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Depicting Christianity, Bible stories and Jesus’s life in film is never without controversy.

A relatively recent example is the television series The Book of Daniel (2006), which aired on NBC all too briefly.

SpouseMouse and I are the only people we know of who saw it when it aired that summer on one of the ITV channels in the UK. We were so disappointed to have been left hanging with the sixth episode. I then found out it had been cancelled in the US and that was all we were going to get. The DVD box set has eight episodes.

The Book of Daniel was a superb series. As I was also wrestling with two major problems in my life at the time, I found it comforting and inspiring. SpouseMouse, not a fan of religious-themed programmes or films, also found the show worthwhile.

Imdb.com sums up the plot nicely:

St. Barnabas’s Episcopalian vicar Daniel Webster has a wealthy parish. Yet his family life constantly complicates everything. Peter is Daniel’s model son and med student, but struggles with being a semi-closet gay. His adopted brother, ethnic Asian Adam, is an incorrigible rascal. Daniel’s father in law is also a bishop, and the ‘discre[et] best friend’ of Daniel’s bishop. In-laws and parish benefactors attract further trouble on top of the regular pastoral work. A hippie Jesus Christ inspires Daniel in cheeky visions.

One has the impression that Mr Webster’s life was going well until he and his congregation took the decision to build a school. Webster’s optimism quickly turns sour as the school’s construction unfolds, bringing to light some dodgy deals of which he was unaware. It is at this point that all manner of family problems come to light, including his mother’s Alzheimer’s. (On that subject, I liked that she was a retired professor of English literature. So often, we have the false impression from medical ‘experts’ that only uneducated people get this disease. I can tell you from personal experience that many Alzheimer’s sufferers were high achievers and continued to be mentally and physically active even in retirement.)

Webster (Aidan Quinn) begins seeking refuge in Vicodin. One scene shows him in a controlled WASP panic over the building project. He reaches for his pills and finds they are not in the usual place. Jesus suddenly appears and tells him they are in his desk drawer. Jesus then asks him why Daniel places so much faith in the tablets rather than in Him. If I remember rightly, Daniel puts the pills back, embarrassed.

Overall, Jesus (Garret Dillahunt) is biblically portrayed. He is calm yet forthright. He attempts to get Daniel to examine himself and resume walking in faith. All the Webster family’s sins and struggles are borne of some aspect of unbelief. The show does not spell this out as many fundamentalists probably hoped it would, which is probably why they brayed for its cancellation before it was even aired! The show leaves it to the viewer to discover. Anyone with half an ounce of spiritual intelligence can figure it out.

The other aspect I liked was that, although we had the impression that Jesus was always watching over Daniel, Daniel found His presence and absence frustrating. When Jesus does appear, it is always at the most fraught moments. Webster never appreciates it, although those are the times when he needs Him most. Then there are other times when Daniel is exasperated when Jesus doesn’t appear. It is such a human response. We want Jesus on our terms. Jesus wants us on His!

It is surprising that the show’s many fans didn’t mention the housekeeper’s role with Mrs Webster. I do not even know the name of the actress who played the housekeeper, but she is full of wisdom and guidance. Judith Webster (Susanna Thompson) has a drinking problem which, in High WASP fashion, she keeps under wraps. Only the housekeeper is aware of it.

Her relationship with Judith is akin to Jesus’s with Daniel. Each has their own minder and counsellor. It is natural that, as a man of the cloth, Daniel has Jesus.

Anyway, in one episode Judith is about to pour herself a lunchtime martini in the kitchen. The housekeeper quietly takes the bottle of gin from her hand and pours it down the drain. The two look at each other. Judith goes on to confront her problems and herself.

Some viewers objected to the presence of the housekeeper, but any Episcopalian could figure out that both Daniel and Judith came from money, as most rectors and their wives do. I have often heard it said in the US that Episcopal clergy often have inheritances they can tap into because they certainly cannot depend on their salaries. I do not intend that to be a mean comment, but the expectation of their parents is that they will continue to live in the manner in which they were raised. I had the impression that the housekeeper had worked for Judith’s family and knew her well.

I had a few objections to some of Webster’s counsel to his congregation. Two examples are his condoning premarital sex when he interviews a young couple about to get married and his sermon about temptation which seemed rather left-field to me. Yet, these things go on in a number of Episcopalian and Anglican parishes every day.

In researching this post, many fans of the show aired their views on Imdb.com’s forum. Here are a few snippets (emphases mine below):

akcampbell (Ohio [Episcopalian], 6 January 2006):

Daniel — fully priest and also fully regular-guy. Why is it offensive that a priest isn’t perfect?

