An excerpt from "The Gospel According to Tony Soprano," from Relevant Books.

"The Sopranos" has held the imagination of the world at gunpoint. This story of an upper-middle class suburban family has found an unprecedented place in the heart of cable television subscribers. This fictional family slips in under the radar and subverts viewers who would typically not take part in violence, crime, and deceit in any other context. Yet, every Sunday night, while sitting safely in their living room, millions of people become a third party to criminal activity.

"The Sopranos" shines light into dark areas. It calls hidden secrets to the surface and creates a heightened awareness of the flawed state of mankind. It happens unexpectedly, like spotting the overlooked grime lingering under your fingernails. At once you see your hands as they are, filthy and disgusting, and you are appalled.

Similarly, you watch the show and you may find yourself wanting Tony to kill the traitor, deceive the FBI, and exact sadistic revenge on the worst kinds of people. Your response may be unprecedented and even shocking to you. But you know that something the characters did or said struck deep into the heart of who you are. For ten bucks a month, HBO gives you a new self-awareness. We watch Tony, Carmela, and the rest of the crew, and we see ourselves. It is more than just sixty minutes of action, music, and dialogue. It is a lens that has shaped the way we view the world. Reality steps in and paints an accurate picture as it destroys the illusion of suburban bliss and exposes the vanity, greed, and hypocrisy that typify this culture.

When Silvio gets sick and throws up before he has to kill his best friend, it doesn't have to be explained. The viewers' stomachs are churning as well. When Tony, the chronic adulterer, tells Carmela, "You're not just in my life, you are my life," fans of the show put faith in the unfaithful Mafioso and believe. Because we see ourselves in him, we want to believe that Tony is actually good, and that consequently we are good.

The world loves this adulterous, lying, murderous thief because he is real, raw, and exposed. Caryn James, a New York Times commentator, wrote, "Emphatically middle class, [Tony] is like one of your neighbors, but with a more dangerous job."

But there is something about Tony Soprano that is too real for us-too close to everyday life. As Peter Kreeft says, "To look at a man with both eyes open is terrifying and wonderful, like a roller-coaster ride. It yields a great sense of depth, a third dimension, just as two physical eyes do." We watch Tony and we see ourselves, and that scares us.

Our culture has become so good at covering up the dark-covering up the real-that we are taken aback by such penetrating pictures of reality. Selfish motives rise to the surface and call all of our actions into question. We are driven by our own lust instead of the greater good, and it is to our shame. We are mortified by our lack of moral integrity. We rely on the false so much that when the true story of our sin is revealed, we are forced into the arms of therapy and medication. Still, honest people crave this reality, this acknowledgement in the self-centeredness of humankind. But what we desire most-spiritual realization-we also fear most. This journey will be painful. But we search for truth nonetheless, because we hope for something better.

How can one become a better person watching a series that is violent and sexually deviant, portrays criminal behavior, and disrespects the sacred vows that bind the family? Many will say it's not possible. They will likely mock the aim of this book and especially the intentions of Sopranos creator David Chase, who is seen as cashing in on extreme violence and sexuality. In fact, if you often agree with Christian conservative Pat Robertson, then this is not the book for you. It would be a good idea to put this book down now and turn away slowly. But if you have even a small understanding of what motivates the show's obsession and openness to spiritual insight, then you've come to the right place.

Pundits claim violence begets more violence. The belief is that the brain is a sponge which simply absorbs what it sees and hears and mimics it. They say, "Garbage in-garbage out," "What I see, I will become," and so forth. This philosophy may sound reasonable to many, but it is deeply flawed. It is merely a tool used by religions to control followers. It teaches people they should avoid art, literature, film, and discourse which do not fit into the religious organization's worldview. It's an extremist view that allows no room for moderation. It's like taking the adage, "You are what you eat," literally. But if all you eat is Velveeta cheese you will not become Velveeta cheese, although you will likely get sick.

In the same way, watching violent television will not make you violent. However, it should be understood that your mind should feast on more than your weekly dose of James Gandolfini and Jamie-Lynn Sigler. But based on the fact you are currently reading this book, you already know your way to the bookstore and will likely read something else when finished with this.

Art should reflect reality, not religious fantasy. Turning the scandalous men of the Bible like Abraham, Solomon, and Moses into Mr. Rogers-type figures robs the biblical narrative of its power. These men were deeply flawed, not unlike Tony Soprano. Abraham pimps out the matriarch of the Judeo-Christian faith to powerful kings, and his nephew Lot offers his virgin daughter to the townspeople to be gang-raped. Solomon takes a new wife almost daily, and Moses murders a man in a fit of rage.

When everyone is near perfect there is no progress. No direction. No redemption. Nothing real people can relate to. It is only when a mirror is held up to reflect our own imperfection that we begin to comprehend our need for change. These flawed men and women are broken in the same ways you and I are, and therefore have something to say to us.

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