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The five Christians you meet in the movies

Hollywood isn’t very creative when it comes to portraying believers

Steven Spielberg arrives at the premiere of The Fabelmans in Los Angeles on Nov. 6, 2022. Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press

The five Christians you meet in the movies
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Rainn Wilson, star of The Office and much else besides, is neither a Christian nor a conservative. So when even a Hollywood personality like Wilson is starting to say out loud that Hollywood depicts Christians negatively, it’s worth paying attention. The narrative has indeed been hard to miss lately. Oscar-nominated fare such as The Whale and The Fabelmans feature Christian characters who, while perhaps sympathetic, are clueless or hypocritical. Other stories, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, use fantasy worlds in which pious gatekeepers are eventually overthrown by their victims.

Of course, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with films or novels that depict bad religion or bad religious people. Both exist. Such themes are timeless and can powerfully resonate with those who have been oppressed in the name of heaven. But particularly when it comes to the film industry, it seems as if there remains no room for devoutly Christian characters aside from the Arthur Dimmesdale gig. Hear a character in a major studio film pray in the name of Jesus or quote Scripture, and it’s a fair bet that this character will turn out to be a charlatan, a rake, or something worse.

It is so predictable that we could break down “the five Christians you meet in the movies” like so:

1) The Hypocrite

This classic type has appeared all over the place, from prestige dramas (There Will Be Blood) to comedies (Saved!). The Hypocrite is usually introduced as a deeply devout character; in fact, the more devout the character appears—the more frequent the Scriptural quotations, the more earnest the prayers—the more hypocritical the villain usually turns out to be. Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical drama The Fabelmans, nominated for Best Picture, features a teenage girl who talks about being “on fire for Jesus,” but uses religion as a pretense for making out with the young protagonist.

Films that feature religious hypocrites usually make irreligious or religiously indifferent characters the cause of their downfall. The hypocrite’s faith is often tied closely into their dishonest character, so that to expose the one is functionally to expose the latter.

2) The Bully

The mother in Carrie. The prison warden in The Shawshank Redemption. These and other Bible thumping bullies have become one of the more effective tropes in film. Their violent, controlling, sometimes even psychotic natures come dressed in pious platitudes. Of course, such abusive people exist in real life. Yet they are overrepresented in Hollywood narratives. Samuel L. Jackson’s famous homicidal quotations of Ezekiel in Pulp Fiction is a good example of how explicitly religious dialogue tends to be tied into some moral defect in a character.

Hollywood’s imaginative energies often leave religion entirely out of the picture, bringing it along mostly to lampoon or condemn it.

3) The Wise Heretic

Often one of the most sympathetically portrayed religious characters, the wise heretic evolves and eventually comes to understand that key things he once believed were always wrong. This does not necessarily mean the character rejects religion, only that the version of religion he discovers to be good and right is a highly idiosyncratic one.

Paul Schrader’s depressing First Reformed tells the story of a good priest who becomes deeply cynical and obsessed with climate apocalypticism. He ends up acting out his despair in a truly unhinged way. Yet the film’s perspective toward his extremism is positive; it is the other religious characters, the ones who do not share his hopelessness, who are insensate and self-righteous.

4) The Unfeeling Elder

This one covers quite the spectrum, from the pastor in Footloose to the father in Boy Erased. Unfeeling elders are not hypocrites or overt bullies. They genuinely believe, but their dogmatic stances make them unable to sympathize or even listen to an opposing viewpoint. What’s notable about this category is that, while people of all ideologies can be this rigid in real life, this type of cinematic character is almost always Christian. The arrogant atheist, the illiberal secularist—these are very real people, but very rare movie characters.

5) The Well-Meaning Dolt

Religious people are a frequent source of comic relief. Films like Sister Act, Talladega Nights, and Christmas with the Kranks all attempt to chuckle at spirituality, with various levels of success. These are, in fact, some of the common depictions of the devout: sympathetic, well-meaning people who nevertheless are not very bright. They often require help from their more urbane, less heavenly minded friends to solve problems and save the day. In these stories, religion is often implied to be a package deal with intellectual limitation. If they were smarter, after all, would they still be religious?

Just a quick reflection on the five types of Christians most commonly seen in movies affirms that Rainn Wilson has a point. Despite the fact that the vast majority of the world is religious, and a huge number are Christian, Hollywood’s imaginative energies often leave religion entirely out of the picture, bringing it along mostly to lampoon or condemn it. This is an interesting fact in an industry supposedly obsessed with “representation.” And it’s a reminder to evangelicals to be mindful of how stories (and memorable characters) shape society.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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