So I may as well confess it here. I am a ritual watcher of sitcoms. When I am lonely, when I am hurt, when I am confused, ambivalent, frightened, insecure, I watch sitcoms. After a particularly debilitating break-up last fall, I spent a solid month watching nothing but episodes of The Office, which worked to my advantage in a recent Office trivia contest that I won because I knew the surname of Dwight Schrute’s Second Life avatar. True story.
Because of this, my attention was piqued last week when a controversy arose in the world of Christian pop culture surrounding one of my favorite sitcoms (if it can even properly be characterized as such), Sex and the City. Specifically, Christianity Today’s Camerin Courtney had given an essentially positive review (3 out of 4 stars) to the Sex and the City film currently in theaters, lending qualified praise to the “messy wrestling with complex new realities of life [depicted in the show and film].”
Then when a righteous wave of indignation swept Christianity Today’s mailboxes—people canceling subscriptions and questioning the state of Ms. Courtney’s eternal soul—editors issued a statement standing behind their review. Editor Mark Moring argued: “To suggest that one cannot find redemption amidst the muck is preposterous; often the best kinds of redemption come from out of the muck.”
Moring’s defense of Courtney’s review prompted Focus on the Family blogger Ted Slater to respond with the following open letter on the Boundless website, “Christianity Today Relishes Sexual Perversion.” Within the first five lines of the piece, an outraged Slater notes the discrepancy between the three stars CT allotted to SATC and the two and a half given to Prince Caspian (as if Caspian deserved four stars simply for having been based on a book by C. S. Lewis). He then urges Christianity Today to pull their glowing review of “soft-core porn” and cease listening to “Satanic counsel” and “repent.”
Now, I initially had a proper evangelical kid’s response to this dispute, which was to dispute right back—to cite Bible verses and Milton and Chesterton. I even briefly went back to the Francis Schaeffer place. After all, I didn’t get “All truth is God’s truth” hammered into me in Christian college for naught.
From another angle, I also wanted to argue how damaging most of the obsessive abstinence education I received in Youth Group has been to me and to many of my friends (anyone else who ever had “God’s Plan for your Mate” taped across their bathroom mirror as a teenager may be able to relate).
But as I rehashed what felt like tired old arguments to me, I realized that I don’t know Ted Slater. He’s probably a really good man who just feels passionately that people are being hurt and because they are exposing themselves to something dangerous. I’m not sure my defensive moral outrage comes from half as noble a place as that. Or maybe he’s just scared and wants to prove he’s right. I do that too.
So I’m not going to attempt a philosophical defense of Sex and the City. Instead, I’m just going to say quite briefly why I’ve found it meaningful.
In part, it’s the show’s emotionally honest depiction of four mostly successful and attractive women who simply have not got love figured out, even after their supposedly happy endings. One doesn’t approach Sex and the City for situational verisimilitude (I don’t like Carrie Bradshaw because I too live in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan furnished entirely with Manolos and Dior). But in terms of painfully authentic depictions of women in relationships, I think they’re spot on.
And I do identify with Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw, the most rounded of all four lead characters. Her heartbreaks and self-betrayals resonate deeply with my own. She’s an essentially compassionate person who keeps finding herself either with men she can’t love or with men who are incapable of love (in particular, Mr. Big, and I have ambivalent feelings about the way that plotline was resolved both in show and film). Regardless of how often she is disappointed either in men or in herself, she finds grace and constancy in the love of her friends.
Despite fabulous parents, devoted friends, and a lifelong immersion in the theological doctrine of grace, I have wrestled my whole life (and probably always will) with a sense that I must earn the love I receive and that some fundamental thing in me is beyond redemption.
Sex and the City helps to counteract that sort of thinking. It pardons me in the moments when, like Carrie, I am on my knees begging (often to myself), “You have to forgive me. You have to forgive me. You have to forgive me.” It helps me pardon all the beautiful, broken boys I’ve loved so poorly. It helps me remember I am never alone. It helps me laugh at myself again, and then hope a little that finally I might be growing up.
Here’s a much more in-depth discussion of the issue in which SPU’s Jeffrey Overstreet (who originally brought the discussion to my attention) plays a laudable role at Christ and Pop Culture.
Los Angeles Times review that most closely approximates my own feelings.
Strident review in The New Yorker that ironically also alludes to C.S. Lewis.