There's a scene in an old Monkees episode that I can't stop thinking about. It revealed a light-hearted understanding of Christianity that wasn't meant to offend. If anything, it was the kind of joke that might have been written by a seminarian.
In it, Michael Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz are debating a serious problem -- like how they're going to pay the rent -- when Nesmith suggests the pair "consult the original Greek." They walk to the door in the backroom where the camera shows us an ancient Greek man studying some ancient text.
Great sight gag. Didn't really matter what the man said.
Today, we might find the secret code of theological humor tightly laced into a Simpson's episode, but by and large only people who went to seminary (and those, like me, who have a little too much interaction with seminarians) actually get it. The joke in that Monkees episode was meant for a broad audience. Most people got it.
That kind of joke would never be written today, because Christians bear the brunt of the worst kind of exaggerated characterizations than any other interest group known to man. We are either faithless, self-involved TV preachers or crackpots -- possibly even serial killers.
The one consistently positive Christian I've enjoyed on modern TV is Homer Simpson's neighbor, Ned Flanders. This is likely to draw some groans from a few people, but consider the facts. Ned is:
- A Bible-believing, sincere-to-a-fault Christian
- Imminently tolerable of his neighbor, who hates him for his goodness
- Supernaturally patient
- Committed to sharing and helping
- Perhaps the only Galatians 5:22-23 Christian ever on American TV
In one of my favorite episodes, Ned showed a Christ-like grace to an insensitive Homer after Ned's wife died. Ned tolerated Homer's meddling while he tried to hook Ned up with a Christian country singer who looked suspiciously like Amy Grant. (On a side note, Maude's tragic death has to be one of the best ways to get rid of a character on TV -- she fell over the ledge of a stadium after she was hit by a free t-shirt Homer shot out of a small hand-held canon during a NASCAR race. I don't think it gets any more American than that.)
Being a Simpson's fan and once having some disposable income at one point in my life, I disposed of it in one lump sum on the first season of the series. The writer's commentary was educational. Matt Groening, who created the show, said he didn't set out to create an annoying Christian. He was commentating on the average Joe, and he decided the average Joe's nemesis would be a kind-hearted Christian -- because that Christian would be and would have everything that average Joe would feel he could not achieve. Homer hates Ned because Ned is the embodiment of the most desirable, yet completely unattainable standard. Ned doesn't lord it over him, and that irritates Homer even more -- the unintentional "heaping hot coals."
Ned is far from perfect, which only endears me to him even more. He's a tad judgmental. He constantly fights his own legalism. His children, while well-meaning, are seemingly entirely sheltered from the world, and they have no ability to comprehend and interact with the world because of it. Frankly, this is the kind of commentary about modern Christianity I might write. This makes Ned very real to me.
The character allows these Ivy League comedy writers to take on some heady topics that no other show can do without crossing the boundaries of taste (Family Guy, in particular, has no shame). Even if it's just an interlude gag between storylines, Ned often offers a quick jolt of theological humor I find both appealing and rewarding.
Homer floods the town one night during a particularly savvy episode. Ned wakes up and looks out at the window and makes the assumption (under the whatever-suits-our-comedy-needs-at-this-moment theology the writers give him) God has flooded the world. Ned rejoices in his heart that God has sent his judgment upon the wicked, and is making a new heaven and a new earth. Then, as Homer floats by, Ned's excitement is quickly deflated:
"Ohhhhh. Heaven is easier to get into than Arizona State!"
(As someone who once attended ASU, obviously, this is a true comment on the admission policies of my school).
I can think of better ways to characterize Christians on TV, including their faults, but Ned Flanders remains the gold-diddily standard for me until another intelligent, witty show with a three-dimensional Christian comes along.