Religion Across Television Genres

Community, Orange Is the New Black, The Walking Dead, and Supernatural

by Joseph M. Valenzano III (Author) Erika Engstrom (Author)
©2019 Textbook X, 162 Pages


Religion Across Television Genres: Community, Orange Is the New Black, The Walking Dead, and Supernatural connects communication theories to the religious content of TV programs across an array of platforms and content genres, specifically the NBC comedy Community, the critically acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, AMC’s international megahit The Walking Dead, and the CW’s long-running fan favorite Supernatural. Its contemporary relevancy makes Religion Across Television Genres ideal for use as a library resource, scholarly reference, and textbook for both undergraduate and graduate courses in mass media, religious studies, and popular culture.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance praise for Religion Across Television Genres
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. The (Unseen) Order of the Study Group: NBC’s Community and Religious Humor
  • Chapter 3. Adherence and Adherents in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black
  • Chapter 4. Redefining Religious Boundaries in AMC’s The Walking Dead
  • Chapter 5. Hunting Monsters, Finally Finding God in the CW’s Supernatural
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion
  • Index

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We would like to acknowledge our spouses, Lauren Valenzano and Ted Greenhalgh, for their support and patience as we endured the pleasure and pain of countless hours of television. ← vii | viii →

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As a conduit for information, entertainment, and even guidance, television as a mass medium serves as an important tool for constructing and reflecting our impressions of the society, culture, and wider world in which we live. Television programming constructs and reflects certain beliefs, values, and ways of living through the relaying of actual events; idealized and actual relationships between nations, peoples, and individuals; and through fictional storytelling. Among the beliefs and values that permeate those media whose purpose is to entertain are messages about religion: which faiths are mainstream and acceptable, which are not, and what practices and beliefs are valued or criticized. Whether simply portraying religious tradition as familiar or unfamiliar to audiences, ways of believing that spring from the creative minds who give us alternative worlds based in fantasy ask us to question the authority of those traditions in which we have been raised and consider important to our self-identity and worldview—whether we are aware of it or not.

Hoover (1998), writing on news coverage of religion, explained the reflexive role of mass media within society: “Media treatments of religion can be seen as a kind of indicator of the broader role of religion on the contemporary scene” (p. 12). While Hoover was commenting on journalism’s inclusion of religion in the conveyance of information, that is, what we see in the news ← 1 | 2 → regarding religious content, one can obviously view other forms of media as reflecting the role of religion in everyday life. Indeed, considering the pervasiveness of entertainment forms of media, what a society (here, we are talking about U.S. society and U.S.-based media) thinks about religion becomes mirrored and even critiqued in fictional narratives of popular film and television.

Stout (2012) observed in Media and Religion: Foundations of an Emerging Field that entertainment media becomes a site wherein we can consider the religious aspect of mass communication at two levels: (1) the ritualistic aspect of patterned media consumption and (2) the storytelling aspect of media narratives themselves. “Given their convivial and enjoyable nature, the same positive feelings associated with religion can be experienced,” Stout noted (p. 95). Thus, when one says, “I watch this-or-that show religiously,” the ritualized viewing of media akin to sacred actions associated with religious practice becomes evident. When we pay attention to and, perhaps, even retain any lessons presented in a narrative that in some way refers to either religious instruction or a way to view religion, the storytelling side of media becomes a way that media messages contain homilies, much like listening to a preacher, pastor, or priest. When we enjoy watching and listening to such media artifacts, whether filmic, televised, or even musical, we can see how entertainment becomes conducive to the “numinous,” stated Stout: “Because entertainment media (e.g., film, television, popular fiction) engage in storytelling, they often teach moral lessons about beliefs espoused by churches” (p. 95).

Through the study of religion in today’s popular culture, as Clark (2007) asserted, we “may gain insight into how people construct and maintain the world in which they live, and how they are able to imagine a way in which to behave within that world” (p. 20). Entertainment television narratives, whether comedic, dramatic, or fantastic, or a combination thereof, serve as popular culture artifacts which Clark argued have become “a resource through which people can reflect and discuss with others their own views and practices, and how religious traditions might be meaningfully communicated to future generations through emotionally captivating stories, images, sounds, and rituals” (p. 16). Writing some twenty years ago, Oswalt (1995) pointed out that while religious institutions—the organized forms of practiced religion based in traditionally familiar practices—seem to be losing power, “religion is finding new life embedded more discreetly in cultural forms” (p. 157). Popular culture, then, can be seen as actually making religion “more powerful, diffused, and omnipresent” (p. 157). In short, wrote Oswalt, those “religious imaginations” written into cultural forms such as television and movies have ← 2 | 3 → extended religious-based values and beliefs beyond the physical structures we usually associate with the conveying of religious instruction.

This book originates in our own enjoyment of popular culture and our research interest in religion in the mass media. Specifically, we aim to examine how television entertainment programs across several genres not only depict lived religions, as portrayed through their characters, but also what television as a site for meaning making says about us and about religion’s status and role in the early 21st century. Indeed, speaking to the “sublime power of faith” that can be “galvanized for pro-social outcomes,” Stafford and David (2011, p. 333) introduced a special issue of the Journal of Applied Communication Research, which featured articles on the influence of religion in a variety of communication contexts. Whether as a religious denomination of some kind or spirituality, they noted that “faith is an inherent source in individuals that can be tapped and transcends education and social status” (p. 333).

