“Either make the tree good and its fruit will be good, or make the tree bad and its fruit will be bad; for a tree will be known by its fruit.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
It’s hard sometimes to know who people really are. In our digital world, we have become incredibly adept at hiding ourselves. Our disguises may not be elaborate, but they don’t have to be. Superman fooled everyone with a pair of glasses. We just want people to think the best of us whether we deserve it or not. Given this, how can we really know who the people around us are? Jesus told us: A tree is eventually known by its fruits. Sometimes, though, the world tells us that isn’t really true. A recent show from Netflix tries this very thing. The result is something that could be great, but settles for just being good. Let’s talk today about Sweet Magnolias.
Sweet Magnolias, now in its second season, is about three friends sharing life together in a small, South Carolina town called Serenity. It is actually filmed in a quaint town a few miles outside of Atlanta called Covington, which has provided the backdrop for multiple different shows and films including Vampire Diaries and The Walking Dead.
The show is based on a book series by Sherryl Woods, and follows the lives of three best friends, Maddie, Helen, and Dana Sue. Maddie is a recently divorced mother of two typical teenage boys and a perfect little girl. Helen is a successful local attorney who never married, but desperately wants a family. And Dana Sue is a chef and mother of a fairly naive, but sweet, teenage daughter. The trio are childhood friends who grew up in Serenity together and are each the rocks on whom they lean for wisdom, accountability, encouragement, and support through all of the various drama and challenges of small town living.
As far as things to like go, the list is pretty long. Coming from someone who lives in a small town, the settings are all pretty idyllic. The acting is really pretty good. Very little feels forced, even from the kids. That’s unusual for a show like this one. The two major exceptions are Maddie’s little girl, but I think she’s supposed to be over-the-top cute and perfect, so I let that one go, and the pastor, but I’ll talk more about that in a bit. The storyline draws you in and has flowed fairly smoothly from one situation to another. More than all of that, though, the character of the show has generally been really good. The friendship of the three main characters is exemplary and something everyone should have in their lives. There have also been some genuinely good moral lessons along the way like a conversation about enduring pain with a higher goal in mind in an episode I watched recently.
One more thing to like comes with a caveat that I want to explore in more detail. This is finally a show about a small town in the South that actually makes mention of the Christian faith. In fact, it is a major feature of the show. All of the major characters are professing Christians, and their faith plays a meaningful and significant role in their lives and the overall story. One episode in season 2 actually centered around Vacation Bible School. This is both refreshing and the show’s major problem.
Here’s what I mean. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see the Christian faith portrayed in a positive, non-ironic or cynical light in a modern television program. I can’t think of the last time I saw that from a series or film that wasn’t explicitly Christian in its production and intent. It’s also nice to see a show made in a small, southern town where, broader cultural changes aside, the character of the Bible Belt nonetheless still holds sway as it does in real life. In small towns in the South like mine, people still speak the language of faith and really mean it. Any show that tries to ignore or disregard or belittle that devotion commits a fatal flaw that takes it out of the realm of realism.
On the other hand, while Sweet Magnolias gets the presence of genuine faith right, it presents a picture of it that exists exactly nowhere. While there is mention of another church in town, the one at the center of the action is a complete fantasy. Speaking as a matter of reality, if there is a vibrant, healthy, community-engaged and focused church in a small town in the South, the great likelihood is that it is a Baptist church. I don’t say that just because I’m a Baptist preacher either. That’s simply how it is. The church in Sweet Magnolias is by all appearances a vibrant, healthy, community-engaged and focused church. But it’s not Baptist. It is the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. Now, there are some great Lutheran churches around the country. But the ones that are healthy, growing, and engaged with their community are generally not located in quaint, southern, small towns.
There’s more. The pastor of the church is even more unbelievable than the church itself. From a pastoral standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with the pastor’s ministry in the show. In fact, the pastor plays a significant and positive role in the lives of the church members and the community at large. But whereas an active, healthy, and growing Lutheran church is not likely to be found in a southern small town, it is far, far less likely that the pastor of that church will be black, single, and female. Now, that’s not a statement of judgment against black, single, female pastors. But where such folks are faithfully serving churches in this country, the odds that they are doing so in a Lutheran church in a small, southern town are vanishingly small. Unrealistically small in fact. Worse yet, there doesn’t seem to be any real Gospel passion or even interest in the character. She simply shows up in convenient places as the script demands and offers her members little Bible McNuggets, as Philip Yancy once called them, along with what amounts to reminders to behave.
