Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Reading Between the Lines of "The Book of Daniel"

I find it interesting in my hospital ministry that there are questions I don’t get. By that I mean that I encounter social phenomena that I expect to get questions and comments about, and then they don’t come. For example, I had fewer questions than I expected about the movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” I did get a few comments – mostly along the lines of “Oh, you’ve just got to see it!” However, I received very few questions about what I thought of the movie, and what I thought of Gibson’s perspective on the Passion. (For the record: I have expressed little opinion on it because I haven’t seen it. On the other hand, I’ve read the book any number of times.)

And so in the past few days I have had no questions whatsoever about the new NBC television show “The Book of Daniel.” Perhaps because I’m a hospital chaplain and not a parish priest those I care for in the hospital are not so attuned to my Episcopal affiliation. In any case, I have been prepared for questions and comments that haven’t come.

However, this show I did see. At least, I watched the first hour and most of the second hour – flipping in and out. I found it tiresome after a while. It’s not that I found it offensive, at least for its portrayal of all the characters as fallible, even venal, human beings. I just thought it wasn’t very well done. Throwing all the dysfunction of this family at me all in one eruption left me tired and disinterested. It wasn’t that I couldn’t believe any of those problems might occur in a family, even a clergy family; but so many, and all at the same time, seemed simply like “piling on.” Any entertainment requires some suspension of disbelief. “The Book of Daniel” went too far, not in any one human failing, but in the sheer volume of them, for me to maintain interest. (A side note: I don’t watch situation comedies for much the same reason.)

I will admit I was pleased with Jesus, or the Jesus of Daniel’s faith. He is grounded, compassionate, sensible, and mature. He holds Daniel accountable, and yet is prepared to forgive. It’s an image of Jesus that I could hear, could trust, could accept reproof from, could feel love from.

On the other hand, there simply wasn’t enough else about the show to engage me. I am not a fan after the first night. I expect the first night to be my last.

Having said all that, I find there were some things done right in “The Book of Daniel,” things that I as an Episcopal priest, can appreciate. They are things I haven’t heard other commentators talk about. There are characteristics of Daniel that I want to honor.

First, Daniel is trying to be a good pastor. As you might expect, I was particularly struck by the hospital scene. When the family wanted their priest for emotional and spiritual support, their priest was there, giving comfort and proclaiming hope. He was trying to do the same thing at the funeral of his wife’s brother-in-law, and that in spite of the personal consequences to Daniel of the brother-in-law’s apparent crime. When the prospective bride and groom each come to him, acknowledging his and her fear and unreadiness for marriage, he doesn’t try some sitcom manipulation. He encourages them to talk to each other, and to share the truth.

Even his sermon wrestling with temptation was an attempt to communicate with his congregation in terms of their own lives. I would also note that it was theologically stronger than was implied. No less a theologian than Martin Luther commented that we benefit from sin in that it makes us more conscious of our need for salvation that only God can provide.

Second, Daniel has worked hard to have a strong family life. He loves his wife. He tries to convey values – even some traditional values – to his children.

Daniel has an active prayer life. Indeed, each conversation with Jesus constitutes prayer. Some would say the style was unconventional, but I would argue it is quite traditional. How much more profoundly could one “take it to the Lord in prayer” than through simple conversation? In the Spiritual Exercises Loyola included the step of Colloquy, which is just this sort of conversation with Christ as perceived in the believer’s meditation. It perhaps seems more surprising coming from an Episcopalian. If, on the other hand, an Evangelical Christian were to speak of “going to Jesus” we wouldn’t be surprised at all. Even more remarkable (and Jesus does remark on it) Daniel actually listens.

Finally, and most critically, Daniel actually believes in Jesus. There will be those who will say, “If he truly believed, wouldn’t he act differently?” I would suggest that we don’t get to see perfection until God brings the Kingdom in all its fullness. Daniel is still, as Luther put it, “simul iustus et peccator:” “at the same time justified and still a sinner.” Daniel trusts in the love and acceptance of Jesus, even when he fails to live up to his own understanding of what Jesus calls him to. In a time when Episcopalians have been accused of losing faith in Jesus because we do not take a sufficiently rigorous stand on some issues, here is a response. Here is an Episcopalian, and a priest, who believes firmly and profoundly in Jesus, accepting his confrontation, trusting in his love, and asking his guidance.

Now, all these things won’t make me a fan of the show. I still think it’s poorly written and over broad, and I expect it won’t last beyond whatever has already been taped. On the other hand, I believe in credit where credit is due; and if I’m planning not to watch because of what I think it does poorly, I will at least give praise for what I think it does well.

1 comment:

Rick+ said...

I hadn't watched it, as I fully expected I'd have the same response to this characterization of clergy life that I have to most others in film or on TV: I just can't relate to them.

A friend who worked in the White House said they couldn't watch West Wing because they couldn't recognize it. Medical people have told me the same thing about medical dramas. They just can't related to them.

I appreciated your comments. They remind me, long ago, when I felt compelled to go see The Last Temptation of Christ, because members of the congregation I served where so upset about it. I came back and told them, "Don't worry about it. It's boring and unbelievable, badly written and badly acted. I couldn't wait for Jesus to finally die so I could go home. On the other hand, the part that you're worried about -- the temptation of Jesus part? That's the best part of the film. It explored a genuine theological question, and explored it well!"