Who’s afraid of the God squad?

From God’s Next Army to The Convent - why TV is so suspicious of religious conviction.

Shirley Dent

Topics Culture

Religion on TV, it would bugger belief. That isn’t because, as an atheist, I break into a cold sweat at the site of a crucifix and start muttering about the gullible stupidity of those who believe. It’s because we are so confused about belief these days.

This confusion shows in the way religion is presented on the box: we want to believe but we don’t trust or like those who do, particularly if they evangelise about their belief and especially if they evangelise about it in public.

Our fascination with faith is reflected in three recent TV programmes: Big Love, The Convent and God’s Next Army. The first is a drama, while the other two are documentaries. But they share some common themes: on the one hand, a fascination with private lives and private belief; on the other, a disdain for public convictions publicly expressed.

This disbelief in public conviction and commitment was most clearly seen in Channel 4’s God’s Next Army, which followed students at Patrick Henry College in the USA, a university set up by Michael Farris with the specific intent of training up the next generation of Christian evangelists to fill the ‘leadership vacuum in America’. Most Patrick Henry students have been home-schooled and come from Christian fundamentalist families. This does make for a bizarre college experience, where instead of being challenged by new and different ideas and people, your current ideas and beliefs are consolidated by people who believe exactly what you do and come from almost identical backgrounds.

Social life at Patrick Henry is also somewhat different from your run-of-the-mill college experience: the sound check for the social club’s PA system is preceded by a praising of God and amens all round rather than the more customary swig of beer. But it wasn’t the God Squad who really worried me. It was the filmmakers’ cynicism towards people who believe something collectively and who act on it in public. As someone who used to be a professional infidel-atheist, I agree almost zero per cent with what Patrick Henry College and its conservative students want to achieve.

But that’s a disagreement about ideas and politics, not a suspicion about belief and people acting on their convictions per se. So when we were shown footage of Patrick Henry students campaigning round the clock for a republican candidate in a too-close-to-call state, I wasn’t gasping in fear at the dangerous cult that is knocking at the doors of the White House; I was asking the filmmakers ‘What’s your point?’ That these young people believe too much? That they campaigned too hard? It seems the filmmakers were concerned, not with the particular ideas that these youth were passionate about, but that they were passionate at all. When it comes to belief, we like to keep it under the covers it seems.

Big Love, Five’s HBO import, sums up our peephole attitude to those funny religious folk. Bill is a busy, busy Mormon family man with three wives to keep up with, plus their collective kids. Cue fun with the bonking schedule and lots of shots of Bill with the Viagra bottle. There is not much to say about Big Love other than to note that its focus on private family life and fascination with religious belief that goes against the grain of society is a sign of the times: we lack belief, we want belief, we are uncomfortable and fascinated by those who have it, and we feel most able to deal with it when it’s about the personal and private.

The confusion about belief, conviction, and commitment as matters of private and personal faith rather than public profession is most clearly seen in the BBC 2 fly-on-the-wall documentary, The Convent. Based on the format of The Monastery, where ordinary men spent time in an enclosed order, The Convent follows four ‘civvy’ women over 40 days and nights as they attempt to adapt to the routine of the enclosed order of the Poor Clare’s in Arundel.

The sisters come across as plain-speaking women who have chosen to lead a particular life of contemplation and prayer that they believe will bring them closer to God. The four secular women come across as total pains in the arse. The most irritating thing is not that they want to come to terms with numerous hang-ups – if you need to sort yourself out, and need a couple of weeks in a convent to do it, good luck to you – it’s the self-indulgent and almost incontinent way they go about it.

By far the most irritating is Victoria, the self-declared atheist poet in a three-way open marriage (it’s big love all round, so it seems). She prances around the convent grounds wearing her walkman and rebelling against the ‘Catholic boot-camp’; she stashes wine and gets drunk with her best mate Angela, the workaholic businesswoman, and declares that ‘I am learning tolerance because I haven’t told one of them to piss off’.

As Abbess Angela says ‘They’re behaving as bolshie teenagers – being bored because they think they know it all. It’s a clear indication that they’re insecure’. Of course there is some creative editing going on here and the sisters are deliberately cut to come across as self-possessed while the ordinary women are portrayed as flaky flunkies.

But when Victoria says to camera, entirely of her own volition, ‘I don’t need anyone’s permission to be who I am’, the Abbess’s words ring true. Belief has shifted to being about me, about my personal peccadilloes, unchecked and indulged and voiced very loudly. If you don’t believe me, tune into Big Brother any day of the week to hear the clap-trap talked about everyone just being themselves and having faith in themselves.

When Angela fetishises the sisters as having ‘a light in them – you really want to find out what it is’ what she doesn’t get is that the sisters’ belief is not about themselves: it’s about God. I might not share that belief but there’s a lesson in it. Real belief is not all about you just as you are. It’s about striving for something that isn’t just about you.

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