In the 2013 horror film, “The Conjuring,” Ed Warren (played by Patrick Wilson) posits a truth one would expect from a paranormal investigator — that dark, evil forces exist to manipulate human will.
But there’s another force at work every bit as real as the forces of Satan, Warren says, that deserves attention: God.
“The devil exists. God exists,” Warren says in the film. “And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”
“The Conjuring” is a successful example of the kind of entertainment that’s becoming increasingly rare — the kind that portrays faith as a positive truth rather than an equivocal superstition. As devout Catholics, real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren outspokenly believed that only their faith helped them in their work.
The ambiguity creeping into entertainment regarding faith is no coincidence, Christian blogger and religion scholar John Morehead said — as Americans have seemingly grown less religious, entertainment has increasingly dabbled with moral ambiguity, especially with anti-hero characters on acclaimed TV shows like “Breaking Bad,” “The Americans” or “True Detective.”
Morehead says that particularly before the release of 1973’s “The Exorcist,” faith in films more or less mirrored the idea that religious practices and ideas could overcome evil.
“Vampire or monster films, for example, had Catholic overtones and evil was present, but by end of the movie, good triumphed,” Morehead said. “‘The Exorcist’ has a similar tone, but it’s much more ambiguous. There’s an exorcism, but it comes at a cost.”
Like “The Exorcist” did in the 1970s, much of current entertainment toys with questions Americans are already pondering: What does it mean to truly be “good”?
“In the past, there was more of a national identity with the Christian narrative where God represents good and the devil represents evil,” Morehead said. “Now, that line is blurred.”
Yet at a time when entertainment is dominated by protagonists and storylines that aren’t always moral, horror author and screen writer Michaelbrent Collings thinks audiences gravitate to both kinds of entertainment because they still want and strongly believe in one thing: redemption.
“Look at haunted houses at Halloween — people who are hired to scare you. The sane thing to do would be to leave, but we’re fascinated with dark stuff,” Collings said. “That’s one thing that a lot of entertainment, but especially horror, can do — it drags us through the gutter and then says, ‘Hey, there’s a light.’”
Cynicism and certainty
Some experts blame a rise in public cynicism for both the slide in American religiosity and an increasingly gray morality in entertainment. Collings said it’s easy to be cynical about religious leaders at a time when Americans have become used to their folk heroes being cross-examined.
“Part of it is the fact that we understand more about history. A lot of our heroes have been dissected and revealed to not be as perfect as we thought,” Collings said. “We look at them with more of a question of whether they were truly heroes.”
Collings thinks audiences respond to extremes in part because they’re looking for some sort of release at the end — a light at the end of the tunnel. Those extremes can depict faith in an unfavorable light, or they stand to bring people closer to God. Collings pointed to “The Conjuring” and 2005’s “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” as examples of extreme plots (in both cases, demonic possession) that recognize God and religion as realities rather than something for audiences to sneer at.
Because people are wary of certainty today, Collings said, the drama is more compelling and believable if making the right decision comes at a high cost — as in “Emily Rose,” where the heroine’s fight against possession becomes a fight to stay alive.
“‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ worked because halfway through, you realize that God and the devil are real,” Collings said. “It’s a question of, will he have this person’s soul, or will she take a stand and possibly lose everything doing it?”
But often, Steiner argued, modern entertainment also embraces depictions of faith that don’t rely on extremes.
One example is Fox’s canceled gem and cult favorite “Firefly,” a space western featuring characters of different faiths thrown together on freelance cargo spaceship “Serenity.” The characters include Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), who lost his Christian faith after fighting on the losing side of a war, and Shepherd Book (played by Ron Glass), a priest with a checkered past.
Steiner, who sat on a panel at this year’s Salt Lake City Comic Con examining faith in “Firefly” and its subsequent 2005 film, “Serenity,” said Book especially illustrates how uncertainty and faith are linked and how imperfect people often make the best Christians.
“(Book) is the ideal Christian because of his weakness and his doubt,” Steiner said. “It’s the doubt that makes you a better believer.”
Steiner pointed to episode seven of the show’s only season as an example. In it, Book catches the mentally unstable genius River Tam (Summer Glau) editing his Bible for what she calls inconsistencies and contradictions, to Book’s horror.
“It’s broken. It doesn’t make sense,” River insists, tearing out a page after calling Noah’s ark a “problem.”
“It’s not about making sense. It’s about believing in something and letting that belief be real enough to change your life,” Book replies. “You don’t fix faith. It fixes you.”
As entertainment changes to reflect people’s shifting attitudes about religion, Morehead thinks that portrayals of different kinds of faith can help people make sense of their own beliefs.
“Even if entertainment is critical of Christianity, that can be an opportunity to examine our own faith if we look at it correctly,” Morehead said.
It could be a more nuanced approach to faith as depicted in “Firefly” that young people could be looking for — and they may yet find it in church pews. As CNN religion blogger and evangelical Rachel Held Evans wrote in 2013, young people aren’t turning away from church so much as they’re searching for the right church to fit into.
“Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions — Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. —precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious,” Evans wrote. “We find that refreshingly authentic.”
Young people, like Hollywood, may be grappling with questions of faith, but it’s a good sign that they’re puzzling out answers rather than giving up on God. While data like Pew Research Center’s 2012 “Rise of the Nones” survey found that although Americans were increasingly becoming less religious, most of the religiously unaffiliated reported that they still believed in God. Church membership, Evans theorized, is probably in the future for many young people who currently identify as “unaffiliated.”
“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance,” Evans wrote. “We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.”
Faced with an under-30 demographic wrestling with questions of faith, Collings said it makes sense that entertainment would try to reflect that in all sorts of different ways — from the morality tales of anti-heroes to ghost and exorcism stories.
“Now we have more scattered versions of what is true, and even if the definitions are similar, it doesn’t speak to everybody,” Collings said. “Everyone in the world has had some crisis of faith, so that speaks to everyone.”
As Americans continue to explore their faith both in life and through art and entertainment, Collings isn’t worried that Americans will abandon their religion or that entertainment will become devoid of redemption. The Bible, just like the characters in today’s TV and movies, is full of people filled with questions and doubts, waiting to be redeemed.
“Everyone in the world has had some kind of crisis of faith and the Bible has stories of flawed people trying to be perfect with God’s help,” Collings said. “We keep coming back to them because they reflect our own stories.”