TV Religion, from Archbishop Sheen to “God Friended Me”

God Friended Me starts its second season Sunday night.

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When we turned on the TV in the 1950s and 1960s, it was as if we were in the Twilight Zone where God and religion did not exist. Even though more than half of families went to church weekly —from 57% in 1950 to 63.3% in 1960—television families, which were supposed to represent us, never did.

Why did Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver and his family not attend church or pray or even reference God? Neither did Ricky and Lucy, or Jed Clampett and his family of Beverly Hillbillies, or almost any other TV family during that God-fearing era. It’s the least Gilligan and friends could have done trying to get off their deserted island.

Yet, belief in God was consistently in the upper 90% range then. Even in 2001, Gallup reported that faith in God was 90% although that dropped to 79% in 2016 . However, in 2018, Pew Research reported that the vast majority of Americans (90%) believed in some kind of higher power, with 56% professing faith in God as described in the Bible and another 33% saying they believe in a higher power or spiritual force. Only one-in-10 Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power of any kind.

 

Life is Worth Living

Faith is what attracted many Americans to Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen's prime time TV program  Life is Worth Living from 1951 to 1957. It consisted of the unpaid Sheen simply speaking about faith matters in front of a live audience, occasionally using a chalkboard but with no script. The Tuesday night show did surprisingly well up against the ratings giants Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra. The comedienne Berle joked about him, “He uses old material too.”

Sheen received 8,500 fan letters a week and demand for tickets far exceeded the supply. In 1952, he won an Emmy Award. “I feel it is time I pay tribute to my four writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” he said when accepting it.

On one remarkable show in February 1953, Sheen denounced Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s brutality. “Stalin must one day meet his judgment,” he said. A few days later, the dictator suffered a stroke and died.

On a weekly basis, 30 million people tuned in. In 1958, Sheen was appointed national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for eight years before being made Bishop of Rochester, New York, on Oct. 26, 1966. Using the same format, he also hosted a second nationally syndicated series, The Fulton Sheen Program, from 1961 to 1968.

Archbishop Sheen proved that people were attracted to God. Later, successful TV programs that included God, Touched by an Angel which ran for nine seasons and 7th Heaven which ran for 11, showed that God did indeed have star power.

 

God TV for the Millennials

The program God Friended Me is counting on that as it starts its second season Sept. 29. I have watched the show and found it refreshing. God is a good guy.

The show is about Miles Finer, an atheist, whose life is shaken when he receives a friend request on social media from God. Miles cautiously accepts and begins to sense the supernatural through coincidences as he becomes an agent of change in others around him.

Miles lost his faith after his mother died and is at odds with his preacher father over religion. His father is wise, patient, and often imparts insights using Scripture. Mile’s sister Ali, a bartender who has not abandoned her faith, also consoles and advises her brother with a Christian mindset.

In an interview with Javicia Leslie, who plays Ali, she explained that the show, really reflects the millennial mindset when it comes to God. “It deals with the spiritual and faith in a way it is dealt with today,” she said. “It includes social media and people taking out what goes wrong in their life on God.”

Javincia said she is Christian and sees God acting in the people we are surrounded by.

She used the example of recently being sick for three days and many people checked in with her and dropped off food. “I take that as God bringing the right people around that can help,” she said. Also, given life’s many coincidences, Javicia said it’s easy to “see there is a bigger plan for us and our future and for that to be done, it has to be by something bigger than us.”

Javincia does not blame God when things go wrong because she said those are lessons; even the hard stuff. “We are a work in progress,” she said. “I’m not going to be able to understand everything. I’ve had hard things that I can ask, Why?  But 20 years later I see that I was strong enough to carry it.”

For Javincia, even her role in the TV series she sees as part of God’s plan. “God brought me here for a reason; this is part of my journey,” she said. “I feel that everyday God is part of my life.”

Sure, I wish there were a stronger commitment to God and religion in our culture, but I am encouraged to see a show portray that for those who accept his friendship, God shows his face.