David Chase's HBO dramatic series The Sopranos has moved well beyond niche audience and cult following and landed squarely in the category of Broader Cultural Phenomenon. Newsweeklies find that Tony's (James Gandolfini's) mug can goose circulation; multiple popular guides—including one by TV Guide and another by The New York Times—help latecomers get up to speed with the story four seasons into the game; DVD and VHS compilations of the series sell like crazy. And last week, a story about whether actors from the series would or would not be allowed to march in a Columbus Day parade made front-page news. (Not all Italian Americans, it turns out, are giddy about Tony.)
A slew of recent books seek to cash in on the zeitgeist: The Psychology of the Sopranos, Tony Soprano's America: The Criminal Side of the American Dream, even The Sopranos Family Cookbook. It was therefore more with amusement than shock that I beheld mock-up copies of The Gospel According to Tony Soprano: An Unauthorized Look Into the Souls of TV's Top Mob Boss and His Family (Relevant Books) at this year's Christian Booksellers Association convention.
Nor, once I received the book, was I terribly surprised. Author and Baptist minister Chris Seay spends the introduction and much of the rest of the book explaining why it's not only tolerable for a mature Christian to watch the show, it's positively a good idea. The Sopranos, Seay explains, is "greater than The Godfather," and has managed to hold "the imagination of the world at gunpoint." It may, in Seay's telling, be the best drama of all time!
Seay's book is interesting if for no other reason than that it proves the very Sicilian adage that everybody's got an angle. Seay's particular interest is not in principle objectionable—he wants to use The Sopranos to spread the message and ethics of the Christian faith—but one has to wonder at his vehicle of choice.
On the one hand, The Sopranos is a well written and popular drama. There is humor, but it leavens without dominating. Loved by millions—especially by inhabitants of those supposedly secular "Blue states"—it portrays the lives of a modern New Jersey mob boss and both of his "families"—nuclear and, uh, extended.
Viewers watch Tony Soprano grudgingly spill his guts to his distraught shrink and wrestle with issues of morality, identity, fatherhood, and whether or not his meds are up to snuff. Because of their "lifestyles," the characters regularly deal with issues like the reality of death, where to draw moral lines, and the meaning and purpose of life.
Most of an episode in the second season was spent discussing the existence of hell and what one has to do to land there: not predictable TV fare. Though stereotypes occasionally slip in (e.g., the "bought" priest), religion is handled earnestly as a real, if screwed-up, part of the mobsters' lives. When Carmela Soprano prays for the life of a downed member of Tony's crew she begins by admitting to God that this is the kind of life that they have chosen but begging for mercy anyway. When Tony contemplates quitting the mob, Dylan's "You've Gotta Serve Somebody" warbles in the background.
On the other hand, it's The Sopranos. When a friend learned that I was reviewing a book titled The Gospel According to Tony Soprano, he wondered, "What's that? Do unto others and then split?" Seay & Co. can dismiss such barbs as simplistic, but the barbers have a point. When it comes to evangelization, cultural phenomena are not created equal. Pay It Forward is more likely to be effective than Batman Returns.
This impediment does not stop Seay from giving it his best shot, however. In Tony, he sees "a paradox of greatness and wretchedness." The New Jersey don is "a physical portrait of the war that wages in the deep parts of all mankind, the battle between redemptive good and despairing evil," a portrait comparable to the biblical depiction of Solomon and Peter in depth and insight. Carmella (whose "beauty is stunning and [whose] strength is entrancing") is presented as a devout woman of faith whose prayers rival the Psalms. A.J Soprano isn't just a rebellious brooding kid who steals sacramental wine and gets kicked out of school. Rather, he's an earnest seeker, questioning his parents' hypocrisy and the seeming futility of it all.
Seay argues that, taken as a whole, the drama of The Sopranos can be seen to be prophetic—pointing to the rampant crassness, commercialism, materialism, greed, racism, sexism, and similar ills of our decadent, spiritually shallow society. The show can function as a call for us to eschew such distractions and consider instead those things that are most important.
If nothing else, that should sell a few copies.
Jeremy Lott is an editor for The Report, a Canadian newsmagazine, and co-author (with Rev. Dr. Lawrence VanBeek) of the forthcoming The Case for Enoch.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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Last month, Christianity Today online featured an interview with Chris Seay in which he talked about men who want to be in the "Christian mafia."
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Train Up a Child | Helping children to become intimately familiar with Scripture. (Oct. 14, 2002)
Acting Like Those 'Evangelicals' | Guilty as charged? (Sept. 30, 2002)
Ugly Evangelicals | Is this us? (Sept. 23, 2002)
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)
The Great Inflatable Shark Hunt | A report from the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim. (July 22, 2002)
Why Evangelicals Can't Opt Out of Political Engagement | Remembering Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester. (July 19, 2002)
The Pledge Controversy | Asking the wrong questions? (July 8, 2002)
Reading Danny Pearl | How would the murdered journalist want to be remembered? (July 1, 2002)
A Cry for Help | Sudanese Christians gather in Houston and ask for U.S. support. (June 17, 2002)
Agrarians of the World, Unite! | Wendell Berry's vision, and how Christians should respond to it. (June 10, 2002)
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