Skip to main content

Culture Television


Gratuitous virtue

Promised Land's faith makes prime-time, but faith in what?

When people say, "There's nothing good on television," they usually mean "There's too much gratuitous sex-violence-obscenity." And they're right.

But, as Shakespeare proved, there's no metal so base that a talented dramatist can't turn it into gold. Therein lies the real reason standard-issue TV should rub us the wrong way: Its sex, violence, and obscenity function not as elements of a serious conflict that will end meaningfully resolved but as meaningless titillation.

Viewers of Promised Land, a spin-off of Christian producer Martha Williamson's hit Touched by an Angel, need to ask whether the virtues it celebrates serve a similarly meaningless function: Do its faith, hope, and love suggest a deeper reality of which they are the fruit? Or do they exist merely to provide an alternative to sex, violence, and obscenity, guaranteeing nothing more than that shallow-minded regenerates stay as glued to the screen as shallow-minded degenerates?

Promised Land has no angels. But its central characters, the Greenes, because they're just a little lower than the angels from whom they've spun off, provide the show with a morally vital foil for the morally inert forces behind the conflicts. The characters refer to "God," not "Jesus," to "the Lord above," not "the Lord," but in every other respect they walk, look, and sound like the sort of evangelical Christians that television usually demonizes.

Gerald McRaney--whose appearance alongside Marilyn Quayle at the 1992 Republican Convention marked his coming out as a conservative--plays Russell Greene, a middle-aged husband and father of two. Having lost his job in the pilot episode, he now travels the highways of America in an RV that contains not only his wife Claire (Wendy Phillips) and children Dinah (Sarah Schaub) and Joshua (Austin O'Brien) but also his mother Hattie (Celeste Holm) and his nephew Nathaniel (Eddie Karr).

The Greenes see their rootlessness as a "great commission" of sorts, stopping only long enough for Russell and sometimes Claire to keep their cross-country trek in the black by finding temporary work, and at each stop they encounter a crisis that they quell with a peace that passeth understanding. (The constant motion is also part of a contemporary trend that declares church-rootedness unimportant.)

But if the variety of the crises keeps the concept fresh (three recent episodes dealt with a mine cave-in, a suicidal teen, and an age-discrimination case), the combined intensity and frequency of the crises may provoke from the viewer a disbelief that he might have trouble suspending, especially since the Greenes resolve nearly every crisis with a speed possible only in mainstream television's telescoped time.

The acting, however, is uniformly good. Although Ms. Phillips's Claire frequently seems on the brink of tears, she, too, conveys an inner strength and, during the cave-in episode, scolds the mine's owner for blaming the accident on a "vacationing" God by exclaiming, "God is not on vacation! He's right here among us!" Who would've thought such a declaration possible on prime-time TV?

Recently, the show has provided a counterbalance to its happy endings by turning Joshua's blindness (the result of a drive-by shooting accident) into a running complication; the show also emphasized the disappearance of Nathaniel's father (Russell's brother), the search for whom accounts in part for the family's itinerancy. Because nothing evokes verisimilitude like an unresolved conflict, Promised Land now seems less like Fantasy Island than at any time in its six-month run.

Share this article with friends.


TV: With PBS on our side: A double-coded series

Series stays true to its agenda while trying to please everyone

Some Christians are praising the PBS documentary With God on Our Side as a fair, sympathetic chronicle of the rise of the religious right. Others see it as another example of liberal media bias. Two WORLD writers submitted completely divergent reviews of the documentary, and both are printed here. That the series can be taken in two different ways is evident in its very origins. The executive producer of the series, Calvin Skaggs, describes himself as a liberal who grew up a Southern Baptist and is in the process of rediscovering his religious roots. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting footed 20 percent of the bill, but the rest came from grantors ranging from the liberal Rockefeller Foundation to the neoconservative Bradley Foundation. The Andy Warhol Foundation, committed to fighting arts censorship, chipped in some funding, as did the pro-abortion Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. Obviously, these two organizations would like to see the Christian right discredited. The Independent Television Service, committed to financing projects that feature "under-served audiences," considered Christian conservatives sufficiently marginalized to deserve a program. At the same time, conservative-leaning foundations such as the William H. Donner and Smith Richardson Foundation also weighed in with major contributions. What kind of broth will be made by so many philosophically different cooks? Could so many masters for the filmmakers to please result in the kind of media event so often called for but seldom realized-one that is actually objective, balanced, and accurate? The answer, regrettably, is no. But the filmmakers managed to please both sides by aiming at two different audiences. Media analyst Larry Jarvik of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture put it this way: "If you're a Christian, you will probably like it, but if you're a non-Christian, you'll be scared to death." He said that it represents a "double-coded message," such as diplomats use when they word a communique so that it has a different impression on a foreign and a domestic audience. Christian conservatives can only appreciate the rare chance to make their case on TV. Some major players on the Christian political scene and some grassroots activists are given a hearing. Christian viewers will be deeply moved by the clips of parents trying to take back their schools and abortion protesters being manhandled by the police for defending unborn children.

