A friend just pointed me to an episode of the NPR show Speaking of Faith called TV and the Parables of Our Time. In these 51 minutes, host Krista Tippett and her guest Diane Winston explore a handful of television shows which ask (and sometimes answer) fascinating theological questions.
Television is where many of us go to immerse in storytelling. The serialized form echoes the weekly lectionary: just as I hear the next chapter in the neverending story of Torah each week when I go to shul, I tune in to my favorite shows week by week to find out what happens next. I think a lot of people today find in TV what the religious among us find in scripture: a regular chance to immerse in a story which grips us and which prompts us to ask tough questions about who we are and what matters in our lives.
For me, those questions are inevitably theological ones, and good television shows increasingly offer a place where complicated questions of faith can be explored in satisfying ways. Of course, being who I am, I gravitate toward shows which have religious undercurrents. The renewed Battlestar Galactica centers around questions of theology. (I don't want to spoil anyone who hasn't seen the full run, but the Cylons are monotheists and humanity is polytheistic, and their differing theologies play an increasingly important role as the series unfolds.) Lost, which started out as a vaguely supernatural desert island epic, turns out to be all about destiny, free will, and the nature of good and evil. And both of these shows present universes full of intriguingly flawed characters, all of whom are at times admirable, and at other times desperately need to make teshuvah.
One of the things I love about Tanakh is that everyone in it is flawed. None of the patriarchs is perfect: Abraham holds a knife over his son, while Jacob tricks his brother and later his uncle. Even Moses, who leads the Israelites out of Egypt and is graced with the chance to spend forty days and forty nights in communion with God atop Sinai, makes mistakes which result in his death before he makes it to the promised land. King David, understood to be the author of the psalms and (distant) ancestor of the messiah, has some sexual issues which get in the way of his rule. Biblical characters are alternately full of compassion and rage, enlightenment and jealousy... just like us, and just like the characters we create. The characters on Lost and Battlestar Galactica are Biblical in their complexities and contradictions; I think that's what makes them so compelling and so real.
"There are themes of brokenness and redemption," says Krista Tippett about Lost. "I always think of Reinhold Niebuhr's line, the first line of his The Nature and Destiny of Man, 'Man is his own most vexing problem.' The characters on Lost, you see that come to life narratively with each one of them, week to week, but you also see this very noble human will to keep learning. To me that's absolutely spiritually evocative television." Diane Winston agrees. She sees the the show's central question as "how do I find my way home," a question which echoes from the Exodus story all the way through the Wizard of Oz.
A Muslim theologian, says Tippett, helped her see how Battlestar Galactica encodes some of the same questions we struggle with when we look at Israel/Palestine. It's a powerful analogy. Who are the terrorists? Who's in power? Who started the cycle of suffering, and who's ultimately responsible for stopping it? For that matter: what does it say about us when we descend to using torture to try to glean information from our foes? Under what circumstances is it appropriate to turn to scripture for answers to political questions? What should we do when even our most revered leaders turn out to be imperfect? How is it possible to maintain hope in inconceivably dark times? Sometimes it's easier to engage with these questions within the context of fiction's safe remove than it is to engage with them in painful, thorny "real life."
The radio piece makes brief mention of fanfiction, fanvids, and the fannish process of "creating new narratives" which allows consumers of TV to become participants in co-creating stories that matter. The show doesn't focus there, though, so Krista and Diane don't make the leap of talking about transformative works as contemporary pop culture midrash. (Alas.) Still, if you're intrigued by the theological resonances of television today, the piece is well worth a listen. At the show's website you can download or stream an mp3 version, stream a RealAudio version, or download a podcast into iTunes and listen to it there. Alternately, if you'd rather read than listen (though you'll miss out on the clips from tv shows!), there's a transcript available, too. If you listen, and you want to talk about the show, let me know what you think!