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 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 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 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.
My concern, now that spirituality is somehow the "It" topics, is that Hollywood will trivialize or cheapen it. One thing I loved about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was its refusal to take the easy route. Characters had to struggle with everything, especially spiritual and moral questions. Nothing was taken for granted. It never beat viewers over the head. I'm encouraged, now that "Buffy" and "Angel" are off the air, that other shows have undertaken spiritual questions in fresh ways. "Six Feet Under," particularly, takes a lot of creative risks and strives to make the audience think.
Mark Pinsky: After "Touched by an Angel" and "7th Heaven" opened the doors opened for other shows, even those not built around a religious premise. My concern is that "the Christian character" may be joining the stock cast along with "the gay character."
Also, notice that while God may be mentioned on television, "Jesus" and "Christ"--except in expletive form--are much more rare. Except on "South Park," of course, where scatology meets eschatology. And why doesn't God tell Joan to go to church?
Teresa: In Mark's latest book, he says Walt Disney didn't put a church on his Main Streets, USA because he wanted people of all religions to feel welcome. Instead of trying to exclude Christians, Disney wanted to be inclusive of everyone else. This relates to why Barbara Hall's characters on "Joan of Arcadia" don't talk about Jesus. At a time when we still hear the United States referred to as a "Christian nation," I applaud both Disney and Hall for being welcoming. The fact that being welcoming is good for business is never lost on me.