But television works by conveying images, not ideas. To non-Christians, demonstrations about textbooks scream, "Censorship!" Abortion protests connote fanatical assaults on liberty. The footage of Christian women in rhinestone glasses, preachers in powder-blue polyester suits, and apoplectic evangelists screaming into the camera undercuts any valid arguments they might be making by portraying Christians as out-of-touch, faintly comical figures. Though they might elicit a measure of sympathy, it is mixed with condescension, such as one might feel for the other primitive tribes profiled on PBS documentaries. The footage of conservative Christians waking up to politics is punctuated by clips of space capsules, the birth control pill, and the '60s, creating the impression of down-home folks futilely resisting the tide of progress. The anti-communist passion of the '50s would not seem so quaint if the editors had intercut shots of Soviet tanks attacking Hungarians, or Fidel Castro's firing squads. The negative spin intensifies as the series progresses, culminating in the fifth episode. Heart-wrenching interviews with AIDS children, pastors who lost family members to the disease, and HIV-positive evangelicals make the Christians teaching against homosexuality look very, very bad. Then we see Pat Robertson's run for the presidency, complete with his voices from God, his fending off the hurricane, and his tongues-speaking supporters. The implication is that all the Christian right is like this, nevermind the theological diversity of the movement-which includes anti-charismatic Reformed folk, as well as Catholics-and that many, including Jerry Falwell, supported George Bush over Robertson.

All narratives, no matter how factually they present themselves, have a plot. This series begins with mass rallies of fundamentalists who think that religion and politics don't mix. Gradually, they start to mix them, making some quixotic stands against modernity. They then find themselves used and ultimately betrayed by a succession of Republican presidents. They lapse into extremism. But there is a resolution. In the finale, Bill McCartney turns away from crusading against gay rights to form Promise Keepers. The final image is Christians proclaiming love and reconciliation, in a mass rally-as in Episode One. The series has come full circle. The old fundamentalists were right. Religion and politics don't mix after all. Both the right and the left can feel they have gotten their money's worth from this series. Conservatives are allowed their say. Evangelicals are affirmed in their identity as a subculture. Liberals, in turn, succeed in marginalizing them, turning ordinary citizens standing up for traditional American values into a quaint but scary sect. As an election-year bonus, the Republican party is made the real villain, cynically manipulating the naive souls who put them in office (nevermind the GOP's genuine contributions to the pro-family cause). For keeping so many people happy, while advancing his own agenda, Calvin Skaggs deserves an Emmy.

Share this article with friends.


TV & Film: The dilution delusion

Moyers "faith" series is ever seeking, never understanding

A few years ago, Bill Moyers, a one-time Southern Baptist seminarian who converted to the more journalistically correct canons of liberal theology, began to publicize his spiritual quest by means of PBS documentaries.

His 10-hour series of interviews with Joseph Campbell, literary psychoanalyst, helped popularize the notion that religion, history, and psychological growth are different manifestations of myth. Mr. Campbell's neo-pagan mythological revival has had a particularly strong impact among certain influential writers, directors, and producers in the filmmaking community. Joseph Campbell died a few years ago, and I wonder if Mr. Moyers has been looking for someone to replace him. With his predictable sensitivity to the prevailing winds of intellectual fashion, Mr. Moyers has a new guru who preaches another gospel of inclusive religiosity.

His new series, The Wisdom of Faith, features Huston Smith, professor of religion and philosophy, currently teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Moyers and Professor Smith propose to expose and explore within five hours the essence of the world's "religious traditions."

Each episode opens with Mr. Smith's quote, "If we take the world's enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race," but this is not an objective overview of religious traditions. Mr. Smith likes to say that he has studied religion "from the inside." While outlining the various belief systems, he sprinkles

in amusing anecdotes concerning one ritual or another that he tried out as he was auditioning each religion in its native form, even demonstrating for viewers the lotus position and teaching Mr. Moyers how to meditate.

