That Prime Time Religion

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The girl-meets-God television series "Joan of Arcadia," began a new season this week, making it the sole survivor of last year's rash of metaphysical concept shows. But Joan won't have God to herself. The success of the Left Behind novels and "The Passion" at the movies has spawned imitation on the small screen, including NBC's new miniseries "Revelations" and a series on ABC produced by Mel Gibson himself.

God, the recurring character, however, is not always the one we recognize from holy books or worship services. We gathered three experts on religion and the media to discuss where the spiritual TV trend began, how faithful viewers watch, and whether television religion is really religion at all.

Teresa Blythe Teresa Blythe

is a spiritual director and co-author of two books on religion and pop culture, "

Meeting God in Virtual Reality: Using Spiritual Practices with Media

" and "Watching What We Watch: Prime-Time Television Through the Lens of Faith."

Mark Best Mark Pinsky

is a religion reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. His "The Gospel According to the Simpsons" has sold more than 100,000 copies and spawned a study guide for churches. His new book is "

The Gospel According to Disney


Jana Reiss Jana K. Riess

is religion book review editor for Publishers Weekly magazine. Her first book, "

What Would Buffy Do? A Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide

," appeared this Spring.

The moderator for the roundtable,

Ellen Leventry

, is a former Beliefnet editor who writes frequently about television.

Ellen Leventry:

From "The Flying Nun" to "Touched By an Angel," television has always dealt with faith and religion. But "Joan of Arcadia" and recent other-worldly shows are different--the oft-used word is "edgy." When did this new strain of spiritual television begin?

Teresa Blythe:

Look at the "spiritual but not religious" Star Wars series, with its Jedi Knights trusting in "the force," or the Matrix trilogy. Television has been using postmodern storytelling since shows like "Homicide: Life on the Streets," which showed multi-faceted police officers contemplating their actions in light of their religious upbringing. And "The X-Files" used religion as a device to reflect on what is alien and mysterious.

But Martha Williamson and her series "Touched by an Angel" really proved that spiritual themes are interesting, relevant and marketable. She made it OK to mention God and act like God exists on TV. If "Touched By An Angel" had not been successful, we would never have seen "Joan of Arcadia," which, by the way, is a much better and more nuanced show. Because Martha had the courage of her convictions, we now watch characters from a variety of faith traditions wrestling with matters of the soul.

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