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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Billy: The Early Years Of Billy Graham

Posted on March 15, 2010 at 8:00 am

Before he was the best-known clergyman in America and a spiritual adviser to Presidents, Billy Graham was a young man struggling with doubt and searching for a way to be of service. This sensitive and respectful film about Billy Graham’s early years stars Armie Hammer as Graham.

I spoke to Hammer about the challenges of taking on the role of a man people know so well.

How did you come to this project?

One day my agent called and said, “I have your next movie. That’s all you need to know.” I fell madly in love with it, knew i had to do it. The next thing I knew, I was in Billy Graham world.

it was the approach i responded do. i knew who he was the way every one else on the planet knows, but this was the human, how he found his faith, how his faith was shaken, how the love of his life was given and almost taken away. We start at the beginning and end when Billy Graham the preacher eclipse Billy Graham the person.

What are the challenges and pitfalls of portraying a real person who has inspired so much respect and affection?

You want to be so careful and pay respect to the Grahams, make something they like and love, and give them the most honest and real portrayal so they can say, “I remember that, I said that.”

I studied his autobiography, Just As I Am. It was an amazing tool for me to use. I also used the internet where you can see private, personal videos that show how he was when he was not preaching. His preaching was his signature enthusiasm but I wanted to see what he was like when he was just talking, where you see his personality.

What made Graham so special?

It was definitely his blind faith — the fact that he whole-heartedly without question or doubt at all found his beliefs and did not waver. He was so human and could take the gospel and make it accessible. He would not say he was the smartest person in the world but he had the gift of faith. In this story, he and Templeton go through a crisis of faith but react differently.

His approachability and simplicity was what made him so good at communicating with people. He is the most honest and good human being that ever walked this planet. He never had a scandal because he did not have a scandalous bone in his body. He created the Modesto manifesto to make sure that he and his men could withstand temptation. He called them together and said, “Ministers are falling to the left and right. What we have to say is too important. Go to your room for an hour and think about what it is that is the cause of these ministers’ downfall.” They all had the same things on the list — sex, money, pride, lying. He said, “Here is what we will do. We will have an outside firm to do the money, none of us will ever be alone in a room with a woman, we will never lie about our numbers of followers or criticize others.” Those are the kinds of decisions that made him unique.

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