God and the Soaps

Adultery! Feuding heirs! Corrupting power! Battles over babies! They're all found in the Bible and in soap operas.

BY: Ellen Leventry

 
"Think of the Bible as a soap opera," chirped Ms. Fields, my scripture teacher at Catholic high school. While her sales pitch met with a few giggles and guffaws at the time, Ms. Fields might actually have been on to something.

Perhaps she might have been more successful in her pitch if she had spun it a little differently and told us instead to think of soap operas as stories from the Bible.

"There are, it is often said, only seven stories: Orpheus, Achilles, Cinderella, Tristan and Isolde, Circe, Romeo and Juliet, and Faust," says John Yorke, former executive producer of the BBC's long-running soap "EastEnders," speaking at the 2002 Bishop's Day Conference. "All of them are to be found in the Bible, be it in the Faustian nature of the Tower of Babel, or in Samson's own `Achilles' Heel'."

Indeed, soap operas are filled with melodrama of biblical proportion and of every variety: Corrupting power, adultery, feuds between heirs, Job-like trials, conversions, and the ever-popular battles over babies, just to name a few.

"It's always a font for writers to go back to," says Michael Logan TV Guide's "On Soaps" columnist. "Some writers in the soap world are very honest about digging into it [the Bible]; it's very easy to connect those dots back to the original stories."

"The concept of the babies and the mothers, who's the real mother, that is something that plays constantly. They are overused and among the corniest clichés on the soaps now. These are things that are the very staple of the genre. I think you absolutely can connect many of them back to Bible stories."

And that connection, like most plot developments in the land of soap operas, is not mere coincidence.

Although soap operas began on the radio in the early 1930s as a way to advertise cleaning products to housewives, Proctor & Gamble monopolized the televised soap opera format in the '50s, producing seven soap operas. As David Trust points out in his article "Those Slippery Soaps," the official Proctor & Gamble Editorial Policy avowed traditional Victorian morality, reflecting the religious beliefs of the company's founders, William Proctor and James Gamble, who were devout Protestants.

"Many of the soaps were spiritually based when they started," Logan notes. "Frequently, entire episodes were given over to religious sermons."

According to the Soap Opera Encyclopedia, for instance, "Guiding Light" started in the 30s as a radio serial following the lives of a minister and his flock, which then evolved into a 15-minute television serial.

"You'd have preachers talking from the pulpit overtly talking about issues [on soap operas] in the '50s, but going away in the '60s and' 70s," Logan says. "Now it would be really out of place to lecture the audience like a minister or priest would. In the old days, there was comeuppance for evil deeds-- they were real morality plays."

Foreign soaps are more likely to include actual religious leitmotifs. Popular Hindu soaps serialize epics including the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, and at least one Latin American telenovela takes place during the time of the Inquisition. But American soaps haven't fully abandoned religious narratives, sometimes radically religious ones.

Beginning in the Spring of 1994, the leading lady on NBC's "Days of Our Lives"--psychiatrist Marlena Evans (Deidre Hall)--became a succubus. She desecrated St. Luke's Church, she levitated above her bed, she even ignited the community Christmas tree on fire while possessed. Viewers were possessed by the controversial storyline and the show achieved extraordinary ratings.

Jim Reilly, who was head writer for the show, soon moved on to "Passions," bringing Hell to the town of Harmony.

Charity, Miguel, and Kay are caught in the typical angst-filled love triangle. Charity and Miguel are the happy couple, but Kay longs for Miguel. What makes this love triangle atypical is that a witch, Tabitha, just happens to live next door to Kay. After Kay sells her soul to uber-witch, Hecuba, in an effort to win Miguel back from Charity, all three are eventually trapped in Hell, literally.They escape, and, praying for Kay, Charity is able to set Kay's soul free. Technically, Tabitha's living doll Timmy, who has a crush on Charity, sets the soul free from a bottle--but still, good triumphs over bad.

Nice Jewish soap-opera characted meets nice Protestant soap opera character...
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  • Continued on page 2: »

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