Godtalk

What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

A late September headline at the Esquire magazine website proclaimed “There Is No God on TV, Only The Good Place.”

Indeed, the clever sitcom of that title, which launched season No. 3 last week, plays around with good and evil, heaven and hell, and even portrays supernatural demons. But God is missing.

This NBC fantasy is just the thing to lure the eyeballs of America’s growing legion of young, religiously unmoored “nones,” in a carefully multicultural fashion that also ignores religious beliefs and practices. Instead, the proceedings are all about a hazy moral philosophy about what makes a good person.

CBS makes a different audience bid with “God Friended Me,” which premiered Sunday. The drama’s lead character Miles (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) is a preacher’s kid turned outspoken atheist. Is the “God” who becomes his Facebook “friend” the actual cosmic God or some human or otherworldly trickster? To find out, Miles enlists his devout bartender sister, a hacker pal, and a journalist, and experiences coincidences that just might be miracles.

Judging from one episode, there may not be much here for religion writers to ponder, and it's hard to guess whether “Friended” can even survive. (Ratings prospects are dimmed by CBS’s inability to set predictable Sunday start times following sports events.) This seems inspiration-drenched programming in the varied tradition of “Highway to Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” or last season’s short-lived “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”

“The Good Place,” by contrast, has somehow managed to establish a niche and win critics’ acclaim by probing Big Questions with a droll touch. Here salvation is earned strictly by performing good deeds instead of faith. That conflicts with an historic 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord that insists Christianity believes that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God” who equips and calls us to “good works.”

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Still talking about it: Chris Pratt zoomed past normal Godtalk in his non-news MTV sermon

Still talking about it: Chris Pratt zoomed past normal Godtalk in his non-news MTV sermon

If you watch a lot of pop-culture award shows (confession: I don't do that anymore), then you know that a certain amount of generic God talk is normal and acceptable.

On sports awards shows, and sometimes the Grammy Awards, you will even hear people offer gratitude to "my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," or similar phrases. 

You will, of course, also hear plenty of political announcements, off-color humor and endorsements of various progressive social causes. Right now, pop superstars seem determined to make statements that will eventually show up in Donald Trump campaign ads, demonstrating what the cultural elites think of lots of folks in flyover country.

This is the wider media context for discussions of Chris Pratt's interesting "Nine Rules For Living" sermonette during the recent MTV Movie & TV awards. You can click here to watch this MTV moment or look at the end of the CNN.com report to read a transcription of what he had to say (or part of it -- hold that thought).

I also wrote a GetReligion post on this topic, focusing on the fact that Pratt's remarks were a red-hot topic on Twitter, but didn't push any "news" buttons in elite newsrooms, especially in the world of print news. Now "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I have done a podcast on this topic and you can click here to tune that in.

* The original GetReligion post on this topic focused on the simple, but hazy, question: Were Pratt's remarks newsworthy. It's clear that if Pratt had (a) discussed Trump, pro or con, or (b) discussed LGBTQ rights (pro or con), then it would have been news. If he had discussed to state of his love life and recent divorce, that would have been news. Instead, he offered remarks linked to his evangelical Christian faith. This is not "news," even in an age when explicit faith is supposed to be private?

* It's interesting to note that Pratt pretty much stated what he was doing, in rule for life No. 4., in which he said: 

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Yes, another God and football story: ESPN ignores Catholic faith in Harbaugh's life

Yes, another God and football story: ESPN ignores Catholic faith in Harbaugh's life

It is very easy to be cynical about a lot of the Godtalk that goes on in the world of sports.

You know what I'm talking about. There are a few players and coaches, not many, who really do think God is on their side and wants them to win games. Personally, I have noticed that the more devout players are -- meaning that they are actually active in faith groups week after week -- the more likely they are to say that their prayers focus on the well-being of other athletes and requests that they all play -- safely -- to the best of their abilities.

Take, for example, those prayer circles that form on the field after National Football League games (the ones the networks never show on television). They involve players from both teams -- together. What do you think they are praying about? Are the winners praying, "Dear God, thank you for giving us the power to kick these other losers' butts." Probably not.

Now, I bring all this up because of an interesting comment a reader made the other day on my post about Stephen Curry and his decision to leap from the Kingdom of Nike to the Under Armour brand. His new company, you may remember (click here to catch up on that), let him put some faith-centered material on his Curry-branded shoes. We're talking about the 4:13 and "I can do all things" references that point to Philippians 4:13, which states, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (KJV)." Thus, "BlueOntario" asked:

I wonder if you are on to something. What is driving the several stories documented here of ESPN avoiding "the religion angle?" Is there actually a top-down driven policy, probably never in writing, that states what the lines are regarding religion that ESPN stories can never cross?
Pattern or coincidence?

This brings me to a story that I have been thinking about for awhile, a piece -- yes, at ESPN -- focusing on Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and his unique approach to working in today's bottom-line-driven NFL culture.

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