Faith and the Small Screen: Too many heroes

Blog, Essays, Television, The Idiot Box — By on March 9, 2012 at 8:33 am

I stand by my statement that depiction of Christians is getting better on TV, even though there’s currently a show on ABC called GCB, standing for Good Christians Bitches. I also agree that Christians would better served getting riled up about the last word than the one in the middle. This is an example of bad TV that won’t last long, unless viewers decide they like one-dimensional characters outside of reality TV. But the truth remains, Christians along with other characters are getting better treatment in shows because writers are telling better stories. We’ve got a lot to learn from them.

A lot of my friends, facebook and otherwise, are Christians who are committed to telling a better story, whether they would phrase it that way or not. This is why I first saw Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video posted by a former student at the Christian school I taught in a couple years back. The fact this has become a controversy and dragged necessary conversations about social conscience and helping versus hurting onto timelines and walls illustrates this desire to make a difference. I worry about the pitfalls of oversimplifying it, however, mainly because I fall into the trap often. I want to be the clear-cut hero, like the star of the video. I’ll leave the discussion of Invisible Children and its merits to others, but the video, to be honest, annoyed the hell out of me and I didn’t know why. Then I remembered this post on Tyler Cowen and confirmed that I, too had learned to distrust stories.  If you’ve seen the video, think about the structure: who is the hero of this video? It may have been unintentional, but like the trendy dude in the video too many of us create our own stories in which we are one-dimensionally good.  The problem isn’t that this isn’t interesting; it’s just not honest.*

I know Tyler Cowen and myself aren’t alone in this. Too many of us distrust stories because we’ve seen or heard too many bad ones. As I watched the TED video, I could tell what type of movies Mr. Cowen likes to watch, what books he likes to read. My favorite stories play with the simple knight slays dragon structure or turn it on its head. I kind of wonder why storytellers who are Christians don’t do that more often–for as often as we’ve heard the story of the cross, we still tend to reduce God to a conventional action hero. And what about the antiheroes of the faith? Yet we tend to avoid nuance as if it were toxic, we prefer our images on TV and in person to be Ned Flanders without the irony, and wonder why some people out there are still working their asses off to portray “us” as one-dimensional jerks on TV. Until we start appreciating better stories, face it, we earned it.

This brings me back to TV. Shows are getting better because characters are being written and portrayed with more emotional realism. Fewer simply wear white or black hats, and even those with the black hats have feelings too. The last few minutes in the latest episode of Justified is a good example. Watch Justified, if only for an example of how even a “cops and robbers” show can humanize even the scum of the earth, for a moment. And this is heartening. Christian characters, atheist characters, Buddhist characters, etc. will enjoy a better portrayal on  TV simply for being human. This is because more people out there in television are working to produce better, more truthful stories. We could learn a lot from television. Yep, I just said that.

*Again, I’m not saying this to discredit Invisible Children. I’m only saying I don’t believe the guy making the video is the hero in the story. And by hero, I mean both main character and trendy version of Superman.

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