Prosper: what pop culture thinks of the church 

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My wife and I recently watched the Australian drama series Prosper, about the leading family of a Christian megachurch—and their shortcomings. 

While the show is purely fictional, there is no doubt some inspiration has been drawn from real world headlines from the past few years, especially from a certain Australian megachurch that has become world famous. 

While I am not writing to endorse the show (and would encourage Christian discernment as it includes some questionable elements), I am always fascinated by mainstream entertainment that features Christianity in some way. I find it helps to crystalise my own thoughts to learn how Christians are portrayed in popular culture and how that fuels perception of Christians in our communities.

I’ll give you a brief rundown of the plot. Cal Quinn (Richard Roxborough) is pastor of evangelical megachurch U Star. His wife Abi (Rebecca Gibney) helps him run the church, while his children jostle for position and succession rights. The church is looking to expand into the US market, while the family is busy putting out fires at home that include fallout from a church member’s death, a secret adoption, a wayward celebrity and tax pressure from the government. 

Some things I appreciated: They gave faith a more nuanced portrayal that didn’t rely on the common caricatures used when Christians appear in the media (judgemental or hypocritical). There was no atheist character talking down Christianity and the faith of the protagonists seemed genuine. Even though Cal’s character does some incredibly unethical things, he is not portrayed as just exploiting the faith community but as a man who has deep convictions and faith, even if he’s a little lost and broken at times. Most of the characters have a story arc that has them wrestle with their faith and how it squares with the bad choices they make and the ambitions they hold. 

Jed Quinn (Jacob Collins-Levy) is a prodigal son. While his older brother has stayed “faithful”, he has left the family, fed up with their excesses and hypocrisy. Yet he has not abandoned his faith (an easy option for the show’s writers). Instead, he pursues what he believes is true faith, living with and helping the inner-city homeless. I appreciate that he is held up as an example of “true” Christian faith, because it shows what the community expects from churches—to be serving and caring for the community, not just looking for members and tithes. 

Some lessons we can learn? Families are messy and unfortunately, Christian families are often forced to put up a front to survive. This leads to people seeing behind the facade and becoming more cynical and disillusioned than if we were more honest with our struggles. 

The show depicts characters wrestling with public confession and the damage secrets can do when hidden, but also the damage that can be done when everything is put out in the open and people are forced to share more than discernment should allow for. 

In the series, church leadership try to leverage a relationship with a music superstar, baptising him, but also getting burned when he winds up in hot water. As Adventists we are not immune from the attraction to celebrity and fame (think Ben Carson, Obama’s grandmother, the pope’s brother—the last one at least turned out not to be true). When we seek fame and connection to celebrity to legitimise our standing in the community, it can come back to bite us when those stars eventually (or inevitably) fall. 

Will this show lead people to try Christianity? Probably not (although the Lord works in mysterious ways). But from time to time, it is good to look into a mirror and see ourselves through someone else’s eyes. It is tempting to watch a show like this (or even some of the news pieces on other denomination’s failings) and think, Thank goodness WE’RE not like that. But if we do that, we miss the point. Shows like Prosper give us the opportunity to challenge ourselves by understanding where we fall short and where we can be better as a community. It is a good reminder that we should always strive to be a community who are becoming more like Jesus.

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