I'm pleased to post a contribution by our newest contributing editor, Randall Stephens, who teaches at Eastern Nazarene College and is the author of a fine book that should be out very soon, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South. Randall is also the editor of the Journal of Southern Religion and associate editor of Historically Speaking.
I'm especially pleased because Randall is THE MAN on new music, film, television, and other forms of popular culture.
Good Vibrations from HBO, by Randall Stephens
John from Cincinnati, the new HBO series created by David Milch (profanity-riddled Deadwood) and surf-noir master Kem Nunn, is only partially about a California surfing dynasty, the Yost family. On the surface the show chronicles their unraveling. The paterfamilias, Mitch, is a jaded, anti-establishment baby-boomer, whose yin for eastern religion is, maybe, a little too obvious. Mitch's son is a washed-out addict, itchy, twitchy, and full of rage. Though he was once an unparalleled star of the sport, he now gets elevated on horse, not on waves. Grandson, Sean, is a natural, innocent and full of promise. Sean's grandmother, Cissy, is a control freak. She spends her life "busting balls" and trying to maintain some semblance of order. Enter John from Cincinnati, an oddball twenty-something, half prophet, half telepathic alien. JC, get it?
The otherworldly adventure starts in episode one when Mitch levitates about a foot off the ground after surfing. It's a prelude of things supernatural to come. John shows up out of the blue, wearing chic summer attire and sporting a confused grin. He is regularly around the Yost family and their acquaintances (a pothead Vietnam vet, gangsters from Hawaii, a spunky surf shop clerk, a lecherous agent, and a man who speaks to his parakeets). John has a habit of repeating what others say, and, more recently, reading minds and speaking inner thoughts out loud. The echolalic prophet acts as narrator. Hard to believe something like this could actually be on TV and win any kind of audience, but it has, and the formula actually works.
I find the show's comment on American religion in the 21st especially intriguing. Characters take their beliefs cafeteria-style, a little Zen here a dash of Catholicism, a heaping helping of new millennium Gnosticism, and a dollop of conspiracy theory. Perhaps Diana L. Eck, Harvey Cox, and Elaine Pagels are on the mark about Americans new doctrine-free religion. It may be that many, those on the left coast in particular, care little for dogma and creeds. The characters on J from C are all damaged, some, seemingly, beyond repair or redemption. It's hard to imagine them getting right with God by going Southern Baptist or Orthodox. But in cherub-faced John, they seem to find some solace, regardless of whether they can make sense of him or not. For me the series occasionally evokes the meandering spirituality of Freeman Dyson. At other times it brings to mind the dark apocalypticism of Philip K. Dick.
My favorite episode thus far was the most recent, "His Visit: Day Five." John appears in visions to the characters, speaks obscure wisdom, travels over space and time (like the post-Easter Christ), and transforms his "disciples." In the most clearly biblical scene yet, JC appears to the entire cast at a barbeque at a run-down motel. The characters, though, appear to be only aware of his presence on a subconscious level. He speaks in unmistakable Johanine terms: "my Father" will right wrongs, heal wounds, and set the world straight.It is a powerful sequence. Few programs deal so explicitly and capably with religion or belief. HBO's Six Feet Under, one of the best programs on TV in the last decade, did so with panache. But the unconventionality of J from C and the bizarre, captivating California religiosity of the program stands out. I just wish the series'creators had used Brian Wilson's sprawling pocket symphony, "Good Vibrations," as the theme song.