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“Book of Daniel”: The Protests Start Early

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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.

“The Office” Nails It, Week After Week

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I’ve been waiting for an excuse to blog about “The Office,” some religion angle to rear its satiric head in the NBC sitcom that, like its British namesake, skewers the absurdities of the typical desk job. But aside from a passing mention of one character’s Christianity, the show has steered clear of explicit faith-focused storylines. But I can wait no longer, and I’ve decided it’s time to express my love publicly for this brilliant show that suffers from perennially poor ratings.

And who needs a specific angle? The show has soul–or, most often, lack of it, exploring the emptiness and ennui of office life so accurately that it can be downright painful to watch. And through its dead-on depiction of office life and office personalities, it sends the message loud and clear that we as a society too often lose sight of any sense of meaning in our daily lives and fall into routines and roles that sap the life out of us. (NOTE TO MY BOSSES: By “painful to watch” and “sap the life out of us,” I am referring, of course, to other people in other offices, since I cannot relate to the show in any personal sense.)

But if satirizing the meaninglessness of work was all that “The Office” offered, it wouldn’t be the work of genius it is, no matter how hilarious and on-target that portrayal is. Alongside the show’s soullessness it does have a soul, and it’s got a heart. And to its credit and our benefit, this season’s episodes have displayed more and more of these elements without sacrificing laughs.

It shows in the unspoken romantic longing–expressed in fleeting glances and tiny gestures–between Pam, the receptionist who is nominally engaged to an inattentive guy, and Jim, the young sales rep who, as the one who most often points out the absurdities he sees around him and who tries to bring some levity and camaraderie to the office, embodies the series’ heart and soul. And it shows in the occasional but poignant tenderness and kindness that creeps into the dysfunctional relationship between Michael–the hilarious Steve Carrell as the clueless boss who’s never had a thought he’s left unspoken–and his often-bewildered employees.

Next week, “The Office” is moving from its Tuesday night slot to NBC’s newly beefed-up Thursday lineup. Here’s hoping it finds success there. May its ratings rise sharply so it can secure its place in primetime for years to come.

DVDs to Build a New Year’s Resolution On

posted by doug howe

Movies are most powerful when they jump off the screen and into our lives. Kris recently recommended several good DVDs for this holiday season, and I’d like to offer my own suggestions. These are a few DVDs that have jumped into the Howe family’s life, sparked real discussions with our kids, and are worthy of rediscovery before making New Year’s resolutions next week. And I’ve even given you a headstart on what those resolutions might be:

Grow a Less Grinchy Heart. The Grinch (“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) was unable to receive love, so he had none to give. Eventually, though, the Grinch’s heart grew and he opened himself up to love—and roast beast.

Create Miracles on Your Street. The 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street” breathes life and hope into anyone who struggles to have faith in anything…or anyone in my home, my neighborhood, my community, my country?

Reach Out to Those Who Are “Home Alone.” Macauley Caulkin’s “Kevin” was alone temporarily due to a comedic family oversight. The beauty of the movie was how he got beyond his fears to share hope and life lessons with the feared old man across the street.

Wow! I’ve Got “A Wonderful Life.” After the singing and the angel who gets his wings, George is still not financially secure like his brother or rich friend. He still hasn’t traveled to see the world. Mr. Potter is still on the Board of the Building & Loan, and still holds the mortgage on most of the town. And George still has a full-time job that nobody wants. All he has is the love and adoration of his wife and children, and the richness of friends.

Love the Scrooges in My Life. We’ve all probably got at least one Ebenezer Scrooge in our lives, if not more. Our boss. Our neighbor. A family member. The redemption of “A Christmas Carol” isn’t simply that Mr. Scrooge is transformed, but that a crippled boy with no material blessings turns out to be the primary agent of change, at least in the human sphere.

The Gift of Time, Not Just Treasure. In 1996’s “Jingle All the Way,” Arnold Schwarzenegger embarks on every father’s nightmare: He’s promised his son a gift that’s been sold out for weeks, and he lied to his wife by saying he already had it. In the end, he secures the Turbo Man action figure–but discovers that what his son really wanted all along is a relationship with his dad, the real action hero in his life.

The Joy of an Imperfect Christmas. “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” pokes fun at the mishaps in a harried family’s holiday celebration. In a performance-driven, high-efficiency world, it’s good to be reminded that no one is perfect and that love is not conditioned on perfection.

Whatever our movie preferences, we can move past asking “Did I like it?” to asking instead, “How does it speak to my life spiritually?” Perhaps it will lead me to a time of reading or prayer that helps me become the kind of person I long to be, the kind of person movies get made about. Not just a character, but a person of character.

Another Forgettable Legacy of the Sexual Revolution

posted by kris rasmussen

I went 0-for-2 at the box office this week, first sitting through the dreadful “Cheaper by the Dozen 2” and then catching the star-filled, meant-to-be-extremely-clever romantic comedy “Rumor Has It.” This movie is about a 30-something career woman, Sarah Huttinger ( Jennifer Aniston), who returns home with a potential fiancé, Jeff (Mark Ruffalo), to attend her sister’s wedding in Pasadena. The supposedly hilarious twist to this formula is that Sarah–commitment-phobic and ambivalent about her life–discovers that her mother and grandmother were the inspiration for the popular 1960s book and movie, “The Graduate.”

After learning that her grandmother and mother both slept with a mystery man named Beau Burroughs, and that her mother sneaked away a week before her wedding to be with Beau (all details found in the plot of “The Graduate”), Sarah is suddenly convinced that this news explains her present and past unhappiness with her family, her romantic relationships, her career, and anything else she can think of–all because she believes Beau may be her real father. Tracking down the playboy-turned-successful businessman, Sarah soon learns the truth about Beau’s relationship with her mom, but not before she, too, falls under the spell of his charm and ruins her own relationship with Jeff.

The movie fails not just because the plot is convoluted and the jokes fall flat. The movie fails for the same reason many (though not all) romantic comedies fail these days. Today’s romantic comedies are often not really comedies at all, but instead are sociological studies in the three-plus decades of fallout from the so-called sexual revolution of the ’60s–when Hollywood began making movies like “Love Story” (if I am in love, do I really never have to say I am sorry?) and “The Graduate.” During the turbulent ’60s, romantic comedies switched from focusing on romance and love that precede sex and commitment to focusing on Baby Boomers treating marriage and commitment as concepts to be met with disdain or disbelief. Instead of Cary Grant or Rock Hudson pursuing Doris Day, we suddenly had Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand as mismtached lovers in “The Way We Were.” Big difference, though not entirely a bad one, because who ever lived a life like Doris Day’s anyway?

However,the result is that today’s romantic comedies (think “Eternal Sunshine” or “Garden State” ) more often than not send the message that Gen Xers don’t know what romance is, think permanent commitment is a myth, and don’t believe that blood or marriage has anything to do with being a family. Why? Because our Baby Boomer parents who believed in stuff like the messages found in “Love Story” told us so.

Which brings me back to “Rumor.” The one interesting thing about this movie is that Sarah does (finally… after 90 torturous minutes) figure out that yes, in fact, the things she believed about love, marriage, and commitment are all lies. Her grandmother’s raucous ’60s lifestyle wasn’t actually that fulfilling. Her mother was not a desperate housewife who gave up the love of her life to marry Sarah’s father. Momentary chemistry can be a poor substitute for lasting happiness. Oh, yeah, and the most important lesson Sarah learns is that she should stop whining and grow up. All points worthy to be found in a movie–unfortunately just not this movie. So “Rumor” could have been worth a watch, but it’s not. Spread the word and let this “Rumor” die a quick death at the box office.

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