Commuters traversing the Times Square subway station in recent months were subjected to a chilling sight: Posters featuring bat-like creatures flapping against a blood-red sky, with a cryptic message printed in a Gothic font - Omnium Finis Imminet, Latin for "the end of all things is near" - seemingly were everywhere.
Passers-by soon learned that the posters were promoting a new show on NBC titled "Revelations." Starring Bill Pullman as a skeptical Harvard scientist and Natascha McElhone as a disenfranchised nun, the show took its thematic cue from the last book of the Christian Bible, which contains prophecies pertaining to the end of time, the Second Coming of Christ and the battle of good vs. evil.
The show is merely the first in a slew of religion-themed programs soon to hit primetime television.
Lined up for the fall season are NBC's "The Book of Daniel," in which the melancholy Aidan Quinn plays a pill-popping priest aided by a hip, modern-day Jesus, and "Briar and Graves" on Fox, chronicling the exploits of a hard-living priest who teams with a female doctor to investigate unexplained religious phenomena.
Meanwhile, CBS is planning a series about a physicist "with strong religious beliefs," Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik reported recently.
To be sure, these newcomers contain little of the ecumenical, Brand X spirituality offered on shows such as "Joan of Arcadia" or "Touched by an Angel." Instead, they gravitate more toward decidedly Christian narratives, aspiring to tempt the massive audience of Evangelicals and conservative Catholics that made Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" one of the highest-grossing films ever.
Ironically, the creative talents behind this new wave of televised Christian faith are mostly Jewish.
"Revelations," for example, was the brainchild of David Seltzer, and is directed by David Semel and Lili Fini Zanuck. "Briar and Graves" is produced by Marty Adelstein.
Why are Hollywood's Jews suddenly finding Christ?
Zurawik provides two reasons. One has to do with the psyches of Jewish television executives.
In his acclaimed book "The Jews of Prime Time" (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 2003), Zurawik wrote that the Jewish captains of American television were self-conscious of their otherness and thus endeavored to put on an all-American cornucopia that embraced Protestant values while hiding any manifestation of Jewishness. That condition, he said, is still somewhat true today.
The second element, however, concerns the current political and cultural zeitgeist.
"Along comes `The Passion of the Christ,'" Zurawik said, "and along comes the [2004 presidential] election and all the talk of faith and values, which are really Christian faith and values of a very conservative type. To expect Hollywood not to be bending over backwards to try and respond to that would be to learn nothing from history."
To be sure, the new shows still fall far outside the hard-core realm of Gibson's bloody fundamentalism. Most are inspired more by "The X Files" than by the Good Book: From the dark and looming sense of supernatural menace to the very narrative structure, featuring a man-woman team in which one is a believer and the other isn't, there's more than a little bit of "The X Files" to be found in shows such as "Revelations" and "Briar and Graves." The latter, in fact, was described by the network as "`The X Files' goes to church," Zurawik reported.
Whatever their inspiration, one thing is clear: The new shows are more faithful to the tried-and-true principles of dramatic storytelling than they are to a scripture of any kind.
"This is national television," said Seltzer, the creator and writer of "Revelations," in an interview. "The show is not biblically based but dramatically based." Still, he added, his identity as a Jew never was an obstacle in dealing with Christian themes.
"I'm not afraid to use Christ as an icon," he said. "I'm not afraid to say Jesus Christ, and I'm not afraid to speak of those who worship him. After all, Jesus preached about love."
Seltzer said if the show, which was designed as a six-part miniseries ending this month, becomes a full-fledged series, he would be happy to "explore spirituality in a deeper and broader sense," mining the traditions of different religions for inspiration.
None of this should be surprising. After all, this is Hollywood being Hollywood, trying to make a profit by producing whatever its executives think the people want to see.
After all, wasn't William Donahue, the president of the Catholic League, bluntly expressing the views of many on the Christian right when he said during a TV debate last year that "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular"?