There’s less practice of Christian religion in The Leftovers than Hand of God (the sole ordained preacher has yet to really quote the Bible in The Leftovers, whereas Hand of God has a full-on church service and a Bible study and a lot more), but they are both interested in how the practice of religion (or cults, in the case of The Leftovers) can be not just a place for people to meet God and seek salvation, but also a place for people to exercise corrupt power for their own ends. (That’s polar opposite of what we see in a show like Broadchurch, or a movie like Calvary, in which the ministers actually, well, minister.)
Which is why I do worry a bit about chatter from the Christian community about shows like Hand of God. Here is why: we often talk as if representing religion-as-power-play is meant to be a represent what all religion and religious leaders are like.
I remember that after P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was released, a number of Christian voices decried it as anti-religious propaganda, because in it a power-hungry preacher preys on the poor. To say such a thing is to completely miss the point of the film, which is that the power-hungry preacher and the power-hungry oilman both came to ghastly ends, broken and alone, because of their hunger for power. (Quite a few of the same people angrily said the power-hungry oilman was meant to criticize capitalism as an institution.)
Friends: that’s just bad watching and sloppy thinking. It’s taking a portrayal of something as endorsement of something, and ignoring the narrative arc of the story, in which they get their comeuppance. It’s looking at the story of King Saul—or, frankly, much of King David’s story, or Eli the High Priest, or Noah’s drunkenness—and thinking the Bible is saying these people are bad. It's even looking at a segment of the story of the Apostle Paul, who was sort of the ultimate antihero until Acts 9, and thinking it's about how religion is violent.
We can do better.
There are lousy, manipulative, lazy, boneheaded portrayals of Christians on TV and in the movies—the conniving Bible-thumping vice president on Scandal springs to mind, for starters—but let’s be honest: there are many wonderful pastors and priests and ministers in the world, and there are also some real doozies out there who can cause a great deal of harm, and unfortunately they are the ones who get a lot of attention both before and after the fall.
If we have seen anything in the last year, in which a large number of formerly highly-respected celebrity pastors have taken a very public tumble (not that it’s anything new!), it’s that power is a dangerous, dangerous thing to handle.
So while I hope we keep getting great portrayals of ministers who do God’s work well (here’s a few from the last ten years), let’s not be too quick to wish for these other characters to go away. Like the broader antihero type, who almost inevitably reach a gruesome end, the power-hungry minister serves as a reminder that power corrupts.
To those in positions of spiritual authority, they remind us to be careful. To Christians, they remind us that not everyone who cries "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven. And to those who are sitting in the pews, they remind us that things are not always what they seem.