Before 1993, television audiences had no idea who the Cigarette Smoking Man was or that "Fox" could be a first name. But over its nine-season run, The X-Files—following FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully—has built one of television's strongest fan bases and become a pop-culture icon.

In the last few seasons, the show has lost momentum. Star David Duchovny left to make movies. Long-running story lines have been tied up. And most of the show's mystery, like that surrounding the shadowy Cigarette Smoking Man, has evaporated. Last week, the show's creator Chris Carter announced that the series will end in May.

The decline of The X-Files, argued a Christian critic earlier this season, is especially bad news for believers. At one time, it was one of few programs on television asking compelling questions about the nature of belief.

Last week we looked at what Christian critics had to say about this season's new shows, but are there other mainstream shows worth a Christian's time?

Roberto Rivera, columnist for BreakPoint Online, recently wrote that "just as a wasteland isn't totally devoid of life—flowers will grow almost anywhere—mass culture isn't completely lacking in grace and insight."

Two of those flowers, he says, are Angel and Babylon 5. Meanwhile, Christian publications continue to write on The Simpsons.

* * *

BreakPoint Online columnist Alex Wainer wrote at the beginning of this season that The X-Files need to be closed. While once a powerful presence in pop-culture—and one with important thoughts for Christians—the Fox series now merely limps, Wainer says.

"The inspiration that made the show a hit has worn thin," he writes. "Networks flog a successful series past its useful life until it can be seen wandering zombie-like, stalking the fading specter of its old life. X-Files, please RIP."

The worst aspect of the program's decline, Wainer says, is that X-Files no longer asks the questions it used to. Carter's series made a name for itself by tackling what it meant to believe in something that couldn't be proven.

"It suggested that forces beyond our comprehension were at work in the world, that purely rational explanations wouldn't cut it, that we would have to look beyond science for understanding," Wainer writes. "The show truly captures the struggle between the modernist insistence on rational explanations and a postmodern openness to any new narratives that might reveal a truth beyond that which can be found in a laboratory. But rather than academic postmodernism's rejection of the possibility of knowing truth, the series' tagline avows that, though maddeningly elusive, 'the truth is out there,' if only we seek it with open minds."

Article continues below

The struggle of the believer with the skeptic was played out each week between Agents Mulder (Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson). He believes in the supernatural; she in science and logic.

Witnessing the mysterious childhood abduction of his sister fuels Mulder's belief and led him to investigate the FBI's "X-files," odd cases normally locked away in a basement.

Scully is the anti-Mulder: a trained doctor, lapsed Catholic, and modern skeptic assigned as Mulder's partner to debunk the work of the "X-files." Their ongoing dialogue led to frank discussion and character growth. In fact, over the years, Scully became a believer.

"While it is by no means an explicitly Christian program, it recognizes what some have argued is the essentially conservative or traditional nature of classic horror—that good and evil are real, that sin has horrific consequences, that absolutes must exist for morality to mean anything," Wainer wrote.

* * *

Breakpoint columnist Roberto Rivera has recently begun a series of columns to highlight what he calls pop-culture's "flowers in the vast wasteland." His first two finds have been television shows. One, he says, proves that even the most unlikely soil can bear fruit.

The WB's Angel is a spin off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show Rivera says used to be a flower but has now gone to seed with sexual themes and youth-oriented plot lines that are not particularly interesting to adults. But Angel, though centered on the crime-fighting adventures of a vampire, offers valuable insights on redemption, evil, and sacrifice. In fact, Rivera says the show may be television's "most graceful hour."

"[Creator Joss Whedon] and company aren't telling a Christian story or even a religious one," Rivera writes. "But they've acknowledged, albeit unintentionally, that a story about atonement and sacrifice is impossible to tell without incorporating elements from the story that taught us what those words mean."

For the better part of 250 years, Angel was an infamous killer who preyed on the weak. As revenge, a victim's family placed a curse on Angel. He was given a soul. Now, this vampire has to live with his past.

"The show is the story of Angel's struggle to atone for the evil he has done—a struggle made all the harder by the fact that, just as with us, being remorseful doesn't mean that Angel has lost his capacity for evil," Rivera writes. "And resisting evil is just the start. Physical danger and loneliness are only part of the sacrifices entailed in Angel's quest for redemption."

