Like any Christian who enjoys complaining, I often criticize Christian characters on tv. It seems like they’re all judgmental, narrow-minded hypocrites whose faith is an easy punchline. Watching those characters makes me wonder if the script writers have ever even met a Christian.
But happily, not every show is like this. In fact, several do a great job portraying Christian characters. I thought I’d list my five favorites.
These characters are either currently on air, or have been in the recent(ish) past. While far from perfect, these are fully-fleshed characters who are openly Christian, and who are portrayed sympathetically.
- Father Nicholas, The Jim Gaffigan Show
It makes sense that Jim Gaffigan would have an intelligently-drawn Christian character. He and his wife/writing partner Jeannie are perhaps the most famous open Catholics in the entertainment world.1 In the show, Father Nicholas is the rector of the Gaffigan’s New York City parish.
Father Nicholas is a breath of fresh air on tv. First, because of the show’s decision to make him an immigrant from West Africa. This keeps him from falling into the easy stereotypes of the grumpy Irish priest. And in a world where Christians from the Global South have an ever-greater influence on the West, his character makes perfect sense in New York’s melting pot.
Rather than being a source of intimidation and guilt (another easy Catholic stereotype), Father Nicholas is friendly, open-minded, and gregarious. But he’s not a naive innocent. In an episode called “My Friend the Priest,” Father Nicholas tags along with Jim at his comedy gigs. Anxious as to how a priest will be received, Jim warns Father Nicholas that some of the stand-ups will use a lot of curse words. Father Nicholas responds that when he was a boy, his family’s town was destroyed by rebels.
- Perry, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a comedy about a woman who tries making it in New York after being held prisoner in a bunker for fifteen years by an insane reverend (yes, really). Perry is Kimmy’s romantic interest in the third season. Perry is cool, cultured, hard-working, and . . . studying to be a minister?
Because the last minister she knew locked her in a bunker for fifteen years, Kimmy goes to church to find out more. The resulting episode–”Kimmy Goes to Church!”–focuses on a gaggle of religious hypocrites and screw-ups at Kimmy’s new church. But the message at the end isn’t that Christians are hypocrites. It’s that church is a place for people who realize they’re hypocrites and are trying to change. Now theologically speaking, that’s a little off. But it’s a fair-minded viewpoint from writers who have thought carefully about the topic.2
- Father Brown, Father Brown
This one feels like cheating. After all, this character–an endearingly awkward priest who is also a brilliant detective–was created by GK Chesterton. Isn’t it hard to go wrong when that’s your starting point?
It actually would have been easy to go wrong. I could see a version of Father Brown that white-washed all of his Catholicism and reduced his faith to mealy-mouthed platitudes at the end of each episode. By and large, though, the show has avoided that trap. The show apparently has a priest-consultant, and it shows. Their depiction of a priestly life is spot on (at least as far as I can tell).
Beyond the daily details, one of the reasons I love Chesterton’s character is that, for him, the true goal was not merely to catch the criminal. It was to save the criminal’s soul by calling him to repentance. The tv version does a good job of capturing that same attitude.
- Shirley Bennett, Community
If you want to watch a fully-formed religious character in one of the most hilarious shows of all time,3 look no further than Shirley. She’s far from perfect. She’s a gossip, she uses guilt as a weapon, and she has thinly-veiled rage issues.
But for all that, Shirley is a strong, sympathetic character who is open about her faith and open about her faults. For instance, in “Comparative Religion,” Shirley repents of being judgmental toward her (religiously diverse) friends when she realizes she was really venting about her ex-husband. And “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” is a surprisingly thoughtful take on pride and forgiveness told through the lens of a film-student movie about Jesus.
- Ned Flanders, The Simpsons
The more I thought about it, the clearer it became that Flanders is the winner.4 And it isn’t close. Homer’s uber-religious neighbor has been a major character on a hugely popular show for ten seasons.5 That’s accomplishment enough–he’s tv’s most famous evangelical by leaps and bounds.
Plenty of Christians would counter that The Simpsons only has Flanders on the show to make fun of him. And that’s largely true. But they don’t make fun of him as a hypocrite or a coward. They make fun of him for being so gosh-darn good. For all his quirks, Flanders is an admirable person. He cares for the poor, is quick to forgive, and tries to see the best in everyone–even Homer. In The Simpsons Movie, he’s a much-needed father figure for Bart when Homer is too busy with his own antics. He then plays a key role in reconciling Bart with Homer.
If you ask me, the world (and tv) could use a lot more Ned Flanders.
1 This has nothing to do with anything, but when I’m up till 3 in the morning finishing a work project, one of my favorite things in the world is to turn that project in, then sit in my dark living room and watch Jim Gaffigan stand-up. When I’m exhausted and brain-fried, hearing his jokes about Hot Pockets and bacon is exactly what I need.
2 Kimmy Schmidt is from the brilliant mind of Tina Fey. Two honorable mentions to this list–Carol from “Great News” and Kenneth the Page from “30 Rock”–are also in Fey shows. The lesson, of course, is that Fey is a national treasure.
3 Except for season 4, of course.
4 Of course, I didn’t discover any of this about Flanders until college, because I wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons growing up…
5 Yes, I know that The Simpsons has been on for 29 seasons. But I think the show jumped the shark after the first ten or so seasons, so I don’t count the rest.