“The Book of Daniel”—Is This a Satire on Liberal Christianity?

“The Book of Daniel” premiered last Friday with a two-hour special that arrived with much publicity but garnered a third-place showing in the ratings. NBC’s new series was one of the most-hyped new programs of recent years, complete with effusive media coverage and much sought-after controversy.

The premise of the show is the reason for the controversy. “The Book of Daniel” features a liberal Episcopalian priest and his family who, along with various others in the cast, are involved in almost every form of sin imaginable. As if all this were not enough, the show also features an actor playing the part of Jesus, who appears as the very essence of liberal toleration, complete with therapeutic aphorisms and transcendent nonjudgmentalism.

Last Friday’s two-hour premiere of the program introduced the concept and the show’s central characters.

The Episcopal priest, known as Daniel Webster, is played by actor Aidan Quinn. The Reverend Webster is a liberal churchman serving a wealthy suburban parish in Westchester County, New York. The sins, temptations, foibles, and syndromes experienced by this priest, along with his family and his flock, are those common to affluent American suburbia. Viewers of the program may well imagine that the creators have simply channeled all of the real and imagined sins of Westchester County into one family and a single congregation. Reverend Webster is an indulgent parent and an extremely tolerant preacher, who is far less concerned with sin than with self-forgiveness. His wife, a wealthy heiress played by Susanna Thompson, is as hapless as her husband. The family also includes Peter, the Websters’ homosexual son, along with Grace, his sister, and Adam, the Websters’ adopted Asian son.

This priest and his family are poster children for postmodern times. Their gay son is at peace with his homosexuality, even as his parents suggest that he should look for just the right male partner, perhaps a male nurse or a doctor. Daughter Grace is selling drugs which she smuggles into the community by stuffing them into teddy bears. Adam adds his part to the family’s catalogue of vices by flaunting his sexual promiscuity and engaging in sex with the church warden’s daughter.

And it doesn’t stop there. Reverend Webster’s father is a bishop who is committing adultery with another bishop (a woman), even as his wife is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Just about everyone on this program is comfortable with sin–including the character presented as Jesus, played by Garret Dillahunt. The appearance of Jesus as a character in a television soap opera is problematic enough, but Dillahunt’s Jesus looks like a refugee from the Hippies, offering therapeutic words of assurance that sin is really not such a big deal. When one character reveals a lesbian relationship, Jesus quips, “Boy, you never know, do you?” Jesus excuses Reverend Webster’s adulterous father by telling the son: “He’s a good man, Daniel. Everybody’s different.” When the Webster’s fifteen-year-old son is caught having sex with the daughter of a church member, Jesus simply responds, “A kid has to be a kid.”

Indeed, Jesus appears to notice sin only when it takes the form of Reverend Webster’s addiction to Vicodin, a prescription painkiller. Riding along in Reverend Webster’s car, Jesus takes note of the priest popping a pill. “I thought you were cutting back on those,” Jesus observes. The minister explains that he takes the pills only “occasionally” in order to deal with back pain. Jesus doesn’t accept this for a moment. “Right . . . ,” he responds. For once, Reverend Webster is taken aback. “Could you fit more judgment into that ‘Right’?” Jesus responds: “Actually, yes, I could.” Both characters then laugh.

The show has something to offend almost everyone–at least, one would suppose that liberal Christians might be offended by the hyperbolic satire this show must surely represent. Conservative Christians will be rightly concerned about the portrayal of Jesus Christ. The fictionalization of Jesus is an inexcusable act of sacrilege that appears as nothing less than a calculated effort to offend the faith of sincere believers. Of course, this sacrilege is compounded by the portrayal of Jesus as a long-haired surfer dude who apparently just wants humans to get over their hang-ups about sin–except for the sin of popping pills, of course.

What I can’t understand is why liberal Christians are not crying foul. After all, the portrayal of liberal Christianity on this program is so satirical that it approaches parody.

Take Reverend Webster’s opening sermon, for example. Preached just after the Websters’ daughter was caught attempting to sell marijuana, the sermon is an almost perfect distillation of liberal theology expressed as mind-numbing toleration.

