How 2016's movies and TV reflected Americans’ changing relationship with religion

I started 2016 as chief film critic at Christianity Today and ended it on staff here at Vox. Religion and pop culture has been my beat for a long while. So it's not surprising I spot it around every corner.

But even by my heightened radar's standards, 2016 feels like a banner year for onscreen treatments of religion. I don't mean what we’ve come to consider “Christian movies,” though there were a few of those, most notably the moderately commercially successful God's Not Dead 2 and the crashing box office failure Ben-Hur (executive produced, by the way, by Mark Burnett of The Apprentice). “Christian films” are made for a sizable but still niche market and bent to the tastes of that segment: biblical or inspirational tales, or (in the case of the God's Not Dead franchise) legends of the culture wars. They’re meant to preach to — or shore up — the choir.

“Christian movies” had their most recent heyday in 2014 and 2015 and seem to be tapering off, at least in terms of box office returns. But 2016 belonged to a different kind of onscreen religion, aimed at mainstream audiences. In 2016, films and TV shows that portrayed religion — organized or not — were less interested in preaching or caricaturing and more in exploring how faith and (especially) doubt fit into the frameworks of people’s lives today.

Religion showed up onscreen in everything from dark, gritty dramas to dirty animated fables

2016 started with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar, a comedy about competing ideologies (Hollywood capitalism, Marxism, and Christian faith) that is explicitly modeled on a passion play.

And now the year is ending with Martin Scorsese’s Silence, perhaps the most stirring, perceptive film about belief and doubt in decades.

The months between yielded movies about pluralism and agnosticism (Sausage Party), the mysterious, doubtable supernatural (Midnight Special), and entering and escaping cults (Holy Hell). In The Birth of a Nation, the Bible acts as impetus for violent action in pursuit of justice; in Hacksaw Ridge, it motivates nonviolence and heroism.

In A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies uses Emily Dickinson’s life to plumb the space that might best be described as believing unbelief. The Witch artfully poses a conflict between stringent Puritan faith and witchcraft in colonial New England. Knight of Cups positioned its narrator on the road to faith (modeled explicitly on both tarot and Pilgrim’s Progress). The documentary The Illinois Parables reads the complicated matter of religion and historical conflict into the landscape of Illinois. In Queen of Katwe, a Christian missionary brings opportunity to illiterate children in the slums he came from.

Beyoncé’s magnum opus Lemonade explicitly drew on religious imagery in its proclamation of freedom for its creator and women like her. The Innocents, like Silence, grapples with faith cracked by doubt in the face of unthinkable violence to the bodies of the devout — in this case, the brutal rape of nuns.

That Christianity is the organized belief system of interest in most of these projects isn't surprising. They're mostly American productions, and Christianity is still the dominant religion practiced in America — though I suspect that onscreen organized religion will expand in the next few years to include a higher number of serious treatments of Judaism, Islam, and other religions.

Still, attentive moviegoers could have caught Under the Shadow, a stellar Iranian political horror film, which borrows on concepts from Islamic folklore to explore the fallout from the Iran-Iraq War. And Tikkun, an Israeli horror film, navigated the complexities of bodies and souls in contemporary Orthodox Judaism.

Meanwhile, on TV, Rectify (about guilt, forgiveness, and redemption in small-town America) and The Americans (about religion as a competitor to nationalist ideologies) topped critics' lists, while The Path and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looked at the complicated reasons people enter, leave, remain in, and recover from oppressive systems of belief.

For a pretty goofy show, Lucifer featured a surprisingly nuanced account of evil and fate, while on Daredevil, Matt Murdock’s Catholicism is a central part of his character. Preacher took as its starting point the conflation of pastorly authority and possession by something evil. On both Jane the Virgin and The Jim Gaffigan Show, Catholic faith is also part of characters’ identities and influences the decisions they make.

While Black-ish usually treats Grandma Ruby’s (Jenifer Lewis) outspoken religion as just one of her wacky character details, it nonetheless has aired several episodes dealing with the role of church and belief in God in its larger exploration of black identity in America. The Night Of portrays American Muslims whose character arcs aren’t just a vehicle for a story about terrorism or war. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) regularly consults his friend, the cool, collar-wearing minister Father Brah (Rene Gube). And Transparent — which has been called “the most Jewish show on television” — features a rabbi among its main cast.

