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Soap operas tell stories of sin and salvation

by
18 December 2020

They are watched by millions, especially at Christmas. What can the Church learn from them, asks John Saxbee

DOT COTTON is in crisis. One of EastEnders’s key characters, she has indwelt Albert Square almost for ever with her seemingly indomitable Christian faith, peppered with a biblical quotation for every occasion, and as annual ambassador for the true meaning of Christmas.

But then, when going about the Lord’s business as the churchwarden, she is mugged. Consequently, she forswears her faith in Jesus, whom, hitherto, she had looked on as her friend. One senses that the intended trajectory of the plotline is for Dot to lose her faith — and get a life!

The programme’s postbag and inbox, however, bulged with letters of protest lamenting Dot’s loss of faith — mostly from viewers who were not themselves churchgoers. To use Grace Davie’s now familiar terminology, they were “believers” without being “belongers”. They were comforted and encouraged by Dot’s Christianity, and were disturbed by her crisis of faith.

Vicarious faith is an enduring phenomenon in what is so often portrayed as our post-Christian culture, and that postbag captured this precisely. Perhaps, in a way that the producers had neither planned nor expected, this story was a reminder to us that we go to church for the sake of God who is present, and the people who aren’t.

In a matter of a few weeks, Dot recovered her faith and spoke for many when she explained: “I couldn’t manage without my faith: not with the life I’ve had!”

 

PROCTER & GAMBLE, manufacturers of personal-care products, began sponsoring what became known as “soap operas” on radio in the 1930s, and they have been a broadcasting staple ever since. Coronation Street is currently celebrating its diamond jubilee, and EastEnders is not far behind. The Archers, of course, pre-dates them all. Yet to come out as a dedicated soap-follower can have unforeseen consequences.

Reporters sent to cover my appointment as Bishop of Lincoln were only mildly interested in what I had to say about God, Jesus, and the Church. But when I was asked: “What do you like to do when you’re not bishoping?”, and I let on that I had never missed an episode of EastEnders, they suddenly became interested. Why the surprise? After all, as one critic put it, “EastEnders has ten times more regular communicants than the C of E” — and that, in itself, should engage the interest of Church leaders.

Of course, it is important to keep a sense of perspective. Soaps are not artistic masterpieces, and often they are little better than moving wallpaper. Yet the genre remains culturally significant, and their popularity suggests that Christian communicators neglect them at our peril.

When challenged by those reporters to explain my attachment to soaps, I responded that there are only six stories in the history of the world, and they’re all in the soaps and they’re all in the Bible:
 

Concealment and revelation — the triumph of truth;
Loss and recovery — the persistence of hope;
Love and betrayal — the cost of commitment;
Separation and reconciliation — the power of love;
Enslavement and rescue — the drama of salvation; and
Evil deeds and just deserts — the vindication of good.
 

Fewer sociologists subscribe to secularisation theory these days than in the past, because they recognise such key continuities between the narratives of human existence and the biblical dramas that, for Christians, articulate spiritual values and eternal truths. Soaps, subconsciously or even subliminally, carry these connections for popular culture, and this one of the reasons that I find them so compelling.

 

BUT, as the reaction to Dot’s crisis indicates, there is also an important message for the Churches to take on board. While I watch soaps for pleasure, they can also be watched with an eye to theological significance and evangelistic potential. Jesus told stories to convey his vision of the Kingdom of God, and stories continue to tell the sad news of human sinfulness and the good news of salvation.

Yes, the moral landscape depicted in soaps can be controversial from a Christian point of view. Also, the way in which clergy are depicted, rites of passage are conducted, and people of faith are caricatured is often risible and sometimes downright offensive.

But these errors may be more a consequence of accelerating detachment from the practices of organised religion than a calculated undermining of religious faith. The response to that one storyline from a few years back indicates that producers need to take faith seriously if they are to avoid a backlash. Reciprocally, Christian apologists taking soaps seriously might find surprising grist to their mill.

In soapland, it’s all hands on deck to attract audiences to super-charged Christmas storylines. The challenge is for churches to tell a story that, for sheer drama, outstrips them all. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from soap success when it comes to doing that most effectively.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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