Just consider this section from the pastor’s sermon: “Temptation. Is it really a bad thing? I don’t think so. What I mean is, if there were no temptation, how could there be redemption? If we never did anything bad, how could we repent and be stronger for our weaknesses? Doesn’t good need evil in order to be good? Now obviously I’m not suggesting that we should go looking for temptation, but, my brothers and sisters, if temptation corners us, maybe we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for giving in to it. And maybe, maybe we shouldn’t ask for forgiveness from a church, or from God, or from Jesus, or from anyone until we can first learn to forgive ourselves.”

Yes, Virginia, there really are preachers who preach such nonsense. As a matter of fact, the Apostle Paul countered such fatuous arguments in his letters, and the New Testament clearly rejects the kind of self-forgiving theology that is the very essence of Reverend Webster’s gospel. Reverend Webster’s embrace of temptation as liberation is rooted in his certainty that we are “stronger for our weaknesses.” Those who may hear a weak refrain of the Apostle Paul in the background of Reverend Webster’s sly comment would do well to remember that Paul wasn’t talking about his sin in this respect.

One might fairly expect that the leaders of liberal Protestant denominations would be calling their attorneys and rallying their dwindling memberships to protest this portrayal of a liberal Episcopal priest. Are we really to believe that one family and one congregation can get into this much trouble in two hours? And note this–the embezzling of funds and various other peccadilloes must be added to the picture. Is this an honest and accurate portrayal of liberal Christianity? Are liberal preachers really this mindlessly tolerant? Apparently, some are.

Reporter Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times informed her readers that “some Episcopal priests are urging their congregants to watch the program, saying that it offers a refreshingly candid portrayal of religious leaders and showcases the Episcopal Church as a tolerant denomination.” According to Gold, “the Episcopal Diocese of Washington has even launched the Blog of Daniel . . . a website designed to spur discussion about issues raised on the program.”

Reverend Susan Russell, Senior Associate for Parish Life at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, where the show’s initial episode was filmed, is enthusiastic about the show’s portrayal of Episcopal ministers. “I think it’s a realistic portrayal of a faithful man facing 21st century challenges,” she explains.

Reverend Russell urged her congregation to watch the program and explained in a letter to her church members that she believes the show could actually attract new members to the Episcopal Church.

Some Christians are organizing letter-writing campaigns and similar protests against “The Book of Daniel.” I take offense at this show’s portrayal of Jesus Christ, but this program’s approach is so clumsy and unbelievable that I harbor few fears of viewers believing that this character is anything like Jesus Christ the Lord.

I agree with critic Tom Shales of the Washington Post, who believes that the program will fail because it is simply lousy television. “I cannot recall a series in which a greater number of characters seemed so desperately detestable–a series with a larger population of loathsome dolts,” Shales observes. “There ought to be a worse punishment than cancellation for a show that tries this hard to be offensive and, even at that crass task, manages to fail.”

In his criticism of the program, Shales sees through the satire. “Perhaps realizing they’ve created a crop of characters who are irredeemably mean, venal and idiotic, the writers try to tell us these people are really sweethearts–not by depicting good qualities through action but simply by having them primitively vouch for one another. ‘He’s a good boy,’ Mom says of the cautious and confused Peter. ‘You’re a good man,’ the priest is told by a golf crony. ‘She’s a good girl,’ Jesus says of Grace even after she’s arrested for selling marijuana, and later, of the priest’s bigoted, oafish father: ‘He’s a good man, Daniel.'”

If nothing else, the show may succeed in accomplishing what it almost surely does not aim to do–demonstrate where liberal theology inevitably leads. The “tolerant” approach to sin so prosaically demonstrated in Reverend Webster’s sermon leaves the church with no coherent understanding of sin or of the human condition. Accordingly, there is no need for salvation, no place for the Cross, and no fear of judgment. If this is all one believes, why not engage in all the various sins depicted on this program? All the characters of “The Book of Daniel” fear is embarrassment, and they seem to get over that very fast.

By all accounts, “The Book of Daniel” will be a spectacular failure where the networks care most–in the ratings. These actors would be unwise to plan a career based on this program. Nevertheless, so long as the wretched episodes of this excruciating soap opera are part of our national conversation, Christians should take the opportunity to point to the theological lessons of the program and its plot. Beyond this, believers should seize the opportunity to distinguish between the false theology of “The Book of Daniel” and the orthodox theology of the church. After all, the genuine gospel is far more interesting and exciting–and it saves.