I should be inspired by an internet article that tries to discuss TV's ideas about religion, especially when I basically agree with the premise as presented in the sub-headline: "TV portrays religion in a number of ways. What hasn’t been considered as often is the purpose of faith."
Too true; all too true. Of course, there are problems with defining "faith" apart from "religion," because the definition of "faith" usually has to do with what you believe (not who you trust, or "have faith in"), and then we start arguing over whether religion is a social construct while "faith" is something individuals engage in, and the whole thing goes right off the rails.
The actual discussion, however, is about TV shows: "The Exorcist," "Penny Dreadful," "Preacher," and "The Good Place." I'm not familiar with any of them (I plan to catch up on "Penny Dreadful" on Netflix at some point, but then again, I might not. It's not compelling me; and I never considered it as having anything to do with religion.). "The Exorcist" is an extension of the novel/movie, but with two different priests (both fairly young, apparently; gotta get the demographic) fighting demons; oh, and the Catholic church bureaucracy, which I suppose is a bone to Clint Eastwood fans
, or something. Well, always gotta fight the power, or the Man; amirite? Oh, "Exorcist" is thematically connected to "Outcast," where a village is apparently plagued by demons. Sounds a little like Stephen King to me, but what do I know? I don't know how these two are connected to "Preacher," except that in that one the title character carries around a being called "Genesis" (Biblical, get it?) and sets up a conversation between a church congregation and God. According to the article that conversation doesn't go well (if it did the TV show would end abruptly, I guess); but then again Jonathan Edwards would have something to say about sinners in the hands of God. Annie Dillard would, too
; but maybe I'm getting too literary for television.
You might be noticing a pattern here, and it isn't just that TV loves action and prefers violence when it can get it. Apparently "Penny Dreadful" includes a character who clings tenaciously to her faith, only to lose it in what the article calls "that most Victorian of evils, a broken heart." I have to say, that's not a peculiarly Victorian evil; it certainly ranks high in modern Hollywood storylines, too. So high my first thought is hardly that it's Victorian in nature at all. The list goes on: "Game of Thrones" apparently was set in motion by a loss of faith (The Red Priestess realizes her vision are false*), and this leads to an interesting (but also false) conclusion:
Notice that these shows all hang on supernatural themes. Indeed, genre television and film has long provided creators with the means to approach many existential questions, including dissections of faith, in such an oblique fashion.
Well, yeah, supernatural as opposed to religious themes, I agree. But that's the way TV handles religion now. Once it was schmaltzy piety, or dreary doe-eyed piety (Heavenly choirs singing in the background as the sun breaks through the clouds and enlightens a beatific actress's face, which is turned heavenward); now it's all about power. Which, in modern understanding, is what the "supernatural" is for: access to power, physical, visible, undeniable power.
It's a post-Romantic idea. Scan European literature, and witches are either the Witch of Endor, in 1 Samuel, or the Delphic Oracle in Greece, two characters with a shared root: knowledge. The Witch of Endor is no Harry Potter-esque witch, but someone who passes on messages to Saul from Samuel. Likewise the Delphic Oracle gave messages from the gods to humans. Later, in European folklore collected during the Romantic interest in anthropology, witches appear as symbols of evil. But the witch in Hansel and Gretel doesn't wave a wand over the children, and few if any of the witches in Grimm's tales exhibit the kind of power over the elements, or even objects, that we connect with the Sorcerer's Apprentice or Harry Potter. Tolkien's Gandalf is an elder wizard of this kind; he sets off fireworks, and sparks his staff into light, but he fights with a sword and exhibits courage and knowledge, not access to supernatural powers whenever the dwarves or the Fellowship are in a tight spot and could use, say, a transportation spell.
Supernatural is our modern term, for exerting power with no seeming connection between object and human except will. It's a metaphor grown out of the Industrial revolution. We even comfort ourselves that "primitive tribes" (and aside from a few cargo cults, there's no real evidence for it) would think our technology "magic" if they were to see it. But that's what we call magic; their culture may simply call it "power."
That's the connection between all those stories: access to power. It's what we've been seeking ever since we found energy sources that would give us machines of power, and since we found the power latent in petroleum, it has made us power mad, indeed. So our presentations of religion in popular culture, which amount to discussions of religion in the public square, turn on access to power and the use of power: power to control demons, or power to confront God, or just the old complaint that the gods don't listen and don't care, and won't share their power. What good is God, after all, if God won't share power?
And what if the omnipotent being whom we call by so many names, refuses to intervene when we need it most? What if it doesn’t know anything?
Because knowledge, you know, is power. We think that's universal, too, except in the most famous case of the Oracle speaking for the gods, and of Tiresias speaking truth to power, Oedipus found knowledge left him powerless. If God won't intervene when we need it, if God won't even make a display of God's power, what good is God?
64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
Isaiah 64:1-3. Like I said, it's a very old question. And it's a very old demand: a demand that God display some power. Not that Isaiah continues in that vein:
64:4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
64:5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
64:7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
64:8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
64:9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
That's the part nobody on TeeVee wants: the patience, the humility, the trust. The trust! Yes, the faith in God. "No ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him." That line in particular hearkens back to the scripture where God did "come down" and kindle the brushwood.
It didn't happen on command, or with a snap of a priest's fingers, or with the incantation of a spell. And who wants to say on TV: "You meet those gladly who do right, those who remember you in your ways....O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand."
That is an expression of faith; that is an expression of trust. From the cry of anguish in verse 1, to that statement of absolute faith (trust) in verse 9; how do you fit that into a TV script, and make the conflict anything any audience would sit still for?
So you get the Hollywood version. And in the Hollywood version God is not just power but access to power, and if we can't invoke God's power, where's the drama, where's the interest, what do we do with this Jep ("woman in jeopardy," an old standard of TV writing which still holds true to this day. Go ahead, look for the "Jep" in the first few minutes of the next TV drama you care to watch. You'll probably find one pretty quickly. Hollywood learned early on that when there's a Jep in the first 15 minutes of less, the audience stays to the end to find out what happened.)? So God in Hollywood is all about access to power. Without that, where's the drama?**
Take "Constantine," the Keanu Reeves movie I always enjoying watching over and over again. Of course it's the Catholic church as video game, chockfull not of matters of faith, but of the power of the supernatural; and God is the most supernatural of all. Constantine wins because he invokes the power, and finally the powerlessness, of God (yeah, it's funny that the powerlessness is what wins; just like it does for Harry Potter. But that's another story....). Because if God can't come down and kindle the brushwood, then Constantine will have to do it with a few spells and efforts of will; because, after all, the people paid to see a show.
*Which brings to mind another story by George R.R. Martin, about a future in which a priest roots out Christian heresies on various planets and is sent to destroy the Gospel of St. Judas, a completely fictionalized account, as its author and priest readily admits. The idea is that such a fake undermines the faith anyone could have in the Gospels (or the church as Martin imagines it; another fake RC construct, basically), which can be no better defended against charges of falsehood than this new "gospel." The idea is not too dissimilar to Arthur Clarke's much earlier story "The Star," where a Jesuit astronomer travels to a dead star, only to find evidence it wiped out a glorious civilization on an orbiting planet when it went nova, and did so at just the right time to signal the birth of the Christ for Matthew to record. This creates a crisis of faith in the astronomer, which shows a laughable disregard for the realities of Jesuit training and the historicity of the gospels. But primarily both stories show a ludicrous notion of what religious faith is.
**Otherwise the drama is just about personal anguish, as in "Agnes of God" or "Doubt." And while both movies were fairly dramatic (if uneven), who wants to see that every week for 26 weeks?