On Soaps and Prayer Scenes

Despite my father’s protestations, no one in our family can deny that we’re Kapamiliyas–that is, we subscribe to ABS-CBN shows, especially its nighttime soap operas. That said, I am more or less aware of what’s currently happening in Mutya, Minsan Lang Kitang Iibigin, and Mara’t Clara. (There was a time when I was also updated on Imortal, but these days I’ve acquired the habit of sleeping early.) And what I’ve noticed about these shows–besides the unnecessary streams of consciousness and the killing sprees–is that our favorite TV shows often feature scenes of prayer.

Prayer. As in the major characters kneel down before an altar, often with rosaries in hand, and say a word or two to the Poon/Papa Jesus/Bro.

As a Creative Writing graduate and someone with a love-hate relationship with religion, I initially cannot but be irked with such scenes. First, I think that such scenes only waste time, time better spent developing the characters and the plot. In Mara’t Clara, for instance, Gina Pareño’s prayer scenes (probably the product of her package as, well, Gina Pareño) are unconvincing because her character was supposed to be an inveterate gambler who just did not have it in her to be a good grandmother. True, one may say that the events in the soap have pushed her along the road to redemption and maybe even salvation. Okay. But I still cannot readily accept that she would acquire good habits–praying!–almost overnight.

Another problem I have with the prayer scenes is that they oversimplify everything–and sometimes, even the “effect” of prayer, even in this oversimplified mode, does not truly redound to the act. The primary example to this, I think, is May Bukas Pa. The relationship between “Bro” and Zaijan Aranilla (that child actor I really cannot stand, no thanks to his roles) comes across as unnatural and distorted: unnatural, because even theologians will say that a man who claims he can talk directly to God is either of the first order of saints or is terribly deranged–and Zaijan’s character is definitely more of the latter sort, as since when do we really and naturally see a kid as mature and as altruistic as he is? And the relationship is distorted because the representation of Christ as “Bro” in the soap is, as I believe, skewed: we see a detached and faceless entity telling the boy to just be nice and to put a smile on his face and wait for that pie in the sky, and hardly the historical Jesus who frowned at injustice and urged for the establishment of the Kingdom on earth as in heaven. Stretching this point, wouldn’t it be more to “Bro’s” character to urge Zaijan to actively tell Albert Martinez that what he is doing is wrong and that he should “repent and carry his cross” rather than just fading into the background, only there to give the boy a pat, or a smile, or some ephemeral advice? And going back to the act of praying (kneeling down before the altar), doesn’t the depiction in TV reduce it into a mere means of asking God for boons, or of giving Him a smiley and a spiritual thank you card? Does it not take away from prayer’s true nature: a deep communion with God, an act that truly exposes oneself in all his or her weakness, an act of pain and solace, of humility as well as humiliation, hoping that in the act of praying God will intervene and give him or her not this or that, but His own Self?

Ultimately, the misrepresentation and oversimplification of prayer in soap operas irk me a lot because I find prayer as unrepresentable and complicated. I must admit that I myself–I, who pride myself to know a lot of things!–do not know how to pray, and that unlike Jesus’ disciples, who, in asking the Lord to teach them how to pray, which is already in itself a prayer, I am yet unwilling to expose myself and to surrender my weaknesses to Someone I cannot see and cannot fully understand. (I do not even like exposing myself to those who I think I know and understand!) I cannot allow the media to represent the act of praying so banally, so trivially, and in so commonplace a manner because I believe it should be approached by everyone else with the same awe, the same trepidation, the same caution as I do. Prayer should be taken seriously. And to be taken seriously, prayer should be taken as something Other, something too immense, something beyond us.

Or should it?

TV shows are the products first and foremost of business; and for a business to be effective, it has to take into account popular demand. If prayer scenes exist and thrive in ABS-CBN at least, this is most probably because these are demanded and found pleasing by the viewers and subscribers. And what can we say of the viewers and subscribers? Who are they? We may, for the purposes of this reflection, lump the bulk of these viewers and subscribers into one category, and that is the masses. And who are the masses? In our country, the masses are the working class, those who live somewhere from a little above to a little below fifteen thousand pesos a month, those who are for the most part simple Roman Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday. TV, then, by incorporating these prayer scenes, cater to these viewers and subscribers, and so hope to reflect their realities, their aspirations. And their reality is the simplest of prayers: give us this day our daily bread.

Perhaps, just perhaps, I am wrong. It is we who are wise who are at fault. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the greatest of the Russian writers, has implied that truth comes not from the intellectuals with their complicated and Westernized knowledge, but from the simple country folk with their simple and honest beliefs. God, after all, has overthrown the mighty, confounded the wise, and exalted the lowly ones. And so, in Crime and Punishment, we do not find truth and vitality in the intelligent but unnerving Svidrigailov, nor in the ridiculously socialist Lebezyatnikov, but in the simple and warm Sonya and the endearing drunkard Marmeladov. In the latter’s words, especially, we find a simple, almost peasant-like, but nonetheless profound and heartfelt declaration of faith:

“…And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek . . . . And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before him . . . and we shall weep . . . and we shall understand all things!”

Though we may contest the contents of Marmeladov’s declaration, we cannot deny that he believes this so truly and so purely. And this is perhaps more, so much more, than what we, we who are wise, can say for ourselves. The simplicity of the masses, of the peasants and their pure peasant beliefs–can we scoff at these things and merely dismiss them as the whims and deluded fantasies of a half-lettered folk? Returning to the issue at hand, shall we be irked and shall we be incensed whenever we see prayer so commonly and so simply depicted on TV? How dare we raise our eyebrows, we who are wise, we who are proud, when our lowly brothers and sisters nod their heads and accept these scenes as realities, when they applaud the telenovelas for showing things as they themselves experience them in their lives? Shall we deny them the affirmation of contact between themselves and God, of a God who is simple and loving and who, in turn, loves those who are simple in loving Him?

Maybe it is we who are wise who should learn from the masses. Maybe it is we who sat on our white thrones inside our white towers who should go down to the fields and listen, listen, listen. Folk Catholicism? Simplified Christianity? Are these what our brothers and sisters have? Almost certainly. But then, perhaps their hearts are in the right place–at least, more so than ours. Perhaps there is something to their reality. And speaking of reality–isn’t art, first and foremost, a reflection of reality? Granted, art does not and should not mimic what is. But must art ignore it altogether? Sinners exist. Psychopaths exist. Sex beasts exist. Ivan Karamazov, Smerdyakov, and Svidrigailov all exist. But so do the simple masses. So do the Sonyas and the Marmeladovs, the Father Zosimas and the Alyoshas. And let us not altogether take this one simple thing, this one simple prayer scene, this one simple reflection of their existence, away from them.


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