If you have associations with Christians in North America, you may have heard of the new series from NBC called The Book of Daniel. The show has provoked a significant amount of controversy from parts of the Christian community with much discussion on the blogs. The American Family Association accusing the show of mocking Christianity, and are mounting a campaign to stop the programme being shown, and a growing list of TV stations and advertisers are being bullied into dropping the show. (Incidentally, the American Family Association is the same bunch of people who endorsed The Passion of the Christ as something that ‘every youth in your church’ should see. Interestingly only the text of their e-mail is on their site, however there are reports of it on the net.) It is worth mentioning that many Christians are backing the show, with the Episcopal Diocese of Washington even having launched a blog – The Blog of Daniel discussing the show and the issues raised.
Now I have to say that with previous series that have been the victim of campaigns by crusading conservative Christian groups, such as God, The Devil and Bob we have usually watched them, and enjoyed them (indeed God, The Devil and Bob has been used as a discussion started in both Beth’s school – an R.E. teacher introduced Beth to the series – and also in our youth group at St James).
Generally I have tended to find that if the conservative Christians have worked themselves up into a state about something, there are some key things that have happened. Firstly it is almost always on the basis of publicity – they will not have seen it because they know how terrible it will be. Secondly, it will almost certainly not be as they have been describing it. Thirdly, in many cases I’ve actually found that the point it is making is important, and something that a Christian should consider, for example both God, The Devil and Bob and The Last Temptation of Christ make theological points that should be considered.
Anyway, as a result of previous experiences I was keen to see the series. Now whilst God, The Devil and Bob was ultimately picked up by the BBC, after the debacle with PopeTown now available on DVD, and the whole Jerry Springer thing last year I thought that the chances of the show making it to the UK were a bit dodgy, so I mentioned the show to Howard, who added it to his watch list of US shows. So last night, aside from playing a few games, I also picked up a copy of the first episode fresh from it’s US debut.
The Book of Daniel centres on the life of an Episcopal Priest, Rev Daniel Webster, and his family. Alongside his wife he has an elder son who is gay, a daughter who is a budding comic artist (and using her friends and family for inspiration) and an adopted Chinese son. Daniel is also the son of a retired Bishop, and his mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In essence this is a common prime-time drama, in that it offers a large variety of different challenges to the main character, and to some extent aside from the fact that the main character is a priest the basic concept is pretty much mainstream.
Perhaps the most interest aspect of the way the drama is portrayed is in Daniel and his faith. Whilst many people may describe their prayer life as being almost a conversation with Jesus, The Book of Daniel actually shows this in a very literal way by presenting Jesus as a character. This is one of the aspects that has caused most controversy, largely because of the way he is portrayed, which for the more conservative end of the Church is seen as too liberal. For example â€œFocus on the Familyâ€? made the following comment in a statement about the show:
â€œStill, most egregious is its portrayal of Jesus. On Daniel, the Individual believed to be the Savior of the world by nearly a billion people around the globe is cast as a wimpy, white-robed visitor who cares little about evil, addictions and perversity. This Christ glosses over a teenager’s sexual romps with a, ‘He’s a kid, let him be a kid.’â€?
I have to say at this point that I feel that people complaining, haven’t really understood what is being represented. It is worth remembering that the programme is portraying the life of a liberal Episcopal priest, had it been portraying a conservative priest, then his Jesus would be more conservative. Daniel’s Jesus is very much a Jesus formed out of his faith. If anybody imagines that this is literally the real Jesus appearing and disappearing, like some sort of ecclesiastical version of the Sixth Sense, then they really have missed the point. In most cases the Jesus character is there almost like Daniel’s conscience, it is worth noting that he very rarely gives big answers, nor do I think he does anything other than validate or offer answers that Daniel would have come up with anyway. Effectively what the Jesus character is doing is trying to show the pretty difficult concept which Christians do sometimes describe as the presence of Jesus with them. For example early on in the episode Daniel is present with one of his parishioners when her mother’s life support machine is turned off, and as Daniel returns to his car, Jesus is sat there waiting in the car for him. Looking at the aspects that the conservatives are getting worked up about, the Jesus character wouldn’t damn Daniel’s eldest son, because Daniel’s faith does not say that it is wrong. The point can best be made by highlighting an opposite – Hugh MacLeod, of GapingVoid has an interesting cartoon available on his Blog Card designs which has the words â€œWhat a happy coincidence. God hates the same people I doâ€?. This of course leads to a pretty big theological question, as if one persons ‘image’ of Jesus is different from the ‘image’ that another has, then surely one, or even both is not a true ‘image’, which of course is one of the root causes of massive disagreements between Christians for centuries. It’s not a topic that I have the space to discuss here, suffice to say that to understand why the Jesus in The Book of Daniel behaves as he does, you need to understand Daniel’s faith.
