Real God, Messy People: Christians and ABC’s ‘The Real O’Neals’
There’s a sign in front of a church in my hometown that reads, “Real God. Messy People. Changed Lives.” This is where the good news of the Gospel starts, right? God created us good, and he loves us dearly. Sin has wreaked havoc on our lives, and we’ve made a mess of things. But when we encounter the crucified and risen Jesus, we are changed by his powerful love.
If a church or a Christian production company were to produce a sitcom, it might be described as a “fresh take on a seemingly perfect family whose lives take an unexpected turn when surprising truths are revealed. Instead of ruining their family, the honesty triggers a new, messier chapter where everyone stops pretending to be perfect and actually starts being real.” This sounds similar to the banner outside that church in my hometown. Not only that—it’s similar to sermons I have heard in more than one church. But this isn’t a sermon summary; it’s the description on the ABC website for The Real O’Neals, a show that tells the story of a teenager coming out as gay to his Catholic family and community.
As I am pushed into uncomfortable situations stemming from a gay son coming out to his Catholic family and community, many assumptions about family and faith are held up before my eyes, and I am forced to evaluate their efficacy.In the show, sixteen-year-old Kenny O’Neal is the middle of three children. His father Pat, a Chicago police officer, has been married to the seemingly perfect Eileen, paragon of Catholic housewifeliness. The family regularly attends St. Barclay’s Catholic Church, and their children all go to the parish school. During a fundraising event for the church (organized by the zealous and ambitious Eileen), family crisis comes to a head. With all the family gathered in the kitchen of the parish hall, simultaneous revelations of sin and struggle take place: Kenny reveals he is gay just as his older brother Jimmy confesses he is anorexic, his younger sister Shannon admits she has been stealing from a children’s charity, and his parents announce that they are getting a divorce.
ABC’s show description is right—it is a messy situation.
On its own, each struggle would be enough to challenge the status quo of any family—an eating disorder, a stealing problem, a divorce, a new public sexual identity—but all these things combine in a funny and evangelical-button-pushing sitcom about a family of faith (at least nominally) learning to live in their new normal. The five O’Neals continue to attend church and figure out what it means to be Catholic and still have a messy life.
Unsurprisingly, the show has its critics. While it was still in production, the Family Research Council and the Media Research Center called for its cancellation. FRC president Tony Perkins and MRC president Brent Bozell wrote a letter to the network, begging ABC to cancel the show, not because the main character was gay, but because the show was to be loosely based on the life of Dan Savage, a gay columnist and gay rights activist whom they consider very offensive. The American Family Association and the Parents Television Council have voiced opposition about the PG rating the show has received, citing too much sexual dialogue and profanity for a show in such an early time slot (as early as 7:30 p.m. Central). The group One Million Moms takes issue with what they call an offensive portrayal of Christianity and Jesus: “The Real O’Neals mocks Christianity and insults Catholicism. 1MM recognizes this show ridicules people of faith, and Christians across America are offended by it.”
These critics are right in a lot of ways—The Real O’Neals is irreverent, sexually charged, and offensive. I would never recommend it for viewing by children. I readily admit that it makes me uncomfortable. However, I am finding that this discomfort is a good thing. To be honest, that’s why I watch it. I am Catholic and hold to a traditional view of marriage, meaning that I think that marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman. I still think that The Real O’Neals can be valuable watching for people of faith. While I have not come to any change in my positions regarding homosexuality or same-sex marriage, I have been challenged by the way the O’Neals struggle through the ins and outs of this messy life they live. As I am pushed into uncomfortable situations stemming from a gay son coming out to his Catholic family and community, many assumptions about family and faith are held up before my eyes, and I am forced to evaluate their efficacy.
In the episode entitled “The Real Papaya,” Eileen tries to fix Kenny by encouraging him to have sex with his girlfriend Mimi. She is convinced that this will make him realize how great hetero sex is and thereby reverse his gayness. In “The Real Book Club,” the girls in the St. Barclay’s Gay/Straight Alliance make the conversation all about them: “What is second base? For us, it’s boobs.” In “The Real Man,” Kenny is ridiculed by his dad and brother as he packs everything under the sun for a one-night camping trip.
Each of these situations is based on experiences that are probably quite regular for people who have come out as gay: a parent refuses to accept her son and tries to fix him by encouraging hetero-normative behavior; friends think they’re being supportive but persist in asking insensitive questions and having self-focused conversations; and ostracism based on actions that contradict the cultural norms of masculinity. The show is not nuanced—it plays the stereotypes of homosexuals and Catholics off of each other to produce awkwardness and offense. But these juxtapositions cause me to ask good questions of myself, my family, and my faith community:
- How does Jesus call me to respond when someone I love comes out as gay?
- How can my community embrace those who have felt marginalized by others, particularly those within our own faith tradition?
- How can I affirm the gifts God has put in people who are different than me, especially those that counter the cultural expectations of gender?
All these questions occur to me while I still uphold and cherish the standard of traditional marriage and a traditional sexual ethic. But I think that those of us in the Church who think this way need to recognize the need for a deeper conversation. In order to love my neighbors well, especially my gay neighbors, I have to ask these kinds of questions. I can’t be scared away by what’s uncomfortable. As I follow Jesus, I shouldn’t be surprised that he will lead me into places where love is hard and sticking around is uncomfortable. Watching The Real O’Neals has led me to ask for a new grace of the Lord, to see the hope and redemption in situations that many in contemporary Christian culture won’t touch with a long stick.
