Prime Time Spirituality

If you knew me, you might guess that I am excited about the prominent role of spirituality in this fall’s prime time television line-up. I am, after all, a former Baptist minister who teaches in a church-related liberal arts college in the northeast United States. My profession invites me to integrate my passion for religious studies with my training in media studies.

You’d think I’d be thrilled to see the current offerings of spiritual lessons offered up in last week’s television premier week. You’d be wrong.

Have you noticed the emphasis this fall? Showtime recently renewed “Dead Like Me,” the story of a teenager who takes others to the afterlife, for a second season. In HBO’s “Carnivale” a healer and a shadowy Methodist preacher take center stage.

Last week FOX debuted “Wonderfalls” in which a Niagara Falls souvenir shop worker takes the advice of inanimate animals-toys, gifts, cartoons-who help her help others. FOX also gives us “Tru Calling” later this month. The lead character, Tru Davies, works in a morgue, hears corpses tell how they died and relives the day in order to prevent the death.

The most highly touted new series, of course, is CBS’ “Joan of Arcadia.” Clever idea. Like Joan of Arc, the young heroine hears the voice of God. Unlike Joan of Arc, the voice advises her in becoming a self-actualized, self-satisfied, well-adjusted adult. The original Joan proclaimed uncompromising Truth at the risk of her own imminent death, and, of course, never made it to adulthood.

If you don’t yet comprehend the rationale behind my distress, you’re in good company. Some of my students don’t understand my objections either. In many ways they are typical teens and 20-somethings who have grown up in a culture that is stripped of religion-and the God of religion. The public arena of their youthful experience is secular. In the contemporary social and political milieu, the young adults I mentor and teach are glad to find that any alternative to naturalism is finding a voice in American culture.

Maybe the spiritual focus is the outgrowth of the uncertainty we feel on the second anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. Perhaps it is a backlash to TV’s incessant war coverage initiated with the American offensive against the Taliban. Television producers and programmers, no doubt, have their own reasons for and theories about their choices. Clearly, there is an unmet need in America. It’s not unique to our culture; Plato referred to the struggle in his dialogues as the search for a healthy soul. It’s a deep yearning that can only be met outside of ourselves.

In this way, “Joan of Arcadia” and this year’s class of televised dramas add to the ancient and on-going cultural conversation. It is true: these programs remind us that our world is not a closed system. There is undeniably a supernatural dimension to our existence. Further they confirm that naturalism-that worldview that celebrates the physical world as the ultimate reality-does not answer in any long-term, satisfying way the ultimate questions about the characteristics of God, humanity and nature.

Television’s newcomers may not succeed financially, and they may not receive critical acclaim. They will remind us, however, that choices have consequences, that the material world is not the sum of reality and that God’s work can be known by humans. They do not preach the message of naturalism.

But spirituality is not an either-or proposition. Our choice is not limited to either “God is present” or “He is absent.” I’m glad the naturalist messages are gone this season, but they are replaced with another worldview that also opposes traditional theism.

The philosophical title for this year’s televised sermons may sound familiar. American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “Transcendentalism.” The great Oxford don C.S. Lewis called this view of life the “Life-Force” philosophy. It is exemplified in Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Unity School of Christianity. Perhaps you’ve heard it called “New Age” philosophy.

The worldviews posited in the world’s great theistic systems-Judaism, Christianity and Islam-disagree on much, but provide surprising agreement in their broadest terms.
First, traditional theism affirms that “God the Creator” is separate and distinct from the creation. He is the sustainer of the physical realm and the source of Truth. The apparent trend in TV drama is to preach that God is in all things and that all is “one with God.” The messages border on pantheism.

Second, a consistent view of humankind emerges in the three traditional theistic worldviews. Humanity will be judged by God, not by individual experience or preference. Standards of behavior-ethics, if you will-are determined by God, not by the individuals he created argue the great belief systems. The world’s major religions teach that the future of each person is subject to the final opinion of the Creator who is intimately involved in the lives being lived.

Alternately, this fall’s dramas preach that each person must fulfill his or her true nature. God may have suggestions, but His ultimate plan is focused on our pleasure and our increased self-awareness. His goodness and glory are inconsequential according to prime time spirituality.

Finally, the three traditional theistic systems view the physical, material realm as being created from nothing by the eternal God. While the physical world reflects the One who created it, traditional theism posits that physical reality is not God. This year’s new shows preach a contrary narrative. We are all one, we are told nightly; God is in each of us.

It is refreshing to see messages about morality, theology and ethics addressed in the entertainment market place. But not for one moment should we pretend that these messages resonate with the voices of the ancients. Trading naturalism for transcendentalism on prime time television is not beneficial for the message of traditional theism.

Daniel Brown

Daniel Brown

Daniel S. Brown, Jr. is a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Grove City College (Pa.) where he teaches media law and ethics as well as communication theory. His recent books include “Interfaith Dialogue in Practice: Christian, Muslim, Jew,” available through Oxford University Press. He is also a contributing scholar with The Center for Vision and Values and holds advanced degrees from Miami University (Ohio) and Louisiana State University.

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