Driving Nails in Lear's Thesis
by L. Brent Bozell III
This past summer, in his speech at the Humanitas Prize
awards ceremony, Norman Lear, television producer and liberal activist
extraordinaire, lauded the human quality that "for want of a better term,
we can call...the spiritual. Whatever we call it, we have long recognized its
presence and accepted that it sets us apart [from lesser animals]. And
yet...at no time in my life can I remember our culture being so estranged from
this essential part of itself."
Are we really less spiritually oriented today than at any
time in, say, the past fifty years, a period roughly coinciding with the
74-year-old Lear's adulthood? The answer depends on how you define
"spiritual." For me, the term is synonymous with
"religious." Using that definition, Lear is wrong. National surveys
show a vast majority of the American public -- 90 percent -- takes its belief
in God seriously.
But that's not what Lear is talking about. For him and many
others in the entertainment business, the spiritual is a comfortable substitute
for the religious. Spirituality offers them a feel-good refuge from BMW
materialism while allowing them to avoid the structure and disciplines of
organized religion, which in its traditional form is dogmatic and (perhaps the
gravest sin in Hollywood) judgmental. The spiritual is defined by the
individual; what he determines to be "spiritual" -- is.
Lear's concept of spirituality tilts in the direction of the
New Age, rather than the Judeo-Christian phenomenon. His disdain for the
latter is so pronounced that he founded one national organization, People for
the American Way, and supports heavily another, the American Civil Liberties
Union, which are dedicated to undermining organized religion.
With that agenda in mind, Lear caused a hefty public debate
in 1991 when he produced the TV series "Sunday Dinner," featuring
the then-obscure Teri Hatcher, and announced it would deal seriously with the
spiritual issues of the day. How so? Hatcher's character referred to the
Supreme Being as "He or She," addressed Him (or Her) as
"Chief," and chattered about "the natural world that is our
sacred community," words more indicative of how the tree-huggers have
co-opted religious rhetoric than of any genuine religious belief.
Some were disgusted by the silliness of it all; others (this
writer included) pointed to the lack of anything of a
spiritual/religious nature on network television and suggested this was better
than nothing at all, and that perhaps with time Lear would become more serious
in his presentation of religious themes. We were wrong on that one: He didn't,
and the show bombed.
Lear's hostility toward the traditional also is clear from
his remark in the Humanitas speech that our waning spirituality is evident
"in [our] loss of faith in leaders, in institutions, the cynicism, the
selfishness, and the erosion of civility." Not a word about faith, or the
afterlife, not even a mention of God. I don't endorse selfishness or
incivility, but if by "loss of faith in leaders [and] institutions"
Lear means the federal government, I shout "Hallelujah!"
Lear hasn't had a successful series in a decade and a half.
Besides "Sunday Dinner," he's flopped with "AKA Pablo,"
"The Powers That Be," and "704 Hauser." If he wants a hit,
why not try a show grounded in true faith, a show on which God is called not
"Chief," but "God"? Since Lear last produced a series,
CBS's superb "Touched By an Angel" has proved that an unambiguously
religious program can be a ratings winner.
Oh, some would surely counter that Lear's natural idiom is
not drama but rather situation comedy, but faith can be presented effectively
in that format as well, as evidenced earlier this year by an episode of
"The Naked Truth." (This series, formerly of ABC, will air on NBC
later this season.) Nora is a young woman who runs into Katie, an old friend
who has become a nun. Nora marvels, "You know, you've changed, Katie.
You've got...this sense of calm [and] inner peace."
Nora later confides to another friend that she'd feel
"a little silly" praying, not having done it in so long. The
response is poignant: "When did you become too cool for God?" Nora's
search for faith leads her to tell Katie that she, too, wants to be a nun:
"I don't want to feel so empty and disconnected. Tired, poor of spirit,
disgusted with my fellow man. I want what you've got."
"Your spirit's thirsty," Katie replies. "You
want to drink the whole ocean. Maybe what you need is to start with the first
glass." Nora doesn't become a nun, but she does return to prayer. The
episode is funny, witty, and understands what Lear doesn't: traditional
religion touches the soul in a way that New Age ga-ga never will. Or can.
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