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Mehr Panjwani considers whether recent depictions of faith on–screen point to a more nuanced understanding of the devotional life. 07/08/2020
From the fetishisation of transgression, to the horrors of demonic possession, religious themes and tropes have historically been everywhere in film and TV. In one popular trope depicting day-to-day devotional life, previous generations have presented faith as a familiar friend it could poke fun at (in programmes such as Vicar of Dibley and Father Ted). Most of these programmes were made by people of Generation X and older (that is, those born in 1980 or earlier) who grew up with faith as the norm – and we often hear that millennials (having been raised in an increasingly non-religious culture) are uninterested in matters of faith and belief. Therefore, we might expect a more hostile treatment of faith on-screen from millennial creatives, especially given the rise of New Atheism in the early 2000s. Yet it is striking that two popular recent TV series created by millennials – including the Television Critics Association Program of the Year in 2019 – contain major characters who have chosen a devotional life: Hulu’s Ramy and the BBC’s Fleabag (reviewed here for Theos by Amy Plender). Could these two shows by millennial creators be the final nail in the coffin of New Atheism, suggesting an appetite amongst millennials for a more thoughtful depiction of faith?
Ramy tells the story of Ramy Hassan, an Egyptian-American Muslim who, although comedically bad at following his religion, still desperately wants to be a part of his tradition. On the other hand, Fleabag’s second season tells the tale of Fleabag, a witty but hopelessly lost woman living in London and her relationship with a Catholic Priest (termed the 'Hot Priest' in popular culture) who is struggling with his priestly vows of celibacy. Both shows have young creators (Ramy Youssef is 29 years old and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is 35 years old) and explore themes of millennial life and the role religion can play in it. These modern shows are diverse, brazen (littered with raunchy scenes), and overall hilarious. In true millennial fashion, nothing is off-limits. Yet, what is particularly striking about these shows is how they challenge stereotypes about millennials and faith, and serve to further discussions around spirituality.
Far from the religious stereotypes, one thing is made clear: these religious characters are cool. A Muslim who balances Friday prayers with Friday night parties? A young, attractive, Catholic Priest who listens to ‘Jenny from the Block’ whilst in Church? Neither Ramy nor the Hot Priest are judgemental or moralising, but rather deeply flawed, funny, and likable – they are like all of us, and more realistic depictions of the religious people we know and love in our lives. Most profoundly, they wholeheartedly believe in God, and their storylines do not centre around them questioning the existence of God – both are secure in their faith, even if they struggle with devotional life. This is arguably a more realistic portrayal of the relationship between millennials and faith, as while millennials and Gen Z are thought to be the least religious generations, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 36% of people aged 18-34 identify as having a religion. So, they do believe. Yet, it is startling to see religion presented as a source of great purpose for millennial characters - as something that guides their lives, rather than its typical depiction as a restrictive institution that they must free themselves from.
Most striking of all is the way both shows deal with sexuality. The shows do not shy away from religious orthodoxy, both Ramy and Fleabag’s Priest have religious beliefs regarding sex. Ramy believes he should be abstaining from premarital sex and the Priest is observing vows of celibacy. But both fall short. In public debate, the conversation around religion and sexuality and their depiction on-screen rarely goes beyond the cliché of religion being sex-shaming and guilt-tripping people. Yet in these shows, both Ramy and the Priest truly wish to adhere to their religious beliefs around sexuality, and feel their inability to do so is interfering profoundly with their spirituality. Fleabag’s Priest reflects soberly that “celibacy is a lot less complicated than romantic relationships … [sex] won’t bring any good, I’ve been there many times before I found [Priesthood]”, and Ramy’s engagement in hook-up culture and pornography becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism, leaving him lacking a sense of purpose. Moreover, both the Priest and Ramy end up hurting others through their sexual behaviour, some even calling the Priest’s actions abusive.
In exploring the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, audiences get the sense that, for these characters, following the sexual morals of their faith is to do with genuine spiritual benefit and faith in their religion – highlighting that there are many who find spiritual fulfilment even from what might be considered quite strict religious practice in modern Western culture. Furthermore, by contrasting the millennial hook-up culture with traditional religious values around sex, audiences are called to question their own morals and values around sexuality and what true sexual empowerment really is.
Faith is not, however, depicted as some quick fix to all the characters' problems. Avoiding the trope of spiritual bypassing, one thing is made clear: religion is not therapy, and it is not escapism. The characters are also not consistent in following their beliefs, and their hypocrisy, although used for comedic effect, is clearly something they are struggling with well into adulthood – something all too familiar and relatable for a devout audience. The devotional life is a constantly lived choice, and faith is a lifelong journey. Seeing the lived experiences of faith on-screen is a reminder that religious individuals are equally capable of complexity of thought and behaviour as anyone else, not simply using their scripture as a rule-book.
Despite the rise of non-religion in the UK, 84% of the world identify as having a faith, and within that there are many different experiences with religion, both positive and negative. It will be interesting, as the ‘spiritual but not religious’ generation becomes dominant, to see if depictions of faith will explore its richly spiritual and profound side, beyond depictions of religion as a rule-book or a tool for oppression. Religion is a multifaceted, complex and complicated topic - and the devotional life even more so. These shows and their subsequent success may reflect that the millennial generation, although less religious than previous generations, do still view faith as something that is intriguing and as fertile ground for creative inspiration. Perhaps there is a positive future ahead for depictions of spirituality on-screen.
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