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Richard Stearns

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Show More Religion on TV to Bridge the Cultural Divide

Posted: 06/11/2012 12:44 pm

Commentators this month have debated whether the HBO program "Girls" exhibits an adequate degree of diversity. Could a show about young women in New York -- especially one that is supposed to be more real and authentic than "Sex in the City" -- really feature only white girls of privilege? The critiques began after just the first episode.

This is an important debate because I believe that television, film, and other media should accurately represent the world in which we live. If we fail to show the diversity of our country on television, we not only exclude our neighbors but we also miss out on discovering and understanding the rich cultures and values they have to offer. I applaud the progress made over the past few decades in increasing diversity in the media, providing a fair and accurate portrayal of our world. I also realize, as the "Girls" debate illustrates, we have a long way to go.

Diversity goes beyond skin color and ethnicity as well. For example, our media has regressed from the 1950s when it comes to portraying religion. If characters of real religious faith were more frequently seen on film and television, we would have a much better chance of bridging our current cultural divides.

I've become a fan of the TV show Blue Bloods, about a New York Irish police family. One of the reasons I enjoy the show so much is because the Reagan family is religious. There is nothing stereotypical about their Catholic faith. The show's writers don't portray faith either as foolish or bigoted. They're simply a devout family. They pray before meals; they go to church on Sunday. Faith is an ordinary part of life.

Yet the vast majority of television and film characters seem to have no faith. The media world is almost entirely secular. People rarely attend church, pray, or make decisions based on religious beliefs. It is hard to find any Christians on popular television shows who are not belittled. There are virtually no television characters who I can fully identify with.

This lack of representation of religious people is an amazing distortion of reality. It's true that one of the fastest growing religious groups is composed of those who identify with no religious faith. However, it's also true, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that 78 percent of Americans are Christians. Another five percent are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or another faith. Many people of no traditional faith are still highly spiritual.

When I asked my Facebook followers which television or film characters of faith they identified with, most people gave one of three responses: 1) Charles Ingalls from The Little House on the Prairie, 2) Eric Liddell from the film Chariots of Fire, or 3) no one. What does it say about the media that 1982 was the last time viewers saw a character of faith with whom they identified?

World Vision works in dozens of countries where the majority practices Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam. So we understand the importance of knowing another person's religious beliefs. In those contexts, it is essential that we understand the culture and beliefs of the people we work with and treat them respectfully.

As a Christian organization, World Vision recognizes the importance of faith in the life of a community. We also appreciate the possibility for misunderstanding which provokes tension and sometimes violence. In Ethiopia, World Vision helped form interfaith councils where Christian and Muslim leaders meet to build friendships and understanding. When a spike in violence caused by Islamic militants erupted, those communities with interfaith groups saw little or no religious violence. Taking the time to learn about and appreciate the religious views of our neighbors goes a long way toward strengthening civil society.

As World Vision's work in multi-faith environments shows, we need to understand the religious views and practices of our fellow Americans if we are to successfully navigate some of this country's more bitter disagreements. We should be thankful that today our country values the contributions and experiences of minority groups, and that we can learn about and appreciate them in film and on television. Let's treat our fellow citizens of all faith with the same respect and understanding.

 
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