Barbara Hall, the creator and executive producer of the CBS television series “Joan of Arcadia,” may have a wider audience than any contemporary American theologian. Most theologians don’t talk about God any more. Sex, race, gender, politics, secularity or whatever are more important subjects. Ms. Hall’s series not only talks about God but presents images of God in human form every Friday evening. Though she is a recent member of the Catholic Church, I wonder whether she has read David Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination. She grasps the point that every person, event and object we encounter is a possible sacrament (metaphor) for God.
The underlying question of her series is this: What if God decided today to speak to us as he did to Joan of Arc? “What if God was one of us?” asks the theme song. The series features a wide variety of divine manifestations. The first to speak to the contemporary high school sophomore Joan Girardi (played by the wonderfully gifted Amber Tamblyn) is a cute boy she meets on the bus. He is reluctant, almost embarrassed, to reveal his name, though he knows a lot about her. Finally he admits that he is “God.” Joan blows him off. Then in class she looks out the window and sees God leaning against a wall, looking dejected. She storms out and tells him to go away. In response, he says he’s ready to forgive her all the promises she made and didn’t keep when she thought her brother would die. He then instructs her to seek a job at a bookstore two bus stops away from school. She demands to know why. He walks away with a backward wave of his hand, a gesture that becomes routine for all the God surrogates.
God appears in many forms. Indeed, one of the joys of watching the program is guessing which person is going to be God—a funny-looking little girl with thick glasses, a punk rocker, a woman doctor in a hospital, an elderly candy striper, a FedEx delivery man, a substitute English teacher, various service workers at her high school, clerks in stores, a tree trimmer, a garbage-truck driver. God even talks to her as a television anchorman and invades her dreams. God is everywhere, the stories suggest, guiding us in response to his love.
The second premise of “Joan” is that God draws straight with crooked lines. We are all caught up in networks of relationships, and what we do or do not do influences others in ways we do not anticipate. Joan’s angry brother Kevin (Jason Ritter), his basketball career ruined by a paralyzing automobile accident, refuses to get a job, much to the dismay of his police chief father (Joe Mantegna) and his loving but anxious artist mother (Mary Steenburgen). When he learns that his kid sister has a job, he congratulates her for showing him up. Now he has to get one too.
God assigns poor Joan many tasks that she fears will ruin what little is left of her popularity in school. She must join the cheerleaders, play in the school band, get an A on a history test, sing in a concert, organize a party while her parents are away, sign up for Advanced Placement Chemistry, destroy her boyfriend’s entry in a school art contest, help the poor, bring God (as a woman shopper) a latté from a coffee cart, create a garden in the football field, study Victorian romantic poetry, learn chess and stage a family garage sale without asking her mother.
There is no sick sentimentality in the series (as there was in “Touched by an Angel”). Joan encounters more than her share of human suffering. A little boy for whom she babysat dies; her brother remains paralyzed; a woman classmate whom Joan has taken under wing is the victim of a drug murder while Joan is on her first date, which the classmate had set up. Her boyfriend edges close to suicide because of despair over his mother’s suicide. Her father loses his job as police chief. Joan herself contracts Lyme disease. She frequently demands answers from God as to why things happen, and God does not give her the answers she wants.
“Why did you take Judith’s life when she was so young?” asks Joan.
“It would have been better if she had never lived?” responds God.
There is laughter and love and disaster and pain in the life of this “typical” teen and God will not explain any of them to her, except indirectly. Worse still, she suffers a serious psychological consequence from the Lyme disease, when the various God-images rush into her mind and cause a psychotic episode. A psychiatrist tells her that her conversations with God are part of her illness and that she must give them up if she is to regain her health. Joan, in a kind of “dark night of the soul,” returns to Arcadia and brushes off the God figures. “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in you.”
Her dark night ends when God slips into a wild party at her friend Judith’s house in his boy-on-the-bus form and tells Joan to keep her eyes open. She doesn’t. Judith consumes a bottle of whiskey and almost dies. Joan concludes that she had better listen to God again and accept the strange tasks he gives her.
