Commentary: Lessons from the late ‘Book of Daniel’
By Gene Edward Veith
The controversial TV show “The Book of Daniel” has been canceled after only three episodes, making it one of the biggest bombs in television history. Christian activists denounced the show as a mockery of Christianity, but NBC is saying that the main reason it got pulled was its abysmal ratings. Whatever the reason, the show’s failure can serve as a revealing object lesson, both for Hollywood and for Christians wanting to interact with the culture.
For the overwhelming number of viewers who did not watch “The Book of Daniel,” here is an overview: The show was about an Episcopal priest named Daniel Webster. He was addicted to pain pills. His wife was an alcoholic. His daughter sold drugs. One son was gay. The other was promiscuous with the teenaged girls of the congregation.
Father Daniel’s supervisor, a female bishop, was having an affair with his father. He, too, was a bishop, cheating on his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife. Father Daniel’s confidant, the local Catholic priest, was connected with the Mafia.
In his ministry, Daniel presided at plug-pullings at the hospital, counseled unmarried couples about their sex lives, and encouraged them to just live together without getting married. One of his sermons was titled, “Temptation: Is It Really a Bad Thing?” No, it isn’t, he proclaimed, since good needs evil in order to be good. “If temptation corners us, maybe we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for giving into it,” he concluded, as a girl in a pew looked knowingly at his son. “And maybe we shouldn’t ask for forgiveness from a church or from God or from Jesus or from anyone, until we can first learn to forgive ourselves.”
Jesus was also a character on the show. He appeared to Father Daniel while he was driving, working at this desk, and reaching for his pills. Jesus was portrayed as a laughing, laid-back flower-child. Whereas the true Jesus preached the beatitudes, this TV Jesus preached the platitudes: “Life is hard.” “Let him be a kid.” “Everybody’s got to go through it.” “I’m a good listener.” “You should laugh more.” “Everybody’s different.”
Hollywood must be wondering, “How could a show like that possibly bomb? It’s got everything: sex, drugs, that ‘Desperate Housewives’ soap opera thing going that is usually so popular. I guess we didn’t put in enough violence. But what about religion? Isn’t religion supposed to be popular these days? And we put Jesus in it. How could people not like Jesus?”
Ironically, “The Book of Daniel” was thrown into the schedule in an attempt to cash in on the success of Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” Back in May 2004, entertainment reporter Gloria Goodale of The Christian Science Monitor wrote: “Now that the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ has revealed an appetite for entertainment with specific religious themes, the small screen can’t feed it fast enough. Writers last fall reported that network executives were asking for ‘anything with a religious theme.’ One such Bible-based show, ‘The Book of Daniel,’ is in development for NBC.” One problem: Hollywood thinks “The Book of Daniel” is “Bible-based.”
Here is the first lesson: Not all expressions of religion are equally valid. Hollywood producers were open to “anything with a religious theme.” The assumption seems to be that a show that tears down the ordinary viewer’s religion will be just as appealing as a show that takes it seriously. After all, both approaches are “about religion,” aren’t they?
Get ready for another Hollywood project that is being hyped as tapping into the religion market opened up by “The Passion of the Christ”: the upcoming movie based on the novel that tries to tear down the very foundation of Christianity, “The Da Vinci Code.”
Next lesson: Religion has content. Hollywood apparently assumed that just having a clergyman as the main character was enough to make “The Book of Daniel” “religious.” Just using a church building and a parsonage as settings for the conventional soap opera was supposed to create a religious appeal. Never mind that faith made absolutely no difference in the lives of any of the characters. Religious faith never actually made an appearance one way or the other.
The most important lesson, not only for Hollywood but for churches wanting to reach out to the culture: Culture-conforming theology has little appeal, even to the culture it is conforming to.
Interestingly, theological liberals — those who believe that Christianity needs to be changed to appeal to contemporary culture — praised the show. “How cool is it that a progressive Episcopal priest has a shot at being a prime-time drama protagonist?,” asks Rev. Susan Russell, associate rector at the Pasadena parish where the show was filmed and the director of the pro-gay Episcopal group Integrity. “How surprising might it be to many who tune in to find out there actually is a church where women can be bishops — clergy can be human — and there’s enough Good News around to extend to everybody?”
But the American Anglican Council, representing conservative Episcopalians, had this to say about the series: “Tragically, it is not entirely inaccurate in its depiction of revisionist theology and doctrine adopted by a majority of Episcopal Church leadership. ‘The Book of Daniel’ does not represent the average Episcopal Church across the United States, but it hits close to home with regard to revisionism espoused by numerous bishops, clergy, dioceses and congregations. While it is highly unlikely that one would find almost every sin and perversion of truth imaginable lived out in a single family as the show portrays, the program does offer an accurate representation of the downward spiral of the Episcopal Church over the last 30 years.”
It is unfair to focus just on Episcopalians. “The Book of Daniel” represents the theology and practice of many mainline churches that have embraced liberal theology, with its denial of the authority of Scripture and its insistence that Christianity must be revised to accord with contemporary secular thought and values. But even churches that consider themselves conservative — including Missouri Synod Lutherans — are not immune from the temptations of cultural conformity, worldliness, and acceptance of sin.
Instead of preaching the forgiveness of sin, Father Daniel and his