Having been recently freed from the text books I have found myself reunited with one of my favourite but neglected places in the world: the library. Choosing books can be quite an ordeal because I am the kind of person who has to finish what I start.
I find it very hard to commit to a book knowing that no matter how bad it is, I have to see it through to the end. Whether that's determination or foolishness is still up for debate.
My most recent visit saw me come away with some cook books, a book about a woman discovering China and a book that promised me an exploration of what it means to live life by your beliefs. Now I didn't pick this book up in the section devoted to Religion: Christianity which in hindsight should have been my warning sign but at the time I was distracted with the prospect of being able to challenge my own faith with fiction providing the comfort of distance and freedom from preachy instruction (which is great, don't get me wrong but variety is the spice of life after all).
It became clear quite quickly that this would not be the case. Instead of connecting with characters going through struggles related to how their belief systems interacted with their daily lives, I was introduced to a number of stereotypes that perhaps are under-represented on the stereotype scale but are nonetheless predictable and ridiculous. The sexual health worker with a troubled past meets the dashing young minister who believes being gay is a curable illness.
Two worlds collide, blah blah blah. This book is about extremes, and extremity mixed with religion is not usually a recipe for success. It struck me that in a society that is so liberal, so diverse, so advanced in many ways, there's still so many demographics that are under-represented in literary and popular culture.
Who are my role models?
I immediately began to wrack my brains for a well-known and positively regarded Christian public figure in a non Church-related position. Assistance from a cheeky Google search revealed a couple of surprises like Alec Baldwin and Kristin Chenoweth but mostly I was shown what I had expected: a handful of A-listers with a slightly larger representation in the B-C category.
Sure maybe as a rule the Hollywood lifestyle isn't one to aspire to anyway but it is undeniable that celebrities make up a huge component of our 21st century culture with their existence being virtually inescapable. Isn't it only natural to want to see people who you can relate to and admire who also share your faith?
The lack of representation isn't just limited by the actors and actresses playing the roles but also the parts themselves. It feels to me that faith is reduced to being the butt of the joke (Evan Almighty), an historical, fantastical story (The Passion), an inconsequential cliché (Morgan Freeman) or it features as a mere symbol of either oppression or salvation so again we're back with the extremes. Faith and religion isn't normalised by any means and it is certainly not allowed to exist outside those categories.
Doing it right?
One debatably well-meaning attempt can be found in the (still?) popular TV series "Glee". The show has always been proud of its inclusive representation of people and cultures and its celebration of difference. Ethnicities, disabilities, intelligence, are all things that the show has delved into. Artie for example is a character in a wheelchair and although some of his story lines have dealt directly with this, he has also had numerous relationships and even became a cheerleader.
In contrast, the character that was brought in to tick the Christianity box was given very little screen time devoted to any issue that was solely his. Mostly he just flicks his dreads and talks about Jesus whenever there's a disagreement. His only memorable moment was a fling with Quinn the celibacy club president turned teen mum turned punk turned reformed good girl. Maybe the lack of exposure was down to a comparative lack of talent or appeal but it's undeniable that the show barely bothered to scratch the surface of his story.
It's as if people think that people who identify strongly with a religion don't deal with any other issues other than questioning their faith. The same can be said for other groups. Women still apparently have little to talk about other than men and African Americans only have major roles in films about slavery or colonialism if they're not playing the comic relief character. Frankly I think we should be embarrassed. Future generations studying the popular literature of today could be forgiven for thinking not much has changed socially since the fifties.
I suppose the finger could be pointed in many directions but I fear this may be a chicken and the egg debate. Does the proportionate lack of examples dictate the perception of Christianity in its every day practice or does the common reaction dictate the lack of desire to portray it?
Breaking it down
In general there is still a lack of representation of minority groups in mainstream culture. Whether it is ignorance, a lack of universal appeal or a fear of offence, the result is one of alienation for those who cannot find themselves on screen or in the pages of books.
Perhaps the church hasn't given secular society much cause to believe we have a sense of humour but I think you'd find that most emerging adults are quite prepared to take things with a grain of salt and be able to be confronted with a wide range of views, opinions and portrayals of religion.
It's variety I'm craving, a true reflection of our societal composition. Something beyond the fundamentalist Christian meets Atheist with a troubled past and sparks fly storyline.
After my brief rendezvous with faith in non-fiction, I guess I will trudge back to the Christian section of the library, searching for something real to sink my teeth into that isn't "Understanding God" or "Strengthening Your Faith". Don't get me wrong, sometimes those sorts of titles can be incredibly helpful but is it so bad that occasionally I would like to be able to lose myself in the world of fiction and maybe be able to find something real to me in there somewhere too?
Demand change, demand a voice or better still go out and write about it yourself.
First published February 18, 2014
Helen McIntosh is 21, living in Wellington and trying to create more than she consumes. Writing for her is intentional expression and a way to start the conversation.
Helen McIntosh previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/helen-mcintosh.html