By Allison Vander Broek
It’s that time of year again. The end of the academic year and the start of summer. And for me and one of my colleagues, it also means that it’s time for our Biannual Religious Film and Television Marathon. We both study American religious history and share a passion for religion in American pop culture. So generally at the end of each semester we try to get together for a day, hang out in sweatpants, eat junk food, and catch up on all the religious TV or movies that we’ve missed during the busyness of the semester.
Past line-ups have included: 19 Kids and Counting, Sister Wives, Preachers of LA (think the Real Housewives of Wherever but about church pastors), My Five Wives. We’re keen on religious reality TV but have also been known to dabble in films like the Left Behind series.
On the agenda this time: the film God’s Not Dead. And yes, I know we are way behind the times with this one—it came out a year ago now. I blame studying for comprehensive exams and writing dissertation proposals on the delay in us watching it. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, the basic premise is a Christian college student facing off against his atheist philosophy professor who, on the first day of class, asks his students to sign a paper declaring, “God is Dead.” It’s a classic David-and-Goliath tale—sprinkled with anti-intellectual/anti-elite undertones and a healthy dose of evangelical apologia.
I find movies like God’s Not Dead and their television counterparts endlessly entertaining—frustrating in a lot of ways, yes, but also fascinating. For example, I thought God’s Not Dead was extremely heavy-handed and exasperating. Especially as a Christian in academia who hopes to one day be a professor, the anti-elite/anti-intellectual vibe of the film left a bad taste in my mouth. But I loved seeing the odd mix of tropes—the atheist academic, the scary Muslim father, the student from atheist, Communist China who later converts to Christianity, the wise, friendly, ever-present pastor and his missionary friend—and thinking about how and why these examples were chosen.
As much as I could sit and unpack the movie all day long, I don’t mean this to be some sort of review of the film. By this point, I’m sure we’ve all read or heard enough about it from friends, family, movie reviews, etc. Rather, here are a few general reflections about Christianity in movies and television that I’ve gathered from too many hours spent watching Christian movies and television.
First, these movies and shows are a window into how society perceives American Christianity and how American Christians see themselves. As a historian, I like to think of these films as a text we can read—a source that can tell us a little something about the group that produced it or is portrayed in it. I like to see how Christians are represented, what they say about themselves, their families, their churches, their values. Who’s allowed to tell the story? Who are the good guys? The bad? In this way, television and movies like God’s Not Dead, while they don’t tell the whole story, are part of the project of the ongoing defining and redefining of American Christianity.
Second, and this is a much less developed musing of mine, these shows and films illustrate the intersection of American Christianity and celebrity culture. This aspect may be most relevant in light of the recent controversy surrounding the Duggar Family (of 19 Kids and Counting fame). So we’re all very aware of celebrity culture in the US—think of the Kardashians. What are they famous for again? And then, of course, there’s a parallel Christian celebrity culture, whether it’s a Christian musician, big-time pastor, author, or reality television star. So television and films help propagate this Christian celebrity culture.
Now, celebrity culture makes me squeamish at best. And Christian celebrity culture—no, thank you. At the same time, there is value in examining and interrogating celebrity culture in its varied manifestations within American Christianity. As with the content of a film or show, I like to ask questions such as: Who gets to tell the story? Who are the good guys of Christian celebrity culture? The bad guys? What do the answers to these questions tell us about the current state of American Christianity, about the big issues and questions that American Christians are asking? And for those of us a little squeamish about a Christian celebrity culture, now that we’ve got one, what do we do with it?
I don’t really have an answer to that question yet, but with these questions in mind, I think I’m off to while away another summer day on Netflix or YouTube in search of the next great (and/or terrible) Christian television show or movie.
Allison Vander Broek is a graduate student in American religious history at Boston College.