2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Week.

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.

But for the networks, some uneasy questions: Will the people buy it? Will the Evangelical audiences who flocked to "The Passion" and embraced the apocalyptic "Left Behind" book series tune in to a vision of their faith manufactured by a largely Jewish, mostly liberal group of Hollywood executives, their sworn enemies in the alleged culture war?

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"?

This may be the main problem for the new shows, says Diane Winston, the Knight chair in media and religion at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

"Perhaps I'm giving the public too much credit," Winston said, "but I think there's a certain underlying theological sensibility that informs movies like the `Passion' and that makes Christian viewers love them. `Revelations' has a lot of drama and excitement, but it's not really the Christian story in many ways."

For Winston, the core of the matter seems to be intentionality: Mel Gibson was acting on his own deep and fervent faith, while Hollywood's executives, Jewish or otherwise, are looking to make a buck.

The Rev. Frank Desiderio, president of Paulist Productions, a Hollywood production company owned by that Catholic order of priests, agrees. The new shows, he said, offer the viewers "a pastiche of religious imagery thrown together with no particular religious coherence."


And Rev. Desiderio raises another issue: Hollywood being faithful to its dramatic credo - the more shocking and titillating the better - may be forsaking the center for the fringes.

"Everybody loves to hate the people in Hollywood," he said, "but I do believe that producers are really bright people who have terrific taste. If they put something like the `Passion' on TV, how are they going to look the people they're having dinner with in the eyes?" Besides, Zurawik added, while Gibson's film was essentially a one-man project, a television show is a supremely collaborative process that requires many approvals before ever seeing the light of the small screen. "It's got to look slick," he said. "It's got to look polished. It's got to appeal to a minimum audience of 10 million people. This demand tends to mainstream television content. You don't get to be a guy making the decisions in network television by going to any extreme ends." Yet Zurawik is all too aware that if November's election taught America anything, it is that the center may already be shifting. "I got a degree from the Catholic University of America," he said, "and when I'm producing something, the people I'm going to consult with are reputable scholars. I may talk to people on either extreme end of any issue, but the mainstream will always be represented."

"Revelations," conversely, picks "one very specific element of Protestant theology about the Second Coming of Christ," Rev. Desiderio said, and twisting it into hourlong, made-for-TV dramatic arcs.

So why aren't Hollywood's reigning figures, no strangers to shock value, following Gibson all the way, giving their viewers his already tested brand of literal, violent interpretation of the Scriptures?

Zurawik said the reason may be surprising: It involves good taste, something Hollywood producers often are accused of not possessing.

"That's the ultimate question," he said. "Is this evidence the first movement of the center of mainstream culture towards the right? When `Revelations' gets about 15 million people in a really competitive time slot, is this a sign?" Winston noted that the shows set for this fall, for all their adherence to Christian themes, are still snuggly within the traditional Hollywood cultural paradigm. "Look at `The Book of Daniel,'" she said, referring to the upcoming show. "It's about a pill-popping priest with a gay son. That doesn't sound politically correct from the right-wing point of view." Winston, however, does not rule out the possibility of Hollywood recruiting true believers, just as the supposedly liberal publishing industry invited in the arch-conservative likes of Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg, recognizing their tremendous popularity with conservative readers. President Bush and his so-called value voters, then, may not change Barbra Streisand, Zurawik said, but they may "change the primetime landscape of television and bring these Christian themes into it." "They'll keep going further to the right, and eventually we'll get the Mel Gibson version, the raw, unsweetened version of this fundamentalist vision," he said. "And it's polarizing because you got to have a bad guy in that version of things. If Christ dies a violent death, you have to ask who killed him."

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