January 27, 2006
NBC'S lame-duck series Book of Daniel kicked up a lot of controversy during its brief run, but perhaps not for the right reasons.
Starring Aidan Quinn as Daniel, the program centers on an Episcopal priest in a posh Connecticut suburb. His wife is infatuated with martinis, one of his sons is homosexual, the other is sleeping around, his daughter is selling dope, the Jamaican housekeeper is smoking it, his brother-in-law has stolen $3.5 million from the church (after having a threesome with his wife and Daniel's secretary), and the lady bishop is having an affair with Daniel's father, who is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church. Meanwhile, Jesus periodically appears to Daniel to dispense non-judgmental advice, except when it comes to Daniel's addiction to pain killers.
Sleeping around. Homosexuality. Thievery. Ecclesial chaos. Abuse of prescription drugs. Lots of people with more money than common sense. Is this what the U.S. Episcopal Church really looks like?
The American Family Association, an evangelical group, organized a boycott against the program because of its perceived smarmy stance towards Christianity. The AFA helped persuade 11 NBC affiliates not to broadcast Daniel. And three of the show's four major sponsors also withdrew.
Daniel director Jack Kenny was enraged by the "bullies" at AFA and went public with his outrage. He made his plea on blogofdaniel.com, a blog set up by the liberal Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.--without any apparent sense of irony--to exploit the show as an evangelistic tool for the church.
"Ordinarily, I would never ask anyone to do this, but the AFA and bullies like them are hard at work to try and prevent you from seeing these beautiful shows, and that is censorship--pure and simple," wrote. "And that is both un-Christian and un-American."
According to Aidan Quinn in an interview on Beliefnet.com, Kenny deliberately chose to set the program in the Episcopal Church. "His being impressed with the Episcopalian church and their inclusiveness and the conflict that's going on within it as far as social issues, I think, is what attracted him to set this family in the midst of that church," said, Quinn, who is Roman Catholic, but who professes admiration for the Episcopal Church's "inclusiveness."
Kenny told the Washington Times he may join the Episcopal Church, to which his male partner of 24 years belongs. His partner's WASPish family was in fact a model for Daniel's repressed and dysfunctional household. According to Kenny, he got guidance for the program from a leader of the Episcopal Church's homosexual caucus and from other members at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California.
All Saints Church was recently flagged by the IRS for a strongly-worded anti-war sermon there that ostensibly threatened its tax-exempt status. The IRS threat seems silly, but the congregation is far-left even by Episcopal standards.
CLEARLY, Kenny did not cast a wide net when looking for insights about Episcopalianism. Despite his ideological myopia, Kenny's product does seem to encapsulate some of the most common stereotypes about the denomination.
Everybody in Daniel is well dressed and white (except for the maid and Daniel's adopted son); they live in huge and exquisitely furnished colonial houses, belong to the country club, and are slightly snobby. When Daniel's adopted teenage Chinese son has sex with a parishioner's under-age daughter, the girl's mother is upset not because of the sex but because the boy is being Asian. Daniel is upset that the boy landed on his Jaguar when he jumped from the girl's bedroom window. Discrete racism and the snooty materialism . . . how Episcopalian!
Daniel's sister-in-law relates that her husband, the one who stole $3.5 million from the church's coffers, induced her into having a threesome with his secretary. The secretary is introduced to us as a "Methodist." Of course! The third party in a threesome is bound to be both of a lower social class and not Episcopalian.
As for that stolen $3.5 million, nobody in Daniel's church is intimidated by the sum. It seems to have been raised with a few phone calls to friends at the country club. The real problem is the potential embarrassment of the theft to Daniel, who hired his thieving brother-in-law to build the church's new school. Daniel decides to mortgage his lovely home to replace the money. Clearly, the enormous house's value will cover quite a bit of the $3.5 million.
Luckily, a Catholic priest comes to the rescue with his Mafia contacts, who locate the stolen money, but will return it only if their construction firm is hired to build the new Episcopal school. Ah, the Catholics and the mob.
But the funniest aspect of the Book of Daniel is the portrayal of Daniel as a rebel confronting a conservative church hierarchy. Daniel nervously postpones telling his stuffy father, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, about his homosexual son. In fact, real-life Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, an enthusiastic supporter of his denomination's first openly homosexual bishop, would probably warmly embrace a gay grandson.
After Daniel delivers an especially liberal sermon dismissing the threat of temptation, an angry Bishop Beatrice (played by Ellen Burstyn) warns him to be careful. "Canterbury" (as in the Anglican Archbishop of) is "spanking" the American church for getting too theologically loose, she threatens. In real life, of course, it is not the relatively liberal Archbishop of Canterbury who has been chastising the U.S. Episcopal Church, but rather the orthodox Anglican bishops of the Global South--especially Africa.
Unlike the fictional Bishop Beatrice, the real-life Episcopal bishop of Connecticut is acting punitively against six of his priests for their attempts to protest against their denomination's liberal policies. A truly provocative program about the Episcopal Church might showcase one of these orthodox priests trying to stand against the liberal church hierarchy. Perhaps that would be too edgy.
THERE IS ANOTHER DETAIL in Book of Daniel which rings untrue: Daniel's church is packed with people every Sunday. The Episcopal Church is actually dwindling in size, a decline accelerated by recent controversies over sex and theology.
Episcopalians are an increasingly tiny minority in America. But because the church of the chronically well-heeled has been on top of the American social, economic, and political heap for much of the last 400 years, Episcopalians have always been considered fair game for mockery.
Book of Daniel only accelerated that mockery. Canceled after only a few episodes, the aborted series at least chronicled one of America's most famously failed experiments in liberal religion.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.