Christians have often complained about the lack of intelligent portrayals of Christianity and Christian characters in popular media. We are often, if not dominantly, portrayed as prudish, saccharine, and hypocritical. One is left only with clichés of heroic “I’m no saint” confessions to priests and with characters like Angela from The Office.
One of the few exceptions is the surprisingly intelligent examination of Christianity taking place on the margins of the critically acclaimed CBS legal drama The Good Wife. If you’re unfamiliar, the show follows the life of Alicia Florrick, a wife of a disgraced politician who begins a career in law after spending years at home raising two kids. At its core The Good Wife is a fast-paced legal drama in the style of L.A. Law, and is generally regarded as a good show not because of any specific innovations, but because it does the basics well.
But for a show not trying to be innovative, it has managed to accomplish a rare feat: its portrayal of religion—particularly Christianity—is accurate, respectable, and surprisingly even-handed. Religion is part of a larger theme throughout the show: the narratives that control one’s life. Specifically, is one’s belief in God the controlling narrative of their life, a component of their history, or basically irrelevant? In addition, The Good Wife examines the credulity of one’s faith commitments when strained by ordinary and extraordinary events. This past season was perhaps its best treatment of Christianity, personal narrative, and the sincerity of belief, particularly as portrayed through three of its principle characters: Grace, Peter, and Alicia.
Grace the Christian
Since season 1, Grace Florrick has been the primary character through which religious issues are examined. While her conversion to Christ at a youth rally is met with shock and disdain from her mother, Grace remains a Christian throughout the series. Such a character could easily become a stock goody two-shoes who always does the right thing and never wavers from her beliefs. But the producers do a superb job of depicting Grace’s faith in the midst of internal and external struggles. She deals with common American teen issues: whether to date a boy with a troubled past and the difficulty in developing close friendships, for example.
The viewer also watches her mature in her faith. In season 1, as a young believer Grace follows the advice of another young Christian and interprets Matthew 10:34 as an invitation to rebel against her parents. In season 6, a considerably more mature Grace encourages her mom not to engage in this sort of prooftexting, but to look at Scripture as a whole to ascertain meaning and intent. Additionally, the viewer watches Grace struggle with seasons of uncertainty and weariness as most Christians do.
Peter the Hypocrite
Peter Florrick’s conversion occurs in season 2 as he begins a run for state attorney. He begins a relationship with an African-American pastor (Isaiah) with the hope that Isaiah’s endorsement will help him win votes in the upcoming election. Under the care of Pastor Isaiah, Peter appears to repent and begins pursuing a life devoted to God. Throughout the season one is left to wonder whether this pursuit is genuine or merely politically expedient. A few following seasons of affairs and back-room political tactics lead us to assume it was just a phase, which is confirmed when Peter reconnects with Pastor Isaiah in season 6. In a car ride Peter dodges questions about whether he still has faith, insisting that instead of being a “good” person he’d prefer to be an effective politician.
Such a withdrawal from a seemingly genuine confession of faith is, I would argue, an accurate portrayal of what often occurs in the real experience of people’s lives. Many have a “conversion experience” only to see the effects wane over time, eventually explained away as a temporary “phase” (Jesus’s parable of the soils is an apt explanation for this phenomenon). Instead of the conversion launching the narrative which orders the rest of one’s life, it becomes a minor episode in another dominating history. For Grace, her conversion remains the controlling story of her life. For Peter, his conversion experience is overwhelmed by and subsumed under the narrative of the effective politician.
Alicia the Atheist
The dominant theme throughout the show is Alicia Florrick’s wrestling with the narrative of herself as the good wife. Her public image is dominated by her willingness to stand by her husband after his admitted adultery. She’s portrayed as the moral conscience of a law firm that continually bends rules in the pursuit of legal victory.
Her own admitted atheism is occasionally referenced throughout the series, particularly in her interactions with Grace, but it’s brought to the forefront when she decides to run for political office in season 6. Alicia is forced to make the kind of ends-justify-the-means compromises she previously rejected, with the only consequence being the potential loss of respect from her daughter. What’s revealed throughout the show is that Alicia’s morality is grounded in her role as a mother and politician’s wife; once the demands of those roles wane, and she assumes the role of politician herself, there’s no longer an identity to undergird moral decisions. The absence of a worldview grounded in God’s Word and a morality derived from being made in God’s image makes such a shift all the more easy.
Though not a “family friendly” show (this is not 7th Heaven—there are frequent sex scenes that are unsettling despite broadcast television regulations), The Good Wife may be the best option for those tired of seeing the negative stereotypes of Christians that have become cliché in Hollywood. It presents a fair and in-depth examination of the impact of faith and unbelief on individuals and their overarching perception of themselves. This is accomplished without the kind of moralizing that would make it a Christian niche program ignored by the viewing public.
Hopefully other shows will follow this lead, helping to depict a Christianity that resembles less its egregious outliers and more the common impact it has on its faithful adherents.