The Dork and the Kill-Joy: Christian Stereotypes in Pop-Culture

Is there room in the collective imagination for positive portrayals of Christians?

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth movie in the series, was released at the end of May. Though some might argue that the franchise is growing tired, this film features a fun new addition – a missionary character. Philip Swift (played by newcomer Sam Clafin) is a zealous clergyman captured by pirates, he is determinedly Christian, and he is also, don’t fall over, likeable.

This character is a strangely noble addition to the loveable but dastardly cast of the Pirates franchise. He repeatedly espouses the love of God for the pirates who have imprisoned him, and prays for their redemption and wellbeing, he extends compassion and eventually romantic love to a murderous mermaid and (this is a significant cue from Hollywood that we are meant to like him) he is very good-looking.

What is particularly striking about this character’s likeability is that here is a positive, Christian character in a canon replete with mockable Christians. Broadly speaking, it seems that Christian characters, in literature, films and television mostly fall into one of two categories – the dork, or the far more dangerous, joy-crusher.

The Christian dork is a common filmic trope. They dress in socks, sandals and inappropriately high pants and carry giant Bibles under weedy, pale arms. They are disconnected with reality, and certainly with contemporary culture, and live in the land of well-meaning dagginess. These characters, the chief of whom must be Ned Flanders, are responsible for some very funny moments in literature. Think of Kenneth from 30 Rock, or the comic delight of Rowan Atkinson’s bumbling minister in Four Weddings and a Funeral, who lisps his way through the wedding service, only to bless the couple in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Goat. And surely one of the high points of watching any new adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is seeing what depths of the ridiculous can be plumbed by the actor playing the horrendously inappropriate Mr. Collins. Christian dorks are often very funny characters, and it is healthy for Christians to be able to laugh at themselves, as they are continually forced in film to do.

Far more insidious is the other classic Christian character – the kill-joy. This character, like the priest in Joanne Harris’ novel Chocolat, or the pastor in the 2004 film As It Is In Heaven, typically wields their spiritual power over a community to ensure people continue living alienated, unhappy lives. Rather than being bringers of life to a community, theirs is an ascetic existence, and they position themselves and God as being in direct opposition to music, art, poetry, sex, feasting, creativity, honest relationships, and reconciliation. Most Christians see such things as physical markers of the goodness and generosity of God which are to be gratefully enjoyed, rather than mistrustfully denied. They therefore rightly object to such portrayals of mean-spirited Christians, though examples of these characters in popular culture unfortunately abound. Think of the twisted minister, Michael Mompellion, from Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, Geoffrey Rush’s comical but abhorrently racist priest from Bran Nue Dae, the sycophantic Archbishop of Canterbury from The King’s Speech, and any religious character from The Da Vinci Code.

From where do people get these stereotypes? There is the very real possibility that for some people, their only experience of Christianity has come through Christians who resemble these tropes. There are dorky Christians, who seem unwilling, even afraid, to engage with contemporary culture. It is a true, and to me a beautiful facet of Christianity, that it welcomes, even attracts, the uncool.

However, and this is far more serious, there are those whose experience of Christians has given them a bleak picture of the faith. For them the characterisation of Christianity as a deeply harmful, repressive force might not seem very far-fetched. This is a sad situation both for the church, and for those people whose main impression of it has come through such extremes.

Hopefully, however, the stereotypes of Christians seen in our literature are, as with all stereotypes, mainly simplifications of what is actually a diverse community of people; and anytime we encounter a stereotype of a particular group we should be very wary before believing or recycling it. There are Christians in the world that are intelligent and unintelligent, dorky and cool, edgy, conservative, blue collar, white collar, no collar. Many Christians are virtuous, kind and selfless, while others, to be honest, are far from where they would like to be as a person. All, if they take their faith seriously, are being drawn towards a better version of themselves.

Perhaps this is the real joy of seeing the attractive Philip Swift swashbuckle his way into Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s not that such a positive character will suddenly convince everyone that all Christians are worth knowing. It’s just one film, and, let’s be honest, not a terrific or particularly nuanced film at that. But as Swift joins the ranks of the precious few positive Christian characters in pop-culture, he might just make some room in the imagination of our society between the dag and the kill-joy for another type of Christian.

Kate Wilcox is studying Arts/Media Communications at Sydney University and is an intern at the Centre for Public Christianity