Do people of faith recognize their religion when it appears on the big screen?
When your religion appears in a TV show, movie or play for all to see, do you recognize it? Catholics, Muslims, Latter-day Saints and Wicca practitioners share their insights
As a person of deep faith and a journalist who is curious about people of other faiths, I’ve long been interested in how religion is portrayed across different forms of media. That interest only grew stronger as my own church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, received quite a bit of attention in recently released television shows and movies and a slightly older Broadway show.
There was the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon” — which you may be surprised to learn has nothing to do with the actual Book of Mormon.
There is “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” — several of whom have ties to the Church of Jesus Christ.
And then, in 2022, came “Under the Banner of Heaven” — which was mostly about a fundamentalist sect but included several characters who were members of my faith.
Shows like these have always felt strange to me, simultaneously familiar and alien. I’ve wondered if others felt that way about media focused on their religion.
So I watched movies and TV shows that depict other faith traditions with practicing members of those faith traditions and asked them what they thought.
Muslims react to ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie’ and ‘Ms. Marvel’
Saad Malik grew up in Pakistan and lived there until he came to Canada and eventually to the United States.
The comedy show “Little Mosque on the Prairie” takes place in the same Canadian province where Malik lived when he left Pakistan.
As we watched it together, I shifted in my chair uncomfortably as the first scene showed a young imam — a Muslim faith leader — getting ready to board a flight at the airport.
The character, Amaar Rashid, is on the phone with his mom at the gate. During the call, he argues that plans for him to take on a new role had been in place for months and it wasn’t like he’d “dropped a bomb” — a statement that prompts a nervous response from passengers and airport security.
The joke, of course, was that identifiably Muslim men can’t make references to bombs at an airport without arousing suspicion. As the scene unfolded, I glanced over to read Malik’s facial expression because I wondered if it would be offensive to him. I was uncomfortable, but he seemed unfazed.
Malik later told me that it’s common for shows to employ negative stereotypes about his culture and his religion because “that sells, that’s what people want to watch.”
“The truth is somewhere in the middle, and that’s boring,” he said.
He also emphasized that “faith and culture aren’t the same thing.”
“It’s important to remember that when particular people are depicted in movies, oftentimes it’s the culture being depicted and it’s not normally the faith,” he said.
I found a more accurate depiction of Muslim life in the Disney+ show “Ms. Marvel,” which I watched with Aneeqa Nawaz.
Nawaz is a practicing Muslim living in Salt Lake City. She moved to the U.S. in the late 1990s shortly after marrying her husband in Pakistan.
In the show, the family of the main character, Kamala Kahn, is also from Pakistan.
While the basic premise of the show is clearly fictional, a lot of her family’s Islamic traditions are not. Artwork of religious symbols and writing can be seen in the background of the family’s home, and the show includes scenes at the local New York mosque and other religious references.
Kahn is shown participating in the spiritual ritual of washing herself before entering the mosque to pray, an act that’s called “wudu,” and then dressing in clothing that covered her from head to toe.
“During the prayer, you have to cover every single hair,” Nawaz said.
She noted that “Ms. Marvel” depicts a “very conservative” Muslim family, which is not the only way to practice Islam.
“If somebody doesn’t know any Muslim families here and has seen this, they must think, ‘Oh my, these people are so conservative,’ I didn’t like this idea at all,” Nawaz said.
Wiccans react to ‘Charmed’ and ‘Good Witch’
Heading into this project, Wicca was the faith that I knew the least about. I associated it with rumors of witches practicing dark magic in a moody and gloomy fashion.
But Leslie Hugo dispelled that stereotype quickly when we met because she is one of the bubbliest people I’ve ever known.
Hugo and I hung out on the first day of spring, which is also known as the spring equinox. It’s a sacred day of the year for Wiccans because it marks the start of a new season and a chance to set new intentions. She told me she celebrated earlier in the day by planting seeds to represent her newly adopted goals.
Hugo told me she first embraced the Wicca faith during an introduction at a Universalist church and eventually went to school to be a high priestess and ordained minister in the Temple of Witchcraft.
Her self-described “witch” practice focuses on nature, not the kind of activities that witches are often associated with.
“I wish more people understood that Wicca is about a connection to all life,” Hugo said. “The creator spirit, whether you call it gods or goddesses, God, or a great spirit, is present in all life.”
As Hugo and I sat to watch the Netflix reboot “Charmed,” I predicted that the show wouldn’t fit her description of her faith.
Hugo agreed that the magic in “Charmed” does not match her experience — but it’s not all wrong, she said.
“Obviously, you want to make it more exciting for people to want to watch,” Hugo said. “This,” she gestured at the television, “is all Hollywood. But there are little bits of truth in there.”
“Obviously, you want to make it more exciting for people to want to watch,” Leslie Hugo said. “This,” she gestured at the television, “is all Hollywood. But there are little bits of truth in there.”
The show has something called “The Book of Shadows,” which is a spell book written by the mother of the three main characters and passed down to them after she dies unexpectedly. The book holds all of the family spells and secrets.
