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Infuriating or inspiring?
Some see Daniel as attack on church, others as evangelistic opportunity


Aidan Quinn played Daniel Webster, an Episcopal priest, in the NBC comedy-drama The Book of Daniel.  

Watching the first episode of NBC’s new show The Book of Daniel, which USA Today called “first and foremost a show about a true-to-life, loving complex family,” has left some viewers bewildered, others shocked and angered. Yet others saw value in it.

Daniel Webster (Aidan Quinn) is a pill-popping Episcopal priest who regularly chats with Jesus (Garrett Dillahunt). His depressed wife Judith (Susannah Thompson) swills noonday martinis, and Daniel’s bishop (Ellen Burstyn) is having an affair with Daniel’s dad (James Rebhorn), a married priest whose wife has Alzheimer’s.

Then there are the offspring – a 22-year-old gay son, an adopted son who is sexually active with a girl and a 16-year-old daughter who police arrested for selling dope. Daniel’s brother-in-law has left town with $3 million in church funds. NBC’s ad campaign has pegged this Friday-night show as a faith-based cousin to Desperate Housewives.

“It was a horrible attack against the church and the clergy,” said an angry Mary Tucker of Marion Center in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “It presented the church as decadent and depraved, filled with sin-ridden people. It’s the biggest piece of trash I’ve seen on television,” she said after calling the NBC network to complain.

‘Back alley mugging’

“The best thing that can be said about NBC’s new show is that it is so bad it cannot possibly last more than a couple of weeks,” said Bishop Martin G. Townsend, retired bishop of the Diocese of Easton in eastern Maryland.

“The only character identifiable as a non-Episcopalian in the entire show is the Roman Catholic priest in a neighboring parish. He is Italian-American and is revealed to have strong Mafia ties that he does not mind using. At least the show is ecumenical in its offensiveness.”

Townsend said he found the program ludicrous in its effort to pack way too many issues into one rectory. “The talents of Aidan Quinn as the priest, Daniel, and of Ellen Burstyn as his bishop are pitifully wasted. This is a nasty little piece of work that deserves the widespread condemnation it has received.”

If Daniel is intended as satire, it fails, mostly because it is so mean-spirited, Townsend said. “Other satirical shows get away with extreme behaviors because the writers demonstrate an empathetic affection for their characters. No such empathy is evident from this show. For anyone who cares at all about the Episcopal Church, Daniel might feel like a back-alley mugging.” 

A side of society

The Book of Daniel is not about Episcopalians, according to the Rev. Andrew Gerns of Easton in the Diocese of Bethlehem. “It is a lens into how our culture struggles with issues of faith, morals, ethics and spirituality in an age when we share no common language about how to ‘be’ in the world we are in. “If we think this is a commentary on Christians in general, or on Episcopalians in particular, then we can be nothing but offended, or at least put off.”

But there is a third choice, Gerns argued. If viewers look at the series as the musings about issues of meaning, spiritual life and belief at the intersection of ideals and reality, then they might gain a better understanding of the needs, the pain, the hopes and disappointments of culture today, he said.

“The show’s plot line is over the top,” said the Rev. Leonard Freeman, a film critic and parish priest in the Diocese of Minnesota. “But on the other hand, I've seen or experienced almost everything that the plot included at some point in my ministry ... just not in one person on the same day.”

Freeman said popular fantasies exist -- that being Christian makes you less apt to get hit by a bus and that the family lives of clergy, as the professionals, should somehow be even more immune from life’s problems. “But in many ways this is a better model, because the issues in life are really about how you deal with it, and what gets you through it, when the bus hits you,” he said.

He said Daniel’s off-the-cuff conversations with Jesus didn’t bother him. “In the spiritual life, people sometimes really do have conversations like that with Jesus and God ... and sometimes every bit as direct,” he said. “Will it turn out to be just Desperate Housewives with a collar on? We'll have to see. But I like that it talks about religious life directly.”

A comedy…or not?

The Rev. Bob Libby of Key Biscayne, Fla., author and most recently the interim dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami, said that one can argue that clergy and their families are not immune to all of the problems that the program identified.

“The question I would raise, as a very vulnerable Episcopal priest, is: Are we talking about comedy or something else? There’s nothing in this series that isn’t covered somewhere in the Bible or among my fellow clergy,” he said. “But neither the Scriptures nor the church laughs at actions or attitudes that harm, hurt or destroy. Rather, it weeps and seeks to redeem.”

Libby is less sympathetic to the character of Jesus. “With every hair in place, he’s a real nice guy. But one wonders from his appearance and statements what he might have ever done to deserve the cross. His moral compass appears to be way off course when he dismisses sexual activity with, ‘He’s a kid … let him be a kid.’”

“Nine million people saw the debut episode,” said the “real” Daniel Webster, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Utah who, coincidentally, also has a woman as his bishop. “If any of them contact us to inquire about our church, and I know they are going to, then NBC has catapulted our 2020 evangelism effort like we never could.

“It doesn’t matter how bad the show is, this is the best evangelism opportunity I think our church has ever had.’