What TV Has Taught Me About Religion Lately

By  Briallen Hopper, Huffington Post 

Lately it seems like all my favorite sitcoms have become obsessed with religion.

It started with Glee. First, former football star Finn saw Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich and started praying to his new “cheesy Lord,” and his prayers were all answered — which was great at first, until suddenly it got a little scary. Then the father of aspiring diva Kurt had a heart attack and ended up in a coma, and Kurt’s atheism was put to the test when all his friends tried to comfort him with spiritual music and prayers.

Next, on Modern Family, no-nonsense dad Jay announced to his wife Gloria “I’m done with church!” and headed to the golf course on a Sunday morning. His 10-year-old stepson Manny skipped church based on Jay’s assurance that “there is no hell,” but later, when Jay admitted he couldn’t actually prove that hell doesn’t exist, Manny was propelled into a full-scale religious crisis and started to hyperventilate. “You’re playing pretty fast and loose with my soul!” he wheezed.

And then, on Community, baby boomer community-college student Pierce turned to his religion for comfort when his mother died. The only problem was that Pierce’s New Age faith involved believing that his mother was still alive and had been turned into a lava lamp, and all his friends thought he was just in denial and needed to learn to face up to reality.

So what’s going on? What is my TV trying to tell me about religion? And is there some kind of spiritual take-away point here that can help me justify my sitcom addiction?

What all these shows have in common is a concern about the relationships between believers and non-believers. Whether at home or at school, the differences between religious and secular people create comedy and conflict, and the shows try to dramatize and defuse this conflict with greater or lesser success.

Community continues to be a very smart show that is not so smart about religion, and it does the worst job at making sense of religious difference. It doesn’t help that Pierce characterizes his belief system as Buddhist, even though its tenets apparently have nothing to do with Buddhism and seem to have much more in common with Scientology, if anything. But for the purposes of the show this doesn’t matter because in the world of Community all religious beliefs are pretty much interchangeable. In this episode, as in the inter-faith holiday episode last season, the ultimate message seems to be that we might as well tolerate each other’s beliefs because all religions are equally stupid and crazy. This moral works much better on the show than it does in real life.

In Modern Family, the religious conflict between Jay and his wife and stepson is conflated with their ethnic difference: Jay is Anglo-American and Gloria and Manny are Latino. Jay’s easy, common-sense agnosticism is represented as the all-American voice of reason, while Gloria and Manny’s faith is portrayed as a kind of lovable Latin superstition. Religion thus becomes simply one more inscrutable cultural quirk that needs to be navigated in an interracial, intercultural family. As so often happens on the show, Jay realizes that the best way to handle Gloria and Manny is just to humor them. When Jay realizes that Manny is not going to be at peace without church, he decides to start a new tradition of dropping Manny off at Mass before hitting the golf course. “I’ll put in a good word for you,” Manny promises Jay. “I’ve finally realized what matters to me,” Jay tells us. “My family. My family and golf.” This modern family’s solution to religious conflict is heartwarming and believable, but it avoids dealing with many of the religious issues it raises (Manny’s overwhelming questions about heaven and hell remain unanswered), and it risks conflating religious belief and race.

Read more of this article at Huffington Post

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