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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Flat-Screen Faith

Reality television spotlights religion

By Christina Quick
Nov. 23, 2014

Pastor Jon stands in waist-deep water beside a pier. With him is Dave, an ex-convict who mocked the preacher before converting to Christianity just days later.

“On the profession of your faith and obedience to our Lord’s command, I now baptize you,” the smiling pastor says.

When Dave emerges from the water, spectators on the bank clap and cheer. The two men raise their hands triumphantly, thanking Jesus and shouting, “Hallelujah!”

This isn’t a private church ceremony tucked away in a rural community. It’s a scene from Utopia, a reality television show on Fox.

Earlier in the same episode, Pastor Jon delivered a short sermon from a passage in the Gospel of John in which Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again. The cameras rolled as the preacher from Church Hill, Tenn., told his fellow reality stars they were born into sin. Viewers across the nation watched as he quoted 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (KJV).

Not so long ago, television scarcely acknowledged Christianity outside of tired caricatures and religious programming. Reality TV is breaking down barriers in its effort to cast real people in supposedly candid scenarios. Audiences watch cast members discussing the Bible on CBS’s Big Brother. They see the Robertson family praying around the dinner table on A&E’s Duck Dynasty, and they hear Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar sharing their faith on TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting.

“It’s mostly a good thing for the church,” says Steve Winzenburg, professor of communications at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. “We’ve gone decades without seeing real Christians on television. Some shows are actually exposing viewers to positive portrayals of Christianity. Other depictions aren’t so positive, but even those can help start conversations about the Bible and what it means to live that out.”

The average American spends more than five hours a day watching television and another two hours navigating media on smartphones and personal computers, a recent Nielsen report reveals. About a third of Americans say television and other media are responsible for a decline in the nation’s morals, according to a survey conducted by the Barna Group and American Bible Society.

Jonathan Moore, an associate professor of cinema and digital media at Vanguard University (Assemblies of God) in Costa Mesa, Calif., says television may be the only place some people hear professing Christians talk about their faith. However, he worries that many popular programs simply reinforce harmful stereotypes about the church.

“Producers and networks usually choose the most extreme kinds of behavior and beliefs in the Christian community to base their shows on — behaviors that are not always biblically based or accepted by true Christianity,” Moore says.

Some reality shows feature fringe religious elements that bear little resemblance to Christianity. National Geographic’s Snake Salvation followed Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, snake-handling pastors in the Appalachian hills. Coots died in February after being bitten by a rattlesnake at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name church in Middlesboro, Ky.

“Jamie and Andrew believe a Bible passage that suggests a poisonous snakebite will not harm them as long as they are anointed by God’s power,” the show’s website said. “If they don’t practice the ritual of snake handling, they believe they are destined for hell.”

Moore says such shows create confusion among people who don’t know the true gospel message.

“Non-Christians who may not understand our faith may base their entire perception on an inaccurate portrayal of what Christianity is all about,” Moore says. “It is, ultimately, up to us to fight against that.”

Programs such as Duck Dynasty that feature families embracing traditional values have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years. Other shows focusing on religious matters have experienced a backlash from offended viewers.

Preachers’ Wives, which ended its run last year on TLC, rankled some Christians with its scenes of five Atlanta preachers’ wives dressing provocatively, laughing at racy jokes, and discussing such topics as their breast implants.

A group of Christian leaders last year called for a boycott of Oxygen’s Preachers of L.A., a show featuring six megachurch pastors leading opulent lifestyles from their sprawling Southern California estates.

“These preachers’ lifestyles are not promoting a Christian ethos but rather their cars, homes, relationships, and their justification on why they want viewers to see them as having fleshly desires as everyone else does,” the group said in an online petition.

Despite the protests, it was the most watched new series among viewers aged 25 to 54 during the 2013 premiere season. Oxygen recently announced a spinoff series, Preachers of Detroit, scheduled to air in early 2015.

Bravo’s Thicker Than Water is another religion-themed show that has drawn criticism for touting materialism over morality. The show features the Tankards, a wealthy Nashville family adhering to an extreme prosperity gospel. Church leader Ben Tankard lives with his third wife, their children from previous marriages, and a granddaughter whose mother gave birth at age 14.

“With the belief that ‘God wants us all to be millionaires,’ the Tankards aim to be the best and brightest in everything they do,” the show’s website says.

The Discovery program Amish Mafia has stirred controversy with its depictions of crime and violence in the Amish community. Critics, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, say the show misrepresents Amish culture. Corbett and other state politicians recently signed a statement calling on Discovery to cease the series.

“This show is an affront to all people of faith and all secular people with moral principles,” the statement said. “We call for an end to production and broadcast of the Amish Mafia series and respectfully ask the Discovery Channel and its sponsors to drop support for the bigoted series and other Amish-themed knockoff productions.”

Moore, who is married to a Hollywood television editor, says viewers often fail to realize reality programming is highly scripted. A few negative scenes can perpetuate false ideas about entire people groups and cultures.

“Many of the so-called reality shows are actually inauthentic,” Moore says. “Many times, the storylines are created by the producers, and the subjects are fed their lines or told what to do and what to say.”

Winzenburg agrees that most reality shows are manipulated by producers and situations are edited to appear a different way than they actually happened. However, he says Hollywood’s depictions of Bible believers should lead Christians to consider the kind of storyline their lives project.

“Sadly, in this culture many Christians aren’t that different from non-Christians anymore,” Winzenburg says. “It’s healthy for Christians to discuss how a man on television can profess his faith and in the next breath have an alcoholic drink or use a word that must be bleeped out. Seeing that kind of hypocrisy reminds us we’re supposed to let our light shine before men.

“If we can live our faith transparently and be what Jesus calls us to be, it won’t matter how someone pieces together the frames. The message of our lives will come through to those who are watching us.”

CHRISTINA QUICK is a former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer who attends James River Church (Assemblies of God) in Ozark, Mo.

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