Should Jesus Be on Television?

Religion professor Diane Winston examines the new NBC show The Book of Daniel and concludes that while the show may be flawed, it shouldn't fail simply because it's a target in the culture wars. Her piece appears in Sunday's Los Angeles Times.

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FRANK STASIO, host:

Time now for TALK OF THE NATION Opinion page. On Mondays we highlight an opinion piece that appeared in the newspapers over the weekend, speak with the author. Today the turn of Diane Winston, professor of media and religion at the University of Southern California. Her article appeared in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. She wrote about the new television series that's created a bit of controversy. It's called "The Book of Daniel," and several NBC affiliates have refused to air its debut episode on Friday. Here's a brief clip from the show.

(Soundbite of "The Book of Daniel")

Ms. ALISON PILL: (As Grace Webster) Yeah, I knew you would come down with us.

Mr. AIDAN QUINN: (As Rev. Daniel Webster) You've been arrested. Did they not explain that to you? They think you are taking drugs.

Ms. PILL: (As Grace Webster) I wasn't taking drugs.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Daniel Webster) Of course not.

Ms. PILL: (As Grace Webster) I was selling drugs.

STASIO: All right. Well, that was the main character, Daniel Webster. He's talking to his daughter, Grace Webster. Daniel is a man of the cloth. His daughter is a woman of the weed apparently, and so that has caused some problems. We want to hear from you about this program if you've watched it--"The Book of Daniel"--whether or not America's ready for the complicated lives of the clergy. Give us a call here at (800) 344-3864 or (800) 344-3893. E-mail address: totn@npr.org. Diane Winston joins us from her home in California.

Thanks for being with us.

Professor DIANE WINSTON (University of Southern California): Hi, Frank. Nice to be with you.

STASIO: Let's see. Should we clarify that although you are a religion scholar, you're not a Christian? Should we clarify that?

Prof. WINSTON: Sure, we can qualify that. I am not a Christian, but I've lived among them, I've studied them and I've written about them for a long time now.

STASIO: So you're the sort of Martha--do we want--would you describe for us the plot--just a little bit more about the plot of "The Book of Daniel" for us?

Prof. WINSTON: Well, "The Book of Daniel" is a story of an Episcopal priest in a suburban New York parish. And it's an upper middle class parish, and he himself lives quite nicely. He seems to have a very trouble-ridden family. He had a son die of leukemia, his wife tends to tipple a bit; he has a daughter who is selling pot to finance her comic book habit; he has an adopted son who's quite horny. He has a bishop who's always critical of him, and he has a father who is also a bishop whose wife, Daniel's mother, has Alzheimer's and who seems--the bishop seems to be carrying on with another bishop in an adulterous affair.

STASIO: Well...

Prof. WINSTON: And on top of that--and...

STASIO: There's more.

Prof. WINSTON: The problem with the show is it doesn't cease. It just piles up. And adding to the problems, the plot is driven by the fact his brother-in-law has run off with the money supposedly to build a church school. And his brother-in-law has been carrying on a threesome with his wife and the church secretary.

STASIO: (Laughs) This sounds a lot like my parish. I'm not sure why this hasn't been on TV before this. Let's just listen to another clip to give us a sense of what we're going to do, and we'll do that a little later in the program. So you're a religion scholar. What do you think of it? What do you think of the program?

Prof. WINSTON: I'm not a television critic, so I'm not going to talk about the merits of the show. But I think from my perspective as a scholar of religion and as a journalist, it's a very interesting look at how religion plays out in our society today. And I think the criticism to it indicates that we're not really ready to see a priest who's like the rest of us. We still want our men of the cloth to be held to a higher standard...

STASIO: You're lis...

Prof. WINSTON: ...and that's interesting to me.

STASIO: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio.

We are talking today about the program "The Book of Daniel," and my guest is Diane Winston, who wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, wrote an essay about it.

And the criticism--are you surprised at all about the criticism, though?

Prof. WINSTON: Well, I'm not really surprised because I think we hold religious people to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. And many of our television heroes are quite flawed. Gregory House pops pills. Jack Bauer kills people quite regularly and tortures them. The doctors on "ER" are usually, you know, swapping with one another. So it's not as if other television characters are so pristine. The question then is: Why are we so troubled by Daniel?

STASIO: Well, and that is the question because if we're holding our clergy to a higher standard, I mean, why not our politicians and our police...

