By Amy Swanson, Contributing Writer
What is your initial reaction when you see a character in a movie or television show depicted as a member of the clergy? Don’t think about it too hard. What’s your gut instinct? You may not know what to think, but you do know one thing. That character exists as a member of the clergy for a reason. He or she was made a holy person to get a greater emotional response out of the viewer. It could be positive feelings like goodness, trust or the belief that someone bigger than our problems is in control. They could also illicit negative emotions such as judgment, betrayal, oppression, or undeserved superiority.
Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, every depiction of those who claim to represent God has a glimmer of truth in it, and when the audience recognizes these truths, it affects our culture and not always positively. If we want to transform the culture, we cannot dismiss these sketches as mere works of fiction. Rather, we must prepare ourselves to advance or counter the effects if necessary.
First, let’s look at the various depictions of clergy in television and movies.
The Simple and the Simpletons: Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley in THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S and GOING MY WAY; The Reverend Mother and the Sisters of SISTER ACT and THE SOUND OF MUSIC; the Birdwell family from FRIENDLY PERSUASION; and, Eric Camden of 7th HEAVEN.
These are the kindest portrayals of people of faith. They are simple, loving, forgiving, and committed to being good and doing good, but there’s a flaw. They are not only simple, they are simpletons. Nice people, but behind the times. They are frequently seen by outsiders as weak, uneducated and out of touch with the real world. Ah, but here’s the beauty part – they win. Through some quirk of fate or just the determination (i.e. faith) to persevere, they manage to come out on top. Is it proof that God exists and that He cares? No, but it makes people want to dare to hope and hope is the beginning of faith.
The Suffering Servants: A MAN CALLED PETER; Reverend Abner Hale in HAWAII; Henry Biggs from THE PREACHER’S WIFE; and the Reverend Alden from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE; and, Reverend Lovejoy from THE SIMPSONS.
Just a peg down from the aforementioned ingénues, the suffering servants persist with little or no reward. They are wise, and they are usually right, but no one seems to care, not even God. This depiction is a dangerous and delicate balancing act. On the one hand, the reality is many hardworking, honorable people go through long periods of time, sometimes their whole lives, without any of their work being acknowledged. They feel unappreciated and frequently wonder if all their hard work has been for nothing.
People of any worldview can relate to this, but it can be dangerous. It hardly inspires people to follow their example. While the clergy demonstrates what it means to sacrifice, other characters in the story get to convey the joy of living. It makes us wonder, what’s the point if giving your life to God means getting nothing in return?
When I see these characters, I try to point out that they are depicted that way to show the very nature of service and sacrifice, and that those actions however unnoticed they may seem, were like ripples in the water or a strong wind pushing you in a certain direction. You may not see it, but you feel its effects.
The Ghostbusters: THE RITE; THE OMEN; THE EXORCIST; THE DEVIL INSIDE
When a girl acts weird, and it don’t look good, who ya gonna call? Anthony Hopkins! These are the Christian bad boys: the Biblical gunslingers. They fear nothing because they wield the authority of the Lord armed with crucifixes, incantations and holy water. They exorcise demons, make them do jumping jacks and spit pea soup. Their very presence exudes courage, power and immunity to evil. They make Christians look cool. . . until you try it in real life. Then, you just look silly. What’s more, after watching an exorcist in action, the normal Christian life looks boring. Why would someone want to settle down and raise a good God-fearing family when there’s a devil out there to battle? What a lot of people don’t know is that a true commitment to living the Christian life is all the spiritual battle a person will ever need. When a believer chooses to fight the endless battle with the sin inside them, they exorcize the devil within them. The true Christian life is an adventure of the soul.
The Evil Ones: Carmelengo Patrick McKenna of ANGELS AND DEMONS; Cardinal Richelieu from THE THREE MUSKETEERS; The Reverend Trask from DARK SHADOWS; Brother Justin Crowe of CARNIVALE; and, pretty much all of Christianity as depicted in THE DIVINCI CODE.
The list continues. There are certain TV shows, particularly the who-done-it variety, where the minute you see a member of the clergy appear on the screen you know who the villain is. This is tragic and dangerous. Whether these characters are blatantly evil or innocently misguided the affect on society makes people want to avoid their pastors and spiritual leaders at all cost. It makes them doubt God’s goodness or even reluctant to put a dollar in the collection plate for fear it might end up in the wrong hands. Furthermore, people are just all too eager to believe it.
Here’s the thing. It’s not as if normal people don’t steal money, murder people or molest children. It just hurts more when it’s a member of the clergy. That’s the whole point.
Is it a conspiracy initiated by the atheist liberal left? Possibly, but Hollywood is in the emotion manipulating business. If they can make you laugh harder, cry longer, seethe with greater anger, then they’re going to do it. If making a character a member of the clergy will increase our emotional reaction, then so be it. That is the nature of storytelling, not the nature of the church. If Hollywood uses our emotions to sell us product, we must not let our emotions deceive us.
“The heart is deceitful above all else; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9.