2016-06-30
"Think of the Bible as a soap opera," chirped Ms. Fields, my scripture teacher at Catholic high school. While her sales pitch met with a few giggles and guffaws at the time, Ms. Fields might actually have been on to something.

Perhaps she might have been more successful in her pitch if she had spun it a little differently and told us instead to think of soap operas as stories from the Bible.

"There are, it is often said, only seven stories: Orpheus, Achilles, Cinderella, Tristan and Isolde, Circe, Romeo and Juliet, and Faust," says John Yorke, former executive producer of the BBC's long-running soap "EastEnders," speaking at the 2002 Bishop's Day Conference. "All of them are to be found in the Bible, be it in the Faustian nature of the Tower of Babel, or in Samson's own `Achilles' Heel'."

Indeed, soap operas are filled with melodrama of biblical proportion and of every variety: Corrupting power, adultery, feuds between heirs, Job-like trials, conversions, and the ever-popular battles over babies, just to name a few.

"It's always a font for writers to go back to," says Michael Logan TV Guide's "On Soaps" columnist. "Some writers in the soap world are very honest about digging into it [the Bible]; it's very easy to connect those dots back to the original stories."

"The concept of the babies and the mothers, who's the real mother, that is something that plays constantly. They are overused and among the corniest clichés on the soaps now. These are things that are the very staple of the genre. I think you absolutely can connect many of them back to Bible stories."

And that connection, like most plot developments in the land of soap operas, is not mere coincidence.

Although soap operas began on the radio in the early 1930s as a way to advertise cleaning products to housewives, Proctor & Gamble monopolized the televised soap opera format in the '50s, producing seven soap operas. As David Trust points out in his article "Those Slippery Soaps," the official Proctor & Gamble Editorial Policy avowed traditional Victorian morality, reflecting the religious beliefs of the company's founders, William Proctor and James Gamble, who were devout Protestants.

"Many of the soaps were spiritually based when they started," Logan notes. "Frequently, entire episodes were given over to religious sermons."

According to the Soap Opera Encyclopedia, for instance, "Guiding Light" started in the 30s as a radio serial following the lives of a minister and his flock, which then evolved into a 15-minute television serial.

"You'd have preachers talking from the pulpit overtly talking about issues [on soap operas] in the '50s, but going away in the '60s and' 70s," Logan says. "Now it would be really out of place to lecture the audience like a minister or priest would. In the old days, there was comeuppance for evil deeds-- they were real morality plays."

Foreign soaps are more likely to include actual religious leitmotifs. Popular Hindu soaps serialize epics including the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, and at least one Latin American telenovela takes place during the time of the Inquisition. But American soaps haven't fully abandoned religious narratives, sometimes radically religious ones.

Beginning in the Spring of 1994, the leading lady on NBC's "Days of Our Lives"--psychiatrist Marlena Evans (Deidre Hall)--became a succubus. She desecrated St. Luke's Church, she levitated above her bed, she even ignited the community Christmas tree on fire while possessed. Viewers were possessed by the controversial storyline and the show achieved extraordinary ratings.

Jim Reilly, who was head writer for the show, soon moved on to "Passions," bringing Hell to the town of Harmony.

Charity, Miguel, and Kay are caught in the typical angst-filled love triangle. Charity and Miguel are the happy couple, but Kay longs for Miguel. What makes this love triangle atypical is that a witch, Tabitha, just happens to live next door to Kay. After Kay sells her soul to uber-witch, Hecuba, in an effort to win Miguel back from Charity, all three are eventually trapped in Hell, literally.They escape, and, praying for Kay, Charity is able to set Kay's soul free. Technically, Tabitha's living doll Timmy, who has a crush on Charity, sets the soul free from a bottle--but still, good triumphs over bad.

