I thought that I heard you laughing, I thought that I heard you sing

EastEnders was interesting last night. I mean, obviously the first part, with the Mitchells, was the better part in terms of the soap, the acting, the storyline etc (save those tedious storm metaphors). But the second part was interesting to me because the old religion issue came up again.

When I did my MA, my dissertation looked at the representation of religion in EE and The Archers. Since then, EE has brought in the Masood family and we have seen something of them being Muslim (although like many portrayals in the soap of non-Christian religion, it is portrayed as more of a cultural lifestyle than a spiritual belief system. I don’t recall seeing them at mosque or praying). They have also brought in Lewis, Chelsea’s dad, a reformed ganster type turnes some-sort-of Church minister.

Lewis’ denomination hasn’t really been explored but it looks like he is either free church or Pentecostal. As far as I can tell, he isn’t an ordained minister, but maybe he is and they haven’t really mentioned it much. Whilst EE has a grudging respect for Trad CofE churches (well-ish. Nobody ever goes there except for weddings, funerals and Christenings), it’s always been a bit skeptical of anything else – Catholics have been few and far between, and dodgy Alistair and his church and the community centre, were, well, dodgy.

EE does tend to respect the beliefs of its ‘proper’ characters, though (Lewis is too new to class as ‘proper’). Whilst Dot may sometimes be portrayed as going over the top in her actions and attitudes, most characters show a respect for her and her faith. Yolande, also a Christian of some description, is shown as a respectable character in the community. What will happen with Lewis is anyone’s guess, though. Is he truly a reformed character, or, more likely, will he re-emerge as a bit of a wrong-un somewhere down the line? At the moment there is an ambiguity about whether someone can really change or whether they will always go back to old tricks – to be fair, EE’s raison d’etre is ambiguity over whether any of its characters will change or will go back to being ‘bad’. The latter is usually the case.

Anyway, back to last night. Clare Bates was leaving after the soap sort of shoehorned in Gemma Bissix’s Clare Devine from Hollyoaks character instead of Nigel’s stepdaughter, forgot to write her any useful storylines/character development and thought none of us would notice. Her character was shown feeling pretty depressed and hopeless.

Dot gave her a leaflet on Christianity and she was later shown discussing faith with Lewis, and attempting to pray, before Bradley turned up and started shouting at her and she left – again raising the issue of whether people can ‘change’ or not, and also theissue of whether they can’t change because the people around won’t let them – exactly the same theme explored in the Mitchell family episodes.

Lewis’ conversation with Clare was the most interesting part for me, though. He spoke exactly like a lot of evangelistic Christians would do – in a way I have heard countless people speak: he told of how he hit rock bottom and then ‘he [God] was there’ and it turned his life around. Clare said that she had been despearate, that she had opened her heart before to ‘let the Lord in’ – and there was no Lord there. Lewis’ argument was typical of certain types of Christians that somehow if you need it bad enough, He will come.

Why this was all interesting was because soaps rarely engage with questions of spiritual experience. EE does do this kind of thing with Dot sometimes – testing times have often caused her to doubt her faith but find it again.

The way Lewis talks is accurate of the way some Christians act and think, and possibly of their experience of how faith is for them. Well, bully for them, but that isn’t how life is, is it? One of my biggest issues with Christianity was not with the Bible or with Jesus, but with those people who preach it as a panacea for all of life’s ills. What I know from personal experience, is that when you are at the lowest, crying out, when you need God the most, the experience can be like Claire’s – one of complete emptiness and aloneness. And that’s the experience of some people in the Bible, too.

Unfortunately, of course, Claire left in the same episode, so we won’t get a proper plotline furthering that conversation with Lewis – trying to explore why faith is so ‘easy’ for some people and so hard for others; why some seem to have a legitimate feeling of peace and joy and all that malarky all the time, a Damascus road kind of experience; but some never find what they are looking for, and others (most?) have a Dot experience of the hard graft of religion, sometimes losing faith, sometimes finding it, with there seeming to be some ambiguity over whether their faith is a matter of personal strength of will or genuine ‘spiritual experience’. (Yes, I have a lot of unanswered questions about the nature of belief and religion which I am projecting onto this a bit)

I guess it is difficult to script religious and spiritual experiences (I wouldn’t be surprised if they had people on the writing team with experiences of Protestant Christianity, and I bet there are very few on there with experiences of other religions, going on how hamfisted their limited portrayals of them have been) and discussion on life’s meaning and whatnot, and obviously it isn’t the kind of thing that should be centre stage, all of the time. But last night’s episode raised some interesting questions about the nature and ambiguity of faith. Even though they probably won’t ever follow through on it.


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