The Parables Will be Televised

Paul Harvey

I've been spending a fair chunk of the summer powering through seasons of television shows -- it's why God invented Netflix and 40 inch flat screens in man caves. Most recently, I'm going through Season Two of Mad Men, which includes some wonderful scenes of a Catholic parish from the early 1960s, an idealistic guitar-strumming father trying to reach out to youth, and a very skeptical Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss, just nominated for an Emmy for the role), a character trying to make her way up in the world of her sexist Rat Pack office and go through just enough religious ritual to keep her mother happy (while also hiding the secret of her baby). In similar fashion, The Sopranos, Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Saving Grace, and many other shows aren't "about" religion, but feature religious themes and parables centrally in the scripts, and sometimes make serious efforts to feature in dramatic forms the lives of pastors and priests. At their best, they explore human conflict and moral quandaries in ways that we want out of stories and parables.

I've been wondering if this is a golden age of religion in televised drama -- but my media analysis skills seem too amateurish and ill-formed to make any pronouncements. Thus, it was nice to hear yesterday's Speaking of Faith, featuring the religion and media scholar Diane Winston speaking (with her usual insight) with host Krista Tippett on "TV and the Parables of Our Time." The conversation turned often to Winston's class at USC, "Religion, Media, and Hollywood: Faith in TV." Director Ron Moore's appearances in the classroom are clipped here. The theme throughout is the power of television drama to present modern parables, often derived from or inspired by older religious stories but presented in nuanced and complicated contexts, whether the gritty world of Baltimore, the stylized world of early 1960s Madison Avenue, or some sci-fi future world. I was lost during their discussion of Lost, but afficionados of the show (I'm not one) will appreciate that part.

Some of my feeling "left out" in discussions of religion and the media and popular culture, that feeling like the slightly nerdy kid in the corner of the classroom, not entirely sure what the conversation is about, comes from a particular cultural background in rural Oklahoma -- not that much was forbidden in some religious sense, but we were just too isolated and far away from everything to have much of a clue beyond what was rerun on Gilligan's Island and whatever pop hits played from the little radio station in Liberal, Kansas, that we were stuck with in the daytime.

Partly for this reason, I've been drawn to the memoir observations of my old friend Shirley Showalter. As former president of Goshen College, and before that my senior mentor in the Lilly Fellows program, and long before that a Mennonite farm girl, Shirley lived in but not of much of American culture while younger, and has blogged recently on what that feels like. On her blog, which is about the practice of reading/writing memoirs, Shirley has recently reflected on her experience of going to her first rock concert (the recent Dylan-Willie Nelson-Mellencamp fest) and the experience of longing for a television when younger, in part so she could be in the know of her contemporaries' conversations, but even more so because it seemed like television was magic (and also her thankfulness at being compelled to experience other worlds while those contemporaries were staring at the screen).

Some girls want ponies. Some want Barbies. Some are generous enough to think of others first, asking for world peace or food for the hungry. Others go straight for a million dollars. I would not have asked for any of those.

The thing I longed for was magic. All the other kids seemed to have it. At the first recess of the day lots of conversations began with “Did you see. . . .?” And everyone else jumped in to share their impressions of what they saw the night before.

On the radio program, Winston suggested that we need these stories from television shows to help us process bewildering contemporary events; straight media coverage just doesn't suffice, and the urge to narrate and dramatize helps us think through what otherwise seems too baffling or enraging.

Any suggestions for what to use in a classroom presentation on this subject?



Great post. You've echoed the conversations my wife and I have had around the TV for the past year, although you're much more eloquent than we've been. But true: lots of religious themes on TV recently. They are everywhere, except, it seems, for Entourage and Hung. But hey, they've got time.

As to what to show in class, I'm at a total loss. I've used Fulton Sheen's Life is Worth Living and even certain episodes of All in the Family, which hits the 1970s so well. But after that, Friends just doesn't cut it. The West Wing was interesting, with its Catholic president who has occasional discussions with God. But that's of a different genre compared to these parables. Anyway, I'll be watching for suggestions too.

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