Themes of Church and Clergy in New Television Series

Posted on June 8, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Commercial television has usually stayed far away from religious themes in television series. For decades, most television characters were vaguely Christian, a few Jewish, and almost always their religion was about culture and the holidays. But religious themes and characters who are believers and even members of the clergy are suddenly showing up in a number of shows.

“Preacher,” on AMC, starring Dominic Cooper as a clergyman named Jesse, is produced by a duo better known for comedy, Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg. But it is based on the dark, disturbing, and very violent comic book series and the title character has supernatural power that may come from God. Time Magazine writes: “it’s thrilling to watch Jesse go from dour to empowered.” The Jewish magazine Tablet notes:

Attention parents, teachers, rabbis, and anyone else entrusted with cultivating the spiritual and moral development of the young: Take away your children’s books, ban all homework for a while, sit them down in front of the TV, and make them watch Preacher.

Sure, the show, which premiered this week, features spontaneous combustions, impalings on a plane, a ballet of stabbings, a homemade bazooka, and a character accurately named Arseface—and that’s just the first 30 minutes of the very first episode. But it also manages the very difficult feat of being simultaneously the most outrageously fun and the most theologically serious show on television, and the pleasures of contemplating the machinations of free will while gawking at a character holding up a gooey bit of flesh, say, and wondering whether it’s a slice of shawarma or a severed ear are too great to resist…. Custer is too busy to do much reading, but if he did he might’ve dug Abraham Joshua Heschel. Describing a world Custer would immediately recognize, Heschel lamented the fact that, too often these days, “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.”

The preacher is here to fix all that, and his approach is one Heschel would’ve applauded, give or take a few broken bones. Realizing early on that sermons and strictures make for a very poor engine with which to move hearts and minds, Custer, like Heschel, learns the power of radical amazement, the art of waking up in the morning and taking nothing for granted.

Cinemax’s “Outcast” stars Patrick Fugit (“Almost Famous”) and also has a supernatural theme, with demon possession and a clergyman character called Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), who says, “Church is not optional. This is the only thing that will fortify us, sustain us, inoculate us against the darkness.” The series is from the creator of the popular zombie series, “The Walking Dead.”

Hulu has a new series about a cult called “The Path,” starring Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”). His character has been a committed member of a religious group with his wife, but he suffers a crisis of faith that he knows means he risks losing everyone he cares about. Hugh Dancy plays the group’s charismatic leader.

And coming this fall, we have a comic take on heaven with Kristen Bell as a woman sent there by mistake. It’s called “The Good Place” and it’s coming to NBC. It may be a sitcom, but like the other shows in this list, it engages with some spiritual and theological topics in a compelling way.

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