Saturday, September 24, 2011

Did You Know There Was, Like, an Adoration Chapel Around the Corner There?

There's a strange new article at the AV Club this weekend. Well, it's really strange because it's at the AV Club, whose writers generally show more sense.

Writer Allison Willmore begins "What If They Just Plain Believe?" by describing the reception of Kevin Smith's "religion-baiting" new movie Red State at Sundance earlier this year. Red State, however, "was just one of a crowd of films there to feature broad villainy in the name of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity", and Willmore lists a few. Then she writes,
It’s not as though someone decided, “This will be the year of the abusive evangelical!” But taken together, these titles were enough to make some—to make me, certainly—squirm in discomfort at the easy targets they set up and then knock down. They invite the question: Are indie films unfair to Christianity?
Whoa! That's a bit of a leap, to put it gently: from "fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity" to "Christianity," full stop. It's the kind of equivocation that evangelicals themselves love to use in debate. When they're on the defensive, they remind you (as Willmore does) that "around 75 percent of Americans [identify] themselves as part of a Christian denomination." When they're on the offensive, they attack most of the 75 percent for not really being Christians, because they aren't evangelicals. And that intellectually dishonest move drags down Willmore's article, culminating in
If faith only shows up as a means of keeping people down or as a way for someone to hide an underlying cruel/greedy/lying/delusional nature, if the idea that a character can be sincere in his or her beliefs and get something from them is impossible, then indie film becomes the equivalent of the smug belligerent atheist kid on campus who’s always trying to organize debates about the existence of God with Christian groups, and who ends up coming across as just as annoying as any sanctimonious proselytizer. Personally, my hopes are pinned to the recently announced The Book Of Mormon adaptation: Trey Parker and Matt Stone may be experts at skewering the preposterous aspects of organized religion, but they’re also willing to admit that out of faith can come positive things.
(N.B. I added the link to the cartoon there.) Personally, I think that Parker and Stone are a good example of what is really wrong with most outsiders' view of conservative religion. They fasten, no less than Smith apparently did in Red State, on easy targets: homophobic fundamentalists, child-molesting Catholic priests. Then they turn around and sentimentalize clean-cut, wholesome Mormons (you know, the kind of people who worked hard for Proposition 8) or gesture vaguely at Jesus and Love and why-can't-we-all-get-along. Even hard-core atheists can go along with this, quoting with approval Gandhi's "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians" line, and asking why fundamentalists are so un-Christian, unlike that nice Mr. Jesus, who only taught hellfire and damnation and plucking out your eye to avoid sin, and depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire -- Die! Die! Die! You know, the true meaning of Christian love.

Willmore also complains:
So one could argue that films like the ones listed above are critiques of the dominant culture—though not the dominant culture of cinema, given that most multiplex movies, the ones that are seen by the broadest audiences, avoid religion entirely unless it’s of the ancient Greek or Norse variety and will enable some kickass slow-motion fight scenes. And it’s hard to imagine any other religion, even Islam, taking it on the chin so regularly in the media, being used as shorthand for hypocrisy and repressed rage without provoking protests of cultural insensitivity.
This is also a common complaint among conservative Christians, and just as dishonest when they do it. The trouble is partly that evangelical Christians want a very specific kind of Christianity depicted in media, and so they're dissatisfied by the watered-down version that makes it into product aimed at "the broadest audiences." I don't believe media people when they claim that they are just giving America what it wants, but they might be right that even most American Christians are put off by a movie character taking time out to a commercial for evangelical Christianity. (For a detailed, informed, and sympathetic discussion of this issue, I recommend Heather Hendershot's excellent Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture [Chicago, 2004].) And that leaves aside the detail that "the broadest audiences" Hollywood wants to reach are more than ever international audiences, who might not be Christian at all, but when they are, are even less likely to be American-style fundamentalists.

But even in the multiplexes, the story is more complicated than Willmore admits. Surely she's heard of this recent hit The Blind Side, which starred Sandra Bullock as a very Christian Southern white lady who adopts a poor black kid and makes him a football star. I haven't seen it and don't watch much multiplex fare anyway, but what I have seen over the past few decades fits the pattern I mentioned above: it does depict religious bigots as villains, but pays nonsectarian lip service to Christian charity and niceness. This understandably bothers a lot of conservative Christians, and I can understand why they want antigay bigots, racists, and anti-choice fanatics to be presented as positive characters, but the fact remains that such figures are embarrassments in real life and not representative of "the dominant culture." Many conservative Christians want commercial entertainment (borrowing Willmore's words) "to run with [fundamentalism] as the primary characterization of the religious affiliation of the majority of the nation", but only as long as it's presented positively.

To repeat: fundamentalists are not equivalent to Christianity. As I've said before, no single type of Christian is representative of Christianity. It's as invalid to judge Christianity by Martin Luther King Jr. as it is to judge it by Pat Robertson. I judge it by Jesus as he's depicted in the canonical gospels, so of course it comes up wanting. Even people who might privately share such views don't like what they look like from outside, so of course they blame the messenger. (I see a similarity here to men who complain about negative depictions of men as violent brutes in commercial media: they don't object to depictions of violent men per se -- quite the opposite -- but they do mind violent men being seen as villains. Men who aren't violent, who like women, children, and domesticity -- these are the men they want to see demonized.)

Using "abusive" Christians as negative characters isn't limited to non-Christians, by the way, or even to today's commercial entertainment. Such types show up in nineteenth-century popular fiction; I believe there were such characters in Oliver Twist, and the fanatic has always been a convenient boogeyman for those who want to look and feel moderate. (The worst thing about Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, to my mind, is that they make almost any other Christian seem moderate by comparison, and many bigots take advantage of this.) I wonder if The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which actually is an anti-Christian book, could be published today. Twain, however, fit the pattern I described above: "If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian," he once wrote.

A number of commenters named films that treat Christianity, or religion generally, with more nuance and sympathy; I could name more myself. But that would bog one down in disputes about how adequate they are, or if there are enough of them. That's not really the issue anyway; I think it's more important that Willmore relied on this convenient confusion between one strand of Christianity and the whole tangled skein. This is why I was startled to find Willmore's polemic at the AV Club; it really belongs on a hardcore conservative Christian site.