Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

The Gospel According to Primetime (Nov-Dec 2002)

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by Charles B. Slocum
November – December, 2002

Christmas in Roswell? It seems unlikely. You might remember this teen-angst-as-alien-life series from last year. It explores life on Earth for a clique of extraterrestrial teens. Their supernatural abilities would seem to leave little room for the traditional “baby Jesus” story. Yet, the episode “A Roswell Christmas Carol” was sincere and literal. The episode centers on the miraculous healing of a cancer ward of sick children on Christmas Eve.

As people head off to Christmas Eve services, the story of the miracle fills the TV news. We had just seen Max, the lead teen alien, heal the kids, almost losing his life in the process. Recruited to attend the Christmas Eve service by his girlfriend, Liz, Max protests, “I don’t believe in God.” Why should he? He knows he was the source of the supposed miracle. He walks the streets alone. Even his most skeptical friends have found reasons to go to church this night. Eventually, as strains of “O Come All Ye Faithful” float through the air, Max shows up at the candlelight service. “I thought you didn’t believe in God?” Liz asks. He answers, “I believe in you.”

This portrayal of Max slowly, hesitantly, approaching God — not through his own experience of God, but because someone else has faith, is about as honest and human as a spiritual moment could be. If such a moment is unexpected in a television show such as Roswell, it is not an exception. God, it seems, is suddenly in demand for guest appearances in primetime.

Even with greater prominence, God is still not usually a role to be cast. God is reflected in the way the narrative world works. Events that occur, decisions made, reactions of others, consequences imposed—all these add up to describe the rules of the world as created, revealing the intent of the implicit creator. The recent development is that characters are more often talking directly about God. But to find evidence of this trend, we won’t be watching shows with angels, ministers or Biblical characters brought to life. Oh no, our first sign of the sacred amidst the profane brings us to Bart Simpson.

The Simpsons takes some religious moments quite sincerely, particularly those of Marge and Lisa. Other moments, mostly those of Bart and Homer, it portrays as hypocritical. Observers have found in the Simpson family a complete typology of contemporary religious attitudes. “Both the hypocrisies and the virtues of the Simpson family and the other characters on the show are too often my own,” wrote Tony Campolo in the foreword to The Gospel According to ‘The Simpsons’ by Mark Pinsky. Pinsky says the show was rejected from the bully pulpit of the White House to the Baptist pulpit on Main Street. As people looked a little deeper, though, it was slowly accepted. Pinsky reports that the show offers a sharp criticism of false religious practice against a thorough knowledge of things religious with the occasional clunker thrown in to see if the audience is paying attention.

To be sure, The Simpsons is no replacement for Sunday School. But, it leads the pack in showing glimpses of faith to millions who won’t show up in Sunday School in the near future.

Another example is found in Judging Amy, in which Amy, the agnostic lead character, has had several brushes with the spiritual. In the episode, “The God Thing,” written by Roman Catholic Karen Hall, Amy’s long-time friend Greta returns to work after a bout with cancer. The experience brought Greta a greater appreciation for God. “We’ve always been cynical agnostics together,” protests Amy.

“A life-threatening illness will change that,” replies Greta. When Amy turns to court officer Bruce Van Exel for a little sympathy, she finds out he is a quietly devout Catholic. After Greta dies unexpectedly, Amy shows up at Van Exel’s church, still questioning: “So you believe in Him?” He affirms that he does believe. When she asks why, he answers, “The look on my daughter’s face when I tuck her in at night. That’s the short answer.” Not convinced, but more open, Amy goes into the Mass with him rather than going home to an empty house as she mourns her friend. Maybe just a few of the “cynical agnostics” watching in their living rooms alone will darken the door of a church after watching.

The West Wing season finale last year stages a scene rivaled only by the Book of Job. Secret Service agents guard the massive doors to the National Cathedral as they slam shut, locking in the most powerful man in the world for a one-on-one confrontation with the most powerful man outside the world. President Bartlett rages at the altar, at full volume, in both English and Latin. In the end, after a little theological counselling from the memory of his now-deceased secretary, Mrs. Landingham, we suspect that this unusual summit of the highest order has brought the President a greater understanding of just exactly who is responsible for what in life.

West Wing prepared us for this encounter earlier. Struggling with the Executive Branch privilege to commute a death sentence, President Bartlett sends for his childhood priest. The priest, played by Karl Malden, is intimidated to approach this youth that he counselled years earlier, now, as president in the Oval Office. When he asks how he should address the president, as Jeb or Mr. President, Bartlett replies, “Call me Mr. President, out of respect for the office.” Bartlett realizes that he cannot use his Executive Privilege to indulge his own opposition to the death penalty. He refuses to commute the sentence. Bartlett knows, however, that although upholding the law is the right thing to do, it is no less a sin to comply in the death of another. As the midnight execution time passes, the priest dons his vestments. Without asking, he addresses the president as Jeb. As the camera pulls up to an overhead point of view, we see that Jeb Bartlett, though kneeling on the presidential seal in the carpet, is nonetheless humbled before a higher power, as he begins his confession.

Writer David E. Kelley has a history of involving the Almighty in daily life (remember Picket Fences?). A number of Ally McBeal storylines have featured God. In “Angels and Blimps,” Ally meets Eric Stall, an eight-year-old leukemia patient. He hires Ally to sue God. When young Eric doubts that God even exists, Ally recounts how, when she was a child and her five-year-old sister died, Ally stopped believing in God. One day, Ally noticed a blimp flying in the sky. Her mother told her that “God had man make the blimp to remind people that He’s up there watching.” Now, every time Ally sees a blimp, she thinks of the Almighty. After the boy succumbs to his cancer, Ally is walking home, thinking of him, when a blimp flies overhead. The sign on the side of the blimp: just looking.

The observation that God is more frequently mentioned in primetime is only the most obvious part of a deeper reality. T.S. Eliot commented that “the author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, as human beings, whether he knows it or not; and we are affected by it as human beings, whether we intend to be or not.” In other terms, it can be said that every script has an inherent “theological” aspect. The narrative world entertains because it comments on the real world. By commenting on the real world, the writer, to a greater or lesser extent, asserts universal truths. To assert universal truths is to comment on the divine, which is also the work of theology.

This is not to prejudge the identity or nature of God. Each script has its own say on those questions. Indeed, many prime time descriptions of God are quite unorthodox. But, they nonetheless comment on theological subjects. The idea that primetime television (and film) is the venue for more of our theological reflection is not completely lost on the church. In a talk for aspiring film writers, film producer Roger Courts cited a 1968 invitation in Variety from Jesuit priest Walter Burghardt. The priest welcomed filmmakers to “the fraternity of theologians: those who live with symbols and play with mystery.” Courts added, “Few filmmakers have probably thought of themselves as being theologians, [but] to dwell on those words for only a moment is to begin to appreciate why those who make films must—must—accept a heavy responsibility to the audiences they serve.”

There are several professors at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, the closest seminary to Hollywood, who are exploring the theological dimension of entertainment. Professor Robert Johnston wrote in Reel Spirituality that “too few of us [Christians] have developed the skills of movie watching, let alone film criticism.” The intent of his book is to encourage the Christian filmgoer to enter into a theological conversation with film.

In 1995, more than a billion people watched the most widely telecast Billy Graham Crusade ever—in their words, “the largest single evangelistic effort in the history of Christianity.” The writers of Baywatch achieved the same worldwide reach 52 times that year. That’s quite a potent pulpit, and increasingly, prime time sermons are actually mentioning God.New Wineskins

The previous article was adapted from an article printed originally in Written By magazine.

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