Don’t let sitcom TV fool you

Published 3:10 pm Thursday, November 2, 2023

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When watching your favorite TV show, have you ever noticed that we rarely see the religious life of the main characters? It’s such a strange omission when, in most shows, we learn incredibly intimate details about our protagonists yet never explore their religious impulses. I’m not advocating for every character to be religious. I am, however, suggesting that these omissions feel intentional and, frankly, not truly reflective of the lived human experience.

Take, for example, my favorite sitcom of all time: Parks and Recreation. In it, we spend seven seasons with Leslie Knope, Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana. Throughout the show, we learn the richly articulated political and philosophical commitments Leslie has held since childhood. We learn details about her romantic and sexual life. We learn her favorite food to eat when she’s had a bad day, and we know that she even sits at the same booth when consuming those delicious waffles from JJ’s Diner! Yet, we never once hear from her anything remotely religious, nor do we see any religious practice in action. There is one single episode dedicated to religion, but it uses a cult-like fringe religious group as a comedic foil for our protagonists rather than an exploration of the role of religion in public life.

Based on archeological research, we know human beings have been religious animals for quite some time. Though recent data indicates a downward trend in society’s institutional religious commitment, the fact remains that religion is still an incredibly vital part of the human experience, and its omission from so much of our popular media only has a negative effect on our ability to speak religiously in the public square. Again, I’m not advocating for every TV show to suddenly have a pastor as a side character offering sanitized nuggets of greeting card wisdom. That would be, in a word, terrible. We are already insufferable enough.

My wish for more popular explorations of the human religious impulse is rooted in my own experience as a pastor and philosopher. Broadly speaking, we are taught that religion is a purely private matter that has no real bearing on the social fabric. That couldn’t be further from the truth! We can watch any nightly news program to see how disastrous it is that we are no longer able to have nuanced public discussions about religious matters without them devolving into shouting matches or downright brawls. So many of the most harmful laws drawn up in our history have utilized a particular religious read of sacred scriptures that leaves no room for ambiguity or difference.  This is, I’m convinced, symptomatic of a deeper problem with our cultural inability to have discussions around differences of belief that first seek to understand the Other, rather than to make the Other understand us.

How often do you discuss matters of faith, belief, or spirituality with your friends? For clarity’s sake, I’m a big fan of dialogue across lines of difference. For example, dialogue between professing Christians and committed Atheists has produced some of the richest material on believing in the 21st Century. So, I’m not talking only to ‘believers.’ Everybody’s voice matters in these conversations, especially those who are critical of religious life. Is there a role that you could play in making our public conversations about religion more life-giving, more productive, and frankly, healthier? Don’t let sitcom TV fool us into believing that these deep convictions have no place in popular culture, or the current political landscape convince us that the game is already lost. You’ve got a voice. Use it well, my friends.

Chris Adams is the Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.