On New Year’s Eve I was at a small party with good friends. We were playing games, talking, laughing, eating all kinds of unhealthy foods. As it got close to midnight, someone said that we should turn on the TV. It’s weird isn’t it? The television has been granted the authority to tell us when to ring in the new year. Rather than just looking at a clock, we feel a certain obligation to ring in the new year “properly” – with canned pop music and heavily made up strangers celebrating in a distant city. So we dutifully turned on the television to watch the beginning of a new year. This particular broadcast was from New Orleans but it might as well have been a different planet.
The music was something I had never heard before and wouldn’t mind if I never heard again. The stage was full of dancers, each one dressed more outrageously than the next. Each dancer was confined to his or her own circle painted on the ground. I’m sure this was done for COVID reasons, but the effect was dramatic. Each individual was in their own little world artificially performing a celebration. It seemed like what robots might imagine a New Years celebration to look like. It seemed more obligatory than joyful. Leading the TV audience in the obligatory celebration was a drag queen. Given the artificial nature of the entire production, it seemed an oddly appropriate choice. At one point, the drag queen earnestly said in his baritone voice, “It’s been a tough year, but, you know, we’re all in this together.” I couldn’t help but wonder, who in the world is he talking to? One of my friends made the observation that the entire thing felt like something from the Hunger Games. He wasn’t wrong. It felt like we were in one of the Districts watching a party in the Capitol. It felt alien.
Tens of millions of Americans feel more cut off and alienated from the American corporate/entertainment industrial complex than ever before. For tens of millions of Americans even buying a cookie is an opportunity for alienation.
Some of you reading this might be tempted to say something along the lines of “What’s the big deal?” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Those tens of millions of Americans should care about pronouns more than they do.” Can I tell you a secret though? The people you are condescending to don’t care about pronouns. They likely won’t ever care about pronouns, and they think people who overly care about pronouns are weird. They also think it bizarre and alien that anyone should think about pronouns while they’re buying cookies. Call them unenlightened if you want, but to them, you look as ridiculous as Effie when you eat gender-conscious cookies.
To be clear, I’m not talking about “persecution.” No one is persecuted by a bag of cookies or a New Year’s Eve celebration. I’m talking about alienation. Alienation is when you feel out of place, that you don’t belong, perhaps that you aren’t welcome.
I had one of these alienating moments last night. My wife and I were watching The Good Doctor. If you don’t know, this is a medical drama where the main character is a doctor with autism. It’s just an imitation of House, but we really liked that show too. In the most recent episode of The Good Doctor, a first-year resident was told to perform an abortion on a patient. The resident is the only evangelical Christian in the show. She is also an African-American woman.* She had a moral objection to performing the abortion. Rather than exploring the issue with depth and complexity, her concerns and her faith were trivialized and dismissed. This is not a surprising treatment of an evangelical on television, but it was a little surprising to see a woman of color treated this way. She was infantilized. She was not a moral objector heroically standing on principle. No, she was backward, regressive, and pitiful. In fact, her career as a doctor was overtly threatened because of her hesitancy. By the end of the episode she has a conversion of sorts. The backward Christian “sees the light.” It turns out that she had an abortion herself, but she had chosen to put her career first. It was a decision that, we are told, she didn’t regret because it was right for her. She had been baptized in the waters of secular orthodoxy.
Given the number of evangelicals who watch television, it is jarring how underrepresented they are. When an evangelical turns on the TV they are reminded that they don’t exist. If they do exist, they are out of place. They are pathetic. They lack substance or depth. They are a judgy, hypocritical Angela on The Office or a nauseating goody-goody Ned Flanders on The Simpsons. Or perhaps they are marching on the Capitol Building. The one thing that’s clear is they don’t belong in the world.
On the one hand, it’s worth considering that maybe Hollywood is actually telling us the truth about ourselves, or at least part of the truth. We actually don’t belong in the world. We are out of place in the world. Jesus warned us about that, didn’t he? He didn’t promise that the world would love us and make us the star of their TV show. He kind of promised the opposite. We shouldn’t be surprised when we are alienated by what’s on TV. Maybe that’s even the way it should be. I had a friend on Twitter tell me that what we need isn’t more representation but better discipleship. Amen to that! It’s also not completely without value to reflect on the ways that the world has come to see us. Ministry in the world requires that we are at least aware of the way the public has been trained to look at us.
On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t blind to some of the consequences of telling tens of millions of people that they don’t belong in society. And the practiced commingling of religious conviction with other demographic/cultural factors creates even more toxic potential.** If I am told every time I turn on TV that “my people” are either non-existent or bad, if I am told relentlessly that my skin color and gender are everything that’s wrong with the world, if my culture, when it is acknowledged at all, is routinely skewered and mocked, if my way of life is dying while every cultural elite is shoveling dirt on the grave, three things might start to happen among a large but vocal minority of those people: I’ll get angry and resentful. I’ll start to turn off the TV and look for truth in other, out-of-the-mainstream places because those places might actually respect my existence. And I’ll also start to do things just to make you mad. Things like voting for a billionaire vulgarian who doesn’t look like Christ even if you squint really hard. Alienation does that, you know. It makes people act out. Some of those people might even get violent.
This isn’t the post I intended to write. I was going to write a post about my feelings of outrage and indignation. I was going to write a post about the gross and idolatrous mixture of politics, faith, and violence. I was going to write a post decrying the practical atheism of those who would wave a Christian flag LARPing as insurrectionists. I’ve actually started and stopped writing that post at least two different times in the last week. I may choose to publish that post at some point in the future, but there is nothing more conventional or easy than condemning something that is almost universally condemned. When a crowd has all raised its voice in judgment, what is gained from one more voice being added to the mix other than to demonstrate to the crowd that I am, after all, on the right side? Some of you will read this and think that I’m trying to justify the actions of people who deserve nothing but condemnation. I’m sorry if that’s your conclusion. There’s nothing that justifies the violent and treasonous actions of those protestors especially those who did so under the banner of Jesus. I’m also not glibly saying that “the tv made them do it.” There are complex reasons why people chose to march violently on Washington last week. Mono-causes are almost always insufficient or flat out wrong. This observation about cultural representation is just one piece of a very large and messy puzzle. So, should we condemn? Yes. Is it valuable to also attempt to understand? Is it valuable to pay attention to the types of undercurrents that might have led to this moment? I think so. I think that not doing so is almost guaranteed to perpetuate these types of social fractures into the future.***
*This was one of the few things that the show actually got right. In the US, black women are by far the most Christian demographic whereas the majority of atheists are white men.
**Even though it isn’t accurate “evangelical” has become a surrogate for a particular type of cultural deplorable: white, male, southern/rural, uneducated, working class, usually regarded as racist and bigoted. The popular understanding has made particular religious convictions only incidental to what is characterized as evangelical. All that is to say, when the entertainment media uses the word evangelical, I get confused who they are even talking about. Their evangelical is often unrecognizable to me. Is a person evangelical just because they are a white dude who lives in Alabama and might call himself a Baptist whenever it’s convenient?
***Anticipating another question or critique, I feel the exact same way about the violent protests that happened in the spring. In fact, I think they are two different parts of the same cultural phenomenon. Should we condemn them? Absolutely. But we should at least be paying attention to all the factors that led us to those moments. Ignoring those factors won’t ever bring healing or peace.