The discussions that follow are packed with metaphysics. Mr. Smith rightly labels himself "a seeker," and he seems content to stay that way. He talks around and around seven major world religions without taking any one seriously enough either to commit to its teachings or to consider its exclusive truth claims. Instead, he blithely explains that his goal in life has been to explore the religious experience without lingering in "the dark shadows" of any one religion in particular. He tries "to let the best shine through." From a smorgasbord of rituals, he has chosen personal favorites from Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to devise a religion of his own.

Huston Smith is Bill Moyers's soulmate. They are both exploring the joys of Eastern mysticism, and they both offer words of admiration for the "semitic tradition" (Judaism and Islam). For all of their claims of inclusiveness, Christianity receives short shrift in their hands. For Mr. Moyers, Christianity is the epitome of cruelty and phoniness. For Mr. Smith, its only valuable message is its emphasis on love.

In the second hour of the series, in which the professor discusses Confucianism, Taoism, and Yoga, he reveals his background. He was born in 1919 in Soochow, China, to Methodist missionaries. His experience with Christianity was entirely within the Methodist denomination, including college and seminary. During his early university years, he became enamored of Hinduism and sought to combine it with Christianity. While teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, he was simultaneously listed as an associate minister at the Methodist church and President of the Vendanta Society, where Hindu Swami Satprakashananda tutored him in Eastern mysticism.

In recalling a spiritually profound moment in his life, Mr. Smith ironically indicts the spiritual emptiness of mainstream liberal theology. After attending Christmas Eve services at the Methodist church, where he listened to a message about "the magic of Christmas and being together with our children," he slipped off to the Vendanta Society where the Swami spoke on "Jesus Christ, the Light of the World." Mr. Smith tells audiences, "What the Swami said about the Incarnation fed my soul more than any Christmas sermon in the Methodist church. The reason? The Swami literally believed in the incarnation-"that God had metaphysically become a human being.... I have drawn spiritual succor from an alien tradition which was true to the metaphysical teachings of original Christianity-more than my church which had been diluted by modernism."

If his Methodist seminary training had taught him what the Incarnation really meant-that God physically (not metaphysically) became a human being-and opened up to him the treasures of Christian spirituality, perhaps Mr. Smith would not have gone to the Hindus. At any rate, for a scholar and a seminarian, he exhibits an astonishingly poor understanding of Christianity, the Bible, and the person of Christ. When, in the third hour of the series, Mr. Smith and Mr. Moyers deal directly with Christianity, they treat Jesus as a man who "had the spiritual eye" but no understanding of himself. Jesus Christ's role as the Son of God "may have been a mystery to him all the way through." If anything, according to this analysis, Christ's appearances after the first Easter represented a spiritual breakthrough proving that man can elevate himself to new levels of existence.

And this is precisely what Mr. Smith toils to do. Even while insisting that "the experience of religion" is not a legalistic routine, he practices yoga, follows Islamic rules of prayer (5 times each day), sweats through marathon meditation sessions, twirls with Sufis, and still attends the Methodist church regularly. Such religious syncretism, of course, is what the children of Israel tried when they wanted to worship both the God of Abraham and the pagan idols of their neighbors. The real God did not approve.

The one sobering experience that might have given others reason to reconsider such religious broadmindedness was his daughter's marriage and conversion to orthodox Judaism. She died only last year, and Mr. Smith reports that he drew great comfort from sitting Shiva for seven days. Nonetheless, he refuses to draw a conclusion about death except to say that there is a life hereafter. It could be in reincarnation or it could be heaven, but hell is a part of the picture he refuses to consider (even though most of the religious traditions he claims to follow do speak of a hell). As for his daughter's understanding of God, he preferred to recall a childhood conversation in which one of his girls declared that "God is everything-everywhere. God is in me."

Even though Huston Smith claims to have experienced religion "from the inside," he embraces nothing more than an external etiquette of spirituality, observations of exotic ceremonies and the practice of a self-imposed morality. His phrase, "religious traditions," is code for walking by ritual, not by faith.

Such religious syncretism could be very appealing to a post-Christian America. Even the "do your own thing" generation is forced to admit that the selfishness of the '60s has borne rotten fruit. Postmodernists would like "values," "virtues," and "meaning to life" without having to bother with truth. They want a religion that makes them happy, but that makes no demands. The answer is to make up one's own theology, picking brightly colored packages from the supermarket of the world's religions.

"Religious traditions" may well provide a convenient counterfeit in place of Christ's call for a personal relationship with God. If recent history repeats itself, audiences can watch for films and television programs that extol the merits of generic religious practice, while conveniently avoiding the dilemma of confronting the truth. After all, Huston Smith seems too busy "seeking" to be engaged in actually meeting God.

Share this article with friends.