I can’t get into too many details, but I had one of the most rad experiences of my life recently.
I got to be a consultant for a new TV show coming out next year on Amazon Prime, “Hand Of God”. This show stars the incredible Ron Pearlman as a morally corrupt judge who goes through a mental breakdown after his sons (PJ) suicide attempt. We find PJ on life support.
The twist: The judge, (Pernell) found God in the midst of losing his mind, and now he feels compelled by visions of God to seek out the mystery killer of his son. The show includes a shady pastor (Julian Morris) and others who have questionable motives. This show delves into the deep waters of faith, morality, ethics, hearing God’s voice, and much more. With the judge as the main character, they will look at how we like to find ways around the rules.
I am stoked for my cousin, Ben Watkins, writer and creator of the show. Formerly, he wrote and produced the fast-paced drama, Burn Notice. About a year ago, I was at dinner with my cousin and asked what was next for him as Burn Notice wrapped up. He was excited to share some of the projects on the horizon, but unsure about saying something about all of them. The controversy of Hand of God caused him to feel the nerves of telling his cousin, the pastor/missionary about this one, which was his brainchild. But he went for it, unpacking the plot and drama of the show. Immediately, his pitch grabbed my attention. I loved the fact that this show would deal with issues, ask questions that don’t often get asked in pop-culture. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up with anticipation and hope that this show might get off the ground. You never know.
As my insides spilled with excitement for his idea, I said something to Ben that stuck with him as he went to work on the show and pitching it to the studios. What I loved about this idea is that it asks questions when most shows that deal with religion give answers, simplistic answers, this concept begs us to think and ask questions. This story will give compelling drama, while drawing us into the narrative and cause us to ask questions we don’t often feel comfortable asking. This show will walk a razor thin line of entertaining and disturbing us.
Oh, and I am a big fan of Ron Pearlman.
As Ben told me about his show, and we talked about the God issue in the show, he suggested I might be able to help down the line as things unfold. And things did unfold, slowly as they do in LA. The show got pitched, green-lighted for a pilot, and eventually picked up by the studio.
Fast forward a little more than a year. Now, they are working on writing nine episodes for the first season. This is where I received an invitation to help them in the creative process. The writer’s had questions about Theology, ethics, and the practical nature of building a church. Ben asked me to come talk with the writers about upcoming storylines, those lines that dealt with the issues of God, the Bible and the young preacher.
I had the privilege of dialoguing with some bright, energetic and super creative folks developing a story. I got to see behind the curtain of how something gets brought to life from that place in the ether, the void of our mind’s eye to the TV. I was like a kid in a candy store wanting to ask so many questions. But I was there to give answers.
My job: Talk to the writer’s room about this show. I felt like this was “ask the blind pastor” on steroids. I had no idea what I was getting into or who I was going to talk too much like when I first started this thing that spawned the name of this blog on a community college campus. Apparently, I have not told that story here. Note to self: Write a story or two about the origins of this blog title.
I came to find a few minutes before going into the writer’s room that of the seven writers including my cousin, only Ben was a Christian. The others were primarily Jewish in background with one being a former Christian and now a Buddhist. This gave for a beautiful pallet of diverse views when it comes to the God topic.
Since, I did not know them, and they did not know me, we needed a common place to begin. And with the backdrop of this show dealing with religion, why not start there. I decided to get these guys and gals looking at the Bible with questions about what the Bible says about violence, marriage, divorce and more. I hoped for more, but the first two questions sparked plenty of conversation points including curiosity, the provocative, and the sublime. I loved one guy who said he had read the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible , but it had been a long time. He is reading the Bible again for the show. He quipped, don’t tell me how it ends. And that made me smile.
At one point he brought up a section he had been reading in Genesis 34 when Jacob’s daughter Dinah was defiled. In response, her brothers, the patriarchs of Israel tricked the people of the city into all getting circumcised. While recovering in pain, the brothers of Dinah took out the people. This writer asked about violence. What do we do with a story like that? On the one hand, it is brutal, devious, conniving, and so wrong. But those people did rape Dinah, the sister of Jacob’s 12 sons, so they got what they deserved, he thought. We were talking about the Bible, the ethic of God, and really digging in. It was fantastic as we dove into our session of sticky topics that often get treated as black and white while we live in a grey world.
As things progressed, we moved from the open dialogue which helped me get a sense of their background to talking about the storylines. We had great questions and interchange of discussion. The 90-minutes flew by in the blink of an eye. It felt like we ended as soon as we started. So much ground had been covered, and yet so many more questions were hanging out there waiting to be handled. Would there be more time, another opportunity?
Questions led to answers which led to more questions. I love the mystery and the open space the Bible gives us. I also loved the opportunity to share God’s heart behind the designs he has on us, the grace he has and love for all peoples. In every way, I took the opportunity to paint God as one who loves the world and wants us to know him deeply.
But the end was only the beginning as we sat down and talked more over lunch. Here, I really got to answer questions about my faith. Whatever went on in the writer’s room must have opened their hearts to more questions. I sat with one of the writers and a writer’s assistant at lunch as they dialogued openly and vigorously for another hour plus. I loved when this writer said to me that he had never met a pastor before. What a privilege for me to be the first pastor this witty, smart writer could meet.
As we sat talking over lunch, one of this writer’s first questions to me was do many people in my field have a similar interest in the arts like I do. Sadly, I thought, no. In between taking bites, I told him that most in my field either uncritically consume the arts of movies and television or condemn it as filthy or unfruitful. Pastors often talk about the stuff of TV as unedifying and ask their people to stick with things that build them up. In fact, until the last 10-15 years, the arena of the arts was often completely overlooked by the evangelical church. We did not dialogue over the stories of the movies, the meanings, the messages, the questions raised in this medium. We did not talk about ways in which we could engage the culture around us through conversations about film and TV. We did not talk about the shows that brought us flawed characters like House, Batman in the latest installment of Christopher Nolen’s version, Clint Eastwood’s cranky character in “Grand Torino”, and many more. We have not often found ways to use the arts as a platform to talk about faith.
In fact, as I grew up in the church, I often felt an aversion to the arts, to the discussions of metaphor and symbolism. I felt uncomfortable in the ambiguity of questions and possibilities. However, over time, I have enjoyed getting into conversations about story. I have enjoyed how story can capture our imagination and open space for discussions about so many more things. I felt thrilled that I could now be on the inside talking about story and how story can shape how we see the world. I had the chance to help shape a small part of this series and the story undergirding what will come of this show. I sure enjoyed the time I had with these writer’s and wish them the best with their new venture. I look forward to more opportunities to contribute as more scripts are being written.
I would love to come back here and there to this experience as a fertile ground to dialogue further about their questions–What is a pastor? Why do we try to get around the rules, what does the Bible say about slavery, violence and so much more.
What are your thoughts about the arts and faith?