With that prayer, my lens for watching The Real O’Neals changes. After watching “The Real Papaya,” I am prompted to think of how my friend’s parents responded when he came out to them, and I pray for him to know the true acceptance of God, no matter what. Following “The Real Book Club,” I see the power of vulnerability when a dad goes with his son to a gay coffee bar—a first for both—and just enjoys spending time with him. It makes me want to love my gay friends and family like this. Because of “The Real Man,” I ask for wisdom in celebrating the gifts my gay friends have, distinct and special to them. While I do have friends that are gay, I don’t see them or spend as much time with them as I’d like. The Real O’Neals helps to humanize them and me, reminding me that we are all children created in the image of God, hungry for acceptance and for true love.
Perhaps the most touching episode of season one is “The Real Grandma,” about Eileen’s strict Catholic mother, Agnes, coming for a visit. Eileen has not told her mother that she and Pat are getting a divorce or that Kenny is gay. She is determined to keep up the charade of having it all together, craving the withheld approval of her mom. We see Eileen, rejected by the one who birthed her, longing for love, and we realize that this is why she has been so perfectionistic and has demanded the same of those around her. When Kenny tells Grandma Agnes that he is gay, she intervenes and insists that he goes to a camp where he will unlearn this sexual bent.
Kenny squirms under her disapproval, but he still tries to engage in conversation. She cuts him off. “I know you think I’m a silly old woman, and you’ve been mocking me and my beliefs. But even if you don’t care what I think, you should care about what God thinks,” Agnes tells Kenny. “I do,” Kenny responds with sincerity. “No, you don’t. God doesn’t accept you, and I don’t either. He thinks you’re broken, and I do, too,” Agnes says, looking directly at Kenny with cold calculation.
We worship a real God who comes for messy people, to change our lives with his powerful, self-giving, and confident love.Confronted with her mother’s rejection of Kenny, Eileen realizes that while she is willing to put up with criticism from her mom, she is not willing to stand by and let her son be the target of Grandma Agnes’s dehumanizing behavior. In a huge step for her character, Eileen defies her mother, saying, “That’s enough, Mom. My son is not broken. And if you want to talk about someone who is not accepted by God, you can talk about me. Pat and I are getting a divorce.” This causes Agnes to choke on her bread and butter pudding, and as she stands there choking and no one moves to help her, Jimmy asks, “Is this what we’re doing? We’re letting God take out Grandma?”
Eileen moves to do the Heimlich, and soon the whole family is dropping Grandma Agnes off (alive) at Cousin Gary’s house. Eileen says, “I’m sorry, Mom. I can handle your judgment because I’m used to it. But I won’t have you doing that to my children. You’re not welcome to our house until you respect everyone in my family.” While Eileen’s perception of not being accepted by God on account of her divorce isn’t accurate, she is vulnerable with her weaknesses even in the face of judgment, not willing to let her mom’s unchecked self-righteousness harm her family. This is what family does: they defend the ones they love, asking that they be treated with dignity, respect, and love—even when they don’t all agree on everything. The O’Neals drop Agnes off, and then they head to Mass at St. Barclay’s as a messy group of people called a family.
Eileen’s shift from trying to hide her family’s imperfections to defending Kenny to her mother reminds me of Jen Hatmaker’s recent comments toward the LGBT community. In April, Hatmaker posted this message on her Facebook page:
. . . So whatever the cost and loss, this is where I am: gay teens? Gay adults? Mamas and daddies of precious gaybees? Friends and beloved neighbors of very dear LGBT folks?
Here are my arms open wide. So wide that every last one of you can jump inside. You are so dear, so beloved, so precious and important. You matter so desperately and your life is worthy and beautiful. There is nothing “wrong with you,” or in any case, nothing more right or wrong than any of us, which is to say we are all hopelessly screwed up but Jesus still loves us beyond all reason and lives to make us all new, restored, whole. Yay for Jesus! Thank God he loves us. He is not embarrassed of any of us. I am not a scandal, you are not a scandal. We are not “bringing down his brand.”
Anyhow, my message to you today is simple, LGBT gang and all those who love you: You are loved and special and wanted and needed.
In a response to this post at Christianity Today, Katelyn Beaty discusses the good she sees in Hatmaker’s position, calling it the “Love, and” approach. In her article “What Jen Hatmaker Gets Right about Christian Love,” Beaty writes,
In a time of enormous cultural upheaval—during which an orthodox Christian vision of human sexuality looks ever and ever odd to a watching world—Christians of both conservative and progressive stripes will be tempted to add a but to their articulation of love. Instead, what if the church chose to consistently speak a message of ‘Love, and…’?”
I think Jesus calls us to this shift from “Love, but” to “Love, and” as we engage in relationships with others, and particularly in how we receive his love for us personally. This shift in thinking can be a game changer in our relationship with God—to know that we are loved without measure and without condition. This isn’t to put aside the very real need for a Savior. But such wondrous love is why the Father sent Jesus to die for us in the first place: he loves us so very much.
Even though Eileen is clumsy in showing her love to Kenny after he comes out, she chooses to love him and to defend his dignity when it is threatened. Situations like these simultaneously challenge me and give me hope as I watch The Real O’Neals. We worship a real God who comes for messy people, to change our lives with his powerful, self-giving, and confident love. The Real O’Neals has helped me see that, and I am better for it.