Nice Jewish soap-opera characted meets nice Protestant soap opera character...
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  • In the same series, when Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald, a fiercely devout Catholic, is convinced that the only way out of all her problems is to commit suicide, we see her thrown into Hell only to have her sell her soul to Satan, then returns to the earth to wreak havoc in the lives of the citizens.

    "He's created his own religious universe," says Logan of Reilly, "It's not specifically Catholic as much as it is Reilly."

    Other soaps tried to play ratings catch-up by creating their own quasi-religious supernatural universes. The now-defunct "Port Charles," a spin-off of "General Hospital," which started as a closer look at the personal lives of the young doctors at the hospital, took a dramatic turn bringing in an angel named Rafe, who happened to also be a vampire slayer.

    Turning your main character into a servant of Satan may be a ratings-grabber, but soap operas are also dealing with religion in a more realistic manner, reflecting real-life spiritual struggles and situations.

    "In 'EastEnders,' alone, the biblical parallels are manifold and too numerous to mention," Yorke says. "The saga... is a saga of free will--where the individuals choose to be either good or bad, but all within have knowledge of the Serpent. The good are rewarded, the bad are punished, and individuals are tested to find out in which camp they belong."

    In 1986, "Days of Our Lives" featured a fully realized interfaith love story for the first time on daytime television. Dr. Robin Jacobs (Derya Ruggles), an Orthodox Jew, and Dr. Michael Horton (Michael Weiss), a Protestant from one of the city's prominent families fell madly in love. While he had no misgivings about the relationship, she constantly struggled with what her tradition told her to do.

    "It is difficult for the average person to understand how important a person's relationship with God and tradition can be," Weiss commented to "Soap Opera Digest." "It's even difficult for me to understand how someone could choose religion over love--and I'm playing out the story. It's something a lot of fans just couldn't cope with. They wanted Mike and Robin to be together at all costs."

    Martha Nochimson, in "No End to Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject," writes that Robin and Michael "are impeded by the power relationship between their two traditions, which boxes them into such choices as which holidays will be celebrated."

    In the end though, Robin ended up marrying a nice Jewish boy, but it didn't last and the "supercouple" soon reunited--only to have Robin and their son Jeremy move to Israel later.

    More recently, on "General Hospital," Sonny Corinthos, the resident heartthrob mobster, and his lover Alexis battle over how to raise their daughter, Kristina. Sonny is a card-carrying Catholic, while Alexis is a lawyer who's never shown interest in religion. The couple spars over Kristina's christening and her education, issues interfaith couples deal with everyday.

    And while the "hunky priest" as unattainable--or sometimes attainable--object of desire is a common storyline on modern soaps, more realistic portrayals of the clergy are finding their way back to daytime. In the mid '90s, "One Life to Live" introduced the character of Father Andrew Carpenter, a progressive, rock-and-roll loving Episcopalian priest, who offers advice from the pulpit and deals with real life drama, such as his wife having an affair.

    "It's very much a throw back to how "Guiding Light" started," says Logan. "Having a spiritual presence at the core of the community.... That whole aspect is kind of getting back to the old days."

    Sometimes, though, soap operas can take the religion angle a bit too far. In an effort to gain ratings, the Brazilian soap opera, "Xica Da Silva"--loosely-based on the life of a slave who became one of the most powerful women in the Portuguese colony--featured outrageous storylines, including "devil-worshipping nuns and a gay man whose sexuality changes after a black magic 'snake bath.'" The show succeeded in gaining ratings but also drew the ire of the Catholic Church, which "pressured the network [TV Manchete] to drop scenes of a nun orgy, scheduled to air on Easter week," the AP said.

    Still, real life is sometimes stranger than fiction. In May of 2004, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested that a priest who follows the plotline of a soap opera "has a fair bit of literacy about the world we're in--literacy about our culture, about the human heart," according to the U.K.'s Observer newspaper.

    And that's a dramatic twist worthy of any soap opera: Priests are learning about life from soap operas--and soaps fans, whether they know it or night, are gaining religious literacy from daytime TV.

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