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Issue Date:  February 24, 2006

'The Book of Daniel' has been burned


“The Book of Daniel” is closed. Promoted as a “controversial” series on religion that would get tongues wagging and viewers glued to their sets on Friday night, the promoters turned out to be half right -- for four weeks.

Then, abandoned by Southern affiliates, battered by a Focus on the Family letter barrage and so lonely for advertisers that most of the ads were for other NBC shows, NBC pulled the plug. What was lost?

It depends how you feel about Episcopalians -- and members of other structured religions -- who struggle with an interpretation of the Gospels that will keep the middle class in their pews.

I used to think Episcopalians were sort of like Roman Catholic lite. Same vestments and sacraments, everything but celibacy and the pope. When Commonweal editor and New York Times columnist John Cogley left the Catholic church to protest Humanae Vitae and to become an Episcopal married priest, I respected his decision. When my best college friend recently switched, fed up with the local leadership of the Catholic church, I understood.

This misled me to believe that all Episcopalians were liberals. But when my essay in the Newark Star-Ledger criticizing George Bush’s use and abuse of religion was reprinted in Episcopal Life, the flood of furious letters set me straight.

In a postmortem news conference after the show’s cancellation, “Daniel” creator Jack Kenny, who describes himself as a spiritual ex-Catholic gay, argued that he was not mocking Christianity, just presenting a fictional family of good people who also had flaws. Well, yes and no.

Why pick on the Episcopalians when the Catholic church is a bigger, more exotic -- exorcisms, miracles, portly bishops -- target? Because Catholic priests don’t have families, and this is a family disaster story. Also, as Bishop Congreve (Ellen Burstyn) says, “We’re a church in crisis.”

Daniel Webster (Aidan Quinn) is the cool, nonjudgmental pastor of an upscale Episcopalian Westchester, N.Y., parish. Like all pastors, he wants to be a bishop. His father is a bishop. His mother has Alzheimer’s and the father takes comfort in his adultery with Congreve, who supervises his son. While Daniel takes comfort by popping Vicodin whenever he gets tense, his wife Judith (Susanna Thompson) downs double martinis at noon. Whatever the strains of the daily life, though, they enjoy good sex on Friday night. Their son Peter (Christian Campbell) is gay. His adopted Chinese brother Adam (Ivan Shaw) has been bedding the daughter of the top parish vestryman in her boarding-school dorm. Peter’s orientation however does not save him from sex with the bishop’s niece -- and the used condom left in the bishop’s limo leads to further complications. Daniel’s daughter Grace (Allison Pill), who has been arrested selling dope to pay for her computer upgrades, draws an online comic strip based on her family’s problems.

Meanwhile, in order to become a bishop Daniel has to build the parish school. But his brother-in-law has absconded with the treasury and his attractive secretary. Daniel, obviously needing criminal contacts to track down the thief, calls Father Frank, a combination of Joe Pesci and “Saturday Night Live’s” Guido Sarducci, your basic Mafia Catholic cleric. Father finds the brother-in-law’s corpse in a Florida motel and the several million bucks in the hands of an Italian-American construction company willing to return it in exchange for the contract to build the school. Again meanwhile, Daniel’s wife’s sister is revealed to be a lesbian in a romance with the secretary who ran off with the brother-in-law.

Are you still there?

Finally, Daniel chats regularly with Jesus (Garret Dillahunt). We viewers -- unlike anyone in the story -- see him right there, in his white smock, long curly hair and blank, pretty face, in the car seat, on the office sofa, offering blah wisdom as Daniel reaches for his pills. Mostly observations like “Everybody’s different” and “I’m mostly a one-liner kind of guy.” This is not the Jesus who drove the moneychangers out of the temple. This one would serve them crackers and cheese.

Why would religious leaders object to a story like this? For James Dobson’s spokesman at Focus on the Family, it’s the show’s Jesus, who is not the “Second Person of the Trinity who created the universe” but a wimp who is soft on sin.

On the other hand, what if, because they have no sense of humor, the critics are missing the point? NBC does not label “Daniel” a satire, but only as satire does it make sense. Consider the names. Daniel is a young Old Testament prophet thrown to the lions. This Daniel will never get within the smell of a lions’ den. The names of his children -- Grace, Adam and Peter -- speak for themselves. The plot seems disproportionately loaded with gay characters -- including a mafia lieutenant who never received understanding from his Catholic priest -- but this is the denomination split by its election of an openly gay bishop.

Rather than an attack on religion, this may well be a conservative warning to orthodox Christianity to back off from the slippery slope of the compromised Westchester country club golf course gospel. The coldest words of the series come from the wife of the fundraising golf club vestryman who doesn’t want their daughter hanging out with Adam. She doesn’t want any oriental-looking grandchildren running around the house.

The show’s Jesus is in no way intended to represent the real Jesus. He’s Father Dan’s projection of Jesus, inspired by his tranquilizers, whom he calls forth to give him the OK for his wishy-washy, non-prophetic sermons. Unlike the Daniel Webster of American history, this Daniel has nothing to say when he opens his mouth. So NBC has burned the “Book” for the wrong reasons.

And the real Jesus, insofar as we can know him from the Gospels and imitate his life, does not seem slated for prime time. But he’s used to that by now.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is a humanities professor at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. E-mail him at

National Catholic Reporter, February 24, 2006

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