“Theophanies in a Post-Modern Age”

Even as the opening credits rolled to the Joan Osborne song “What if God was One of Us?”, I was hoping that I would encounter a show that truly dealt with the question. Then again, what would be our reaction if God actually showed up at our doorstep or make it a point to personally encounter us?

Our reaction would probably be a lot like Joan’s. Okay, maybe we wouldn’t immediately think that the incarnation of God was a pervert/stalker. But he continues to “woo” her by appearing not just as an “old guy”, but then as a teenage boy, and then as the cafeteria lady. So naturally, she begins to question her sanity. After all, she’s starting to hear from God. That’s insane. Finding faith is a lot like falling in love, and there is an element of the irrational to both. [Though it should be noted, that when Joan asks her “man of science” brother, Luke, whether or not he believes in God, he remarks that it’s a logical conclusion because he accepts the fact that the universe is governed by laws.]

Being a post-modern teen, in this age of cynicism and snappy comebacks, she lacks the poetry of, for example, a Job. But she does what many would do, asks Him to prove Himself:

Joan: “Let’s see a miracle.”
God: “Okay, how about that?”
Joan: “That’s a tree.”
God: “Let’s see you make one.”

So what does God want? Basically for Joan to follow His directives, in this case, get a job. One reviewer snippily remarked that if you switched to CNN during the commercials, you could see the things God was letting slide in order to give Joan employment advice. That is probably one reason why the father is the chief of police, confronting the evil perpetrated in the world each day. That is probably why the family struggles with Kevin being in a wheelchair, after all, as the Helen laments, God is supposed to be a father: what kind of father wouldn’t fix his children’s problems if he’s capable? It is easy to dismiss this show as family time fluff, but I am fascinated by the questions that it chooses to ask and the answers it gives. Here are some of the lessons learned by Joan about God (in the first episode):

1. “I knew you before you were born.” “I’m omniscient. It comes with the job.”
His response when she asked how He knew so much about her.
2. “I don’t always look the same.” “I am beyond your experience.”
He explains that he doesn’t look or sound like anything she’d recognized, so he had to take a form that she (and by proxy, we) would be comfortable with and could relate to. He goes on to explain that He’s not snippy, she just understands Him as snippy.
3. “I don’t bargain, that would be cruel.”
He confronts her with the fact that she made a list of things that she would do if God allowed her brother to live after his car accident.
4. “It’s not about religion, it’s about fulfilling your nature.”
This was His response when she informed Him that she was not very religious.
5. “Do you notice how I don’t answer the ‘whys’?”
Why do you allow suffering? Why does evil exist?

We also see God as a bit of a master chess player. Joan eventually gets the job. Her employment there leads to the apprehension of one of the evils that her father was hunting. It also pushes her brother back into the world from which he’d withdrawn ever since his accident. All the while, this non-religious teenager starts to see God everywhere and His hand in everything.

I don’t always expect to agree with the theology in the show (of course, I don’t usually look for life-changing theological lessons from network television), but I am pleasantly surprised by how good the show is and how well both the writing and acting are. Most importantly, I enjoy watching a show ask and confront the questions that many people ask when they think about whether or not God exists.

***

Joan of Arcadia: Season Two
“A Season of Doubt”

At the end of the first season of Joan of Arcadia, Joan had been diagnosed with Lyme disease and Joan had come to believe that her conversations with God had all been a matter of “impaired perceptions”. This has led to a rough time, a crisis of faith if you will, as Joan reassesses what it means to believe in God, or if she even does. Her faith is so fundamental to who she is, she probably didn’t know how much, that even her boyfriend, Adam, noticed that something about her was different.

The spiritual struggles aren’t limited to Joan, however. Joan’s mom, Helen, is tentatively reaching out to explore her Catholicism and her faith. She has begun a conversation about Catholicism and God with a (former) nun (Constance Zimmer). This is especially ironic considering that as the season opens, no one in the family seems capable of carrying a conversation with each other. The crux point of one of her struggles is her wrestling with her own theodicy, her justification of God. In her heart, she believes that God is punishing her, thus explaining why He allowed Kevin to be paralyzed and Joan to have to go to “crazy camp”. The family is under-going all many of soul searching due to Andrew Baker–the drunk driver responsible for Joan’s brother’s, Kevin, paralysis–coming back into their lives via a lawsuit against the family. On the one hand, the whole family wrestles with the idea that we are all accountable for our own actions. On the other hand, many of them blame God (or a random, meaningless universe) for what has happened to them.

