Saturday, August 4, 2012

Religion and the Media

Is it my imagination, or is the portrayal of religion in fiction and film distorted?
The fact that it is included at all in a secular age wary of religion is itself noteworthy, but it is unfortunate to see that what gives people meaning and hope depicted as fanatical or absurd.

This is especially true of movies produced in Britain, yet I have a hard time remembering any realistic portrayal of clergy in an American movie since the priest made a brief (meaningful) appearance in Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" some years ago.

In the murder mysteries my wife and I enjoy, from "Morse" to "Midsommer Murders," the church (mostly Anglican) is sensationalized. People visit priests not in quiet offices but in fully lit churches with lighted candles and crucifixes filmed at odd angles, and what the priests say is either hypocritically pious, given what we later learn about them, or silly.

Hypocrisy is the running theme of many of these portrayals, and Christianity is the religion of choice: and why not? The material is so rich for parody, its history so rife with intrigue and abuse. Yet the daily experience of prayer and church going for most of the faithful is overlooked in these depictions of fantaticism.

It's no wonder religion in the conventional, organized sense is a turn-off for so many. Nuns, who do the real work of the church despite what some in the Vatican may think, are often portrayed as comic figures, hopelessly naive or out of touch with reality. And priests are not real people but thwarted individuals caught up in bizarre, incense-filled rituals that look spooky rather than inspiring.

Intelligent script writers who create good characters like Inspector Morse and Lewis do not seem to know how to handle religion. Lewis's sidekick Hathaway is an ex-seminarian and an intellectual and therefore odd, even when he explains things that dull Lewis cannot fathom about Oxford or history. Yet even Hathaway was not surprised, as I was, to find in one episode a Jesuit living alone in a private chapel on an aristocrat's estate and prostrating himself daily in prayer. This is not what Jesuits (or other normal clergy) do!

I almost expected self-flagellation as well. The more sensational the better. Morse found churches creepy and couldn't wait to get out of them. Barnaby in Midsommer finds them odd, places to find hypocrites or child molesters.

The writers of these shows ignore the important value that religion has always played in human culture as a bridge to the unknowable yet mysterious reality that gives meaning to life. That non-logical myths and religious truths affect our so-called rational choices in ways we can only surmise is beyond the scope of most writers. I wish I could recall a recent movie in any language that depicts faith in a positive light or churchgoing as a fulfilling experience.

I have given up looking for honest religion (Christianity) as part of the fictional reality of contemporary novels. Maybe I should give up looking at so many movies from the U.K., where the clergy seem to exist only to be lampooned as fools or hypocrites.

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