One final comment on the portrayal of Jesus is that I have to say that the point at which I really disagree with the comments, particularly the Focus on the Family quote above is in the implication that this Jesus character does not care. I again think they need to look at what happens. For example when Daniel is beating himself up over having had to bail his daughter out of a police cell, Jesus reminds him that his daughter is a good kid who has made a mistake. When Daniel is taking pain killers that he doesn’t really need, Jesus is the voice of sanity, trying to persuade him to stop. With regards to the ‘sexual romps’ that are mentioned in the statement, it occurs when Daniel has just had a discussion with his son over the amount of time he is spending with his girlfriend. Seen in the context of how Daniel as a parent would act given what he knows, he is concerned at how serious his son is getting, but at the same time doesn’t want to be seen as overbearing and heavy handed to a son that is essentially a good kid. We as the audience have seen that things are getting a lot more serious, but Daniel doesn’t know, and his Jesus is providing comfort. To me much of what he does seems to demonstrate love and care to the people Daniel encounters, and acts based on what Daniel knows, and believes.
Moving on from the portrayal of Jesus, there is a broad sweep of other problems and incidents that occur during the episode. A lot of it shows the difficulty of balancing a family life with being a priest, for example the episode opens with Daniel and his wife having to bail their daughter out at the police station, the night before the bishop (and a woman bishop at that) is coming to Daniel’s Church. The scene where he attends the hospital occurs later that day, when after a big family row at the dinner table, Daniel has to switch back from a father to a Priest. His father, the Bishop, struggling to cope with his wife as she switches between knowing who he is, and thinking he is a total stranger mirrors the difficulties that many people have had with the cruel effects of Alzheimer’s disease – as Daniel says to Jesus at one point, â€œI want my mother backâ€?.
There are some more light-hearted moments. When his brother-in-law disappears with the money, Daniel turns to the local Catholic priest, who is your almost archetypal Italian American priest with ‘connections’. However when he arrives, the Catholic priest immediately asks about Daniel’s daughter and the Police, and when Daniel asks how he knows the Catholic priest replies that it was from one of the Nuns, â€œall they do all day is pray and gossipâ€? he says. There is also one point where Daniel is getting a thorough dressing down from the Bishop over the loss of the money and the quality of his sermon, whilst sat behind unnoticed is an engaged couple waiting for their first meeting with Daniel.
Alongside this are some really quite serious moments. Perhaps the one that took me most by surprise was after Daniel’s adoptive son has been caught climbing out of his girlfriends bedroom window. He falls from the tree and is taken to the Emergency Room. However on leaving, his girlfriends parents (important members of the Church at that) say that they are going to send their daughter to an upstate boarding school. Daniel’s wife Judith says that it isn’t necessary, and she’ll have a talk with her son, and that there isn’t any harm in them going to a movie or something like that, as she would hate to break up a good relationship. The girlfriends mother replies with a speech about how much she admires Daniel and Judith for taking in their adoptive son, but finishes off that she certainly doesn’t want ‘little oriental grand-children’ running around… Also at a number of points both Daniel and his wife are concerned about how events will be seen in the parish, and whether people will start to gossip.
I think that overall, on the basis of the first episode this could be a very good drama series. Whilst by necessity it does pile up a lot of different dramatic elements onto one set of characters all of the different dramas are things that I know priests in the twenty-first century have to deal with. Certainly any priest with children has exactly the same sorts of decisions as any other modern parent, equally how Daniel tries to cope with the stress of his job are not unknown – equally I know of clergy who have abused alcohol rather than pills. Domestic abuse in clergy families is much more common than people think. At the very least I think the programme shows how even a good man such as Daniel, brought up in the Church, struggles at times to cope with his life as a priest.
I am glad that NBC have actually taken the step of producing a series about the life of a regular priest, something which in the UK we don’t have. The portrayal of priests is either through documentaries such as Seaside Parish, as bit-parts in soap operas, or most often as comedic characters such as the Vicar of Dibley. Hopefully we will see something of the series in the UK, and the broadcasters and advertisers in the US will stand up to the campaign of bullying that the groups are undertaking. Certainly I hope that the large amount of publicity for the show that their campaign is producing will go towards increasing the ratings rather than leading to the show being axed. It is worth saying that Howard, actually watched the show before he passed the copy on to me, and he gave it two thumbs up. Although he watched it only out of interest because I had asked if he could get a copy, he said he will continue to watch the rest of the series.
Update: I just came across this posting on the Blog of Daniel from Rev Daniel Webster, Communications Director of the Diocese of Utah. He talks more about his opinions on the show in this posting. It is also worth noting that he also worked for NBC for twelve years during the seventies and eighties. You can also read what Jack Kenny, creator of the show thinks about the whole controversy over at the TV Guide site.