Joan of Arcadia is Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

The new television season has provided us with a classic example of “conversion” in the portrayal of God Almighty over the airwaves. One portrayal lasted for nine years on CBS’s lineup, and was quite popular. For nine years Touched by an Angel ministered the message that God exists; He loves us, and He has a plan for our lives.

We've Outgrown Being Touched

Each episode featured a very human conflict created by selfishness, disrespect, anger, hate, misunderstanding, or miscommunication. Through His Angels, God Almighty would firmly but gently move events and people toward a realization of His love and mercy. By the close, all parties found deeper meaning in their lives, each other and greater closeness with their Creator.

Touched was by no means a perfect show, but it did try to portray The Lord in a loving, merciful, understanding, and interactive manner. This portrayal of God's love reflected both His understanding of our human frailty and His willingness to intervene in some way. The title song conveys the message of the famous poem Footprints: God is with us making our burden light if we believe and trust in Him.

The latest CBS offering has just begun, and all indications are that its creators and network see this as a maturing process whereby they, and we, have “grown up” and are ready to see The Lord as adults in the real world need to see Him in order to make some sense of it all. Joan of Arcadia sounds more like the name of a beauty parlor or pizzeria than any attempt at “religious” programming, but the usual pre-fabricated “reviews” make Joan sound like the second coming of television heaven: this program is “courageous”, “creative” and “inspiring”. The producers appeal to our “sophistication” by warning us that this show's tone is grittier and is grounded in exploring God more from a “metaphysical standpoint” than from a religious as Touched did. In other words, “Touched” was fluffy vanilla and “Joan” is dark chocolate. Even the title song, “One of Us”, by Joan Osborne, has a gritty, irreverent feel.

Making God Palatable

The show centers around God's appearances to a teenage girl who prayed in response to the tragic accident that paralyzed her brother from the waist down. We are told that the anguished family is not religious, does not attend Mass, has moved beyond that: God is not their chosen coping mechanism. God appears to Joan and communicates to her in the form of every kind of human being possible, from a “cute” teenage boy to an African-American cook in the school cafeteria.

Barbara Hall, the executive producer of Joan, bemoans that she has to “show how to make God palatable in this world”. In order to do this, Hall notes that she must work to make the program “interesting” and “smart”. She follows strict parameters, which she calls her “10 Commandments” for the program. These maxims brought down from Mount Tinseltown include such things as God cannot directly intervene, He can never identify one religion as being right, Our job as human beings is to fulfill our true natures, Everyone is allowed to say no to God, God is not a person and does not possess a human personality, He talks to all of us all the time in different ways, God's plan is what is good for us not what is good for Him, and His purpose in communicating with us is to get us to recognize the interconnectedness of all things.

Hall adds that God is found in the smallest things and actions, He expects us to learn from our experiences, and His exact nature is an unresolvable mystery. God also refuses to violate the physical laws of the universe because it would set a “bad example”. Apparently, this Joan learned from the experiences of her French counterpart Joan of Arc, because she does not tell anyone she is speaking to God so people will not think she is “crazy”.

The gist of the message here is that the God of Touched is outdated, superficial, boring. “God is not interesting in a benign universe….there need to be scary elements in the show,” is how Hall puts it. As one critic said, “If you are looking to spend an hour with some sappy, feel-good, Touched by an Angel, divine do-gooder, look elsewhere.”

We are told that God does not directly intervene, yet He appears to a girl to trigger positive actions on her part. We are told that God only works through people, yet the “people” he works through here are only forms which He clearly takes, since He does not “take possession” of anyone or “push” an actual human being to do something.

The God That Is Not

In discussing her rules for the show and its tone, Hall explains that the show is more about her own beliefs than about not offending anyone. In a revealing comment, Hall notes, “part of God is that He is or She is a mystery. While Hall keeps her religious inclinations private, her rules and comments are laced with New Age, feminist, modernist, and humanist tones. The media calls this “progress”: moving from the loving, merciful, active God of Touched to the smirking, gritty, peek-a-boo, passive God of Joan.

This is another step on the same road that led from religious to “spiritual” and now defines as “spiritual” what is really “spiritualistic”: shows where dead people, dolls, or inanimate objects talk. In this context, Joan is at least a notch above a fortune telling session. That is sad consolation though when we find among the creators of these shows so many discontented Christians and Catholics turned off by what they call “rituals and punishment-oriented mentalities.”

We have reached the pathetic point where we note that Joan at least is “not afraid to use the 'G' word” even though it really refers to nothing more than some vague New Age notion of “a higher being”. The show is more an ad for its creator's personal beliefs than any transcendental breakthrough in metaphysical thinking. Yes, Joan of Arcadia is about tragedy, but not the one involving a paralyzed boy and his hesitant seer sister. The real tragedy about Joan of Arcadia is that it asks What if God was one of us? despite the fact that the question was answered two thousand years ago on a cross.

© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange

Gabriel Garnica is a licensed attorney and educator with over 20 years teaching experience at the college, business school, and middle school levels. He has a BA in Psychology from St. John's University in New York and a J.D. from The New York University School of Law. Mr. Garnica writes extensively on spiritual and educational issues and conducts seminars on time management, leadership, and personal development.

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