And there’s still one more thing. The theology of the church and its members is liberal and progressive, particularly – and possibly even exclusively – on matters of sexuality (and, of course, LGBTQ+ issues). The examples of what I’m talking about are legion. Maddie’s doctor husband cheated on her with his nurse, got her pregnant, and then ran off with her. Within weeks of this she begins dating her oldest son’s high school baseball coach, is very obviously sexually active with him soon after starting the relationship, and all of her kids are totally fine with it. There’s no obvious baggage from the divorce or the rebound relationship. And the pastor who is actively engaged in her life is apparently totally fine with the situation. Helen has a brief and passionate affair with a lover from her past who comes to town, but things quickly fall apart when she presses him on their eventually having children together – something he vehemently doesn’t want. Her solution (after suffering a miscarriage early in the second season) is to pursue having a child all on her own by way of invitro fertilization. In other words, she’s so focused on her own desire to have a child, that she is actively willing to bring a child into the world with no father, something that every sociological research project done on the matter is clear will make the child’s life fantastically more difficult than if she had pursued things in the order her evidently vibrant and committed faith has been proclaiming to be right and true for 2,000 years. Dana Sue’s husband cheated on her sometime before the series began, but while their marriage is still legally intact, they are decidedly estranged. Knowing that she is still legally married, though, Dana Sue has an affair with a business partner while her husband is actively trying to repent and repair their marriage. In fact, she winds up having affairs with both men at the same time. There’s more than this, but that’s enough to make the point.
Here’s the problem: As committed to the Christian faith as all of the major characters of the show profess to be, they have all signed up for a faith that not only doesn’t exist in the setting where it is being put on display, but it isn’t accomplishing in their lives what they seem to believe it will. They are committed to a god, but it isn’t the God of the Bible. Or, if they believe themselves to be committed to the God of the Bible, what they have accepted is a version of Him and His character that is so twisted from what actually is that it isn’t going to do them any good. What the writers have tried to do is wrap a modern, progressive sheen around a conservative and Christian small town. It looks idyllic, to be sure, but it is a fantasy that not only doesn’t exist, it couldn’t exist. It couldn’t exist because the fruit they are apparently getting couldn’t come from the tree they are growing. They are borrowing on fruit that can only come from an historically orthodox tree, hanging it on their modern version of the faith, and pretending they did all the work to grow it. You will know a tree by its fruit.
Give credit where it is due: The writers seem to genuinely want to portray the Christian faith in a positive light. I greatly appreciate this. They would have done better, though, to investigate a little more thoroughly the real Christian faith rather than showing it as they want it to be. You can’t profess the faith and live as you please (most notably in ways that don’t accord with your profession). You can’t pay for a Pinto and drive away in a Porsche. It doesn’t work like that. If you want the sweet fruits that only come from the Spirit, you’ve got to do life as the Spirit directs. And the Spirit doesn’t direct life as it is being lived out in Serenity, South Carolina. Or, to put all of this in a different way, we want to live life with God’s blessings, but not with God’s moral standards. The trouble is: those two are a packaged deal. Sweet Magnolias can pretend otherwise all it wants, but in missing the Gospel and a Gospel lifestyle, the beautiful picture of community and friendship and even discipleship it paints will never be anything more than a picture. Reality isn’t quite as neat and tidy as the show makes it out to be, but it is a lot better in the end.
Ultimately, given the nature of a great deal of the content available to viewers these days, I would give Sweet Magnolias a positive recommendation. But watch it with your worldview lens firmly in place so you can celebrate what it gets right while avoiding repeating the mistakes it pretends aren’t really mistakes at all. Doing life a way other than God’s will always have consequences. You will know a tree by its fruits. Make sure your own tree is bearing the fruit that leads to life. You’ll be glad you did.