That’s “wonky,” Hugo said, but not entirely wrong.
Such books do exist, but they’re “basically the witch’s journal,” she said. “You write all your notes there, you can write dreams or visions you’ve had, or your spells for things you know have worked in the past.”
At one point in “Charmed,” the witches’ teacher said they would need to embrace their powers and gifts to make the world a better place. Hugo told me, “Honestly, that’s what most of us believe we’re here to do.”
Tru Eastman shared a similar sentiment as we watched the series “Good Witch,” which is about Cassie Nightingale, a witch who owns a shop offering herbs and healing tonics in a small town.
Coincidentally, Truman said that others have told her she reminds them of Nightingale, and their physical resemblance really is uncanny — both have the same shade of black hair and an olive complexion. But the similarities go beyond the physical, Eastman said, because she identifies with who Nightingale aspires to be in the show.
“Cassie Nightingale just has this intuition,” Eastman said. “She uses her belief and her love to influence people and puts her energy into something that brings it to good fruition. She truly does that for the sake of assisting humanity, she doesn’t do it for personal gain.”
“I align with that,” she added.
Nightingale’s and Eastman’s approach to life embodies the Wiccan Rede — a creed that many followers abide by — “Do what you will, but harm none.”
Eastman believes that magic requires real work, including deep self-work. It’s not something that just happens when you wiggle your nose.
She acknowledges there is a dark side to the faith where people abuse power for egotistical reasons, but it is usually blown out of proportion in the mainstream media, she said.
“Pop culture likes to make it more exciting than it probably really is,” she said. “It’s always about good versus evil.”
A Latter-day Saint reacts to ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’
Kerstie Cowley started watching “Under the Banner of Heaven” in the summer of 2022 because it was a series about her home state, Utah, and her church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But when she heard that the church’s temple — and its sacred ceremonies — was shown in the series, she stopped watching.
Her decision to turn the series off came about a year before I asked her to watch the second episode with me. She agreed because she was still curious about how accurately her faith was shown and if it was as bad as she had heard.
As we watched, we sat in silence for the most part except for the occasional chuckle when familiar vocabulary words were used, like “Relief Society,” “CTR ring,” and “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
At the end, Cowley opened the curtains, letting light — and reality — flood back into the room.
She told me that she felt she was watching the two extremes of her religion playing out together on the big screen. On the one side, there were people sweetly calling everyone “brother” and “sister” and depictions of the Relief Society — made up of women from a local Latter-day Saint community — rushing in with big platters of food in times of need. On the other side, the darkest interpretations of our shared faith were on display.
She felt that “parts of religion” were used “to make it more intense.”
She also took issue with how the show used words like “heck” and “dang” to highlight an assumed Latter-day Saint tendency to avoid swearing.
“They were emphasizing using ‘heck’ and those types of words,” Cowley said. “Which I think is a stereotype.”
A Catholic reacts to ‘Father Stu’
Occasionally the film industry seems to get religion right, but only when it really tries to. That was the case with “Father Stu,” which I watched with Simon Falk.
The movie, which was released in 2022, is based on the true story of Stuart Long, played by Mark Wahlberg, a onetime boxer who experienced a dramatic conversion in the 1990s, became a priest and served in several parishes in Montana.
Unlike Long, Falk was born and raised in the Catholic Church. Falk trained for the priesthood, and although he later dropped out, he remains a faithful Catholic who attends the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City and works in its youth program.
“In a way, his story is kind of my story, but my story isn’t dramatic,” Falk said, noting that he gradually became more invested in his church as he grew older.
“Before taking my faith seriously, I wasn’t an alcoholic or a boxer,” he said.
“In a way, his story is kind of my story, but my story isn’t dramatic,” Falk said. “Before taking my faith seriously, I wasn’t an alcoholic or a boxer.”
“Father Stu” included well-known Catholic things like rosary beads, Mass and Sunday school — all of which Falk said were portrayed almost identically to his experiences in the faith.
He said that the accuracy may have something to do with Wahlberg, who is a practicing Catholic, and the fact that it’s based on a true story. Falk was surprised at how much he saw himself and his faith reflected in the movie.
He gave “Father Stu” 9 out of 10 stars for accuracy.
How accurately is faith shown on TV and in film?
I’d asked each of the people who I involved in this project to use this rating system.
“One means this was not even close to anything you believe or have experienced,” I explained. “Ten is a perfect depiction of how you live your faith each day.”
So Falk’s 9 was pretty high.
Cowley gave “Under the Banner of Heaven” a 4 out of 10 for its depiction of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Malik gave “Little Mosque on the Prairie” a 3, which was the same score that Nawaz gave to “Ms. Marvel.”
Hugo gave “Charmed” only 2 stars out of 10 stars for how it relates to her experience with Wicca. Eastman waffled between giving “Good Witch” a 6 or 7.
These ratings show that the film industry is rarely a good place to learn about real people of faith. But I suppose that probably should have been obvious from the start.