Prof. WINSTON: Right.

STASIO: ...and our lawyers? Let's go to the phones, take a call from Chris, who's in New Jersey.

Hi, Chris.

CHRIS (Caller): Hello?

STASIO: Hi. You have a question for us or an observation?

CHRIS: Well, actually I just had a comment. I watched the program, "Book of Daniel." I thought it was a very interesting show. I am a practicing Christian, and I think that it showed the men of the cloth or the clergy--they are actually people, too. They have the same temptations, the same problems. And I even enjoyed the character of Jesus. I--'cause Jesus came to Earth as a human. And I think it showed him more along a human level. I enjoyed it. I didn't take offense at all about the show.

STASIO: Well, thank you for that call, Chris. And it does point out the fact that there is actually, I think on a regular basis, conversation with Jesus. Let's listen in now as Daniel, the main character and the Episcopal priest, has a conversation in his car with Jesus.

(Soundbite of "The Book of Daniel"; music)

Mr. GARRET DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) I thought you were cutting back on those.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Daniel Webster) I have to play golf later. My back is killing me.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Oh, come on.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Daniel Webster) OK. OK, fine. You know, I only take them occasionally.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Right.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Daniel Webster) Could you fit more judgment into that `right'?

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Actually, yes, I could.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Daniel Webster) (Laughs) OK, OK. I don't know what to do about Grace.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) She'll be fine. She's a good girl.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Daniel Webster) We used to be so close. Now...

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) She's almost an adult. Talk to her like one. Forget about the money problem.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Daniel Webster) That's got to be a bank error, right? I mean, Charlie would have called me if there was a problem. Can you tell me what's up with that?

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Oh, Daniel, we've been over this. I'm not a fortune-teller. Let it play out. Spend some time with Grace.

STASIO: `Spend some time with Grace,' advice from Jesus to the main character in "The Book of Daniel."

Is the--I mean, can--are we ready for that? Are we ready to hear these very intimate, personal conversations with Jesus of Nazareth?

Prof. WINSTON: Well, interestingly, that's how many Christians say they do experience Jesus; they do have intimate conversations with him. So the whole idea of seeing Daniel do it, I think, represents the way a lot of people understand their faith. I myself, you know, find this particular Jesus a little tepid. You know, he--his bromides are pretty, you know, `Everything will work out. Let it play out.' I mean, I'd like to hear a little bit more edge to him.

STASIO: Well, he was a little bit caustic about the pills he's popping.

Prof. WINSTON: That's true.

STASIO: He didn't like that very much.

Prof. WINSTON: That's true.

STASIO: Let's go to the...

Prof. WINSTON: That's the only sin he really comes down on, pill-popping.

STASIO: Let's go--well, we're going to give the series time. Let me--let's go to the phones. Andrea's on the line from Racine, Michigan.

Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA (Caller): Hi. This is from Lansing, Michigan.

STASIO: I'm sorry.

ANDREA: That's OK. Do you want my comment?

STASIO: Oh, please do. Yeah, yeah.

ANDREA: I saw the advertisements for this program, and I watched it. And as I watched it, I kept saying, `Well, kind of misleading that you thought it might be a comedy.' It wasn't a comedy. They canceled "Joan of Arcadia" last year because they said viewers did not want to watch a family show. I really enjoyed "Joan of Arcadia" because it did show Jesus in all walks of life, and there was always a moral to the story. And comparing that to "Daniel," I was appalled at "Daniel." And I think the Episcopalians should be appalled and the Catholics. The Catholics--they portrayed the Catholic priests as pretty much, you know, Italian Mafia.

STASIO: I'm going to give time for a response because I'm running short. But I thank you for your call, Andrea.

And maybe go back to something you even said earlier, Diane. Do you think that we're just not ready for a tougher Jesus on television?

Prof. WINSTON: I think that we're not really ready to see all faces of Christian faith played out on television yet. And because each of us does have a different idea of Jesus, I think it would be hard for us to find one that we all could agree on. "Daniel" is about love. It's about how a wounded healer, Daniel, tries to love the people around him, who have problems that many of us face as well.

STASIO: All right. Diane, well, thank you very much.

Diane Winston, the Knight chair in the media and religion department at the University of Southern California, joined us from her home in California.

That's our program for today. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington.

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