Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

I’ve Gotta Have Faith

 

It is, it seems, increasingly difficult in today’s media landscape to sustain a television series focused on characters that overtly represent figures drawn from traditional religion. At best, we might expect to see a priest, rabbi, or monk as a tertiary character who appears every now and then to impart advice to the main cast; at worst, we can anticipate seeing these same figures relegated to roles filled by guest cast in a one-off that often attempts to make an explicit point condemning the hypocrisy of religion (or, in a reversal, makes audiences feel guilty for their readiness to judge religion). Add to this the progressively more visible outrage from religious groups about the portrayal of their faith on television and it seems easy to understand why network television, which often strives to appeal to the lowest common denominator in entertainment, tends to stay away from the issue of religion.[1]

Some of this indignation, I would argue, stems from the inability or unwillingness of religious groups to work productively with media in order to create programming that portrays fully-formed characters that embody positive aspects of institutional religion. Without liaisons that understand the constraints and demands of television’s economic realities, religion has little hope of convincing producers and network executives to move away from the salacious, defamatory, blasphemous, and lucrative content presently on the air.

And yet, underneath the turmoil, religious displays continue to quietly manifest in a nebulous middle ground labeled by viewers and characters as faith or spirituality according to S. Elizabeth Bird.[2] It seems as though extreme examples of religious expression (or lack thereof) have become targets for attack in television as audiences have become accustomed to religious structures or ideologies that depict a strident belief in a vague, yet ever-present, other power. As a result, discussions of faith have become coded and are not readily apparent until one begins to think deeply about what is being shown on screen.

My favorite example of this process, which relates to Bird’s exploration of House, comes in the form of David Fincher’s Fight Club.[3] Read simply, the movie seems to advocate for gratuitous violence and wonton destruction but, upon closer inspection, one quickly realizes that although the movie is saturated with violence, it is not about violence. Rather, we can think about Fight Club as a form of communion that allows disaffected and disconnected men to come together in ritual that satiates their desire to feel.[4] Here, in the sacred circle, men feel a profound sense of community and also remember what it means to be alive; the movie ultimately features a respectful discussion of some of religion’s central tenets carefully balanced out by the satirical appearance of a pugilistic priest despite not being about religion.


[1] This is certainly not to say those protesting have come to represent the entirety (or even majority) of their faith, but that online tools have made it easier for these groups to find each other and to consolidate power. These same online tools have also renegotiated the distance between audiences and networks, also allowing disgruntled groups to be heard and seen much more effectively.

[2] Bird, S. E. (2009). True Believers nd Atheists Need Not Apply. In D. Winston (Ed.), Small Screen Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion (pp. 17-41). Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.

[3] Here I focus on the movie for its similarity to televised media, although the original novel by Chuck Palahniuk could evidence similar comparisons and arguments.

[4] The main character is in fact so disconnected from himself that he manifests two entirely different personalities and is so unable to reconcile the two that he ultimately shoots himself in the face in order to kill off his alter ego!

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