This isn’t even an exhaustive list — that would be impossible to compile — and leaves out a lot of what’s happening in genres like horror and in independent and niche film. But as close watchers of the industry can attest, these certainly constitute an observable uptick in religiously oriented content for mainstream audiences.

Religion is part of characters’ identities in 2016, but not their only defining feature

It’s too early in this groundswell to sort out exactly why or how this happened in 2016. It can’t really be attributed to the US election — most of these movies and shows were finished or in development before the race even took shape. But there are some commonalities worth noting.

One notable trend is a growing interest in taking religious belief to be part of, but not the entirety of, a character’s identity. In other words, religious characters are growing more complex.

Religion has at times operated as a negative character-defining trait in onscreen stories: Sometimes the religious character’s faith is played off as just a quirk or an outright flaw, a writing shorthand for being bad, weak, hypocritical, or strange. (Think of Angela in the early seasons of The Office, Shirley Bennett on Community, or Vice President Sally Langston on Scandal.) But Rectify, The Americans, Daredevil, Jane the Virgin, The Night Of, Transparent, and The Jim Gaffigan Show, among others, all have characters who are religious, but who say and do lots of things that aren’t explicitly tied to their faith. They aren’t trotted on to be the token clergy or judgy friend; they’re just people who go to church and believe in God, and also have other interests, views, and friends. Their faith is one among many defining traits, but one that is ever-present (as opposed to, for instance, Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, whose Catholicism seemed to crop up only when it suited the story).

These sorts of characters can be hard to write for a mainstream audience, because fleshing them out often requires personal experience that busts up easy stereotypes. A sort of prototypical religious character, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s Harriet Hayes, was based on creator Aaron Sorkin’s real-life ex-girlfriend, the outspoken Christian Kristin Chenoweth; another Sorkin character, the very Catholic President Jed Bartlet from West Wing, is another. We especially see this in TV — most writers’ rooms aren’t noted for their diversity, and sometimes religion has been pretty one-note on screen. And flatly written secondary characters have a way of standing out more starkly in TV’s longform storytelling.

But perhaps recognizing that a myopic view of religious people results in underwritten characters, many shows have developed the sense that, as with gender or race, a character’s religion is part of their identity, one in a series of overlapping layers. A white Southerner’s Christianity looks different from that of a Catholic comedian living in New York City or a black marketing executive in Southern California. Not all Muslims look like they do on Homeland. Religious people look, sound, and act differently from one another. Their political and social views may differ. Even if they belong to an organized religion, the way they express and live that faith is unique.

In her film The Innocents, French director Anne Fontaine elected to dramatize a spectrum of faith in characters that on first blush look very much alike: a group of Polish nuns who, during World War II, are raped by a group of passing Russian soldiers. When the film begins, a French Red Cross doctor (who is an avowed atheist, a fact that does not change throughout the film) is called to the convent, where she discovers that many of the nuns are in advanced stages of pregnancy.

It’s tempting to see a convent full of nuns as a homogeneous group: all Polish women, living together, having taken the same vows, following the same rituals together every day, professing the same belief, experiencing the same violence. But The Innocents recognizes that women have individual responses to severe trauma, and their responses are complex and different from one another. It’s a remarkable exploration of shades of belief and doubt rooted in the different ways that different people internalize and express faith.

Some religious storylines incorporate the supernatural, to great effect

Another striking trend in onscreen religion showed up in two places in 2016: Jeff Nichols’s film Midnight Special and the Hulu TV series The Path, something echoed in the HBO drama The Leftovers (which aired the final episodes of its second season in December 2015 and will premiere its third season in 2017).

Both of these stories are about cult members and ex-members struggling with belief. This is a story we’ve seen before, but here there is a key difference: We discover, at some point, that the cult’s beliefs are actually grounded in reality. That is, the supernatural beliefs they have, which in most shows or movies are taken to be obviously false, turn out to be true.

It’s an effective narrative device — viewers suddenly must reevaluate their entire orientation to the story thus far — but it’s also a startling one to modern viewers, who are used to the supernatural popping up in horror, fantasy, and maybe science fiction, but not in realistic dramas. (The Leftovers has a premise that seems borrowed from sci-fi — even though it’s closer to the concept of “the rapture” that pops up in some strains of Protestantism — but it conducts itself like a drama, which makes it all the more unnerving.)

