Hearing the Right Stories

Andrew Bunt 6 months ago
Blog 3 mins

I’ve recently been rewatching the popular American sitcom The Big Bang Theory. The show tells the story of a friendship group centred around two physicists – Sheldon and Leonard – as it grows and develops over twelve seasons.

I’ve no doubt that one of the reasons for the show’s success is the fact that friendship is at the heart of its story.

I’ve no doubt that one of the reasons for the show’s success is the fact that friendship is at the heart of its story. Like its predecessor Friends, The Big Bang Theory draws us in through its portrayal of a group of friends who share the ups and downs of life together. Such narratives appeal even more strongly in a cultural context like the modern west where meaningful friendships are an undervalued rarity and loneliness is at epidemic proportions.

And yet, while it portrays the kind of friendship group so many people long for, I’ve noticed that there is also a way in which the series devalues friendship. This is particularly prominent in relation to the character Rajesh ‘Raj’ Koothrappali.

Throughout the seasons of the show, Raj is portrayed as a character who is often sad and lonely, primarily because he is single and having very little sex. This theme increases as the seasons progress and each of the other characters pairs up with a long-term partner. Raj is also portrayed as having a comically intense relationship with his dog who is sometimes treated as a substitute for a partner. Instead of the trope of a crazy cat lady, we have a crazy dog man.

But this confuses me. Raj has the kind of relational life most single people would kill for. He has a best friend (Howard) and other close friends who together form a tight-knit social group. He sees his closest friends at work every day and eats lunch with them. Most evenings he hangs out with his friends. He seems to have an open invite to at least two homes, regularly arriving unannounced. When Howard and his wife Bernadette have children, Raj gets to play a significant part in their lives, including taking on the role of godfather for their first child. I look on and think Raj is a great example of relational health in singleness.

So why is he still presented as sad, lonely, and in need of a romantic partner? Does singleness just not work for Raj? Or perhaps even with good friendships and a rich experience of community, single people are always destined to be lonely and miserable?

I don’t think this is so. I think the writers of The Big Bang Theory have swallowed some of the big lies of our age: singleness inevitably means loneliness, and friendship can’t really meet your relational needs. Like so many in our culture, they seem to have a high view of romance and a low view of friendship.

As much as we might like to think that we aren’t, all of us are formed by the media we consume.

And this isn’t all that surprising. So much of what we consume in popular media is infected by similar ideas. And that’s important for us to be aware of. As much as we might like to think that we aren’t, all of us are formed by the media we consume. And stories, in particular, are powerful. There’s a reason they have been central to most cultures throughout history. There’s a reason why so much of the Bible is narrative. Stories have the power to shape us, often even more greatly than we realise.

Does this mean we shouldn’t watch things like The Big Bang Theory? I don’t think so. But I think it does mean we need to get good at spotting the unhelpful messages often sent to us by popular media and we also need to be shaped by alternative stories. This is why it’s so important that we hear stories of friendship and stories of singleness in our churches. Those stories can be part of the antidote against the messages we hear in popular media.

And it’s why we all need to constantly be reminded of the story. The story that encompasses all stories. The story that tells us the truth about love, relationships, and fullness of life. The story that has at its heart the story of a man who was single but wasn’t lonely because he was a man of friendship. The story of the one who now calls us friends (John 15:14).