Thoughts about the portrayal of Faith in Media

So, I’m a nerd. I watch a lot of tv and movies. I consume a lot of media. And I mean, a *LOT*. And I want to talk a little bit about a pattern I’ve noticed, over and over, that’s starting to annoy me. That is the idea that people of faith are weird and creepy at best, and unhinged and dangerous at the worst. I’m not even talking about Christians, or a certain segment of radical Christianity, or Islam, although those messages are certainly out there too. No, I mean the message that people, ANY people, who are members of a religion for more than being a social club. Anyone who believes in anything bigger than themselves.


There are a LOT of shows I could have chosen to analyze in this article. I’m quite aware of this. But I’m going to compare two shows that are probably not all that well-known, because I watch weird genre shit because, well, that’s what I like and that’s what I watch. But also because while watching one of my various and sundry shows lately, this theme was driven home quite powerfully.


So, I’m going to compare the time-travel sci-fi drama 12 Monkeys and the semi-historical drama Vikings. I know, those sound like radically different shows (spoiler: they are!), but bear with me. What I want to talk about is how differently they approach the concept of faith.


Specifically, 12 Monkeys is a ridiculously good example of our modern/Western overculture’s attitude towards religion and people of faith, and Vikings, especially in the first 3 seasons, is a refreshing break from the mold of cynicism and distrust.


This discussion is going to have major plot spoilers for both shows, obviously. You have been warned.


The basic premise of 12 Monkeys is that a man from the future travels back in time to try to prevent the release of a deadly virus that kills off most of the world. Post-apocalyptic time travel shenanigans ensue. Loosely based on the 1995 Terry Gilliam movie starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt (itself based on a short film from 1962), it’s a lot of fun. Honestly part of the fun is seeing the characters constantly going back in time to different decades, dressing up in the period clothes and trying to fit in. But it also asks a lot of interesting questions about free will, fate, predestination, etc. In my opinion, the first season made the most logical sense, and after that it began to spiral out of control, escalating it’s shenanigans higher and higher. It was still enjoyable for quite a while but I think it officially jumped the shark now. When I started writing this, I was still watching the 4th and final season. But I didn’t care enough anymore to give the show my undivided attention, so although I did finish the show, I was writing out my thoughts on my phone as the final season played. That should tell you something.


So Cole, the dude from the future, has to team up with a CDC doctor from our time, Dr. Cassandra Raiily, and they work on piecing together the conspiracy that led to the plague being released. Turns out it was released by an apocalyptic cult called the Army of the 12 Monkeys. I’m not upset that the villainous group of the show is a cult. Apocalyptic cults exist, whatever. Okay cool, let’s get this this show on the road! No, it’s the subtle messages that are sent over the entire course of the show that kind of add up after a while.


Releasing the plague isn’t the cults endgame. Their endgame is to destroy time itself – so that past, present, and future can all exist in an eternal now. And their shit keeps getting crazier and crazier. Turns out the Messiah of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, who they call the Witness, is the kidnapped son of the guy from the future and the doctor from our time. That’ll put a crimp on an relationship! But the thing that prompted me to write this essay is one particular scene in the third season.


The cult has the ability to travel through time (of course), and they are going to the sites of great disasters in order to  recruit followers. They preyed on the family members who were left behind after large disasters like mine collapses and such, to try to convert them to their cause.… but the entire thing was unbelievable, in so many ways.


Cassandra dressed in black and waited in a graveyard, posing as a grieving widow whose husband had died in the mine collapse. And she’s approached by a creepy old guy, also dressed all in black, who looks like Death Incarnate. He talks to her about grief and time and eventually gives her an invitation to a religious group where she has the chance to see her loved ones again (in a black envelope). Honestly everything about his mannerisms set off alarm bells that scream PREDATOR, and I find it hard to believe that anyone, especially a woman, would go with him anywhere if they weren’t specifically trying to entrap him and infiltrate the Monkeys.

