Hand of God, Amazon Original Pilot

I love the good ministers on TV and at the movies. But I think we’ve got to learn to watch bad ministers better, too.

Let me explain.

This is the third “pilot season” that Amazon.com has put together, which works this way: you can watch five pilot episodes of new series (three comedy, two drama), then vote to decide which one gets made into an Amazon Original series. There have been five Originals—three of which are for children—but this year’s offerings seem to be swinging for the fences. All five include are for adults (at times, aggressively so) and involve some well-known talent; two are also helmed by film veterans: Cosmopolitans, written and directed by Whit Stillman, and Hand of God, written by Burn Notice’s Ben Watkins and directed by Marc Forster (World War Z, Machine Gun Preacher, Stranger Than Fiction, Finding Neverland).

You’ll probably like Cosmopolitans , set among a group of slightly self-important young expats in Paris, if you like Whit Stillman’s movies: Metropolitan, Barcelona, Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress. It’s a talky sardonic-but-affectionate light comedy of manners.

But Hand of God, as the title implies, is interested in matters of religion, particularly in how it affects the balance of power and violence in America. (Be aware that there’s some nudity, violence, lots of bad language, and some disturbing adult themes on the level of your average prestige cable drama.)

Pernell Harris, a corrupt judge—played by Ron Perlman who, either appropriately or ironically, also played Hellboy—is found naked in a fountain in the middle of town, speaking in tongues. They haul him out and have him examined for psychological trauma, but he thinks he might have been “born again,” against his will: baptized in the spirit by an itinerant preacher of the sort we see on TV quite a bit these days (True Detective, Justified). Without giving much away, there’s also a subplot with some violence in the past enacted on his daughter-in-law; the judge is fairly certain God’s speaking to him and telling him to take revenge—er, seek justice. Oh, and there’s a violent offender/preacher just out of prison. And the mayor, who needs some real estate development to go through. It’s a little messy and I’m not convinced the show isn’t derivative of some other shows on TV right now, not yet, but if it gets another episode I’ll watch it.

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Earlier this summer, at The AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff explored how the “dark drama” is looking heavenward. In other words, God’s back on TV:

What makes the emergence of faith and religion as a thematic device in The Americans, Hannibal, and Fargo so interesting, however, is that these themes were far more than incidental coloring around the edges of the story. They were deeply important to the show’s recent seasons, though all in ways that spoke to the shows’ respective strengths. What’s more, all three series are likely to be heavy contenders in whatever year-end “best of TV” lists critics ponder once 2014 winds to a close, and the emergence of God as an unseen but often powerful character on all three provides just another sense of how all seemed to be having a weird conversation with each other, to the exclusion of all other shows.

I'm not sure it's the exclusion of other shows, or at least not anymore. Hand of God is a lot like The Leftovers (which gets its season finale this Sunday): it’s not clear for the bulk of the show whether the main character (Kevin / Pernell) is actually a prophet or is just going crazy; both seem to be seeking vigilante justice for reasons that could either be righteous or wholly self-motivated; both have dark secrets. And for another reason, too: God is not yet an actual character in either of these shows, though he might be later. He may exist in these universes, or he may not. It might be divine revelation, or it might be imbalanced brain chemistry.

There’s less practice of Christian religion in The Leftovers than Hand of God (the sole ordained preacher has yet to really quote the Bible in The Leftovers, whereas Hand of God has a full-on church service and a Bible study and a lot more), but they are both interested in how the practice of religion (or cults, in the case of The Leftovers) can be not just a place for people to meet God and seek salvation, but also a place for people to exercise corrupt power for their own ends. (That’s polar opposite of what we see in a show like Broadchurch, or a movie like Calvary, in which the ministers actually, well, minister.)

Which is why I do worry a bit about chatter from the Christian community about shows like Hand of God. Here is why: we often talk as if representing religion-as-power-play is meant to be a represent what all religion and religious leaders are like.

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I remember that after P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was released, a number of Christian voices decried it as anti-religious propaganda, because in it a power-hungry preacher preys on the poor. To say such a thing is to completely miss the point of the film, which is that the power-hungry preacher and the power-hungry oilman both came to ghastly ends, broken and alone, because of their hunger for power. (Quite a few of the same people angrily said the power-hungry oilman was meant to criticize capitalism as an institution.)

Friends: that’s just bad watching and sloppy thinking. It’s taking a portrayal of something as endorsement of something, and ignoring the narrative arc of the story, in which they get their comeuppance. It’s looking at the story of King Saul—or, frankly, much of King David’s story, or Eli the High Priest, or Noah’s drunkenness—and thinking the Bible is saying these people are bad. It's even looking at a segment of the story of the Apostle Paul, who was sort of the ultimate antihero until Acts 9, and thinking it's about how religion is violent.

We can do better.

There are lousy, manipulative, lazy, boneheaded portrayals of Christians on TV and in the movies—the conniving Bible-thumping vice president on Scandal springs to mind, for starters—but let’s be honest: there are many wonderful pastors and priests and ministers in the world, and there are also some real doozies out there who can cause a great deal of harm, and unfortunately they are the ones who get a lot of attention both before and after the fall.

If we have seen anything in the last year, in which a large number of formerly highly-respected celebrity pastors have taken a very public tumble (not that it’s anything new!), it’s that power is a dangerous, dangerous thing to handle.

So while I hope we keep getting great portrayals of ministers who do God’s work well (here’s a few from the last ten years), let’s not be too quick to wish for these other characters to go away. Like the broader antihero type, who almost inevitably reach a gruesome end, the power-hungry minister serves as a reminder that power corrupts.

To those in positions of spiritual authority, they remind us to be careful. To Christians, they remind us that not everyone who cries "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven. And to those who are sitting in the pews, they remind us that things are not always what they seem.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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