In a recent column for the Huffington Post, Richard Stearns wrote about a kind of diversity pop culture hasn’t integrated particularly well into its characters and storylines. “The vast majority of television and film characters seem to have no faith,” he explained. “People rarely attend church, pray, or make decisions based on religious beliefs. It is hard to find any Christians on popular television shows who are not belittled. There are virtually no television characters who I can fully identify with.” But one of the things that’s been striking this summer at the movie is how many characters have faith, and how often it’s implied to be Judeo-Christian.
In The Avengers, when Black Widow explains to Captain America that Thor and Loki are basically God, Cap’s response is a nod to his religious belief as part of what makes him an avatar of a certain kind of American traditionalism. “There’s only one God, m’am,” he tells her. “And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” The movie doesn’t spell out whether he’s a professing Christian, in part because there isn’t another really opportune moment to discuss theology, but the trail is there for people who want to follow it. In Snow White and the Huntsman, Kristen Stewart’s Snow White says the Lord’s Prayer in captivity. When she lies in a near-death state, the Huntsman’s (Chris Hemsworth) response is prayer, an attempt to speed her into heaven and to find solace for himself. And Elizabeth Shaw, the hero of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, is a Christian whose scientific exploration is directly motivated by her faith. The symbol of her Christianity, the cross she wears around her neck, becomes something that’s traded back and forth, a totem of trust between characters who have little other reason to see each other as sympathetic.
Whatever the virtues and failings of the first two movie, the careful integration of the characters’ beliefs into moments of emotional strain or the world opening up, is very smart. This is the way that a lot of people live their faith: it informs their decision-making as they make their way in the secular world. These aren’t niche movies, meant only to speak to a very faithful minority who view themselves as embattled by the secular world. They’re meant for hugely mass audiences, and their characters’ Christianity is self-confident, both in that they don’t have crises of faith, and that it doesn’t have to be the only element that defines the characters’ personalities. It stands on its own. This strikes me as a smart way forward for people outside of Hollywood who’d like to see more Christian characters in mass entertainment, and for people in Hollywood who’d like to give their characters religion without writing solely religious stories.
Part of the reason Prometheus doesn’t work as well is that Shaw’s religion is the only thing we know is her motivation, but the movie doesn’t flesh out the relationship between her belief and her work as a scientist, and doesn’t bother to establish any consistency in her worldview. If a character’s going to be faithful, what we see of that faith should be consistent in and of itself, and consistent with the other things a character uses to make decisions and to evaluate the world. People of all religions should want to see smart depictions of faith, whether it’s a minor part of a character or their main motivation. And folks who want to create good religious characters need to spend time thinking through theology. Belief is a complicated thing, and getting it right is an essential part of worldbuilding.