To the people who are concerned that this sort of material is detrimental, I must respectfully disagree. I find it hard to believe that someone would be condemned for considering Jesus a good friend he turns to when he has troubles. Isn’t putting Jesus into the context of our lives and having a close relationship what we are supposed to do? I think that is the most basic tenet of this show.

Based on all the savage reviews I had heard, I was all set to drum up a letter writing campaign to the network (which I see as voicing an opinion, not promoting censorship, and something people in the majority don’t do nearly often enough because they feel guilty about being in the majority in the first place).

But then I watched the premiere, and I really enjoyed it. If “The Book of Daniel” brings anyone to church, if it shows them that maybe it’s a place where they will be accepted in spite of their flaws, if it encourages them to keep trying to be better in spite of their weaknesses — then I’m all for it.

We don’t watch a lot of TV, but this show is entertaining and real, and it had earned a place in our viewing pantheon.

———

Clemens Reinke (New Jersey, 28 January 2006):

We were looking forward to the debut of “The Book of Daniel” before it even came out. As a Lutheran pastor, I thought the idea to portray the everyday life of an Episcopal priest’s family sounded very interesting. After seeing the first episode our family (a daughter [16] and and son [13]) made Friday evening the time to watch “The Book of Daniel” together. Even though there were some overdrawn plots, and maybe too much going on at the same time, we greatly enjoyed watching the show because to a pastor’s family so much of it rang true. It was even refreshing to see Jesus enter the life of Fr. Daniel Webster. It showed how Jesus is present in everyday life, sometimes supportive and understanding, sometimes uncovering the vices. I was absolutely stunned when we turned on the television last night expecting to see the show when we found out that NBC abruptly pulled it off the air after only four episodes. I wish that there will be a place to see the rest of the show. I am upset that the opinion of the religious right has the power to take away a show greatly enjoyed by other Christian people of faith that happen to not be as closed as they are. It is interesting that the larger political debate and divide has now even effected a television show like this one.

——–

buzzarb (United States, 9 January 2006):

The show really app[eal]ed to me because my grandfather is a bishop under The Church of God in Christ, my mother a choir director, father a deacon, and my uncle’s and aunts are ministers. We have one of the largest churches in Philadelphia and we as the first family of the church are always being watched. I recall on the show … his daughter being arrested was all over the church and community within in hours. This was so funny to me because that stuff happens all the time; church people are always waiting to spread some kind of gossip

——–

cordrone (United States, 9 November 2007):

I felt Dillahunt actually did a good job in the role and the talks between the two characters really played rather well and helped, I felt, show the bond between this man and his God. It showed me how very personal the connection between man and God could be and it also worked well as a device because it allowed the viewer to better understand the thoughts and motivations behind the title character of Daniel. To draw a quick Shakespearian analogy the character of Jesus in TDoD is used in much the same way the character of Horatio is used in Hamlet.) In short TBoD was an excellent show that was crucified by the very people who really should have embraced it, never to rise again, which is a real shame

——-

sartboy (United States, 23 April 2007):

I am a Jewish man and always at least a little interested in the mass media entertainment industry’s portrayal of people of the Christian faiths, but am often bored with the story lines and degree of cheese factor most often prominently worn by shows of this genre. Somewhat reluctantly, I decided to watch the pilot and was more than impressed— not because of the so-called blasphemy or anti-Christian-Right sentiment projected by this program (there truly was none of this to be seen), but because of the thoughtful nature of the show’s voice and genuinely hip air that the entire show had. The stories’ characters were actually interesting; the plot lines, although a little haggard, were fabulously entertaining when presented on this stage; the timing, overall writing and staging, casting, etc. were far more engaging than anything else airing on prime time “Big Three” (CBS, NBC & ABC) television … the show was just THAT GOOD– as far as mainstream TV programming goes. To hell with uptight Christian right-wing groups … What, really, is the threat that these people face, anyway? If they are so scared that someone may look at Christianity for all or any of its flaws/ inconsistencies, then, perhaps, more time and energy should be invested in correcting these troubles than attempting to levy censorship to just try and cover it all up. Wake up, people and join the real world.

——-

And, so, another intelligent series bites the dust. The Book of Daniel is not a flat or a hokey film about Christianity where everything is great all the time. It is a realistic representation of daily life for many believers who struggle with sin emanating from an imperfect faith. As the series shows, our Lord is there to help — if we would only listen, then act accordingly!

 

 

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