Genres have trouble containing stories with unexpected supernatural elements: Do they become magical realism? Supernatural fiction? Something else? That’s still to be determined. But when the supernatural inserts itself into realistic dramas, suddenly things take a turn.

The supernatural isn’t part of everyone’s daily experience anymore, in the way it might have been in the past — thanks to science and technology, few modern Westerners are sacrificing to the gods to change the weather or contemplating whether magic actually exists. (Philosophers like Charles Taylor have called this the “disenchantment” of modernity.) But when inexplicable things occur in the midst of realistic dramas, it’s effective precisely because it’s so unexpected, and in the average jaded audience member, it provokes a kind of wonder and awe that once belonged to religion. (Stranger Things, with its parallel universes, taps into the same impulse.)

Here end the spoilers.

Plus, these sorts of movies and TV shows ask the audience to ponder the same question: What if everything you assumed about the world turned out to be wrong?

Religion in TV and film this year was all about pluralism and doubt

That question — about being confronted and challenged on the most core of beliefs — underlines the final trend, which may be the most pertinent at the end of a long, turbulent year in America.

Most of the shows and movies that incorporated religion in 2016 positioned it not as an add-on to life that a person could take or leave, but rather as a system of beliefs among and overlapping with other systems of beliefs, whether political, national, or ideological. In other words, in 2016 entertainment started tackling the implications of pluralism, and what the sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls “patchwork religion.”

Some of the year’s best films are explicitly about the possibility of pluralism. Can differing systems of belief coexist peacefully in a society, or will the strongest necessarily muscle out the others?

In The Witch, a chilling horror film set in colonial America, a family is cast out of a settlement and onto the edge of the woods because their unorthodox Christian beliefs are deemed unacceptable by the village’s elders. As a result, new forces creep into their lives, wreaking havoc on the family while also offering something new to the teenage daughter.

Scorsese’s Silence reaches even further back in time. An adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s classic 1966 novel, the film is a gorgeous, unnerving, quietly brilliant story in which 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit missionaries travel to Japan, looking for their mentor who is rumored to have apostatized (in other words, repudiated his faith). Once there, the confrontation between their culture and the Japanese authorities who are actively resisting the spread of Christianity in the country proves to be more explosive than they’d expected, and the solutions are not easily forthcoming.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Sausage Party — which, believe it or not, is one of the most nuanced (and dirtiest) takes on metaphysical commitments all year — positions rationalism, agnosticism, and atheism alongside a variety of unshakable theisms, all from the perspective of animated foodstuffs. It is pluralism by way of Plato’s cave, in a grocery store.

In both Hail, Caesar and The Americans, Christian faith serves as a counterpoint to American national religions (in commercialism on the one hand and democracy on the other) and to a Marxist/communist ideology. All are trying to stamp out the other; in The Americans, the competition between the progressive faith of the Jenningses’ teenage daughter and her parents’ commitments as KGB spies is particularly dramatic.

To understand any of these shows or films, the audience has to buy into an understanding of religion as more than a mere quirk or hobby some people indulge in. It’s a formational identity, not a bolted-on feature. People’s religion isn’t something to just slice off them.

That’s what makes pluralism so tricky to navigate for storytellers, and more broadly for people living in a pluralist society — though it’s not impossible. When multiple systems of belief and practice coexist — and all are allowed within the limits of the law — then it is easier to encounter systems unlike one’s own, which can in turn lead to internal turmoil and exterior conflict. Whereas centuries ago a person’s friends and family might all believe in roughly the same way, today people more frequently encounter belief systems (about religion, politics, or other things) that differ radically from their own, at work, or in friendships, or in their own family. And those deeply held beliefs, no matter their nature, don’t just fall away.

So one’s individual struggle to find meaning today takes on different shapes than it might have in the past. For some, it means pulling together pieces from multiple sources. In his 1998 book After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s, Robert Wuthnow wrote about what he called “patchwork religion”:

At the start of the twentieth century, virtually all Americans practiced their faith within a Christian or Jewish framework. They were cradle-to-grave members of their particular traditions, and their spirituality prompted them to attend services and to believe in the teachings of their churches and synagogues. Organized religion dominated their experience of spirituality, especially when it was reinforced by ethnic loyalties and when it was expressed in family rituals. Even at mid-century, when the religious revival of the 1950s brought millions of new members to local congregations, many of these patterns prevailed. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, growing numbers of Americans piece together their faith like a patchwork quilt. Spirituality has become a vastly complex quest in which each person seeks his or her own way.

