If you’ve read even a chapter or two in the Old Testament, you’ve probably noticed the series of events that plays out over and over (and over): God communicates His instructions to the nation of Israel, Israel fails to follow those commands, and, eventually, God uses “outsiders” (the Persians, Medes, Assyrians, etc. ) to confront and to correct His people.
It occurs to me that God continues to use today’s “outsiders” to help bring perspective and instruction to His people. True, armed Babylonians aren’t storming into our churches. Rather, I see God speaking to Christians through what might be an unexpected medium: popular TV.
From FOX’s musical “dramedy” Glee to ABC’s “Texas-sized show” GCB, Christian characters are highly visible in the network lineup. At times, these characters witness to the best aspects of our faith, demonstrating grace and compassion in the face of great need. At other times, they depict the worst, responding with ignorance and hypocrisy to the situation they’re in.
As Christians, we might find ourselves alternately gratified and frustrated by these depictions. Yet we must remind ourselves that these portrayals reflect the thoughts and perceptions of real people—the writers and actors. At some point, these folks came into contact with some form of Christianity, and they formed opinions based upon those experiences.
So when we come across these shows, I don’t think God’s telling us to change the channel. Rather, He might be asking us to engage with what these shows are communicating. If we listen hard enough, I believe we can hear God speaking to us through the messages these shows are sending about how the world views Christians.
The ABC network’s new show GCB (an acronym for Good Christian Belles) takes what culture thinks of Christianity and exaggerates it. The opening scene of the episode “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” typifies GCB’s Christian stereotypes. Amanda—the show’s protagonist—shows up for church wearing slacks. Gigi, Amanda’s mother, proceeds to judge her daughter for this fashion faux pas. Amanda responds, Seriously, I think God just wants us to show up. I don’t think He cares how you look.”
I have to agree: God does not care what we wear. But after further questioning from Gigi, Amanda reveals that she wore slacks because she tripped over a keg at a bar and did not want everyone to know why she had a bruise, and not because she was trying to make a point about God’s acceptance.
In this brief scene, GCB succinctly depicts the hypocrisy (through Amanda) and quickness to judge (through Gigi) that many people associate with Christianity—a sentiment I’ve heard expressed by many people in many contexts. One of the biggest challenges that the Church faces today is accepting people for who they are while still holding on to our own convictions. We are called to follow Jesus’ example and hold people accountable for what they do, but we must also lovingly accept people into the grace of God. If we are going to posture ourselves after Jesus, we must understand that people will make mistakes, but it is not our place to judge their hearts.
Further, we need to get more used to admitting that we make mistakes; otherwise, we will just look like hypocrites. Jesus compared Himself to a doctor: He came not for those who are healthy but for those who are desperate to be saved. So why do we feel the need to always pretend that we’re great? Revealing our brokenness to others is one way that we can be witnesses for Christ and His redeeming work. If we find ourselves in a situation like Amanda’s, where we are so embarrassed by the ways that we’ve fallen short, perhaps it would be best for us to simply come clean—to God and to each other.
While shows like GCB depict Christians as hypocritical, the NBC sitcom Community characterizes Christians as ignorant. In the episode “Comparative Religion,” Shirley, an evangelical Christian, hosts a Christmas party for the members of her community college study group. It’s clear from the start that she believes everyone celebrates Christmas. When she discovers otherwise, she repeatedly makes disparaging remarks toward her classmates, who come from a variety of faith backgrounds. For instance, when Abed, a Muslim, brings a traditional dish from his culture to Shirley’s Christmas party, she thanks him but then adds, “I’m guessing as a woman, I won’t be allowed to eat that.” Though she claims to “respect all religions of the world,” her actions suggest that she either doesn’t really respect them or doesn’t know anything about them.
As someone with a degree in comparative religion, I found this episode funny, yet disturbing in regard to Shirley’s lack of knowledge about other faith traditions. Shirley assumed that there is a war on Christmas, and she sought to defend her holiday. Yet in the process, she failed to show the love of the One whose birth she was celebrating.
We, as Christians, have a responsibility to reflect Jesus upon the world as much as we can. In college, I befriended a professor who was a Hajji, a Muslim who had traveled to Mecca and thereby performed the fifth pillar of Islam. I could have told him I thought he was wrong for worshipping Allah of Islam. Instead, I asked him to coffee to learn of his travels. After a relationship of mutual trust and friendship had been established, we were able to dialogue with each other honestly. I shared my beliefs, just as he shared his. But before we reached that point, I wanted to follow the example of Jesus: to show love to my friend by taking a genuine interest in his experience. Jesus dined with everyone, and as a result earned Himself a “worldly” reputation as a drunk, a glutton, and a “friend to tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:33–34). Yet Jesus did not allow such condemnation to stop the power of His love (John 3:16–17). Unlike Community’s Shirley, Jesus welcomed all people to the table, even as He witnessed to the true Redeemer and His love.
“Grilled Cheesus” or real Jesus?
Unlike Community’s Shirley, some of the Christian characters in FOX’s Glee represent faith in a more positive light. In the episode “Grilled Cheesus,” Kurt—a young gay atheist whose father has tragically suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma—receives an invitation from his friend Mercedes to attend her church. While there, Mercedes asks her congregation to pray for Kurt, no strings attached. Regardless of Kurt’s sexual orientation or religious faith, Mercedes’ community promises to pray for him and his father. Kurt receives Mercedes’ kindness and love with gratitude. Although he is not a Christian by the end of the episode, he acknowledges that everyone needs some sort of faith, and he is moved by the way the church demonstrates love to him.
As Glee’s storyline suggests, the world is starving for a Christianity that—following Jesus’ model—comes in and heals, loves, brings joy and food, and prays without ceasing. Looking at the Bible, we see that when Jesus prays, He does so because people need it. What if we, like Mercedes, simply began to pray for people because they need it?
I have friends from a variety of faith perspectives: atheists, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics. I bring to these relationships love for my friends, their problems, their joys, and their stresses. These friends know that I truly believe that Jesus is the “way, truth, and life,” and I do my best to live this among them and not just preach it to them.
Taking heart from TV
It would be easy to dismiss much of what North American television says about Christians, but is this the right thing to do? We must take time to see God in all avenues. We should look at these examples of Christians with new eyes and consider whether God is trying to speak to us through these unusual mediums.
Many of these characters are complicated and draw mixed emotions from us as viewers. Characters like GCB’s Amanda and Community’s Shirley remind us that, as Christians, we are not perfect. Sometimes we get it wrong, and we deserve to be laughed at. From these experiences, we learn to humble ourselves and seek redemption from those we have belittled, while still holding firmly to our own convictions. Other characters, like Glee’s Mercedes, show us how we can respond to potentially volatile situations with love and grace, armed with the knowledge that we don’t need to “convert” someone before we can serve them.
The good and the bad, the stereotypical and the transcendent—characterizations of Christians in television today reflect lived experience and demonstrate that Christians are just as complex as the rest of humanity. More than that, they might also be another way that God is calling us to consider how we’re doing in our witness to His world.