The complicated faith of 'Greenleaf'

June 23rd, 2016

What do you believe? And is your lifestyle consistent with your beliefs?

Those are two essential questions being asked on Greenleaf, the new television drama produced by Oprah Winfrey for her OWN cable network. The plot revolves around a family headed by a bishop who pastors a megachurch in Memphis. Some of the characters are familiar archetypes: the prodigal daughter who used to be a preacher; the controlling matriarch who ferociously guards family secrets; the married, debonair son who seems to have daddy’s preaching gifts but would rather be having sex with his father’s executive assistant; the son’s scorned wife who knows he is a cheater but, like the mother, wants to protect her family’s image and power.

There’s also the renegade aunt, played by Winfrey, who runs a bar and has distanced herself from her family’s religiosity, hypocrisy and struggles. The aunt is also a truth-teller, challenging some of the more heinous acts from afar. One target is the uncle who is the bishop’s right hand but can’t seem to stop molesting underage girls.

All of this might seem overly dramatic to some, but a lot of what I saw looked and sounded very familiar. Some of it I’ve seen in church I’ve attended. And some comes straight from the top stories of cable newscasts. (Google Eddie Long or Earl Paulk if you need examples.)

What’s good about the first episode of Greenleaf is that it introduces all of these complexities without denigrating faith, while still leaving plenty of room to delve into its many nuances — and even to doubt. 

In one scene, the family is seated around the dinner table when prodigal daughter Grace Greenleaf (played by Merle Dandridge) is asked to defend the approach to religion that she adopted after leaving home.

"There's a part of everything that tries,” Grace explains. "Christianity is just one way that the trying part of people tries to connect with the trying part of everything else.”

Lines like this play well on Greenleaf, but wouldn’t be well received in many churches. And even on the show, Grace’s laissez-faire faith receives considerable push-back from some in her family who believe that Jesus is the only way to God.

But they are the lines that will provoke conversations around the flat screen and downloads onto tablets. Some may fuel Facebook debates and Twitter wars.

Oprah herself has been at the center of many of these discussions for years. Some have questioned just how traditional her Christianity is  and whether or not she actually is a Christian. In fact, it seems likely that some of what viewers will be seeing comes straight out of Oprah’s personal faith journey.

If the first episode of Greenleaf is any indication, this series will be bold, provocative and sensitive as it explores faith, culture, family dynamics and social issues. The acting, scripting, direction and production values are superb. I truly want to see more of it, not just to be entertained but to use it as a way to reflect on my own beliefs and practices.

I suspect that Greenleaf may have a little something for believers across the ideological and theological spectrums, if this line from a sermon preached by Bishop James Greenleaf (played by Keith David) is any indication: "The Bible is not a rule book. It's not a bunch of myths. It's not even a work of literature. And it certainly isn't something to be banging people over the head with. The Bible, praise God, is like a bunch of emails from the best friend you ever had."

Amen to that.

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