Because the ability to doubt previously held beliefs has to become part of this complex spiritual quest — as dramatized in Sausage Party — then another result of pluralism must be an openness to expressions of doubt. This isn’t a radical idea — decades ago, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Don't expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty.” Anne Lamott echoes O’Connor in her memoir Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely.”

Doubt and faith are two sides of the same coin, and the idea that a person might travel back and forth along a spectrum between them is a dominant theme from this year’s shows and movies — along with the idea that too-strident certainty can be a problem. Silence is still the best example here; characters’ journeys along that path aren’t all in the same direction. Certainty is not as strong as faith. And how they deal with the lived reality of faith in the context of persecution, oppression, or hardship is striking for its complexity.

The struggle between doubt and faith shows up again and again. Hail, Caesar tempts its devout main character over and over, until he isn’t sure of his calling. Midnight Special challenges its characters to overcome their skepticism because of the evidence they see. The characters in The Americans waver in their beliefs when they encounter people who believe differently who also don’t fit the stereotype they expect. The Path gives us characters who never waver, as well as others who can’t quite get a grip on what they’re supposed to say is true.

It was almost impossible to find a mainstream film or TV show in which a character with religious commitments — or ideological commitments that function like religion — wasn’t grappling with doubts that crop up because they encounter or butt up against people who believe differently.

In 2016, religion in America looks different than it used to. So does religion onscreen.

That openness to doubt and constant confrontation with other beliefs might help explain the recent uptick in religiously interested TV and movies. In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a massive Religious Landscape Study, which revealed some striking changes in the American religious landscape. Twenty-three percent of American adults surveyed in the study self-identified as atheists or agnostics, or said their religion was “nothing in particular.” The study called this group of people “nones,” and found that the number was up from 16 percent only seven years earlier.

Pew found that even the religious “nones” — the ones who didn’t self-identify as atheists or agnostics — were becoming what Pew characterized as “more secular”: Fewer believe in God, fewer pray, and fewer attend religious services or think religion is important in their lives.

Yet that same Pew Survey found some surprising trends in the way people were encountering and finding meaning in the world.

For instance, in 2007, 39 percent of respondents said they felt a sense of wonder about the universe “at least once a week”; by 2014, that number had jumped to 46 percent. Nones responded with this answer at a rate of 47 percent — keeping pace with evangelicals at 48 percent, Mormons at 49 percent, and Orthodox Christians at 47 percent, and outpacing Jewish, mainline Protestant, Hindu, and Catholic respondents; only Buddhists (55 percent), Jehovah’s Witnesses (62 percent), and Muslims (56 percent) substantially out-wondered them.

Thirty-five percent of nones pray at least weekly. That number encompasses 65 percent of the “religiously unaffiliated” (and, somewhat bafflingly, 10 percent of atheists).

It might be most accurate to say that while the number of Americans who don’t identify readily with a particular religion is on the rise, there are still plenty of “believers.” They’ve just been cut loose from traditional systems of belief, creating instead the “patchwork” religion Wuthnow writes about.

Art has always been the way a culture works out its anxieties, testing and trying ideas through stories and characters — often only half-consciously. Perhaps the profusion of religious exploration in entertainment is attributable to this massive shift in the religious landscape over the past decade, along with growing globalism and pluralism.

And since that diversity is being countered with what appears to be a growing reactionary nationalist impulse in the US and Europe, the anxiety becomes even more pressing: Can pluralism accommodate anti-pluralistic impulses?

In a time when it’s hard to find one agreed-upon place to get answers to questions precisely because there are so many people with different systems of belief living alongside one another — something that’s causing considerable tension and anxiety across the Western world — then it makes sense that the site for this religious exploration would shift to screens big and small.

Art provides a place for us to deal with our own fears and search for meaning. Entertainment lets us do this together. When we’re trying to figure out one another while also sorting out our own beliefs about right, wrong, belief, doubt, and the transcendent, it looks, from 2016, like we’ve decided the screen is a decent place to start.