The idea that Hollywood is full of secular humanists who disdain the faithful may not be true, but over the years it’s been enough to support an alternative Christian pop culture industry, with hits ranging from Mel Gibson’s bloody “The Passion of the Christ” to the more recent “God’s Not Dead” franchise. But if any year should give the lie to the idea that pop culture is hostile to religion in general or Christianity in particular, it’s 2015. I can’t think of a year that did more to present Christianity (and occasionally Judaism) as a force for genuine heroism, whether it was evangelical converts heroically resisting communism in “The Americans,” secular Jews encountering the full power of their faith and wrongs in “Transparent,” or a Catholic virgin sticking to her promises in “Jane the Virgin.”
“The Americans” may air in the first half of the calendar year, but all these months later, I’m not sure I saw anything as politically or religiously deft as Paige Jennings’ (Holly Taylor) story line in the Cold War spy drama’s third season. Paige’s attraction to Christianity began last season, and originally, her parents, deep-cover KGB agents, saw her blossoming faith as an opportunity: They could redirect her interests in social justice toward their secret mission.
But this year on “The Americans,” the elder Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) found out that Paige wasn’t just an activist who had fallen in with a Christian crowd. Her love for Jesus Christ was genuine. And it meant that when Paige’s parents finally told her that they had been born in the Soviet Union and were working on its behalf, Paige couldn’t side with them. It was a tricky plot arc that had the clever effect of recasting Christianity as a genuinely radical force, something that empowered Paige to do what she felt was right rather than simply following her parents’ directives. Contemporary efforts to cast Christianity as under serious threat in the United States often come across as overreach. “The Americans” managed to set up a scenario in which holding to her faith and its mandates made Paige genuinely brave.
“Jane the Virgin,” the CW’s spirited, lovely telenovela about a devout Catholic (Gina Rodriguez) who is accidentally inseminated, managed to do something similar with Jane’s plans to save sex for marriage. The show has never treated Jane like she’s a prude or someone who judges someone else’s decisions. Instead, it’s given Jane a healthy sexual appetite and worthy objects for her desire — Micheal (Brett Dier), the hunky cop who is Jane’s ex-fiancé, and Rafael (Justin Baldoni), whose sperm resulted in Jane’s virgin pregnancy — as well as a genuine enjoyment of gossip and other characters’ love and sex lives.
Jane’s original pledge to wait to have sex may have been animated by her grandmother’s (Ivonne Coll) suggestion that sex is an irrevocable act that can ruin something beautiful. But “Jane the Virgin” has subsequently used that promise as a way to explore Jane’s desire to be careful in her relationship choices and to behave with integrity, especially after giving birth to her son.
And while “Transparent” has always been full of Jewish cultural symbols, from cured meat to difficult mothers, the series became more explicitly religious this year. Last season, Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass) began dating Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), a rabbi at the temple his family sporadically attends. Over the course of this one, Raquel officiates at Sarah Pfefferman’s (Amy Landecker) wedding, which she immediately bails on; Raquel and Josh try unsuccessfully to integrate the son Josh didn’t know he had into their new family; and they lose a pregnancy.
These traumas come to a head after Raquel leaves Josh shortly before Yom Kippur and he comes to services, hoping to figure out what has happened between them. At the same time, Sarah has gone to visit her ex to ask for forgiveness and is surprised not to receive it. Watching Raquel beat her chest and enumerate the congregation’s sins is one of the rare scenes when Jewish worship isn’t only depicted on television, but also taken seriously; every item on her list hits Josh like a real blow. By contrast, Sarah’s rote performance of Yom Kippur ritual comes across as almost repulsive. “Transparent” does a lot of unusual things, and taking the idea of sin and forgiveness deadly seriously is among them. Whether showrunner Jill Soloway intends it or not, “Transparent” has become a powerful argument that you can be at the sexual vanguard and treat religion with genuine reverence.
If there’s a wish I have for religion-inflected entertainment going into Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it’s not simply that this trend continues, though it’s a welcome bulwark against the amorality that television in particular tends to treat as if it’s the height of sophistication. Instead, I dearly hope that 2016 brings about a continuing rapprochement between Hollywood and people of all faiths, both for the good of movies and television, and to the benefit of our discussions about religion.
There’s so much more to Islam than fodder for terrorism-related plots. There’s more to Judaism than nerdiness and anxiety. There’s more to Christianity than judginess or naivete. And there’s more to Buddhism and other non-Western religions than blissed-out Western seekers. The best way to communicate the full power and awe of belief isn’t with rigid, doctrinal lectures, but with the full range of great Hollywood storytelling and gorgeous cinematography.