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Analysis: Hollywood walks fine line in portraying God

 


Analysis: Hollywood walks fine line in portraying God

Jan. 16, 2004

A UMNS Analysis By Ray Waddle*

In a nation where 90 percent believe in God, a lot of Americans claim to speak to the Almighty every day. So it shouldn't be shocking that the Lord has been granted some face time on prime-time TV.

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Ray Waddle

"Joan of Arcadia," a new, hour-long Friday night drama series, has been a surprise hit for CBS. Every week, a girl named Joan has daily conversations with God as she goes about her swirling life as a modern American teenager. These aren't mountaintop epiphanies of thunder and lightning. God shows up disguised as everyday people to give Joan simple, direct advice about high school, family and relationships with the suffering people around her.

I was agnostic about "Joan of Arcadia" at first. The show is the latest entry in a long and curious Hollywood saga - the mass-media attempt to tap the deep well of American religious belief and then script a show that is both a) spiritually dignified and b) entertaining enough to be financially profitable.

It's a treacherous combination - the need to be edgy (for high ratings) and inoffensive (to that statistical 90 percent of believers). The history of this TV-and-movie search for God is a series of tilts toward blasphemy or blandness, cynicism or sentimentality. Does "Joan" suffer the same pitfalls?

Modern-day Hollywood theology, you might say, began with "Oh God!," a movie comedy that gave us the ancient and affable George Burns portraying a kindly Almighty in a baseball cap. The flick was a hit. Screenwriters had stumbled on a transcendent formula for success: Make God nonthreatening, nondenominational and, if possible, hilarious. Remember, this was 1977. The nation was weary after Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations and other social convulsions. Religious pluralism was on the rise. We needed a reassuring word from a wisecracking Creator.

This benign role of deity on the big screen mutated through the '90s. Increasingly, God showed up in diverse guises, surprising viewer expectations (Will Smith in "The Legend of Bagger Vance," Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile," Alanis Morissette in "Dogma"). These incarnations glowed with serenity and wisdom, and were indifferent to church debates and denominational loyalties.

Prime-time TV, a far more conservative medium than the movies, customarily alludes to the Almighty only indirectly - that is, through angels, God's lieutenants on earth. "Highway to Heaven" in the 1980s and "Touched by an Angel" in the 1990s, much beloved by viewers, offered angels who prodded us humans to live up to our better selves at crucial moments.

But "Joan of Arcadia" does not settle for angelic messengers. The show writes a new chapter in televised transcendence. It wants God straight on - God incarnated in various people in Joan's crazy day.

The writers of the show say they take God seriously (producer Barbara Hall was raised Methodist and is now Catholic). They wanted a show that gets people talking about the nature of God, God's presence in the world, God's messages to the world.

"There is the point that God is available to everybody all the time," Hall says in a recent Beliefnet.com interview. "And a huge step into seeing God is looking for him, and that's what most people don't do. And teenagers really don't. In order to talk to a teenager today - I have a pre-teen - God would have to get her to take the iPod off. Kids don't listen. You'd really have to bust through Eminem to get to my daughter if you're God."

Does God get a fair shake on "Joan of Arcadia"? Should United Methodists be offended? Joan's encounters with God are usually modest, homely, brief. The divine advice she gets is helpful and action-oriented: It boils down to the Golden Rule and Ten Commandments.

Her efforts of reconciliation at home and social compassion to strangers might even have echoes in the United Methodist Church's Social Principles, which state, "We believe we have a responsibility to innovate, sponsor and evaluate new forms of community that will encourage development of the fullest potential in individuals."

Yes, a little slice of theology is implicitly at work in "Joan." In the Christian story, after all, the "face of God" is found in other people, in the jostling, dangerous, everyday world of reconciling relationships with others.

But "Joan of Arcadia" is not church - it's a TV show, with all the rules and limitations decreed by TV. This is not the televised version of the Book of Discipline.

For one thing, God's religion is brand X all the way: There's no mention of church doctrine or Scripture or Jesus Christ. Joan was baptized Catholic, she says, but her family doesn't go to church. Everyone is oddly silent on the subject.

"On our show, God can never identify a religion as being right," Hall says in one of her own "Ten Commandments" for writing about God on TV.

Also, there's the issue of how the God characters often talk - flip and hip. Whether God appears as a middle-aged substitute teacher, a 20-something street vender or a fellow teen, they sound street-wise and sassy, as if to get a laugh. The need to entertain always comes first on TV.

And the inevitable risk, or result, is to demean the blinding majesty of God. "We believe in the one true, holy and living god, Eternal Spirit, who is Creator, Sovereign and Preserver of all things visible and invisible," the Book of Discipline declares. "He is infinite in power, wisdom, justice, goodness and love."

Still, it's unusual to see a TV show put some thought into the question of God's will on earth. On other prime-time dramas about religion, Hall complains, God is strictly a loving deity who "fixes everything. I don't see God as the fixer. We're not doing that. God works through people. He can guide. He gives Joan information."

As Christian teaching, this might be thin and incomplete. But this isn't seminary. A TV show about God must somehow steer between offending a world of believers and saying something spiritually interesting. It must make money.

In one episode, God, posing as a cleaning woman says, "Every decision is a chance to do something good - it's all about what you do next. Act with righteousness."

Joan gets to have hallway encounters with the Almighty. The rest of us will find the message waiting in the Bible, at worship and in the face of a stranger in distress.

*Waddle, a writer in Nashville, Tenn., is author of the new book, A Turbulent Peace: The Psalms for Our Time.

News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

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