So she goes, and Cole sneaks in with her. The meeting is in a tent, specifically meant to remind watchers of religious tent revivals, although smaller since it is not open to the public and only filled with Creepy Death-Looking Guy’s hand-picked people who have experienced grief. And he and his wife give a weird speech about how time is an illusion that keeps us apart from our loved ones, and everyone is just eating it up. (Except our heroes, of course, because they’re too smart for that.)


Then the cult members guide in Cole and Cassandra’s son (because of time travel, she had just given birth a few months ago, and now he’s 7 or 8 years old). He does his crazy Seer thing (or Primary in the language of the show), where he can see alternate timelines, and picks one person from the EAGERLY waiting crowd to join the cult. Again, these are *normal* people, they haven’t been primed or trained or isolated from society yet. I find it hard to believe that they’d be respectful and not see this as a sham, just because they are in mourning. So, after he picked one person from the group, his guardians make him …. Gas the rest. Really? Cults don’t work that way. I repeat, CULTS DON’T WORK THAT WAY. The lights had flickered and people popped in and out of existence (time travel), they had just convinced an entire tentful of people of their powers, and they kill all but one of them. Yes they are crazy, we get that, but that is also not an economical way to build an army.


And even before that, Creepy Death-Looking Guy and his wife gave a little speech about time being the real enemy, time fooling us into thinking we can’t live forever, and their mission is to destroy time so that you can live forever in their Red Forest with your loved ones (Fuck you, Kronos! We don’t need no stinking time!)

People are grieving and vulnerable cuz their loved ones just died, so they are totally willing to sign up with an obviously creepy, fucked up and murderous cult that wants to literally destroy time!! That’s such an insult to the intelligence of literally ALL people, not even just people of faith. Have the writers ever lost anyone? Would they seriously do that? Cuz maybe y’all are the fucked up ones, not religious folk. Also, that’s not how cults work. Cults aren’t creepy and abnormal on the face of it when they lure victims in, they portray a perfect reality and usually a brotherhood, acceptance. They usually target outcasts and people with no support system, not simply people who were grieving.


I bought the people who had been raised in this cult, even when they were ridiculously whacked out, and sometimes they reached cartoon levels of villainy or were completely Loony Toons in their crazy. But I know how bad parents shape you and how hard it can be to break free of childhood programming. But where they lost me, the final thing that just pushed it into unbelievability for me, was showing how the army of the 12 Monkeys recruits adult followers.


The Army of the 12 Monkeys has an unshakable faith in something greater than themselves. They believe they have a purpose. This is apparently a creepy thing, to believe in Gods and destiny and greater purpose in our mostly atheistic culture, because they are also murderous and creepy as all get out. Olivia, the premier example we get of the Monkeys (and arguably the most religiously devoted character) actually conceives a child with the intent to sacrifice it for the Witness, while she was pretty much just a teenager herself. You may recognize this plotline as ripped from the headlines of the infamous (and false) Satanic panic of the 80s. And it turns out it was herself from the future who ordered her to do that, because TIME TRAVEL. Yeah the show’s gotten weirder and weirder as it went on. I miss the first two seasons.


Over and over, this kind of blind and murderous faith is contrasted with the heroes, who quote, “Have faith in myself and the people around me.” There is nothing wrong with having faith in yourself and your loved ones. I’d say it’s vital to living a good life. But so much of today’s media will depict faith in yourself and ONLY yourself as a good thing, and faith in anything else as dangerous or at the very least, wacky.


I mean if we go by this show alone, we should avoid falling in love and having children, because if life’s only meaning is other people, we will commit horrible acts and lose all sense of self when we lose them. I can’t roll my eyes hard enough at this.


Olivia actually ends up killing the Witness and taking his place. She is the only character who uses the words “pray”, or “worship” (although “faith” is used by the other Monkeys quite a bit) and she deposes and then becomes her own God, albeit a completely insane, murderous one. This struck me as a modern myth of what Western society is trying to do: kill the Gods that made us and place ourselves in their place. But like Olivia, we would find ourselves empty in such a scenario, consumed with a meaningless rage. And the faithless characters call her out as “a scared little girl … who is afraid of being alone”.


