The National Catholic Review
Here’s a surefire recipe for a hit television miniseries: Combine the most exciting aspects of The DaVinci Code with the apocalypticism of the wildly popular Left Behind novels, and toss in a bit of The X-Files for good measure. That was probably the logic, or illogic, behind NBC’s new six-part miniseries Revelations, which began airing on April 13, a program sure to cause great hair-pulling (not to mention rending of garments and gnashing of teeth) among Scripture scholars, theologians and even the lapsed-est of Catholics. For one thing, the series, starring Natasha McElhone as a renegade nun (is there any other kind on television?) and Bill Pullman as a skeptical academic (is there any other kind on television?), investigating the coming of the end times, evinces a sensibility less in accord with The New Jerome Biblical Commentary and more with The Bible Code. (Then again, guess which book sells more copies?)

On the other hand, the show is, if ridiculous, then at least lots of fun. You could say it’s compellingly nutty. According to the press release, the action is set in the days before Armageddon, which pretty much describes any period in history. The protagonist is Sister Josepha Montifiore, a member of a religious order called the Sisters of Mercy. Apparently, the show’s writers couldn’t be bothered to come up with a fake religious order. And wait until the real Sisters of Mercy get a load of the habits their television sisters wear. I haven’t seen so much fabric since The Trouble With Angels. Sister Jo (who, weirdly, sports a long ponytail under her veil) is a sister on a mission: to find signs of the coming Christ, who is coming really soon.

How does Sister know? Well, courtesy of a few handy miracles (including a pretty impressive one of Jesus appearing on a Mexican hillside) and, mostly, tons of references to the Book of Revelation, which the Sisters of Mercy lovingly display on an ornate bookstand in the middle of their palatial convent, whose doors, by the way, can be opened only by order of the Vatican. I loved that. I imagined Mother Superior calling the Congregation for Religious and saying, Your Eminence? It’s the Sisters of Mercy. The cable guy is here. Can we open our doors?

Lately there have been a host of signs--for example, many tribulations, which also tell the sisters, astute students of Revelation, that it’s Miller Time for Satan, too. (You’ll notice that when the sisters look up the Book of Revelation, they turn to the middle of their big Bible. Apparently they use the New, New Very Revised Standard Version.) Once inside the convent, the doubtful academic, Dr. Richard Massey, asks innocently, Has the world ever been so close to complete annihilation? One of the Jesuits with whom I was watching the pilot said, Well, yeah, in 1961. And another said, And 1918.

But no matter. The sisters are convinced and have enlisted the help of Dr. Massey, the famous Harvard astrophysicist, whose daughter has just been murdered by a Satanist, who now languishes in jail. (To prove he is a Satanist, he chops off his finger, demonstrates his non-bleeding skills and smiles demonically. I thought: Good enough for me.) At the same time another little girl, who has just been struck by lightning, lies comatose in a Miami hospital. When she is given the Last Rites (as they still call them on television) by a priest, she begins mumbling what everyone mumbles in these situations: That’s Latin! says the priest. Fortunately, Father speaks fluent Latin (like every television priest) and is also able to transcribe immediately what she says. And surprise--it has to do with the Apocalypse.

In the nick of time, Sister Jo arrives at the hospital to visit the little girl, who, though still comatose, helpfully scribbles down (on a pad of paper held by Sister) some ancient symbols, which will apparently be translated later, or perhaps sent on to Dan Brown and his DaVinci Code support staff for their review. The hospital’s doctors are, of course, doubtful that the girl is actually speaking and writing (blind fools!) but they cannot enter the hospital room because--I’m not making this up--there are two priest-bodyguards blocking their entrance. The next time I am at a hospital, I plan on doing this. Doctor, you cannot come in. These doors can be opened only by the Vatican!

By the end of the first episode, Dr. Massey, like all academics faced with wild-eyed nuns, has begun to believe in Sister Jo’s eschatological theories, but only after his dead daughter (not the lightning girl, the other dead girl) appears to him in a hallucinogenic dream on an airplane. Meanwhile, an angelic little baby, the only survivor of a shipwreck, has found his way to the Island of Patmos, where during an Orthodox ceremony the baby is being baptized. Or confirmed. Or is blessing everyone. Or something.

Apparently, it’s Baby Jesus. Then again, as Homer Simpson would say, Or..is he?

The show is at once entertaining and silly--a hodgepodge of Catholic misinformation--bringing to mind what The New Yorker, of all places, asked about Constantine, the recent movie starring Keanu Reeves and the angel Gabriel: When will Catholics get tired of people using their deeply held beliefs and practices as the fodder for more entertainment kitsch? More seriously, the series shows Catholics, personified by Sister Jo, to be credulous, fundamentalist, Bible-thumpers whose main recourse when dealing with doubters is to throw random quotes from Scripture at them--which, believe me, is not the way to the heart of the skeptic.

Future episodes will show Sister Jo and Doctor Massey puzzling out the portents of the parousia. Revelations is currently scheduled to air for six weeks, but the producers are praying that the series will be picked up for next season, so the end of the world probably won’t come until at least this fall.

But don’t say you weren’t warned.

James Martin, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Maria Procacino | 4/18/2005 - 11:18am
Dear Father MArtin - While what THE NEW YORKER says is sad but true, it is much sadder that many "Catholics" will look to this show and books like the Da VInci Code as formal catechesis on the real TRUTH about our church. After all, Charlton Heston really was Moses..... As a CCD teacher for many years, coordinator of RCIA process and coordinator of studies for lay ministries, trust me, they WILL be looking at the middle of the BOOK for the book of Revelation - THIS they remember!!!!
Gail A. MacLean | 4/26/2005 - 11:01am
I enjoyed the review of the miniseries, Revelations, by James Martin, S.J. so much that I read it aloud to some friends last night and had them rolling in the aisles! They are convinced Fr. Martin is related to Andy Rooney because of his dry wit. Yet some of his observations are quite sobering, particularly his remarks about the way Catholics are portrayed. I would add a corollary: we can laugh because we know the truth—how many people are taking what they see on TV and in movies and read in novels about Catholics as Gospel (you should excuse the expression) and how many Catholics believe what they learn in those same sources about Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc.? Scary or funny?

Maria Procacino | 4/18/2005 - 11:18am
Dear Father MArtin - While what THE NEW YORKER says is sad but true, it is much sadder that many "Catholics" will look to this show and books like the Da VInci Code as formal catechesis on the real TRUTH about our church. After all, Charlton Heston really was Moses..... As a CCD teacher for many years, coordinator of RCIA process and coordinator of studies for lay ministries, trust me, they WILL be looking at the middle of the BOOK for the book of Revelation - THIS they remember!!!!
Gail A. MacLean | 4/26/2005 - 11:01am
I enjoyed the review of the miniseries, Revelations, by James Martin, S.J. so much that I read it aloud to some friends last night and had them rolling in the aisles! They are convinced Fr. Martin is related to Andy Rooney because of his dry wit. Yet some of his observations are quite sobering, particularly his remarks about the way Catholics are portrayed. I would add a corollary: we can laugh because we know the truth—how many people are taking what they see on TV and in movies and read in novels about Catholics as Gospel (you should excuse the expression) and how many Catholics believe what they learn in those same sources about Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc.? Scary or funny?

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