The Spirituality of Television

By Christina Shu, Ministerial InternChristina 3

“Can I be spiritual and still watch television?”

Yes I said it. In between my busy schedule working as a hospital chaplain and preparing for ministry, I still find time to watch television. It’s part guilty pleasure, part escapism, and part relaxation. But I also think that consumption of popular media, whether it’s movies, tv, or something else new, can be done in a thoughtful, critical, and even spiritual way.

I like to watch television that supports my values, and also engages me in stories and characters in a thought-provoking way.  I like tv that is feminist, anti-racist, and confronts current issues in new ways. I want tv that not only represents me, but also challenges me. And my personal theology frequently takes inspiration from what I read, as well as what I watch.

For the past few years, I have tried to watch shows which meet The Bechdel Test. This is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2)  talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. Try it on tv shows and movies! It’s surprising and alarming how many shows simply do not pass. We are used to watching two male characters interact and talk about anything, but it is difficult to find the opposite.

Fortunately, there are some great shows out there that showcase female characters with interesting professional and personal lives, who are the stars of their own shows. Here’s what I’m watching currently:

  • The Good Wife
  • Elementary
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Scandal
  • Nashville
  • The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (technically a video blog)

Another thing that I appreciate about the above shows, is that they frequently depict characters confronting ethical dilemmas, and being forced to make difficult choices. My favorite show, The Good Wife portrays the main character Alicia, balancing her identities as a mother, wife, and lawyer. A recent episode showed her declaring in the middle of her husband’s political campaign that she is an atheist!

So what about you? Do you find spiritual themes in historical dramas like Downton Abbey? Do you ask yourself what it means to be human in a world of zombies, vampires, or robots? Maybe you like to guess which favorite tv character would be most likely to be a Unitarian Universalist.

Post your thoughts on theology and your favorite shows in the comments!

 

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6 Responses to The Spirituality of Television

  1. Suzanne says:

    Thanks, Christina! I’m gonna try that Bechdel test! I heart Downton Abbey b/c it seems to be about the time that the Post-Christian era was setting in full-on in Europe. The one time we see a character (Lady Mary) pray, her sister looks at her incredulously. Plus, the whole idea of The Great War (and the world war that followed it) is an ongoing spiritual conundrum. 🙂

  2. claire gordon says:

    Great idea Christina and I think you right about the potential for tv to be spiritual and how difficult this can be for women. Any good ideas that follow those same criteria for my 9 year old girl? Anyone out there have any?? Talk about challenging! Most of what she wants to watch I find intolerable, which comes with accompanying friction between us. I’d love some good suggestions!

  3. DOWNTON ABBEY all the way! There are so many great women in that house I don’t know which one I want to be from one show to the next! I identify with or aspire to be just about any of them, and I’m not even a woman this time around. These women are courageous, hilarious, unpredictable, way-out wise and decent and hurt and imperfect. No humorless victims nor Playboy Bunnies here, upstairs or down. These girls are way past any of that …

  4. Sara LaWall says:

    Thank you for affirming my secret escape! I just read about the Bechdel test and think it is a great tool to judge our own viewing but also for our children! I certainly want my boys to see strong women talking to each other about things other than men! Here’s my current list (which includes several of our choices):
    Downton Abbey
    Parenthood
    The Good Wife
    Suits (could use even more women)
    Rizzoli & Isles

  5. Sara LaWall says:

    Claire,
    I just found a really great show on Amazon’s Instant Video for Prime Members (meaning you can only view it online or using their app). It is from Australia and it is called Dance Academy. It is about the high school youth who are [art of the National Ballet’s Academy for young (want to be professional) dancers. While there are a lot of relationship story lines they also dealt with a gay/coming out storyline, eating disorders, self-esteem all in a much more positive way than most of our television. You should check it out first but she may really enjoy it!

  6. Martin Morales says:

    I am revisiting an old TV show called Joan of Arcadia; I picked up the DVDs. Joan of Arcadia aired on CBS from 2003 to 2005. Joan is in high school and is visited by God. Every time he appears to her he takes on a different form. He assigns errands for Joan to do. When she does them she becomes a catalyst in the lives of her friends or family, a catalyst for change or a catalyst for healing. I liked the show because it was spiritual without being religious. Joan did not believe in God the first time he appeared to her. Here is that scene posted on YT –

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