Thursday, January 05, 2006

Will They Get It "Right" in The Book of Daniel?

A Few Initial Reflections Before It Airs

Will The Book of Daniel Get It Right?

My first reaction when I heard about The Book of Daniel (NBC, Friday, January 6, 2006 from 9 to 11 pm) to say “they are showing an Episcopal priest on TV!” Which was followed by a simultaneous “Cool” and “Uh-oh.”

According to a review and interview written by Alan Sepinwall of the Religion News Service (, The Book of Daniel is about a troubled Episcopal priest, whose best friend is an imaginary (or not) Jesus. Aidan Quinn will play Father Daniel Webster (get it?). Daniel is a good minister and a good man, but that's not always enough to deal with his life. He's addicted to Vicodin. His wife, Judith, has frozen inside since one of their sons died of leukemia. His son, Peter, is gay. His daughter, Grace, is dealing marijuana to raise extra cash. And in moments of great stress, Jesus (played by "Deadwood" alum Garret Dillahunt) turns up – in the passenger seat of Daniel's station wagon, in the bedroom hallway, outside the church – to offer his counsel.

The New York Post published a piece with a “can you believe what Hollywood is doing now?” kind of tone—as if the News Corporation is not part of the problem. Also the American Family Association—an evangelical group operating under a secular name—has, sight unseen, launched a boycott and letter-writing campaign.

Now before you get all jittery, we have to remind ourselves that since we have not yet seen this show, we can only comment on the hype preceding it’s first showing. Some of that hype is designed to play up the controversy so people will tune in out of curiosity. It will do will to pause and take a deep breath.

Still, some caution is warranted. I know that other professionals cringe at the TV imaginings of their vocations: cops laugh at and get mad at TV all the time; so do doctors, lawyers and firefighters. The nature and limitations of TV require a certain distortion just to make a subject fit. But some of these distortions can be howlers.

Religion and ministers (even Episcopalians) have been a staple of the movies and TV since before Bing Crosby. Some of these depictions have been successful, some of them dismal. Again, the limitations of the medium play a part in this. But the choices within those limitations say much more about the culture of the day, our hopes and struggles, than anything about the Church, the ministry or Christianity.

I was intrigued (and ultimately pleased) with the maturing of Father Mulcahey on M*A*S*H from cardboard to human. The episode where he struggles with having the perfect service to impress his Bishop while the world falls apart around his ears was to me the best. How long was that show on before they even came close to getting it right?

St. Elsewhere one of the first so-called “realistic” medical shows and about mid-way through it’s run the writers introduced a student chaplain who was also an Episcopal deacon. I remember the excitement among us chaplains when it occurred. We were, if I remember correctly, uniformly disappointed. It was a nice try, but there was no context—no wise mentor, no sense of the chaplain being a part of the team, no real connection between patients, family and chaplain which we know could be a real source of drama. Instead, she was kind of a naïve stumblebum, just this side of comic relief. She did do a wedding at the end, I think, right before the show was found to be the imaginings of an autistic child holding a snow-globe.

For a while, people used to ask me all the time about 7th Heaven. All I can say is that I wonder how this church could afford that house and never give the poor guy a raise? Also, a nice try, but not very real. When my kids were smaller, we did, I must admit watch it, and then get a kick out of the contrast about the travails of TV PK’s versus live ones.

I want to know how the heck the guy on Six Feet Under could become an Episcopal deacon without, as far as we can tell, going through any classes or a commission on the ministry. Of course, the Episcopal ordination process is a drama that I am not sure that even HBO could make believable.

My second favorite episode of The Simpsons had Homer deciding to strike it rich by going online and get an Episcopal ordination so he could turn his garage into a wedding chapel for gay couples. (My very favorite is when Bart sells his soul to Milhone for five dollars.)

Anyone who has been to General Seminary in New York, must smile a bit whenever it appears as a locale on Law and Order. Who can forget the funeral recreated for the series Third Watch after 9/11 in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd?

From what I can see, The Book of Daniel is a series where the drama will turn around one person’s struggle to remain faithful. Having a priest as the main character allows the writers to deal with outward religiosity versus inner faith in the midst of real life. It might be interesting to see how one finds faith at the intersection of reality and ideals.

Some Christians are already mad enough to boycott the show, without having seen it. All I can do is repeat what William Shatner once said (to his peril) to crazed trekkies a few years after Star Trek went off the air: “Get a life! It’s only television!” The Book of Daniel is only television. It is not the same thing as the Episcopal Church. If it succeeds in showing that the Christian faith is not cookie-cutter and that fallible people can still have a living, challenging faith that changes their lives then so much the better. Let’s play with the image Jesus sitting with us on our daily commute, even with all the hub-bub. If we do that, then I think that the show may well do justice to the way we Episcopalians approach our faith in the everyday.

The American Family Association must think that Christianity is pretty thin-skinned that it cannot bear the scrutiny and discussion that comes from the arts. (And maybe the marketers are counting on their reactivity!) Our tradition is one that knows that some of our deepest longings and struggles—the stuff that makes for real prayer—is reflected in our art. Even television. So I am going to wait and see, and when the Book of Daniel airs, I am sure that it will both challenge and engage—even if they don’t get it all “right.”

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