You’ll have to wait for next week to see our full coverage of NBC’s “The Book of Daniel,” a drama premiering Jan. 6 about Daniel, an Epsicopal priest dealing with life at home and at his parish. But the inevitable barrage of attacks has begun–the American Family Association is urging the faithful to email NBC to protest the show, saying it “mocks” and “demeans” Christianity–so I figured I’d weigh in now.
After watching a couple of preview episodes, I can say definitively that many people will be offended by “Book of Daniel.” Which is not the same as saying the show is insensitive, mean, or inherently offensive. There’s no way around offending some people, whenever religion is portrayed in pop-culture. And “Book of Daniel” clearly isn’t going for the “Seventh Heaven” or “Touched by an Angel” audience. Its characters–just about all of them, including the clergy members–engage in activities that are decidedly un-Christian. But what seems to have the AFA most riled up is that Christ himself appears as a character; depicted as the cliched long-haired, bearded man in robes, Jesus appears only to Daniel, providing counsel and cracking jokes.
So is “Book of Daniel” insensitive? Does it mock religion? I’m not a Christian, so you can take my opinions with whatever grain of salt you’d like, but I am a person of faith whose job, and passion, focuses on faith and pop-culture. That said, onto “Daniel”: I liked it much more than I expected. If you go into it thinking, “Oh good, a show about Christians and a church,” than yes, you will be offended. But that’s not what the show is; the series may focus on a church community, but it’s a soap opera, with all the raunchiness that entails. And as such, it has characters whose problems and behavior are over the top: adultery, drug use, premarital sex, addiction… it’s all there in droves.
We all know that even priests are fallible humans, and some of them do bad things (to put it mildly). So simply depicting members of the clergy misbehaving should not be considered inherently offensive. You may say, “In reality, most people of faith are fine, spiritually pure people, but this show implies that all of them are up to no good.” Sure, but it’s a soap opera. Does Wisteria Lane (of “Desperate Housewives” fame) accurately depict your block? If so, I’d recommend you relocate, quickly, before the murder, adultery, and violence infect you. What sets “Book of Daniel” apart, in my mind, is that these characters strive to do better and to be better. Amidst the absurd soap-opera dramas, they discuss theology, faith, God, relationships, and self-improvement. The world they live in is one of responsibility and consequences, even if they don’t live up to their own ideals so much of the time. Who among us does?
As for Jesus, he is intended to be Daniel’s image of Christ. The conversations are in his head, and this is his personal relationship with Jesus. You can call it simplistic, even theologically questionable, but isn’t every Christian supposed to have a personal relationship with Christ? Daniel’s is unabashed, unapologetic, and so real as to be visible to him.
Lastly, to the show’s credit, it’s not focusing on some unspecified type of Christian community. It’s Episcopalian. You can’t fault Daniel for welcoming gay parishioners, or even for tacitly endorsing premarital sex in a committed relationship (though it’s not yet clear from the show where he really stands on this). Like so many faith communities, the Episcopal Church has seen intense debate over social issues, and Daniel stands squarely within his denomination, or at least one major part of it. And–again, to its credit–the show depicts internal debate and opposition on these issues.
I’m not trying to say it’s a great or sophisticated show, though I do think it’s a cut above most of what’s out there. But mocking of Christianity? Hardly. “Book of Daniel” takes religion very seriously and treats it respectfully, in the context of soap opera conventions, at least. Its depiction of faith may not reflect how we all see ourselves in the mirror, and setting a soap-opera at a church may be too big of a hurdle for some people. So don’t watch it. But let the rest of us enjoy.