1.06.2006

"It's never easy writing lines for God."

The Book of Daniel, a new NBC show, airs tonight. I'll be watching the show on account of its choice of protagonist, an Episcopal priest.

I have a keen interest in fictional portrayals of clergypersons. They are rarely very nuanced; writers generally depict clergy as yawnfully cookie-cutter or ridiculously messed-up. The former category is best represented by the paper-thin character, Father Tim, from Jan Karon's Mitford Novels (which I gently lambasted here). What little I've seen of Seventh Heaven leads me to believe that Pastor/Dad is Father Tim's seminary buddy.

The eponymous protagonist of The Passion of Reverend Nash, by Rachel Basch, is of the ridiculously messed-up sort. I'd take the latter any day, as Jordanna and her context were infinitely more believable. However, there are a few examples of well-drawn ministers who aren't imploding, such as Amos Townsend, the brilliant, perceptive, and long-suffering pastor of Haddington, Indiana in Haven Kimmel's debut novel, The Solace of Leaving Early.

In the interest of keeping up with the curation of my clergy-protagonist collection, I'm planning to watch The Book of Daniel. The American Family Association is all ticked off about the show because of how the title character and his family are depicted. They are beset with issues of addiction, sexuality, faith, and doubt - you know, the issues that many people contend with, ordained or lay. But it doesn't sound like these issues are going to be explored with care and subtlety, but rather that the writers collated a list of taboos and figured out how many they could fit on the screen. A sensationalized character is no better than a bland character. Neither illuminate or enlighten, but mold the public perception of clergy into crude stereotypes.

The thing that concerns me more than how folks of "the cloth" are portrayed is how the Divine is drawn. Apparently, part of the skirmish about The Book of Daniel is the good pastor's tendency to talk to Jesus. And not just a well-behaved (read: invisible) Jesus, a Jesus who talks back and looks like he would fit into a Da Vinci painting. A Jesus who is more imaginary ally than Son of God. In other words, America's favorite Jesus - a blonde best friend who is always on your side. I wonder if the show demonstrate any self-awareness that Daniel's Jesus is just that, Daniel's Jesus. Jesus' responses to Father Dan include the warm, "You should laugh more," the pithy, "Life is hard, Daniel, for everyone. That's why there's such a nice reward at the end of it."

As the LA Times critic Matea Gold writes, "It's never easy writing lines for God." I'm increasingly convinced that the best cinematic manifestation of the divine is Alanis Morrisette's as God in Kevin Smith's Dogma. Her brief appearance is subversive and funny and surprisingly dense with good theology. The casting was intentional, and forced viewers out of tired stereotypes. What - God isn't a man? God isn't American? (Smith delighted himself by selecting a Canadian to play the Divine, I belive partially out of Northern patriotism and partially out of the desire to wrench Americans out of their tendency to turn God into a tribal idol.)

Dogma
's God is a God hooked on incarnation - a God that loves Creation, loves humankind, loves their weird game of skee-ball. And God's big line in Dogma is simply divine. When asked why humans are here, Ms. Morrisette thinks, and then pokes the spiritual seeker on the nose and says, "BOOP!" This isn't just an irreverent cop-out; it's a really well-written scene that divulges a theological assertion. As the Stitchin' Seminarian wrote in November 2004, "We are God's children, God's creations. Our entire purpose is to bring God joy. Have you ever seen an adult with a baby who is just getting the hang of laughter and the concept of "funny?" It's hard to tell sometimes who is being more entertained. The baby or the adult who's pushing the baby's nose and saying "BOOP." Dogma's God is most definitely Kevin Smith's God, but the director's awareness of this is clear.

The Book of Daniel sounds like a pretty terrible show, and I don't expect that it will last a whole season. But maybe in its short-lived existence the writers will figure out how to give Father Dan a more nuanced humanity and Jesus a more nuanced divinity. Should their endeavor fail, word has it Jan Karon is drumming up a whole new series on Father Tim...

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