Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 2 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Prime Time,” available for free for a limited time. You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
In the past few years, Christians seeking a fair and realistic representative on prime time television have had to settle for the likes of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons as the best that it gets. For the rest of network television, Christians—when they are present or acknowledged at all—are typically portrayed as caricatures, either comedically (think 30 Rock’s Kenneth or Community’s Shirley) or tragically (as with NBC’s Revolution, in which the few Christians remaining in this dystopian future were either willfully deceiving others or else hopelessly naïve). At least on The Simpsons Ned isn’t the only one presented as caricature; all of the characters are.
Prime time TV needs more characters who offer a depth and complexity to Christianity that is too often absent in popular culture.There have been a number of realistic believers on TV over the years, with a string of, if not explicitly Christian, then spiritually minded shows through the 80s and 90s: Seventh Heaven, Touched by an Angel, Christy, and Highway to Heaven come to mind (though even then the tendency to lampoon Christianity was prominent: remember David Puddy, Elaine’s on-and-off boyfriend on Seinfeld, who was more concerned that she had stolen his “Jesus fish” from his car than he was about whether she was going to hell). More Christians appeared in the earlier 2000s, including President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing, Harriet Hayes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and Eric and Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. These characters presented a depth and complexity to Christianity that is too often absent in popular culture: real people with ideas, intelligence, and genuine awareness and interaction of the world around them; yet at the same time, flawed people, aware of their own sins and sinfulness and vulnerable to temptation, and wrestling with the ways that their faith sometimes collides with the rest of their lives.
This is important, because if all that a culture at large sees of Christianity in the media is the caricature, then bias, preconception, and dismissal are foregone conclusions. This concern has been covered elsewhere (here and here)—as have some exceptions, which serve mainly to demonstrate how surprised Christians have come to be at seeing realistic believers on their TVs (here and here). But network TV has generally lacked a solid, regular depiction of Christianity for the past few years. Now, however, fair representation of Christians has returned: specifically, on two CBS Sunday offerings*, Madam Secretary and The Good Wife (warning: spoilers coming).
Madam Secretary is the newcomer, premiering in the 2014 fall lineup; the show follows Elizabeth McCord (played by Téa Leoni) as Secretary of State, and—among others—her husband Henry (Tim Daly), who is a theology professor at Georgetown University. Though Henry apparently teaches on a variety of world religions, through the course of this young series it has become clear that he is both a Christian and a student of Thomas Aquinas. No mere peeping Thomist, Henry is the voice of ethics and stability for his family, including Elizabeth—offering them wisdom that is (generally) consistent with Aquinas and the character of someone who has devoted his life to studying Thomistic moral theory.
In one episode (“The Operative,” season 1, episode 3, October 5, 2014), this role of ethical cornerstone becomes immanently clear. It happens that the daughter of the Russian foreign minister is in Henry’s ethics class and is struggling. The minister speaks with Henry, telling Henry that getting Cs will kill her chances when she applies to Harvard for graduate school.
“She needs an A,” the minister says. “You are aware that it’s an ethics class?” Henry responds, to which the foreign minister counters, “And you are aware that I could make life very difficult for your wife? It would be a shame given her current problems if she were to have troubles in Eastern Europe as well?” Henry recounts the event to his family that evening and how he responded with indignant anger that he would not compromise his ethics, telling the minister that “his daughter would have to live with whatever grade she earned. And then I told him that ‘my wife can handle herself, pal, and you’d better not underestimate her.’ ” Elizabeth later tells him that his ethics are sexy, stating, “A man with a solid moral compass? Big turn on.”
As the episode unfolds, however, a situation in Pakistan requires the involvement of a third country, and Russia is one possibility. Elizabeth concocts a plan in which Russia gives Pakistan something they want, in exchange for the United States providing Russia with something they want: Henry giving the daughter an A in his ethics class. She brings the plan to Henry, who is affronted:
“Please tell me you’re kidding,” Henry responds. “You actually put me in the middle of all of this? How dare you… What happened to my ethics being so sexy to you?”
Elizabeth responds, “They are! This is just a one-off—a crazy situation that trumps ethics.”
“The very nature of ethics is they can’t be trumped… So, your work is more important than mine?”
“Of course not,” she says. “Henry, this is important.”
“So’s my integrity. As an academic, that’s all I have.”
“C’mon,” She pleads. “I compromise my ethics every single day in this job! Well, that’s not entirely true. Look, I don’t have time to worry about my decaying moral fiber—I moved heaven and earth to get the President and Pakistan and Russia all on board, and the entire thing falls apart without you. So please just say yes.”
“No. You shouldn’t have involved me in this. You’re going to have to find another way.”
This refreshing display of uncompromising ethical certainty is exceptional in much of the world today—and yet it is thoroughly consistent with Christian ethics (and especially that of Aquinas). What drives Henry’s ethical integrity? Apparently it is one part faith (buttressed by years of study) and one part self-protection; not so dissimilar, perhaps, from most Christians.
Madam Secretary is the first in CBS’s Sunday night lineup, followed immediately by the popular and critically acclaimed The Good Wife, now in its sixth season. The central character is Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), an attorney whose estranged husband is the governor of Illinois; while the storylines center on Alicia’s legal endeavors, there is a healthy amount of the rest of her life rendered—including her daughter, Grace (Makenzie Vega) who, several seasons previous, became a Christian and has regularly been shown as a normal teenaged girl who also happens to believe in Jesus.
