Getting Real (Fictionally, of Course)

Comedian Jim Gaffigan recently launched his very own sitcom titled, perhaps a bit uncreatively, The Jim Gaffigan Show. It’s on TV Land, and the show’s gotten all sorts of attention. I reviewed it earlier this week, and while it has its share of problems, I have to say I enjoyed parts of it. Not just because the show is funny, but because the show’s protagonist (also named Jim Gaffigan) is a Christian, and he sometimes even goes to church. Outside of religious networks and the occasional special on Hallmark Channel, that’s a pretty rare sight on TV these days.

But Gaffigan, being a comedian, doesn’t treat his faith with a great deal of reverence.

In the first episode of the show, we learn that Jim’s church attendance (he’s Catholic) is so sporadic that the priest assumed his wife was a widow. Jim sputters out something about attending the 11 o’clock service these days. Alas, the priest knowingly counters with, “I had no idea you spoke Chinese!” Jim calls his wife a “Shiite Catholic” for her strict adherence to the Church’s teachings on birth control (the Gaffigans, both on the show and in real life, have five kids). And when Jim is photographed toting around a Bible on the show, he sorta freaks out.

“I don’t want to get involved in the culture war,” he says on a future episode (according to The Washington Post). “Religion is a very iffy business. As soon as you identify yourself as believing something, you open yourself up for ridicule.” Jim says of Jim, “The messages is: He believes in God, it’s not that big of a deal.”

The fictional Jim Gaffigan is not, safe to say, an ideal Christian. He has his faith, but he’s not the sort to listen to praise music or march in front of Planned Parenthood. He’s clearly a little bashful about it, a little unsure of his religious footing—certainly not the bold sort of Christian Jesus calls us to be.

But he’s probably like a lot of the rest of us Christians.

Not like you, of course. Hey, you’re here reading a Plugged In blog, after all. But you might know somebody. And maybe sometimes—very rarely, mind you, during an off Sunday or rough patch or whatnot—Jim’s spiritual laziness might hit a chord with you, too.

As such, Jim’s lackadaisical paranoia may feel, to some people, real. He’s an exaggerated reflection of a type of Christian, but one that we don’t typically see in a Kendrick Brothers’ movie. For all the comedic exaggeration, he might—might, I say—feel strangely honest.

Of course Jim is not the sort of character we’d hold out as a great Christian example. He’s not aspirational, the sort of Christian we’d be proud of would likely quote C.S. Lewis. His flaws are obvious, his theological holes gaping. So is this really the sort of Christian we’d like to hold up to the world to show who we are?

Right there, I think, is the central conflict found in Christian entertainment: our desire to “get real” with people versus our desire to show them an ideal version of the Christian life—something to which they can aspire.

Now, The Jim Gaffigan Show cannot be called a Christian program. But I think you’ll find Christians who might point to it and suggest that it represents where Christian entertainment needs to go. Let’s laugh at ourselves a little. Let’s show the world who we are, warts and all. We need to be approachable. Real.

But then there are those who might say Gaffigan isn’t who Christians—real Christians—are at all. They see more of themselves in characters from Courageous or Fireproof than Gaffigan’s schlumpy father figure who steals fudgsicles from his kids. We don’t want Christian entertainment that just encourages us to lower our standards for what a Christian should be or how they should behave. The broader culture has done plenty of that already.  

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Christian film or TV show ever mesh these two inclinations very well, or even at all. It seems that one must fall—and potentially err—on one side or the other. Modern evangelical Christianity isn’t split along theological or doctrinal lines in modern America so much as it is on entertainment lines—fans of The Jim Gaffigan Show on one side, God’s Not Dead on the other.

But that’s not really true, is it? I can’t say that I totally favor one camp over the other. I’m pretty imperfect myself, and I’m not fond of us all hiding our failures. But neither would I use Gaffigan as an example of what Christian entertainment should look like. I’m still looking for the better balance, I guess.

OK. Now that I’ve opened up this can of worms, I’m curious: If you had to shade a good story one way or the other, would you rather see a movie that feels gritty and honest? Or should it be more inspirational? Aspirational? And have you ever seen a movie—be it Christian or secular—that managed to successfully hold these contrasts in harmony?

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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