She often dislikes these assignments and tells God off (the way any teenager would tell off a parent figure). “Don’t you have anything better to say than fortune-cookie bits of wisdom?” When the boy on the bus shows up at the party in her family house—apparently to make sure there’s no hard liquor—and dances with her: “For God, you’re not a very good dancer.” God doesn’t seem to mind such backtalk. In fact he (or she, depending) seems to like it.
Why—really why—was the party held at her house? Neighbors complain about the noise. Police officers from her father’s force are about to invade a meth factory when they are called away to put down the party. After they leave the factory, it blows up. But the lines are really twisted this time: if God hadn’t demanded the party, the cops would have exploded in the drug lab.
Usually Joan does what she is told to do. What choice do you have if God gives you instructions? She learns many lessons about fear, popularity, revenge (several times), kindness, love, jealousy, patience, forgiveness, courage, faith under duress and acceptance of tragic loss.
In one episode, Joan goes to the latte counter in a mall and orders the drink God requests. Three of the “in” crowd at the school (who have been tormenting her) knock over the cup and then run off. Bending over to clean up the mess, Joan sees that one of the tormentors has fallen on the street. She dashes out and scoops her up before a car hits her. Joan is a hero. But then the media take over and destroy her. Joan rises and falls in 24 hours. When she complains to God, he points out that she hasn’t changed, that everyone will forget about the story in another day and that the young woman she saved needs some affection and support.
Before a history test, Joan studies all night and aces the test. The professor flunks her and accuses of her of cheating. A school official orders her to take the test again, or he will have to expel her. She insists, righteously, that she did not cheat and will not take the test again. Her friends stage a protest against the school authorities, and they too are threatened with suspension. God tells her how the disillusioned professor gave up a career in jazz to teach history in high school and that the man is about to retire. Joan retakes the test; her friends are furious. She aces the second test, and the teacher tells her he now believes again that it is possible to teach history.
Ms. Hall and her colleagues insist that the series is not a family series, not a comedy series, not a teen series, not a religious series. Rather it is a subtle and ingenious combination of all four. The scripts and the productions are usually perfect little gems. Priests and rabbis and ministers and ex-nuns appear periodically, often as nerds. Joan has no religion, though her parents are (uneasily) fallen-away Catholics. Joe Mantegna is marvelous as the tough, God-haunted, Italian agnostic cop. The series lacks denominational affiliation—biased only in favor of those of us who believe that God lurks everywhere, pursuing us, haunting us, loving us, begging us, giving us hints that are sometimes like a spring zephyr and sometimes like a whirlwind.
The stories are themselves metaphors, fables, sacraments. God rarely speaks to any of us directly, the way he does to Joan. But it does not follow that we do not hear similar messages from the people and experiences of our life. Ms. Hall’s fables remind us to be alert for such experiences.
“Joan of Arcadia” has been warmly praised by critics, nominated for an Emmy (as was Ms. Tamblyn) and was renewed for a second year. It remains to be seen whether it will be scheduled for a third. In a medium dominated by “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos,” “American Idol,” “The Apprentice” and one vulgar reality series after another, what market is there in this allegedly religious country for a series in which God appears and urges spiritual truth?
But do any of our religious leaders think it is worth endorsing? How many priests have preached from the altar that their people should watch it? How many ministers have set up study groups to analyze it? Viewers should come away from each episode entertained, but also with renewed insight into the possibilities of faith and of life. Watching all the episodes in succession is like a course in spirituality or even a 30-episode retreat.
During the agony of the tsunami disaster, many theologians retreated into a stand not unlike deism in response to the attacks of the militant atheists and media agnostics. God sets up the systems, they seemed to argue, and then does not intervene.
God is not involved in our lives? God does not hear our prayers? God does not know the number of the very hairs on our head? God does not lead us to himself? He is not the great manipulator, nor a “God of the gaps.” God loves each one of us as intimately and passionately as he loves Joan. He is not outside the system poking around. God is rather inside the system in ways we do not understand and may never understand—though some recent reflections on the outer edge of science indicate that the more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. How come, for example, every atom in the cosmos is adjacent to every other atom?
As God tells Joan repeatedly, he is not about to provide easy and simple answers to human fears and anger. But then what kind of God would?
If God is not like the God of “Joan of Arcadia,” then this is not God at all, but an imposter and a charlatan.