How are committed Christians portrayed in Hollywood media? It’s more complicated than you might think. They are often presented as foolish characters, but the bible has different categories of fools that it speaks to. What is the holy fool, and how is that person portrayed in films and TV? Join Scott as he discusses this and more with our guest Thomas Sieberhagen, pastor, community arts center director and doctoral student living in Belgium.

Thomas Sieberhagen lives and works in Belgium where he pastors a church and runs a community arts center. He's a PhD student at Leuven University in Belgium where he is researching subversive art and Christology.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: How are committed Christians portrayed in Hollywood media today? It's actually a little more complicated than you might think. They are often presented as foolish characters, but you might not be aware the Bible has different categories of fools that it speaks to. For example, it speaks of the holy fool, that we are fools for Christ, all described in First Corinthians. Who is the holy fool and how is that person portrayed in films and television? We'll answer these questions today with our guest, Thomas Sieberhagen, pastor, doctoral student living in Belgium, and also as part of their church planning ministry runs a community arts center that he directs. I'm your host, Scott Rae. This is "Think Biblically" from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Thomas, welcome. Great to have you with us.

Thomas Sieberhagen: Thanks so much, Scott. Pleasure to be here.

Scott Rae: Yeah, tell us, first of all, how did you get interested in this particular subject about how Christians are being portrayed in films and television?

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, so I've always been interested in trickster figures that kind of stand around the borders. I think it goes back all the way to my childhood when I was cast as Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" when I was 11 years old.

Scott Rae: Very interesting.

Thomas Sieberhagen: Kind of a classic trickster figure standing between the fae world and the mortal world. But yeah, as I got older, that passage in First Corinthians 1, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men," just really captivated my imagination. And you come to find out there's a history of holy fools throughout church history and especially in the Eastern tradition. And it just got me thinking about the question, w ell, where are the holy fools in the Western tradition?

Scott Rae: Well, let me ask you just the overall of the 35,000 foot level, how are committed Christians generally portrayed in Hollywood media today?

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, we're all familiar with the tropes, right? They're normally either like a knave, which is they're marked by their gullibility and their simplicity, their worldview is reductive. Or we see a lot of hypocrites, people who say that they're Christians, but they're marked by their judgementalism and their fundamentalism, and they're ultimately very hypocritical.

Scott Rae: Give me an example of each one of those.

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, for sure. I mean, one of the most popular ones is Mary Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory". She appears in several episodes throughout this series, Sheldon Cooper's mom, and Sheldon is a very famous atheist character, but Mary is the opposite. She's an evangelical Christian. And she has good qualities, she's got relationship savvy, which means she's a good contrast for Sheldon. But all the jokes written for her character are surrounded by this knave stereotype that Sheldon says, "Evolution isn't an opinion, it's fact." And Mary replies, "Well, that's your opinion." The implication is she's well intentioned, but she's just not as intelligent as the other main characters. So that's a good example of the knave. The hypocrite, the classic one is Angela from "The Office" we all know. I think it could be argued she is the most immoral main character on The Office. She's cruel in a lot of instances, and she's disparaging Oscar for his sexuality, but she's guilty of many sexual infidelities herself. She's always trying to climb the social status ladder by marrying a closeted gay senator herself. And the few humanizing moments she has in this series just have nothing to do with her faith. Her faith is always written as like a punchline and she's a hypocrite ultimately.

Scott Rae: Now you make the case in some of your work that there are examples of film and TV characters that are more nuanced, and I guess maybe they're more carefully constructed with regard to their faith, that it's more complicated than what we see in general. Can you go-

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah. So what's interesting is I think in Hollywood media there's this phenomenon where evangelicals specifically are written more as hypocrites and knaves, but when you see Catholic characters, they often have more nuance. Good example is President Jed Bartlet on "West Wing". Throughout the series, his faith is portrayed with a lot of nuance, but then when evangelical characters pop up, in fact, in a pilot episode, the president's character's introduced with a fiery speech against these evangelicals who are being hypocritical. And so we're supposed to see the contrast, right? We're supposed to admire the nuanced, mature faith of the president and scorn in the hypocrisy of the evangelicals, which is very interesting. But I think Eric and Tami Taylor from "Friday Night Lights" are a good exception, they're evangelical characters, but they're also written with some nuance, which I appreciate.

Scott Rae: Now by contrast, in general, again, and this is a generalization, how are atheists and skeptics portrayed?

Thomas Sieberhagen: I think atheists have good reason to complain about their portrayal as well. You know atheist characters like Dr. Cox from "Scrubs", or even Sheldon from "Big Bang Theory", their negative character traits are also associated with their atheism. They can be harsh and have limited social skills, and their punchlines are often in conjunction with their atheistic beliefs as well. So then it's interesting, the viewer of these shows, we're meant to laugh at the extremes. Right? The atheist is the extreme on the one side and the evangelical's the extreme on the other side. I think it's really interesting. I mean, comedy writers are always looking for extremes and incongruities.

