Occasioning the most recent cultural clash between people of faith and the entertainment industry, NBC last week aired the pilot for a controversial new television drama. The Book of Daniel focuses on the family of an Episcopal priest who regularly pops vicodin. His wife is a little too fond of martinis, his daughter is dealing drugs, one son is gay -- and the other is sleeping with the daughter of the church's warden. The priest has a newly widowed sister-in-law engaged in a lesbian affair, one of his confidantes is a Catholic priest with Mob ties, and his mother is afflicted with Alzheimer's (brace yourself for the inevitable "right to die" episode).
Despite all his problems -- perhaps because of them -- the priest/protagonist of The Book of Daniel is depicted very sympathetically. He's accepting of his son's homosexuality, and is even willing to share his own marital experiences with a couple in premarital counseling who consult him about some sexual issues of their own. And Jesus Himself appears to this priest and speaks with him -- albeit a hippified Jesus, with quite a flippant wit (when the priest asks him, "Aren't you supposed to comfort me?" this "Jesus" indulges in a little repartee: "Where'd you read that? Some Episcopalian [sic] self-help book?").
So why should people of faith have a "problem" with The Book of Daniel? After all, the priest is clearly a "good guy"; so is Jesus. How could the traditionally religious possibly object to a program about a priest when its writers are so obviously fond of the main character -- and Jesus, too?
Well -- as with so much of life -- sometimes, affection simply isn't enough. There's plenty that's objectionable about The Book of Daniel, starting with its premise. The entire plot seems designed to undermine respect for the clergy -- the priest's circumstances practically force viewers to wonder: If clergymen's lives can be that messed up, what gives them the moral authority to tell me what I should do?
Nor is The Book of Daniel's obvious empathy for its beleaguered hero enough to redeem it. In fact, the main character is portrayed as sympathetic precisely because he holds Hollywood-approved attitudes on sensitive issues like homosexuality and premarital sex. Whatever credibility the program vouchsafes the clergy is, in the end, used only to validate behavior that many religious traditionalists still believe to be wrong.
Most offensively, Jesus Himself is used in the same way. The character's "laid-back" demeanor (one expects a stray "dude!" to issue from His mouth at any minute) sends a message in itself, insofar as the attitude is one commonly associated with a liberal social mind-set. "Jesus" reacts to the priest's daughter's drug peddling by declaring, "She'll be fine; she's a good girl." About the son engaging in premarital sex with the warden's daughter, He's dismissive: "[The son] is a kid; let him be a kid." The message? Jesus has no problem with drug dealing and premarital sex -- so why should you?
Even in this "take no prisoners" age, there are certain figures that should be exempt from conscription into the modern-day culture wars -- and Jesus is one of them. Certainly, it would be wrong for theological conservatives to create a "Jesus" character and give him lines to parrot in order to advance their positions on the most controversial issues of the day. But it's just as wrong for theological liberals and secularists to do so. After all, Jesus has some pretty good "lines" in the Bible that can certainly stand on their own.
Given its somewhat clunky dialogue and undisputed downer of a plot, it's far from clear that The Book of Daniel will last long. But if Hollywood carries away one message from the traditionally religious T.V. watchers of America, perhaps it should be this: Keep your agendas off our faith.
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