In the third installment of the current season, “Dear God” (originally airing on the same day as the aforementioned Madam Secretary episode), Grace’s Christianity—and the show’s take on Christianity in general—steps up a few rungs. In the central case for this episode, Alicia and Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) are representing a client’s dispute over patent law infringement: Ed Pratt (played by Richard Thomas) is the developer of a GMO (genetically modified organism) seed, and suspects that his neighbor Wendell Keller has been replanting the seeds without paying for them. After a courtroom scene full of the normal bluster of questions, objections, and bickering between the lawyers and judge, Ed and Wendell step out of the room and agree that the trial “isn’t working” for them. Ed tells Cary that they are neighbors and their dispute is with each other—not with the lawyers.
They have agreed to call in “legally binding Christian arbitration” (which is a real thing; organizations like The Institute for Christian Conciliation offer it) to mediate their dispute, which begins in the next scene. Del Paul (Robert Sean Leonard) is the arbitrator, and he declares that they will be using the “Matthew Process”—citing Matthew 18—and they begin with prayer that justice will be done.If all that a culture at large sees of Christianity in the media is the caricature, then bias, preconception, and dismissal are foregone conclusions.
The scenes that follow this part of the storyline demonstrate (through the reactions of the attorneys, at least) both how out of place this expression of Christianity is and how reasonable and sensible Christianity and its adherence can actually be.
The contrasts emerge almost immediately, when one of the lawyers asks a question about whether Weldell is a “target” because he’s the only one in the community not using the GMO seeds. Ed’s lawyers object, but Del allows it. Ed’s answer is both disarming and reasonable: “He’s only a target because, if people take my seeds without paying, I’d go out of business.” The next question is also objectionable, this time to Ed’s lawyers: “Isn’t it possible that high winds just blew your seeds onto my client’s land?” Del permits this one too, and Ed acknowledges that it’s possible—after which Wendell’s lawyer asks, “If that’s true, then isn’t it possible that your seed on his land is just… part of God’s plan?”
The same tactics turn on Wendell’s attorney in the next meeting, however, when it comes out that Wendell had said he didn’t need to buy the GMO seeds anymore. When he admits that he may have replanted, it evokes debate about the relevance of intent; Cary states that intent isn’t relevant to patent law, but Del says, “Intent is relevant here—1 Samuel 16:7, ‘Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.’ ”
The scene then cuts to Alicia asking for help from Grace, opening with Alicia reading from 1 Corinthians 4:4:
“Doesn’t that mean that you can sin and not even know it?”
“I guess,” Grace responds, and Alicia concludes, “So, intent is relevant to guilt.”
“But that’s only one verse!” Grace objects. Alicia counters, “But that’s all I need—I’m only looking for precedent.”
“That’s called ‘proof-texting,’ Mom—you can’t do that. You have to look at what the whole Bible says.”
“But are all the verses considered ‘true’?” Alicia asks.
“Yeah—but you can’t pick and choose.”
“I’m a lawyer,” Alicia admits. “That’s what I do.”
The conversation then turns to Grace’s faith, with Alicia asking, “So you really believe all of this, Grace? The tower of Babel, Noah’s ark, everything?”
Grace responds, “I don’t know if it’s all historically accurate, but I think it can be true in another way.” After Grace explains how she reconciles her questions about historicity and biblical accuracy, Alicia tells her that her answer “sounds smart.” Then Grace coaches her on how to respond when Del objects to the 1 Corinthians verse, encouraging that she quote Romans (7:7). She also urges that Alicia consider the difference of Del’s translation and another.
Back in the arbitration, Alicia quotes Leviticus 5:17, suggesting that intent is relevant. The defendant’s lawyer counters, claiming that the New Testament is more relevant—at which point Matthew 5:17 and 1 Corinthians 4:4 are quoted by Alicia’s partner. Del comments that “it’s good to see that you’ve all become biblical scholars overnight!” before admitting that he may have been hasty to dismiss Mr. Keller’s sin for lack of intent, concluding that “clearly the Scriptures are not as easy to unpack as I would like.”
In the end, Ed and Wendell settle matters with a handshake and an agreement that Wendell will pay for the seeds he planted, and Ed will give him a discount on future purchases. The lawyers, however, don’t seem to know exactly what to make of it all, except to marvel that it was settled with no fines, penalties, or prosecution.
Viewers, meanwhile, may marvel at the depiction of Christianity in this way: apart from the surprise that issues of proof-texting, translation differences, and the difficulties and nuances of biblical exegesis would find their way onto a CBS drama, the possibility of thinking Christians who “sound smart” and follow their ethics and convictions in the pursuit of justice and mercy is equally surprising, if not more so.
*Disclaimer: Both Madam Secretary and The Good Wife are regular, secular prime time TV shows; as such they regularly allude to and/or depict scenes of violence, sex (including extramarital and premarital sex), and other situations that may be only appropriate for adult eyes (of the two, The Good Wife is particularly vulnerable to these concerns). For example, the particular episode of The Good Wife referenced in this article also includes some strong sexual imagery in the opening scenes. This article is not intended to be an endorsement of all of the lifestyles depicted nor of the wholesomeness of these series as a whole. Readers should exercise discretion in watching.
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