Scott Rae: Now, when you talk about the different types of fools in the Bible... I think routinely think about the fool says in his heart there is no God, but we're also fools for Christ's sake, which you mentioned in First Corinthians 1. Who is the fool in the scripture?

Thomas Sieberhagen: So we have two types of fools. We have what I would call the fool proper, which is the fool from Proverbs, doing wrong is like a joke to a fool. And Jesus addresses these fools as well. He talks about the Pharisees who just have a veneer of religiosity and it does little to hide the rot underneath. So Jesus is warning Christians, don't be a fool like these fools. And that's why I think we see a lot of fools proper on American screens, and the knave and the hypocrite are good examples of fools proper. But yeah, that passage in First Corinthians is incredible. There is a second type of fool in the Bible. We are fools for Christ's sake. And that fool, there's in a sense where all Christians are called into that kind of holy folly, when Jesus says, "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me." It's an invitation into the foolishness of the cross. But there's a scholar, John Seward, who argues that holy fool could even be considered an even deeper calling, an even deeper gift of the Holy Spirit for some Christians and not all to be kind of a subversive figure that stands on the borders of societies and points to the madness of the system in kind of extreme ways. We have examples throughout church history of these holy fools, St. Francis or St. Basil. A lot of them come from the eastern tradition. And we see them in Europe, in European movies, but we don't see them a lot in American films.

Scott Rae: Okay, we'll get to the holy fool in more detail in just a moment, but that's one of the differences you mentioned between how committed Christians are treated in films and television in Europe differently than in the US. You see this holy fool more often. But what are some of the other differences in how committed Christians are treated in media in Europe that differ from the US?

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, I think it's interesting. I think Europeans have just a little bit more patience for in-depth stories about Christianity, even in history. A lot of historical American films, there have to be sword fights or political intrigue, but there's a film came out in the eighties called "The Name of the Rose", and it was English, they tried to market it to an American audience, and it was set in a monastery in the 1300s, Sean Connery played a monk, and the plot revolved around it had a murder mystery element, but it also had a big theological debate between the Benedictines and the Franciscans. And it was long and you had to have patience, and it completely flopped in America, a box office of only 7 million, but in Europe, the film had great success, 70 million gross in Europe. And so the Europeans had a lot of patience for sitting through a nuanced film of their own history of Christian debates. I don't know, I think Europeans, they're just more interested and have more patience for nuance.

Scott Rae: Would it be fair to say that in Europe we tend to see more realistic and more complex portrayals of Christian characters? In general, would that be fair?

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, it's a complicated landscape in Europe as well, and there's a fair amount of stories and movies in Europe as well about people leaving the faith and going after secularism as well. So it is complicated there as well. But you just end up getting these great films as well. All theologians, their favorite film is "Babette's Feast", which is a Danish film. I would argue Babette shows holy folly as well by giving away all the money she's earned. There's a Russian film called "The Island" coming out in 2006, and it's explicitly about a holy fool, just a modern holy fool. And these films are just incredible and beautiful, and I just don't see them coming out of Hollywood.

Scott Rae: Now, you make the claim in your work that distinctly Christian films haven't done a whole lot to correct this dominant narrative about how committed Christians are viewed in the US. And why have Christian films failed to do this in your judgment?

Thomas Sieberhagen: We have this curious evangelical subculture here in the States, and we're producing our own movies, but I think the reaction to these stereotypes has been, we take a little bit of a offense to the knave and the hypocrite, and so our films tend to be like "God's Not Dead", where we want to show that we're intelligent by defending our faith, or a film like "Courageous", which is like, no, we are actually good for the community and we're kind, we're not hypocrites. But those films never penetrate outside of the evangelical subculture. They have no impact beyond just evangelicals. And so I think they tend to appear self-congratulatory, self-affirming, we're just telling ourselves, I know everybody thinks we're mean and we're dumb, but we're actually smart and we're actually kind. So I don't think they're doing much to change the overall public perception of evangelicals in America.

Scott Rae: Well, I think you're basically right about that too, that they tend to be distributed and exist in somewhat of an echo chamber, and they don't find a lot of acceptance outside distinctly Christian circles. Well, we have a film school here at Biola. We'll get to that in just a moment where we're trying to do something a little bit different than that. And in a minute, I want to get your advice to what you would have for our film school to portray the lives and the complexity of committed Christians in media differently than we have been able to do so far. But let me go back to the notion of we are fools for Christ's sake. This is something that I think Paul intended to be applicable for all believers. Can you help us spell out a little bit more what you think Paul meant by that?

