By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – January 31, 2017) — As I sat watching Albuquerque Little Theater’s production of a play based on Agatha Christie’s mystery book And Then There Were None (originally published with a derogative name in 1939), I couldn’t but help notice how the “Christian” was portrayed in the play .
For those not familiar with the book, a short word is in store. The story revolves around ten people invited as guests to an island off the coast of England. While there, the guests find out that the person that invited them to the island didn’t show up, or so they think. And over a period of time the guests are systematically murdered according to a poem found on the fire mantle.
The end of the mystery will remain unstated in the event that you’d like to read the book or see the play. But for the sake of character explanation, there are several people — ranging from a military man, a secretary, a general, a judge, former police officer, a butler and his wife — that were invited to the island. One of the guests is Emily Caroline Brent, an elderly Christian women who ends up being judgmental and quite ungracious. Emily is cold towards a few of the characters, found reading her Bible rather that bringing consolation to the growing mystery.
Christie’s portrayal of a Christian may suit a book or play, particularly as a clichéd representation of an individual who is judgmental and ungracious, but falls short in her characterization of Christians as multifaceted and complex. Sadly, many Christian characters are seldom depicted with depth in the media or the arts, easy prey to simple stereotypes. And much of the time Christians are portrayed dreadfully (often to demonize the faith, or find contradictory implications between the person and the religion). It appears that Christian characters are open targets for uncovering the duplicitous nature found in human beings .
True, there are times when the Christian needs to be called out (especially when our actions don’t match that of Jesus), but launching uninformed attacks in the press and in the arts makes for bad art and media, falling prey to easy labels. Typecasts may have an immediate impact on the viewer or listener, but they are not always accurate, compromising truth to the tickling of the ears and the teasing the emotions. And as I understand it, truth is something that both the media and art should seek, or at least recognize . And at bare minimum, there should be an honest appraisal of the various denominations and Christian expressions, recognizing that one size does not fit all, even if some are ungracious and narrow-minded.
In respect to Agatha Christie, the stereotypical characterization in And Then There Were None was probably a ploy to add intricacy to the greater plot, not overly concerned with individualized character development. And since Christie did have a Christian faith , it is unlikely that she’d do a full frontal attack on Christians, instead looking for the flaws in each character to flaunt for a quick-moving mystery. But Christie’s characterization does represent a larger approach taken by many in the media and arts towards people of faith.
It appears, however, that there is slight movement away from this trite tactic. There are those in the media that are beginning to see that the current culture is critical to people of faith. As host of This American Life, NPR’s Ira Glass is one such person. In an article for Relevant Magazine, Glass comments on the bias in media towards Christians, recognizing that Christians are a “ripe target of opportunity” . But when asked if Christians “deserve” the uncritical and shallow attacks, Glass responds, “no.” The article continues, “…many groups in America feel the media covers them poorly, but Christians seem to get it ‘especially bad’…television shows and movies would depict Christians ‘as these hot-head, crazy people.’” The paragraph concludes with this, “This depiction didn’t match his own experience with Christians he knew personally.”
I think Glass’ insight here is worth a pause. Glass, a person with no religious practice, didn’t find a connection between the Christian people he actually knew and how Christians were being considered in the media; there was a disconnect between the reality of his experience and the representation given in the media. But sadly, this disconnect has been found in the media for the past fifty years, and even further in the arts . True bias in people’s worldview (including Christians towards other people) has been around since the beginning, but bias for the sake of brutalism is never becoming.
This being said, there is amazing literature that presents Christian’s deep complexity and multifaceted humanity (writers such Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Cormac McCarthy, and Marilynne Robinson come to mind, all pointing back to earlier writers — Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, and the like); and even more recently, there’s been TV programs that represent Christians in a fair light — with struggles in tow (UK’s Grantchester is one such program ). But by and large, Christians are still characterized as creepy and crazy in the mass media .
All this said, how should Christians respond to unfair characterization in the media? I suggest the acronym ACT.
A — Act, Accept, and Answer. The first point is obvious: act like a Christian; don’t give the media fodder to feed off of. To the best of your ability seek Christ and His character, allowing it to form and shape your mind and soul. But because Christians—like all people—are fallen, we must then accept the fact that the arts and media will pick up on our common humanity and make it a topic of contention, pointing out our hypocrisy and, what appears, unpredictable behavior. In this case, learn from the critique. Furthermore, Christians will be mocked as Christ was, hated and persecuted (see Matthew 5:10 and 10: 22). Yet in all cases, we need to answer the critics with charity, recognizing that that their portrayal may be inaccurate and insulting, but our response should always be found in God’s grace as exemplified through His love.
C — Communicate and Consult. When Christians are characterized improperly in the media, you may want call or email entertainment companies, media organization, and arts outlets and let them know they have a shortened view of the Christian faith. Use it as a means to educate and elucidate on the Christian virtues, not an opportunity to be mean or complain. Yeah, there are groups like don’t represent Christ well, but point out to the media outlets that there are churches and individuals that do represent Christ with exceptional integrity. Consult with your pastor, church, or Para-church ministry to forge a proper view of a Christian’s place in society, looking to bring balance and a better understanding to how we are to engage culture. Books like Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care, T.S Eliot’s Christianity and Culture, and NT Wright’s After You Believe can help bring thoughtful consideration to the intersection between Christianity and culture.
T — Talk to God. Pray. Pray for those people that persecute you, that make fun of you, that mock Christianity and Christ. Who knows, one day her or she may join the ranks of the Prodigal People that are found in God’s grace to believe and receive. The bottom line is that God loves them more than they hate you, and talking to God about His love for them is a good place to start. Allow God to use you as a catalyst for culture, but more importantly, His care for the world.
As we ACT out our Christian life and convictions one thing will manifest: we may never get to the point — as in Agatha Christie’s play — where “there were none” left to criticize and cajole the Christian (no bullying, no crooked comments, or tainted truth), but we may get to the point where there were fewer. And better yet, maybe through love and clear communication there may be less critical characterizations of Christians on the part of the media and the arts and more friends that join the family of God, participants in His gracious kingdom resounding in His truth, beauty, and goodness.
1) Albuquerque Little Theater is one of Albuquerque’s longest running theaters. It is where the actress Vivian Vance had her start before her role as Ethel on I Love Lucy. For more information, click here: https://albuquerquelittletheatre.org/
2) https://culturewarreporters.com/2014/02/11/shame-day-the-portrayal-of-christians-in-popular-media/ or http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/december/scandalous-nonsensical-portrayal-of-christian-faith-on-tv.html
Photo captions: 1) ACT! 2) Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura. 3) Christianity and Culture by T. S Eliot. 4) After You Believe by N. T Wright. 5) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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