This is what society thinks of people of faith. Since they are portraying a completely fictional religious cult, the writers could make its adherents as crazy as they wanted, without having to worry about offending anyone. But their portrayal of the devout villains verses the faithless heroes revealed their own true beliefs, perhaps subconscious ones, but beliefs nonetheless.


The irony of this is that if the heroes of 12 Monkeys have a God, it’s Time. Even the completely atheist scientist who created the time travel machine that sends Cole back talks about Time as if it is sentient, as if it has a will and plan for all of them. This might just be a convention of language, or a way to explain some of the unscientific things that end up happening  …. I’m not joking, one of the last lines in the finale was “Time knows, but Time also figured it owed you one.” Uttered by another Primary, a schizophrenic Seer with a special connection to time itself (and incidentally my favorite character on the show)… doesn’t that sound vaguely religious to anyone?


Even when it seems like mysticism and religious faith is being demonized by writers, it often ends up sneaking into the heroes’ language. Why? BECAUSE IT’S PART OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. Modern people can try to deny it all they want, but deep down, it is an integral part of who we are as a species.


That ends my examination of the portrayal of faith in 12 Monkeys. I am now going to compare it to a much, much better, more nuanced, human, and in my not-always-humble opinion, honest picture of faith. I’m speaking of the History Channel Show Vikings, both of the Pagan piety showcased and the struggles of the meaning of faith by the Saxon character of Athelstan.


The basic premise of Vikings is based, extremely loosely, on the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and mixes saga, history, legend, and creator Michael Hirst’s imagination. It’s not by any means the best way to learn history (or geography, for that matter, as Hirst seems to take the names of famous places and randomly drop them somewhere else at times)

While I’d describe 12 Monkeys as merely fun entertainment, there is something much deeper at work with Vikings.


The Viking Age in history was opened by the raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne, and in the show this raid takes place in the second episode.


Athelstan is clearly meant to be the audience stand-in character. As he experiences the strange world of the Norsemen, so does the Western, modern audience. When Athelstan is confused about some strange custom and its significance has to be explained to him, the audience is also enlightened. Its an efficient way to tell the story without it being packed with a lot of unnatural, awkward “As you know, Thorolf, we sacrifice these goats to make the rains come” or whatever.


Makes a lot more sense than the one scene with Floki dancing in the rain explaining Viking mythology to a ship full of Vikings, but Floki is a lil out there, half-mad (like his namesake Loki) and prone to get swept up in the moment, so I’ll allow that one instance.


But Athelstan could have been nothing more than an efficient storytelling device. Instead what we got was a nuanced and sensitive treatment of a character of faith who finds himself in a challenging situation – one where he is afraid for his life, even – and he struggles with the meaning of faith and fate. How could the God he loves have allowed this to happen to him? Faith is not unshakable. Faith is a choice we make because it makes our lives better. Athelstan’s struggles, his desperate prayers to his God, are relatable because every religious person with any depth to their faith has struggled with this.


“Where are you, Lord? Why don’t you answer me? Is this really your will? For the first time in my life, I am angry with you.”


But what is even more interesting is that Athelstan not only becomes close to Ragnar, but comes to see the beauty of the Vikings’ beliefs.

Ragnar could have been cruel to him, but treats him as an equal. Athelstan becomes close with this strange, charismatic man and comes to care for him and his family. Eventually Ragnar frees Athelstan, even giving him an arm ring. Athelstan adopts their way of life, worships their Gods, and essentially becomes a Viking. Some of the Vikings accept him more easily than others. Yet he still carries his cross under his tunic. He becomes, in his own words (in the webisodes Athelstan’s Journal) “neither Christian nor Pagan. Perhaps both.”