Article continues below
* * *

Though now cancelled, Babylon 5 was a rare find on television, Rivera wrote in the second column of his series. Unlike most programs, the syndicated sci-fi series had a definite story to tell from the beginning and clearly depicted Christianity.

The series, which lasted for five years, is comparable to Star Trek in many ways: both are set in the middle-to-late 23rd century, involve space exploration, and chronicle man's "first contacts" with alien species.

However, the universes in which the two shows' characters live are strikingly different. Disease, war, and poverty do not exist in Star Trek, but these realities—in addition to human sin—are very much alive in Babylon 5.

Rivera writes that on Captain Kirk's Enterprise, "the trouble lies definitely in the stars and not in ourselves. In contrast, B5's universe is one in which, as Chesterton might have put it, we have plenty of empirical evidence for original sin."

Because Babylon 5 depicts a much different world, the role of religion is also different.

"Despite [the show's creator, Michael Straczynski] being a professed atheist, as was Gene Roddenberry, religion gets far better treatment on B5," Rivera writes, "People haven't outgrown their need for faith. On the contrary, religion is usually a positive force in B5's universe. People's beliefs define who they are and how they live."

In one episode, "Passing Through Gethsemane," a Christian monk gives his testimony. He explains that Jesus' actions are the standard against which he measures his life.

"If there's ever been a better summation of the Gospel in American popular culture, I haven't come across it," Rivera wrote.

This episode was not a rare occurrence. Rivera mentions a fan who counted 130 references to Scripture in the series. More important than how often the show brought up religion, he says, is that Babylon 5 discussed Christianity in specific and accurate terms.

"Straczynski's story makes room for the historic Christian faith," Rivera writes. "And not only room: he treats it fairly and gets the details right. And that's more than 'good' and 'consistent.' That's a rare flower indeed."

* * *

A year ago, Christianity Today published a cover story by Mark I. Pinsky on The Simpsons and, specifically, the show's evangelical next door, Ned Flanders. The article was adapted from Pinsky's book, The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of America's Most Animated Family.

Article continues below

It seems that religion just keeps booming in the fictional Springfield.

This month, has posted an interesting interview with The Simpsons' background designer, Lance Wilder. A devout Christian, Wilder discusses his religious background, how he began working with the show, and the religious content of The Simpsons.

Not everyone finds the show appropriate for Christians, he says. But to him, the show innocently satirizes a wide array of subjects that people can relate to.

He says that he usually agrees with about 90 to 95 percent of the show's content. "I think it's funny, it's satire," he said. "It's not a Christian show. It's a comedy that comes from about 15 different writers from different perspectives who are very talented, and the reality is that it's just trying to be entertaining, it's trying to be funny."

In addition to spiritual commentary in the show, Wilder says it is exciting to see what happens behind the scenes. "We have about 18 or 20 Christian artists on the show now in different positions, which is really fantastic," he told Crosswalk. "When I started being more open about my faith, we had a lot of really heated debates."

In September, the weekly online site of the soon-to-launch Relevant magazine argued that not only does The Simpsons feature Christians and traditional values, but it also serves an important role for God's children.

Writer David Dark argues that the show provides the same service for viewers now as did the carnival in medieval culture. It laughs at everyone. It is triumphant and fun but at the same time mocking. The Simpsons can satirize in a gentle way because everyone in Springfield is a little odd. They all look funny.

"The purpose of Carnival is to overcome or provide momentary relief from the seriousness of the status quo, the official," Dark writes. "Everyone comes to know everybody, and any appeal to aloofness or superiority from any quarter is subject to the heaviest lampoon and ridicule. The playing field is leveled, and the forum is open."

Without a sense of humor to see the absurdities and frailties around us, Dark writes, we lose our capacity for self-criticism.

"When watching The Simpsons, it's certainly okay to wince or to be a little bit bothered sometimes," he says. "But we probably ought to be careful about deciding we're feeling offended. After a while we become offended in all the ways God isn't. And when we're all caught up in all the things we're against, we forget the beauty of the things we're supposed to be for."

Todd Hertz is the assistant online editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

More Christianity Today articles are available on television.