Beliefnet
Fierce lightning strikes a young girl who has just disobeyed her father-leaving her brain-dead but babbling religious prophecies in Latin. A Satan-worshiper slices his finger off but doesn't bleed. A baby that some think is Christ and others think is the antichrist survives a deadly shipwreck and floats ashore on the isle of Patmos.

You might expect such images in a teen horror flick, but this is prime-time television fare from the pilot of a religion-themed drama on NBC-TV. "Revelations," debuting April 13th, is billed as "the final chapter" in "the greatest story ever told." Using explicit references and images from Catholicism, as well as from popular fundamentalist fare such as the LaHaye-Jenkins "Left Behind" series and Hal Lindsey's "Late, Great Planet Earth," "Revelations" seeks to frighten and titillate us with end-times speculation, theophanies (ominous visitations from God, usually involving acts of nature, such as thunderstorms, "burning bushes," or earthquakes), and the ever-familiar battle between good and evil.

Not that this is anything new for television. "The X-Files" gave us preachers who charmed snakes into killing at their bidding, a child with stigmata (spontaneous bleeding imitating the wounds of Jesus), and faith healers from the dark side. "Charmed" uses demons and images of hell to stir up trouble for the witches and the "white lighters" who fight for good against the pantheon of spirits who work for evil. HBO's "Carnivale" features a rigid Christian pastor as a villain with the power to literally force people to their knees-or worse. And "Point Pleasant" centered around a young woman spawned by Satan's coupling with her human mother.

Producers of mystery-thriller dramas use religious imagery, usually loosely based on biblical images or descriptions from Dante's "Inferno," because those images are familiar to us and are understood to be scary, exciting, or both. An ax murderer is scary but an ax murderer "sent from hell to destroy all humanity" ups the ante in shock value.

This is to be expected; after all, TV producers need to create excitement among viewers so ratings will increase, and frankly, it's getting harder and harder to excite viewers who feel like we've "seen it all" already on cable or film. Certainly the mystery of the world beyond our vision and experience will always intrigue us. But often the networks go too far, using religious imagery manipulatively to stir up the faithful and create a buzz. When "Revelations" talks about Jesus and uses the image of a cross in its logo, it startles us because we're used to a more universalistic approach to religion on television.

Christians from various backgrounds will find something to hate about "Revelations." Liberal Christians will find the fiery "end of the world" signs at best hokey and at worst mean-spirited, playing into stereotypes that assume all Christians believe in a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Rev. Fred Schmidt, an Episcopal theologian and professor of Christian spirituality from Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, has gone on record saying this show will "give the Apocalypse a bad name." His point is that the biblical Book of Revelation is a poetic description of the hardships of early Christians, not a literal account of how the world will end. On the other side of the Christian spectrum, biblical literalists will complain that the TV show does not stick closely to what they see as God's apocalyptic "to do" list. But beyond this one problematic series, there's a larger question:

What happens when producers use religion to creep people out?

  • One narrow theological view of God crowds out other views. Religious imagery that frightens people usually presents, whether intentionally or not, a God who is angry, eager to punish and commands fear (and not in the popular churchy definition of fear as "awe," either). Many theologians would argue that this image is not in keeping with the many other images of a loving, merciful and "slow to anger" God found throughout both the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament.
  • "Mean world syndrome" grows. Cultural anthropologist George Gerbner says television producers' lust for stories about violence and terror translates into viewers who feel more and more victimized by "meanness" in the world-whether real or perceived. If people react to local news reports about the latest "killer in their kitchen cabinets" with fear, it's likely they'll also react with trepidation when they see what is really a horror show dressed up in familiar religious symbols.
  • Religious "signs and wonders" are overemphasized. All the shows mentioned here portray a part of Christianity that is based on "signs and wonders," those miracles, paranormal happenings, or jaw-dropping experiences that are exceedingly rare. Most deeply spiritual people find God in the subtle, the mundane, in ordinary daily life. Shows that highlight the whiz-bang experiences diminish the importance of the more common ones and suggest that spirituality is based on external occurrences rather than "the still, small voice."
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