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Monday, October 25, 2004

Faith and Fiction

Last night's episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent expemplified a trend I think currently underappreciated: the increasingly sympathetic treatment of religion, specifically Christianity, in American fictional movies and television.

The episode concerned the murder of an elderly atheist activist. Suspicion falls upon her son, a Christian minister, and his ministry, who might stand to benefit both ideologically and financially from her death. In recent decades, that is precisely where the story would probably have gone.

In this LAOCI episode, by contrast, the minister and his church associates are depicted not as greedy, narrow-minded, fanatics, as was all too common throughout the past couple of decades in both TV fiction and, alas, the news. Instead, they are presented as quite reasonable, intelligent, and caring, though of course not overly fond of their former adversary who has been murdered. Some snide, cynical comments directed toward the minister and his associates by the investigating police officers are clearly intended not as their own thoughts but as attempts to goad him into incriminating himself.

The atheist activist, by contrast, who is quite clearly based on the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, is shown to have been a fanatic herself, and by no means a good and loving mother. The atheists among the suspects are shown to be rather unattractive, secretive, selfish, and somewhat weird. The characterizations, however, are nuanced and avoid caricature; the characters' motives are presented with understanding, so that the atheists are never depicted as buffoons or monsters. They freely choose to act as they do, and their problems clearly arise from their way of seeing the world and their sense that ultimately they have no one and nothing to which they must answer except the force of earthly law.

The episode was altogether a quite fair and insightful analysis of characters who have chosen very different ways of life.

I commend executive producer Dick Wolf and his staff for avoiding a particularly dreary twentieth century cliche in the treatment of religion. The fairer treatment of religion, specifically Christianity, in this episode is part of what I see as a strong trend which has shown up in numerous television fiction programs in the past couple of years, and is a matter on which I shall write further as opportunities arise.

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