Monday, January 09, 2006

Its not about us, so let's get over it

It seems to happen every few years. Some network tries to come up with either an "edgy" or funny (or both) series featuring either clergy or religious. This time NBC is trying with The Book of Daniel, featuring an Episcopal priest, his rather challenged family, and a rather vapid Jesus, by all reports. I don't think I will find the time for this one.

But forgive me if I pass on all the outrage bouncing around the Blogosphere these days. Too many are claiming that this stupid show is a deliberate insult to Christians. To quote an old phrase, never ascribe to malice what can be adquately explained as stupidity. Diane Winston of USC wrote in the Sunday LA times that if not stupidity, the problem may be a special kind of incompetence:

This misses the point. "The Book of Daniel" doesn't disparage Bible-believing Christians. Instead, it demonstrates the difficulty of turning serious religion into entertainment. Religion can be played as sentimental, spooky or satire, but doing it straight — think "ER" repotted in a synagogue — is hard to pull off.

In large part, this is because we treat religion as a special case. Whether we're atheists, agnostics, secularists or believers, we all hold religious leaders to higher standards. Doctors, lawyers and politicians can be noble and flawed — isn't that why we love Jack Bauer ("24"), Gregory House ("House") and the late, great Leo McGarry ("The West Wing")? But imagine any of these characters with a collar or a kippa, and tell me it doesn't make you squirm.

Maybe because we see priests, rabbis and imams as stand-ins for the divine, we expect more of them.

I would not go that far. People of faith, at least, are very familiar with their leaders being both noble and flawed at the same time. The problem I think is with writers, actors, and directors (even well meaning ones) getting beyond easy structures and tricks. The limitations of the network program form are extreme. You have a precise number of minutes to get a story going before you have to break for the first commercial, and you have to give your viewers some reason to come back after the break. If you watch enough sitcoms, you start to notice some similarities of pattern and method, patterns and techniques that have been tested over time and work within the limits of the form. Certain kinds of characters and relationships are easier to work with. The issue is not chiefly artistic or religious as commercial. You have to come up with a program that will sucessfully keep commercials from colliding with each other. Gordon Atkinson (also known as Real Live Preacher) writes in points this out in Salon (subscription or watching a commercial required):
Yo, brothers and sisters in Christ. They weren't making fun of you. It's much worse than that. The folks at NBC don't care about you enough to make fun of you. They don't even know you exist. You are not a part of their world. They want to make money, that's all. This is no great mystery or secret. They're not hypocrites; they're capitalists.
Which is something we better get used to. As I pointed out a few days ago, we no longer have a priviledged postion, we have to duke it out in the secular media with everyone else. But, according to Atkinson, we should not be depending on the media:
But I think all the uproar from Christians is symptomatic of a more disturbing trend. More and more Christians seem to think that affirmation from our culture is where they will find their power. Since when do religions need affirmation from television stations? That's a little shallow, don't you think? What we should be doing is practicing our devotion and letting our changed lives speak for themselves.

And I've got news for you, Christian. If your faith isn't changing your life enough to make a difference in the world, you've got bigger problems than NBC.

Oh, there is something a little ironic that I want to mention. The first six chapters of the actual book of Daniel -- the one in the Bible -- are about a young man named Daniel and some of his friends who are trying to live out their faith in a very hostile foreign land. Trust me, the Babylonians were much worse than NBC. Daniel's solution was to doggedly worship God in their own way, and let their lives be a quiet and steady witness of their faith.

Their devotion produced a living and real goodness that even won the heart of the King in the end. And all of this happened because they were not foolish enough to try to change Babylon, but rather changed themselves.

In a postmodern world, media savvy and resulting cynicism is common. We will have to re-establish ourselves one person at a time by how we really live, and how we genuinely communicate the Good News that we are living out. No shortcuts.

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