“Lived Religion” in Television

For more television and theology connections, check out: http://www.brehmcenter.com/initiatives/reelspirituality/television/

In Small Screen, Big Picture Diane Winston has edited a collection of essays that examine the contributions of television to the discipline of “lived religion”. As the most pervasive medium in America, television is poised to be an influential site where we can experiment with various aspects of our activity as sacred praxis. TV’s long-term narrative scope, reliance upon character development, and potential for multiple interwoven narrative threads makes it much like our day-to-day reality and thus offers a salient space for us to explore who we are and what matters. Movies, however, are events: one-time-only spectacles with a clear resolution. “More than any other media, television reflects life as we experience it” (12). The essays in Small Screen explore sacred space in three areas: meaning, community, and identity (9, Robert White).
            Bird’s essay posits that television dramas typically portray atheists and hard-core believers in a negative light. Both are frequently vilified. Protagonists, however, are most often conflicted in their beliefs, admitting to struggle and tension in the areas of faith or worldview. This is consistent with the gray area of real life in American society today, where most people profess some sort of faith in a higher being, yet feel alienated from traditional religion. For Bird, lived religion is “a practice-based religion concerned with moral choices and personal growth rather than debates over faith and dogma” (18). It is this “lived religion” (as opposed to theological or doctrinal debates) that television is poised to inform.
            Newcomb demonstrates how the show Deadwood is exemplary in this demonstration of flawed characters wrestling with mixed beliefs in their everyday lives. (He also alludes to God’s creation in Genesis when describing how the show’s creator, David Milch, took creative liberties with available raw materials in the construction of a compelling world. Genesis’ cultural mandate?) Deadwood is a microcosm of America; the inhabitants have learned to live with the inherent contradictions (opportunity vs. exploitation, moral law vs. absolute freedom, etc.) of their home. The tension between what is and what should be, for example, makes lived religion all the more important because it trumps the mere words that come from one’s mouth. It is what we do, not what we say, that defines us.
            Detweiler argues that when we truly engage art it can powerfully shape us. The Wire should not be viewed casually. It is meant to challenge us, speak to our souls, and move us to action. It assaults our indifference (97). Most religious adherents would speak this way of their primary text (Torah, Bible, etc.)?
            Primiano notes that lived religion—“vernacular Catholicism”, as he puts it—on The West Wing may be of great assistance in helping American Catholics understand religious experience in general (123).
            Brook explores mixed marriages on Everwoodand The O.C. The idea of inter-marriage (Judaism and Christianity) has often been ignored by the media, or at least not fully probed as in these shows. They provide a unique look at possible ways of coalescing multiple ideologies in one’s life.
            Briggs makes an interesting point in her analysis of Xena Warrior Princess. After examining the many Christ-Xena parallels, she notes that ultimately death is the one subject that almost inevitably addresses religion in television dramas (189).
            Winston and Butler look at how strong leading females on Battlestar Gallactica and Saving Grace are subverting traditional female roles (embedded especially in religious consciousness) as either Madonna or whore. Women, not just men, are “called” to a higher destiny or specific purpose—and they can be every bit as complex, flawed, conflicted, and compelling as their male counterparts.
            Clark demonstrates how on shows like Lost, the overall meaning (which can be frustratingly opaque) is ultimately constructed not only by the text itself but also by the fans’ contribution of hypertexts (online forums, etc.). In order to survive a prime-time lineup, “television must operate polysemically; in other words, a series must be constructed in a way that leaves certain aspects of its interpretation open for the widest possible audience” (322). Once again, this is much more true to real life, and certainly this is the case with lived religion today, where Americans have more and more sources (of varying combinations of media and religion) vying to inform their worldview and identity. We must learn to navigate the cultural texts and trends that are constantly flowing past us.