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah. Look, I think Paul is saying, if you are truly seeking to follow Jesus, truly seeking to deny yourself, take up your cross, you will end up doing things that appear foolish to everyone around you. The way you treat your money will be foolish to how people treat their money. The way you treat your space and the things that the Lord's given you, the way that you just interact with people will appear to be foolish. And I think all Christians are called to wrestle with that and to see that the wisdom of God is not the same as the wisdom of men and women.

Scott Rae: I can see where the notion that we're called to love our enemies. I know in some cultures where revenge is considered the highest virtue, the idea of forgiveness looks incredibly foolish in some parts of the world.

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yes. And you can argue the mission of the church too. The call to go to the ends of the earth is foolish to many people. Why would you leave your home culture and go to the other end of the world, that's foolish, and yet many Christians do that.

Scott Rae: Okay, but the holy fool is something a little bit different than what we are all called to. This is a person who we would say being a fool for Christ on steroids, something like that, stands really outside the dominant culture. Give me a couple of examples and spell these out in a little bit of detail, if you would, where the holy fool appears in films or television in the US.

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, holy fools are more like prophets, right? Special Christians who are appointed by God to really point out the absurdity of what's going on and to be agents of change. So yeah, one of my favorite ones in recent film is the Mel Gibson war drama "Hacksaw Ridge", which is about Desmond Doss, who was a Seventh Day Adventist pacifist, but he enlisted, he wanted to be a medic, but as soon as they found out that he wouldn't touch a rifle, he was treated as a traitor and an arrogant moralist and a coward, and those charges grated at Doss in the film. But he kind of accepted this role as a holy fool, and his folly really shines on the battlefield. The film revolves around the story where the US army is ordered to take this ridge where the Japanese army has entrenched themselves, and they get thrown off the ridge very violently, suffering heavy losses. And Doss, he's hovering at the edge of the ridge and he prays, he says, "God, what do you want of me?" And I think only a fool would be on that ridge in that situation without a weapon. Only a fool would do anything but retreat in that moment. But he hears the cries of the wounded as the voice of God, and he turns around. And over the course of the next day and night, he lowers down 75 wounded soldiers and even some enemy soldiers as well, seeing with the eyes of Christ and then loving his enemy instead of killing them. And in the end, the army refuses to go into another battle without Doss. He wears a Medal of Honor by the end of the film without ever taking a life, which I think is just an incredible example of a holy fool in recent film.

Scott Rae: And you point out too, for listeners that have seen the film, if you haven't seen the film, it's a fabulous movie. I'd really encourage you to see it. But even before, while they're in bootcamp and training, something happens there that sort of sets the stage for what's going to happen a little bit later on. Tell us about that.

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It's incredible how Doss, his whole desire is to protect the men around him. And even the men in bootcamp, they don't understand. And so they drag him out of bed one night and beat him to try and drive him away. And so he's standing there with bruises on his face in front of his blood soaked pillow, and the drill sergeant comes and says, "Can you identify the men that beat you?" And Doss says, "Look, I never said I was attacked, Sarge." And the sergeant is like, "Well, are you saying that you bruised half your body sleeping?" And Doss says, "I sleep pretty hard." That's the response of a holy fool. He's being playful in that moment, but instead of seeking revenge, he's just accepting the violence and transforming it. He's willing to endure whatever it takes to protect the men in his unit. And I think we see the seeds of what he eventually does on the battlefield as planted in that moment.

Scott Rae: Can you identify in television or Netflix series or things like that where we see the holy fool in a well developed character over several weeks of broadcasts, as opposed to just in one feature film? You see them in television as well?

Thomas Sieberhagen: That's a good question. I haven't really seen them in many series. And often these characters pop up in sitcoms, which are kind of played for laughs. And it's tough to find good holy fools in those scenarios because the comedy writers really are looking for punchlines. And so the proper fools are more convenient for that. But yeah, there's a Netflix movie that recently came out where I think we see a holy fool, but in a series, I can't think of any good examples.

Scott Rae: Now, what's the Netflix movie that you're referring to?

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, it's interesting, Adam McKay's movie, "Don't Look Up", the political satire. There's an evangelical character at the end of the film played by Timothée Chalamet. His name is Yule. And he's a little bit of an interesting example for an evangelical. I mean, he's definitely a fool character who just spends his days drinking and lamenting the hypocritical institutions of the world with his friends. But in the final moments of the film, the whole film is about the comet coming to end the whole world, and these scientists are trying to get everyone to try and prevent the death of all humanity, but all their efforts fail. So the comet's about to hit. The men and women of science, they're slipping into despair and hopelessness, and they're around the table kind of hosting a Last Supper, and they don't know what to do. And so they think, well, maybe we should pray. And Yule, who is this evangelical character, he says, "I'll lead the prayer." And he leads them in this incredible prayer, this moment where they are really looking for hope in the divine when previously they would've never considered it. And the director, Adam McKay says, that moment is his favorite moment in the whole film, which is kind of remarkable because this is the same director who's responsible for the infamous Ricky Bobby prayer in "Talladega Nights", where Ricky Bobby's praying to eight pounds six ounce newborn infant Jesus, and is just mocking Christians for how they treat Jesus, just their own personal version of Jesus. And to see how McKay's vision matured from Ricky Bobby then now to "Don't Look Up" is a really interesting trajectory, I think.