“She understood me, but now she’s gone. I’m all yours.” The wife of the bookstore owner where Joan works suffers from true mental illness. She’s a symbol of the madness that mankind is prone to when they feel abandoned by God. That is the real mental anguish that Joan suffers from: abandonment by God. St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, called this the “dark night of the soul,” those dark circumstances that God uses to transform people and draw them even nearer to Him.

During this dark night, we feel that God is gone and we’re all alone. We reach the limit of our ability to be in control of things. The familiar spiritual practices that we’d come to depend on, that comforted us, now seem hollow and ineffective. But it is God’s silence that comes with unanswered prayer, that feeling that He has abandoned us, that causes us the greatest pain. Joan’s “dark night of the soul” plays out much like a break up, with all the attendant heartache and depression. God is almost like an ex-boyfriend that she doesn’t want to see anymore.

Joan and her family struggle for answers. People have gotten it into their heads that religious people are supposed to always be happy, after all, they’re supposed to have all of the answers. This happens when you preach a message that proclaims that you have the answers for everything, forgetting that if you have all the answers, what do you need God for? In a lot of ways, we’ve made an idol of answers. We must face the fact that we often learn more looking for answers and not finding it than we do from having an answer handed to us. But that’
s too scary a place to be. Too often we have a fair weather faith, such that when a real crisis arises, it is exposed as empty. Prolonged sadness, prolonged struggle, prolonged questioning has been made to be seen as a lack of faith. Instead, they can serve to grow us.

Asking the questions, struggling with the “why?” and the “what did I do to deserve this?” isn’t bad, but one shouldn’t get trapped in the search for answers, especially where none exist. We need to be willing to live with the questions. There are 288 question marks in the book of Job as Job and his friends wrestle with the issue of “why bad things happen to good people”. God deals with their questions with questions of His own: 78 of the 288 questions are His. Joan of Arcadia knows this. It asks all the right questions and doesn’t answer them. The characters grow by wrestling with the questions not by discovering answers.

As for Joan, nothing seems to be working for her any more. Not her faith, as it was, and not her relationships. She has a Spiritis Virtininus, a “dizzy spirit” that errs in everything. She is trapped in the tyranny of doing things for the sake of simply doing something. Her relationship with Adam sputters along without direction or focus. A friend of hers from “crazy camp”, Judith Montgomery (Sprague Grayden), exerts a bad influence pull in her life. But even her party girl attitude doesn’t fill that gnawing void within her. She’s angry at God because nothing makes sense anymore. Of course, maybe it’s just me, but there’s a certain dark amusement to realizing how little it might bother God for people to keep telling Him that He doesn’t exist.

Crises of faith will either break us and cause us to abandon God or break us down and draw us nearer to Him. They are messy and there are no pat steps on how to get through them. All you can do is hold on to the tether of your faith until things hurt less. But ‘God’ (on the show) honored her unbelief, her struggles, her questions, her doubts. He showed her grace, mercy, and acceptance in the face of her anger. And He loved her while she was broken. By going to Him without pretending, being broken and terrified, she exposed and dealt with her doubts and ended up back in His arms. One of the things that makes this show work is its honest treatment of faithfulness. It constantly teeters on being overwhelmed with its earnestness, but is saved by its sense of humor, being seasoned with an edge of darkness, and its relevance.

***
Barbara Hall, the creator of Joan of Arcadia, wrote a list of guidelines for the writers, which she called “The Ten Commandments of Joan of Arcadia”:

1. God cannot directly intervene.
2. Good and evil exist.
3. God can never identify one religion as being right.
4. The job of every human being is to fulfill his or her true nature.
5. Everyone is allowed to say “no” to God, including Joan.
6. God is not bound by time. This is a human concept.
7. God is not a person and does not possess a human personality.
8. God talks to everyone all the time in different ways.
9. God’s plan is what is good for us, not what is good for him.
10. God’s purpose for talking to Joan, and everyone, is to get her (us) to recognize the interconnectedness of all things – i.e., you cannot hurt a person without hurting yourself; all of your actions have consequences; God can be found in the smallest actions; God expects us to learn and grow from all our experiences. However, the exact nature of God is a mystery, and the mystery can never be solved.