“The Book of Daniel” and the Spiritual Longing of our Culture
There is a new TV show out and it is about an Episcopal priest and how he seeks to keep faith in the face of a complex family and professional life. Even before The Book of Daniel aired it made news because the story revolves around The Rev. Daniel Webster whose life is complicated to say the least. His daughter has been arrested for dealing drugs; his son is gay and deciding to give up on going to medical school. His wife is grieving the loss of their oldest son to leukemia and he, the wife and the housekeeper are all addicted to drugs or alcohol. The priests parish has experienced an embezzlement and he is at odds with is bishop. In the middle of all this, Daniel meets Jesus in his car, his office, the hallway of his house who discusses Daniel’s choices and responses with him.
Everything about this pilot is written big and because of that everything, especially early in the series, is in generalities and stereotype. For example, the local catholic priest who is Fr. Daniels close friend also covers for the mafia members in his parish. The Bishop is the cynical boss-think of the police chief trying to reign in the idealistic hero. The Episcopal Church in this show is still the church of the moneyed and powerful. Everyone in the cast stands in for some issue or role in society.
They get some technical things wrong. Fr. Daniel wears his chasuble backwards-try that with a firefighter on Third Watch!- the Bishop wears a miter at the wrong time. They don’t have the technical language down at all. They don’t even call Fr. Daniel “Father” but “Reverend!” It should have sent me out of the room screaming. And it would have, if the show was really about the Episcopal Church. But it isn’t.
The Book of Daniel is not about us. It is a lens into how our culture struggles with issues of faith, morals, ethics and spirituality in an age where we share no common language about how to “be” in the world we are in. If we think of this as a commentary on Christians in general and on the Episcopal Church in particular then we can be nothing but offended or, at least, put off. We would have nothing to do but defend ourselves or ignore it.
There is a third choice. We can listen to what the show is telling us. If we look at this series as what it is, the musings of these writers and producers-who seem to be mainly outside the church-about issues of meaning, spiritual life, and belief at the intersection of ideals and reality, then perhaps we can gain a better understanding of the needs, the pain, the hopes, the dreams and disappointments of our culture today. We Christians should listen to what The Book of Daniel is telling us about the world wishes belief in God and spirituality could do for them. Through the show, the culture is also telling us about where the Church is perceived as having failed them.
Other shows with religious themes seem to talk to the culture about what it is like to believe. Touched by Angel and even Joan of Arcadia and others try to convey what it is like to believe. Even the Mitford novels about a priest in a small Appalachian town function the same way. They are stories about what it means to be a believer, written by believers speaking both to believers (to edify) and to non-believers (to attract).
The Book of Daniel is trying something much harder. It is secular people using religious language, people and symbols to reflect on how belief functions in a society where the old language does not seem to fit anymore. In the process we are being told about how the church has failed and what we want the church to be. We see religious themes in good television and film all the time, but very few use a religious context in their stories. The creator of the series said that he wanted to avoid the usual stereotypes, so what he came up with was not an accurate portrayal of priests and their families and congregants, but a series of “anti-stereotypes.” The writing is not so much about (or in reaction to) religion but our stereotypes about religion.
The good news is that, as messed up as nearly everyone is and as out of touch the church seems to be, we are being told that there is still something there. Despite all the distractions and failures, Jesus still shows up. The Jesus in this show is certainly based on the imaginings of the writers and is meant to be the imaginings of Daniel Webster-and yet God cuts through even our imaginings of God to tell us like it is.
The show goes to great pains to show us how hollow and superficial our religion can be-and yet Jesus still shows up. Usually where we least expect it.
So what is the culture-or at least the creators of this show-telling us about themselves and their view of us through The Book of Daniel?
First, as I said, they know that there is something there. In our day and age, people differentiate spirituality and religion. They are telling us that they recognize they see the depth, the spirituality and at least the potential for life transforming power underneath our ritual, politics and materialism.
Second, platitudes won’t do. That Webster must supplement the sacrament with vicodan is a sign that just going through the motions by themselves won’t meet the real struggles of faith, meaning and dignity in our world.
Relationship is key. This is a generation that does not find meaning in community but in relationship. Both rugged individualism and group therapy has failed but hope is found in our network of relationships. We are being shown that real strength lies in a kind of networked individualism. All the relationships in The Book of Daniel are broken and people exist in isolation. They are trying to find ways to meet and connect with one another. So the show is telling us that what people are seeking is meaningful connection with one another.
Related to this is the need for real intimacy, which requires trust, honesty and the ability to balance accountability with cutting slack. The most intimate relationship so far in the show is between Webster and Jesus-all the others are demonstrably broken. There are hints that healing can happen, but whether real intimacy happens remains to be seen.
The Book of Daniel can go one of three ways in terms of its storytelling—two ways will lead to failure and the third way might, or might not. If it is a religious Knot’s Landing then it will fail. If it becomes a Touched by an Angel with attitude then it will also not succeed-although fewer religious groups may protest. But if they can keep the censors and the execs at bay long enough to let the characters develop and the story unfold.
If they can work on the details without being distracted by them, then The Book of Daniel can be one of the few secular shows about religion that actually works. Telling stories about people struggling with faith-and I hope we get to see the other characters struggle, too-in a religious context but from a secular point of view might succeed or it might fail. But we Christians should listen while we have the chance.
The Rev. Andrew T. Gerns
Trinity Episcopal Church