Scott Rae: That's fascinating, to think how he could have portrayed a Christian so simplistically and yet so detailed, complex, and nuanced a little bit later on. Interesting to know if his view of Christian faith had changed.

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, it's interesting. McKay himself is an atheist, but his mom is an evangelical Christian. So I think he does have a good example of real faith in his life. And again, context matters. In "Don't Look Up", the context is they're all about to die. So in the context of scientism and infinite progress that, oh, everything's just going to get better and better and better, then praying doesn't make any sense. But when you're about to die, well, praying is just about the only thing that does make sense, even to a professed atheist.

Scott Rae: Maybe the a comet coming at the end of the world is a little bit more spiritually significant moment than a NASCAR race.

Thomas Sieberhagen: Right.

Scott Rae: Now, I mentioned earlier we have a film school at Biola that puts out lots of graduates into the entertainment industry. My oldest son actually is a graduate of the film school here, and is working all over the industry in Los Angeles. And the reason we have a film school here is we're committed to producing the next generation of storytellers and filmmakers. So if you were speaking to our film students, what advice would you have for them about representing Christian faith well in the media today?

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah, so if you are a filmmaker, you're a storyteller first and foremost. I would really look to the example of Jesus, because Jesus was also a storyteller. And what's interesting is when Jesus told his stories, they were ambiguous. His disciples often didn't understand them, and they asked for explanation. Sometimes he would explain, sometimes he wouldn't, and he didn't explain to the crowds, he just left them to think about it. And so my advice for filmmakers would be don't fear ambiguity. Sometimes we're tempted in the evangelical subculture to offer answers, answers, answers. And some of the best films don't offer answers, but they offer great questions. And I think that's what we see Jesus doing in his storytelling. And I think for the next generation of filmmakers, the best films are going to come when they ask really great questions. And the second thing I would say is don't be afraid of nuance either. I mean, just anytime we see a Christian character who's nuanced, it's a win. So yeah, look for the nuance and don't fear ambiguity is my biggest advice.

Scott Rae: That's really helpful. Those are two bits of great insight, and I can make sense now that you don't see a lot of this nuance in comedies where writers and directors, they're looking more for punchlines than anything else. And you got 22 minutes in an American sitcom, which is not a lot of time to develop much complexity or nuance. So Thomas, one final question for you. What encourages you when it comes to the progress made or where we are today in representing Christian faith in television and movies?

Thomas Sieberhagen: Yeah. Well, one thing, I'm just encouraged by what I see in the next generation. I mean, Gen Z Christians have never known this respectability and cultural clout that comes from being a Christian. They've had to be fools for Christ much more deeply than the older generations of Christians have. And so I think from that posture of humility and willing to be fools for Christ is going to come great movies where we see nuanced portrayals of Christians who are willing to embrace this calling for holy folly. So I think I'm excited about what the next generation is going to produce and contribute to the landscape. But then also I think it's encouraging to see a trajectory like Adam McKay had, his understanding of what an evangelical Christian is has evolved over the last 20 years. I think we're starting to see these holy fool characters pop up a little bit more and more. And so I'm encouraged by what I see there as well.

Scott Rae: Yeah, I think there is room to be encouraged, and I think the culture's tolerance for the traditional knave and hypocrite, I would hope in future years would diminish a bit. And as consumers, we would be asking for more and more complexity and new nuance in the way, not only Christian characters, religious characters are portrayed, but all characters are portrayed. That would be my hope. So Thomas, this has been so helpful. I so appreciate your work on this, and your graduate study on this, and I wish you all the best in finishing that degree and getting that work published, but this has been so insightful to-

Thomas Sieberhagen: Well, thank you so much. It's been a real joy for me as well to share some of my work.

Scott Rae: Well, and I hope our listeners will go ahead and see some of these films that you've mentioned, and it's great stuff and really encouraged by what you're doing. So thanks for being with us and much appreciated for your time and for your expertise, and I trust our listeners will find this to be really insightful stuff.

Thomas Sieberhagen: Thank you so much.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture". Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot's School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Bachelors of Film from our film school here on campus. Visit in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our friend Thomas Sieberhagen, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.