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The Gospel According to America

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February 21, 2006

Closing The Book of Daniel:
Keeping Jesus Away from TV Troubles

by Lowell Grisham

Religious types objected strongly to some of Jesus' habits. He hung around prostitutes. He befriended tax collectors. He ate with non-religious outsiders and touched untouchable lepers. He was more likely to be found with the unclean and broken than with the respectable good people. He caught a lot of grief about that. Still does, it would appear.

Television is full of sex and naughtiness. I don't watch enough to be a good chronicler of television outrage, but there are plenty of salacious shows. Desperate Housewives, "reality" shows, and soap operas of various kinds appear on all of the entertainment channels. Many of the plots include struggling families trying to cope with heartache, scandal and real bad behavior. Dysfunction makes for good entertainment, it seems.

But one show actually brought Jesus into the mix. The Book of Daniel had as its main character an Episcopal priest. He was a good guy trying the best he could in trying circumstances. VERY trying circumstances. And part of his coping was regular conversations with Jesus.

In the show Jesus appeared to Daniel (and only to Daniel). They talked in an intimate and personal way. Daniel shared his troubles with Jesus. Jesus helped. Sometimes with a word; sometimes just by being present. Daniel had chronic back pain and he was addicted to Vicodin. Nearly every time he reached for his bottle, Jesus appeared. Once with "Lifesavers."

The show invited good conversation. How much of Jesus was a projection of Daniel's thoughts about Jesus, and how much was Jesus truly present and addressing Daniel? That's a good question for all of us who talk and listen to Jesus. How much of that voice is us? How much is from God? I hear a lot of stuff from TV preachers about what Jesus is saying, and I'm sure a lot of it is pure projection from their own prejudices. I wonder about my own conversations with Jesus. And yours. It's worth thinking about.

I watched the first episode of The Book of Daniel, and I liked seeing a character on TV trying to talk with Jesus about his troubles. That doesn't happen on Desperate Housewives.

But Jesus was silenced on NBC in late January. And it was the good religious types who did it. (Again.) In Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I live, an organized campaign from Christians pressured the local NBC affiliate to take The Book of Daniel off. So sex, drugs, murder, betrayal, wickedness, and dysfunction remain. But Jesus has been censored off the TV screen.

What was everyone so upset about? Well, the show had a lot of naughty stuff in it. Maybe they tried to pack too many scandals in one episode. But there was nothing there that doesn't happen on other shows or in real life. (Though I do have my doubts that there has ever been a real affair between a female bishop and a male bishop.) There was nothing in the story that doesn't happen in good families—good Christian families.

Christian families have parents who are addicted to pain killers or martinis. They have kids who are gay or deal drugs, and kids who are promiscuous or desperately artistic. Churches have funds embezzled and strained relationships among authorities. If some Christians are upset that these things were on TV, I would ask them if they are a bit too attached to an image of the perfect Christian family or the perfect church. Denial of the reality of dysfunction in a Christian environment only compounds the sickness. Yes, these things can happen—in your church; to your pastor; in your family.

But this was TV. It was fiction. It’s about as accurate a picture of a typical church as Desperate Housewives is a description of your suburban street. The Book of Daniel was just another naughty TV soap opera. Its one distinction was that all of the naughtiness had a chance to be in conversation with Jesus and in relationship with faith. Some of these characters were trying to live faithfully in troubled circumstances. Jesus was present in the midst of it all, found once more with the unclean and broken. Jesus was part of the conversation.

But once again religious people, meaning well, have removed Jesus from where he most prefers to be. He's safely hidden away again, protected behind the stained glass and tucked in politely among the well-mannered clean folks. TV characters will just have to get through their scandals without his help.

But I do worry about the real people who have troubles like those TV characters and think Jesus couldn't dare to be part of their conversation either.

This article was first published in the Northwest Arkansas Times on January 23, 2006.

More by Lowell Grisham


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