible College', if that's what it is, but don't mislead people into thinking that my hard-won post-graduate degree from Princeton Seminary is on a par with a Junior College degree, please! (off-topic rant, there, I know)
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[User Picture]From: revdorothyl
2010-07-15 10:59 pm (UTC)

Comment continued

How do you think they inform (or are informed by) the general public?

Having grown up in the "Church of Star Trek" myself (meaning that since I spent ten hours a week watching classic Star Trek reruns in my early adolescence vs. a maximum of three to four hours a week in worship- and Christian-education-related activities, and often used Kirk and Spock and the others as substitute parental role models, since I spent more time communing with them than I did with my minister father and over-worked mother, my understanding of what I read in the Bible and learned in church was very much shaped by the values and beliefs I'd derived from various ST episodes) and still having a somewhat genre-influenced view of theology, I think I can say that TV portrayals of religions and faith in general definitely inform the general public's views (particularly if viewed uncritically and/or viewed intensively at an impressionable age).

I'm never quite sure to what degree popular misconceptions about religions influence what shows up on the TV screens. I'd hope that the ignorance and/or intolerance and smugness too often equated with religious belief on TV does not truly reflect the general public's views. But there's an awful lot of ignorant crap said online by everybody and their uncle or spouted in sound-bites from supposed religious leaders, at times, and I'm often discouraged by what my students in Bible courses have accepted at face value from all the wrong sources. (and if one more student tries to quote "Pulp Fiction"'s manufactured and mangled bible passage to me in a paper instead of actually looking it up in the Book, I won't be held responsible!)

Edited at 2010-07-15 11:01 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: fenchurche
2010-07-15 11:20 pm (UTC)
On Bones, there's been a Wiccan group portrayed as out-there flakes

Oh my gosh, was that ever cringe-worthy. And, seriously, how long does it take to do just a teensy bit of research so you don't completely offend people who might actually practice? If you're going to just make stuff up anyway, why not simply create a religion from scratch and have them do whatever you need them to for your plot.

Probably the best treatment of religion I've ever seen on television was on Babylon 5. And I think it's fascinating that it took an avowed atheist to bring the subjects of spirituality and faith onto the airwaves in a respectful and insightful manner. Hmmm... I just started coming up with a list of instances to cite and it simply got too huge... and trying to narrow it down is hard!

For me, I guess the best episode example I can come up with off the top of my head was "Passing Through Gesthemane" -- and I'll admit that I picked this one because I'm a Christian and it explored a lot of Christian themes (and so was a bit more pertinent to my own life) but the show did manage to explore a surprisingly wide range of religious and spiritual thought, helped quite a bit by the premise of the show and the existence of aliens and alien cultures with their own forms of faith and spirituality.

Anyway, back to the episode... A man had been found guilty of committing some, IIRC, gruesome murders and was sentenced to death of personality (where the former personality is completely wiped clean and they're able to quite literally have a clean slate). Ordinarily, such an individual would be put in a position to serve the community as they, essentially, became a new person... but in this man's case, he'd slipped through the cracks and somehow ended up as part of an order of monks (also serving the community and becoming a new person, just not under the watchful eye of the justice system). Unfortunately, a relative of one of the people he'd killed tracked him down, tried to get him to remember his crimes and eventually tortured him to death (and afterward was, himself, subject to death of personality).

The thing that has always stuck with me was a question asked by the murderer-turned-monk as he was dying... now knowing that he'd done these horrible things he had no recollection of doing and being horrified by it, as well as what it meant for his own salvation: "How can I repent of my sins, if I don't know what they are?"

There were no answers given in the episode... and I think it served very well as a way to get people to really ponder the nature of the subject matter, as well as things like capital punishment, because at first the death of personality is portrayed as being so much more humane than the death penalty... and yet, was it? There weren't any absolutes given in answer to that, either. It wasn't being preachy, it was just presenting the ideas in a way to get people to actually *think* about them and about the spiritual side of the subject as well.

I suspect it helped that JMS, the show creator, wrote most of the episodes and was the sort of person who enjoyed exploring and studying those things and tended to actually do his homework on the subject, even if he wasn't a believer in any of it, himself.
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[User Picture]From: texanfan
2010-07-16 12:02 am (UTC)
I hadn't really thought of B5 in that light but you're right. B5 and DS9 were both traveling ground not well worn in the SF community at that time. i find it very sad that DS9 is the least watched of the Treks. As a fellow Christian I find teh respectful use of religion in storylines endlessly fascinating.
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[User Picture]From: ivyfree
2010-07-16 03:31 am (UTC)
It sounds like you feel antagonism to religion isn't a valid POV. I've reached the point where I feel my own religion is relevant to me, and I don't particularly care what other people think so long as they please shut up about it.

I think writers ought to be free to express their views, even if they are antagonistic to religion. I think religion provides nearly unlimited opportunities for people to maximize their asshole potential. And I might be reacting a bit strongly to your comments because we received an invitation to go to the corner park tomorrow night to meet our neighbors and have a come to Jesus meeting; we've lived here (and so have they) 32 years, and I can't imagine what we could have done to make them think we'd welcome an invitation to a Christian event- and I'm hoping that they just tactfully drop the matter because if they ask me why we didn't come, I'm probably going to tell them.

Spiritual nudity is, as I've said before, less attractive than the physical kind.
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