Athelstan eventually returns to England with a raiding party with Ragnar. He is captured by the Englishmen, and it’s then that we see the real tragedy of Athelstan’s story. As an apostate he is nearly killed, but was saved at the last minute by the king of Wessex. He’s forced to adapt and assimilate yet again. Yet the once-familiar Christian rituals are now foreign to him, and he doesn’t begin to attend mass until he is basically theathened into it. He’s become too Pagan for the Christians, when before he was too Christian for the Pagans. Unwilling to martyr himself, he was a symbol of adaptation that they didn’t want.


Throughout the series, but especially in the first few seasons, many characters have visions and mystical experiences. Athelstan in particular is prone to visions, but in the very first scene of the premiere, Ragnar sees Odin choosing slain warriors to take to Valhalla, post-battle. Throughout the show, these moments are treated as legitimate experiences and never invalidated.


You can talk all you want about the questionable historical accuracy of Vikings, and it’s totally valid. But to see the concept of faith portrayed respectfully, and of a Pagan faith at that, and to have characters struggle with what that means, it’s refreshing in today’s culture. I think that’s valuable. I wish there was more of this!


When trying to think of another good portrayal of a character of faith, I could only think of two: Captain Benjamin Sisko of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Agent Dana Scully of The X-Files.


When it comes to Agent Scully, Atheists often claim her too, because she is indeed the skeptic of the Mulder and Scully team. And she often struggles with how much she believes and how much she doesn’t, she is somewhat of a lapsed Catholic …. But she never stops wearing her cross or gives up her integrity. She is fantastic portrayal of the main conflict of the Modern age – faith vs reason, science  or belief in God/s. They don’t HAVE to be opposed, I don’t believe they ARE, but many many people do. Dana Scully was the last thoughtful, nuanced portrayal of this conflict in modern society.


Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is another great example of a spiritual journey in pop culture. Although Gene Roddenberry envisioned humanity as “moving beyond” religion in the future, religious and spiritual themes could not help but sneak into Star Trek, again, because spirituality is a natural part of the human condition. But for the most part, those stories were told through the show’s non-human characters. I’ve written a three part series about Klingon religion through a Pagan lens that was published on my blog, and I noted that when the android Data had an experience that could be described as a vision, something he can’t explain that shouldn’t be possible with what he knows of his programing, he doesn’t turn to any of his human friends for guidance. They no longer have a context for these experiences. Instead he goes to Worf, for the shamanic nature of Klingon religion is well-known. Some of the best discussions in TNG about the nature of faith were, surprisingly, between Data and Worf. But the longest and arguably deepest spiritual journey in the entire Star Trek mythos has to be from the series following TNG: Deep Space Nine. Eventually I’m going to write an entire essay about that.

Think for a moment. Yeah, that long ago. Nearly 30 years and 25 years. Faith is not treated in a nuanced, compassionate way these days. I do not know why exactly, but something in postmodern culture really, really doesn’t like the idea of faith, of belief, of devotion.


A Polytheist review of American Gods will be coming soon, to expand on this topic of faith in popular culture.

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5 Responses to Thoughts about the portrayal of Faith in Media

  1. thesseli says:

    Religion was also treated fairly well in Babylon 5, as well as in the Alien Nation tv series (especially because it was shown that the aliens had multiple religions, not just one).

    • You’re right, it was done well in Babylon 5. Its been so long since I’ve seen Alien Nation that I can’t comment on that. However, that only proves my point. Both those shows were a loooong time ago, and our popular culture as gotten not only more atheistic but openly hostile to devotion and piety.

  2. Keith McCormic says:

    I don’t know if you’ve seen Travelers, but it’s basically about people struggling with faith in the face of both day-to-day life and a higher calling. Yet the writers cleverly couched this in non-religious terms. The “Grand Plan” is the work of a computer, one that is not infallible and from whom the characters only rarely and imperfectly receive guidance. The whole show is basically about people of faith struggling through the human side of serving a deity, but with presented in a way that might slip under the radar of atheists because it’s ostensibly about time travelers trying to change the future.

    • I have not seen Travellers, but it’s on the list of things I want to watch eventually. Your description just made it move a little higher up on the list! Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Pingback: Holy Madness | Temple of Athena the Savior

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