The Cardboard Cutout Feedback Loop


The final slot on Saturday Night Live is usually reserved for its weirdest sketches. It's Ten-to-Oneland. The writing staff likely assumes people are barely awake or otherwise in a clouded state of mind, so let's get strange. Since EA and I typically watch everything on Netflix and Hulu these days and we're old people who are usually in bed by 10, it's always interesting to watch these excercises in absurdity at an earlier hour.

So what was so strange about this past week's final sketch was that it wasn't so strange. It was a movie trailer parody, which are a bread-and-butter staple of SNL that often airs early in the show. But I still took notice. This particular parody was a scathing send up of Christian movies like the recent God's Not Dead 2. And as far as the trailers go (I have never seen the movies), they nailed the vibe.

Of course, I imagine the parody--in which a baker won't bake a wedding cake for a gay couple and then has to go to court to prove that God isn't gay--probably won't sit well with the typical fan of Christian movies. I was talking with a few friends earlier today who had seen it and one said that while he laughed at the parody and thought it was well done, he was strangely mad at SNL. He said that the trailer would basically reinforce a perspective on the part of some Christians that they were being persecuted for their beliefs. They would hate being depicted as these two-dimensional caricatures and thus would reinforce an "Us versus Them" narrative.

The cardboard cutout depiction goes both ways. In reading reviews for the God's Not Dead movies and their ilk, one of the major criticisms (including from Christian publications) has been that non-Christian characters are presented as cartoons. The movie's atheists are typically angry and hellbent on shutting the Christians down at every opportunity. A TV talking head in GND 2 states that the religious extremists that America really needs to worry about are "the hardcore Christians." The SNL parody captures this cardboard cutout nature and then cranks it to 11 with its over-the-top antagonists. They escalate, which will probably lead to further escalation whenever God's Not D3ad hits theaters.

Thus this is what happens: Group A depicts Group B as the two-dimensional cartoons. Group B, incensed, depicts Group A as two-dimensional cartoons. Group A, insulted and feeling that their beliefs about Group B have been confirmed, dig their heels in and depict Group B as being even more of cardboard cutouts. Group B, feeling their beliefs have been proven right by Group A's actions, follows suit. And it just continues to circle. It's a feedback loop.  (Another byproduct that my friend mentioned is that each group begins to depict their own as two-dimensional as things continue to flatten into a stark us/them binary)

The only thing that can break this cycle is for one group to snap out of it. They have to understand that people on the other side are not all cackling villains plotting destruction and respect them as nuanced human beings. You'd think, or at least hope, that the group that claimed to follow a guy who said to love enemies and neighbors as one's self would be the people to spearhead that kind of movement.

And you know what? Many do. Not just the God's Not Deadheads (there are kids in a youth group somewhere who do jam band covers of praise songs under that name). There are many Christians that wouldn't be considered part of that movie's target audience; present writer included. That's part of the point: Christians do not fit into a neat and tidy category. They don't look the same way, like the same things, vote the same way, or even believe the same things about theology. Just as you can't paint everyone who doesn't go to church with the same brush. There are atheists out there who are ethically better people than most Christians. We are all nuanced and complicated. We're weird...kind of like the typical Ten-to-Oneland sketch.

But the cardboard cutout narrative is so easy. People like easy. The world is simpler that way. It's also scarier that way and fear is unfortunately a great motivator. The God's Not Dead and God is a Boob Man (yep, that was the name of sketch) methods are only going to entrench people deeper into their camps. It isn't going to bring people together. Which is all the more reason why Christians ought to make every effort to get to know people outside their bubbles, to understand them, and respect them even if they do not always agree with them. The feedback loop has to be broken and we can't wait for someone else to do it.

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