Media Perception of Religion   Leave a comment

Statistically, conservative evangelical Christians are far and away the most generous people in the country … not just giving money to causes, but also giving time. The Southern Baptist Convention funds state-based disaster groups that are often the first responders to crises like Katrina and the World Trade Center attack. The World Health Organization actually sent a team to a section of Tanzania where there was an unexpectedly low rate of HIV, only to find that a Christian missionary team had spent the last 20 years evangelizing among the villagers, so that the majority of about 10 villages were Christians who had only one wife and didn’t sleep around.  Slightly more than 50% of American scientists say they believe in God as a metaphysical concept.

And, yet, America’s largest identifiable voting bloc — that of evangelical Christians — are overwhelmingly portrayed by Hollywood as hypocritical, sexually abusive, hostile to science, and psychological inhumane. Since the late 1960s, Hollywood has portrayed Christians in unflattering ways, branding them as ill-informed, intolerant, fanatical and wicked people who are not in touch with reality.

Think:

  • Warden Norton in the Shawshank Redemption, quoting Bible versus while mistreating inmate and pilfering money
  • The fanatical preacher in Contact, who blows up an interplanetary spaceship because he hates science
  • Mrs. Carmody from The Mist — just your average Christian housewife waiting to uncork some pent -up repression.
  • Mother from Carrie (choose your version) – a garden variety Pentacostal nutjob child abuser

Christians tend to get excited whenever a faith-themed movie is announced. We hope it will finally portray us or the Bible accurately and respectfully, while at the same time, we know it won’t.

NOTE: I did not say “fear” it won’t. We KNOW it won’t. We hope for better, but we no longer are surprised by what Hollywood feels free to do to our most precious stories and history.

Which is not to say that Muslims are not also portrayed in stereotypical ways — when they’re not featured as terrorists, they are depicted as misogynistic brutes with backward and mysterious customs. I’m just choosing to focus on Christians because I know from personal experience the truth of what I am writing.

When Hollywood attempts to do a “Christian” film, they give us Noah, depicting the Biblical figure as a crazy, irrational nut who is so fixated on modern-day problems like overpopulation and environmental degradation that his wife has to threaten him with divorce to keep him from killing his grandchildren.

Faith on television hardly gets any better treatment. Contemporary television goes out of its way to paint moving, sympathetic portraits of everyone from bullied gay teenagers to sex addicts and Mafia wives, but somehow can’t find any empathy for men and women of faith.

This misrepresentation of Christianity and Christians has wide-ranging effects. For a secular audience, it is much easier to passively watch a 90-minute movie than interview members of a congregation or attend a religious service to get facts straight. Under the 1st amendment to the US Constitution, Hollywood may legally portray religions in a negative light, but the aftereffects can be harmful in shaping public opinions about religion or its followers.

The typical Hollywood writer, according to media commentator Ben Stein, is from a large Eastern city, often of Jewish background, who grew up being taught that people in small towns hated him and were out to get him. When he gets a chance, he attacks that mythical small town on television or in the movies. He’s not writing reality, but portraying the point of view of a small, extremely powerful section of the American intellectual community, resulting in a popular national culture waging culture war on a way of life that is still widely practiced in the same country. Affection for small towns and small town values (like faith) runs very deep in America, but the mass culture of the country hates small towns and their related values, so spews their view onto television and movie screens, showing nothing but contempt for a fairly large part of the population. People are told that their culture is rooted in sickness, violence, and depravity, which gives them little confidence in the future of that culture. They feel ashamed of the country and come to believe that, if their society is in decline, it deserves to be.” (Stein, 1976).

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