We use the term “genre” as a means to categorize a range of televised texts that we see as varietal, with the portrayals of religion within each of them our focus. As noted by Mittell (2001), when considering television in the context of genre, “The members of any given category do not create, define, or constitute the category itself. A category primarily links discrete elements together under a label for cultural convenience” (p. 5). When we refer to the television shows discussed in this book, we are not seeking to examine what about them makes them a comedy or drama or variations thereof (nor what makes a drama one based in horror or fantasy). Admittedly, we use genre labels, as Mittell described, “that are culturally commonplace” (p. 4). However, we acknowledge the “need to examine how genres operate as conceptual frameworks, situating media texts within larger contexts of understanding” (p. 16). By doing so, we approach our research with a perspective aligned with Mittell’s assertion regarding genre studies: “The goal of studying media genres is not to make broad assertions about the genre as a whole but to understand how genres work within specific instances and how they fit into larger systems of cultural power” (p. 16).

Our purpose is to uncover and unpack not only how religious and spiritual themes appear in various network and cable entertainment programming, but what else these popular texts tell us about how society views and, to an extent governs, acceptable views of religion and religiosity. Further, our analysis reveals how the content of these programs convey and imply how their creators see religion and its role in human interactions and wider society. The main research question we thus pose is: How do popular television texts depict ← 3 | 4 → religion and religions? In exploring this question, we look at how different genres critique or offer alternatives to familiar traditions of worship and belief. We hope our answers contribute to a growing body of literature that examines the presence and influence of religious content in popular culture.

Looking for the Religious in Popular Media Entertainment

“The United States has been accurately described as a ‘biblical’ culture that does not actually read the Bible, but there is no debating the huge impact religiously themed books have played in popular culture and popular religion,” Santana and Erickson (2016) declared in Religion and Popular Culture: Rescripting the Sacred. Beyond overtly epic biblical films that mark Hollywood history and have become classics featuring casts “of thousands” (such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, and various versions of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur), the texts we scrutinize run the gamut from comedy to fantasy and science fiction. One avenue to such research is the detection of religious imagery or narratives that draw from religious texts, such as the Bible. Reinhartz (2003) takes such an approach in Scripture on the Silver Screen, in which the author, a Biblical scholar, analyzes the text of Hollywood films. In each chapter, Reinhartz ties a film to a specific book of the Bible; for example, the movie The Truman Show evokes Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden (p. 5). Even when viewers aren’t aware of them, certain symbols such as the apple (symbolic of temptation), a burning bush, or a rainbow, serve as conduits for religious themes. When viewed through the filter of Western culture, noted Reinhartz, such visual imagery “suggest popular culture depends on and uses other, and often, older cultural elements” (p. 18). Additionally, when the Bible itself is used as a prop onscreen, reference to religion becomes de facto.

Taken together, the presence of biblical narratives in popular entertainment illustrates the Bible’s status as a “perennial bestseller,” noted Reinhartz: “It also reveals the degree to which biblical narratives have shaped the ways in which Western culture tells its stories” (p. 186). Reinhartz concluded that because movies “reflect society’s symbols and values,” the inclusion of religious content in popular film, which one can also extend to television, may lead to uncritical viewing and misuse (p. 118). Reinhartz called for biblical and religious literacy on the part of scholars and educators, noting that ← 4 | 5 → the more viewers know about religion and the Bible in particular, the more they would enjoy films that make reference to religious themes via storylines and visuals.

Just as Reinhartz (2003) analyzed the biblical relevancy of movies beyond the now-familiar depictions of religious figures in popular films, such as Moses and Jesus Christ, scholars have also sought to extrapolate biblical connections and characters from non-obvious texts. Walsh (2005), in Finding St. Paul in Film, looked specifically at depictions of St. Paul not only in depictions of “true” biblical or historical accounts, but also modern treatments that “update” the story of one of the most high-profile conversions in Christianity. With that approach, Walsh explained how modern settings such as New York can be read as stand-ins for Rome itself. Taking a decidedly Christian and persuasive viewpoint, Garrett (2007) used classic films of the 1940s as well as more contemporary films, such as the 1994 film Pulp Fiction, as examples of films containing theological issues and “core narratives about salvation and the life of faith” (p. xxii). While Garrett’s target audience was clearly not scholarly, the examples cited nevertheless point to how popular culture can be used to “startle and move you toward God” (p. xxiii).

With a basis in the Book of Revelation, a subgenre of religious entertainment has emerged from the Left Behind series of Christian novels, published from 1995 to 2007, and their subsequent filmic versions. Telling the story of the Rapture, wherein true Christians suddenly disappear and nonbelievers are left on earth, these texts make up what Monahan (2008) termed the “apocalypse industry,” which has “developed to feed the fears of Christians” (p. 814). An example of how religious warnings can be profitable, the Left Behind series appeals to a kind of “don’t let this happen to you” admonition, based firmly in a particular religious tradition (specifically, Evangelical Christianity). McAvan (2012) noted that while the Left Behind franchise offers up an evangelical reading of the Bible, “despite its truth-value,” it still relies on “fantastic and horror tropes” (p. 119). Hendershot (2010) noted that while the Book of Revelation is “quite simply indecipherable,” apocalyptic fiction, upon which it is based, “sells, in part, because it is exciting” (p. 179). Thus, while the Bible, its stories, and lessons have served as material for homilies familiar to churchgoers, the very storytelling utilized in successful popular culture versions depends on tried and true methods that grip audiences’ attention.


X, 162
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 162 pp.

Biographical notes

Joseph M. Valenzano III (Author) Erika Engstrom (Author)

Joseph M. Valenzano III (PhD, Georgia State University) is Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Dayton. Erika Engstrom (PhD, University of Florida) is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


Title: Religion Across Television Genres