Finding the gospel in popular culture
Could the TV hit Desperate Housewives be a parable of the kingdom?
By Chip Hardwick
In 2004 the housewives who lived on Wisteria Lane were the topic of water-cooler conversations across the country—and the subject of the most fun seminary exam question I ever had to answer:
After hearing you cite an illustration from the TV hit Desperate Housewives in a recent sermon, the planning committee for the presbytery’s annual women’s retreat decides to dump Dr. Phil and invites you to be the speaker instead. They want to know if watching Desperate Housewives can be a source of spiritual wisdom, or if the act of watching the series is best classified as “totally depraved.”
How would you answer this question? It is tempting simply to dismiss this TV show and other more recent series like it. After all, it seems like a stretch to think that movies like The Avengers, music like Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Getting Back Together, or TV shows like Downton Abbey can strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ, when the Triune God doesn’t even make as much as a cameo in these and other works like them.
It is fairly easy to see how intentionally faith-filled works of art can draw us closer to Christ. But what about art which is not intentionally Christian? Can secular art witness to Jesus Christ and the Christian faith?
The answer may surprise you. And so may the theologian who gives us some hints about this topic. The leading 20th-century voice of the Reformed tradition, Karl Barth, has a lot to say about Desperate Housewives—at least indirectly.
In his masterful Church Dogmatics, Barth reminds his readers that Jesus is at the absolute center of our faith. Jesus Christ is the one Word of God—the only Word of God. While we may find in secular works and in the larger culture words from God which bring light into the darkness, only Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and those lights in the culture only shine because of Jesus’ light shining first in them.
Barth’s focus on Jesus’ centrality comes through in another way: his dominion over the whole world. This means that Jesus is sovereign even over those artists who are not faithful Christians. Jesus can speak through whomever he chooses to speak through.
Barth calls those times when Jesus speaks in and through the broader, secular culture “parables of the kingdom” (T&T Clark, 1961, IV/3.1:114). Like the parables found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, these parables are tales that shine an indirect light on the gospel. They’re not theological lectures; they are stories where the listener is invited to wrestle with the gospel message, because that message is not always obvious (for example, the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1–15).
Barth gives us filters to decide whether a secular (or, for that matter, Christian) painting or TV show can strengthen our faith. The first filter is whether the work of art is consistent with the Scriptures. He writes that when a work of art is compared with the biblical message of Christ, “it will not disturb or disrupt [the Bible’s] general line but rather illuminate it in a new way” (IV/3.1:125).
This means that a preliminary test is whether a secular piece of art leads its audience away from Scripture or more deeply into it. The book and movie The Hunger Games, for instance, include a key plot point where the lead character Katniss volunteers to save her sister’s life by taking her place in the competition leading to almost certain death. This act of sacrifice might draw the audience deeper into the Scriptures as we consider Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
The second filter Barth mentions is the relationship of these secular works of art with the dogmas and confessions of the church (remembering, of course, that these are secondary to Scripture). The secular parables of the kingdom should lead us more deeply into the wisdom of the church over the ages, articulated in the statements of faith.
The Book of Confessions houses 11 statements of belief ranging from the early church to the 1980s. As a test case, we might look at the Confession of 1967, which challenges the church to be obedient to the gospel call to reconciliation. This statement of faith includes a call to end racial discrimination. Consistency with this call makes Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting The Problem We All Live With a parable of the kingdom that helps strengthen our faith. This painting depicts Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African American student who walks proudly to her first day integrating William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. Accompanied by US marshals, she holds her head up high while she passes racial epithets and tomato splashes on the wall beside her.
Barth’s final filter is the fruits which are produced by the secular work of art. He wants us to consider what happens when individuals and communities focus on these TV shows, movies, music, etc. Do the individuals and communities respond in ways which are faithful? Or do they end up leading to lives which contradict the gospel?
Someone I know had a personal experience with this a few years ago. He found himself watching certain late-night comedians with some regularity. At first the crassness of their humor and the rawness of the shows’ racial overtones were shocking, but as time went on he started to take it more and more for granted. Before long he found himself imitating the comedians’ jokes—jokes which were inappropriate in nearly all circumstances; jokes at others’ expense; jokes which tore down and did not edify. Not long after that, he deleted the shows from his DVR because he realized that investing in these works of art (and I use the term loosely!) were not bearing fruit in his life that brought honor to Christ. Needless to say, little on these shows would make it through Barth’s third filter.
As we consider, then, whether a work of art that is not intentionally Christian can strengthen our faith, we can follow Barth and consider whether the art is consistent with the Scriptures, whether it squares with the confessions, and whether it bears good fruit. Of course, the answers may not be as clear as we hope. For instance, Katniss’s self-sacrifice in The Hunger Games may lead us back to the Scriptures, but the story’s violent themes may not bear good fruit if the work’s preteen audience follows them too closely and imitates them in some way.
I ended up answering that exam question about Desperate Housewives using Barth’s guidelines above, saying that the show can indeed be a secular parable of the kingdom (though not in all instances or story lines, of course). As an example, I pointed to a scene from the show’s first season where Bree discovered that her blind hope that everything would work out for the best did not prevent her (first) husband, Rex, from dying. This story line contrasts a blind hope based on nothing more than a feeling with the grounded hope we have in Jesus Christ that he is working to redeem all things. Because the scene took me back to the Scripture’s hope in Jesus Christ (for example, 1 Peter 1:3–5), it fulfilled Barth’s first filter. The second filter is met too: the story line is consistent with the Confession of 1967’s statement that rather than a groundless feeling, it is Jesus’ “cross and resurrection [that]. . . present hope for men [sic] when the gospel is proclaimed and believed” (BC, 9.21). The final filter was met because the scene both evokes empathy for those going through similar difficulties and challenges us to care for the grieving.
I passed the test. More importantly, I found a way to consider critically the works of art which surround and sometimes engulf me and to discern whether or how God might be speaking through them. I pray you are now one step closer to doing the same. Keep your eyes open for the gospel in surprising places!
Chip Hardwick is director of Theology, Worship, and Education for the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Chip, this is such great stuff, thank you. We are barraged by so much in this supposed 'age of information' – I absolutely believe that if we approach challenging material with open minds and hearts, if we make dimensional choices without fear rather than protect ourselves with a rigid idea of what may or may not be ‘proper’, we will both hold and reflect the power of our faith that much more clearly. I’m not planning to watch anything with the word ‘Housewives’ in the title any time soon, mind you, but I have no doubt that, as you say, God is speaking to us in even the most unlikely places.
Sorry, not getting the connection