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Television | As more shows feature faith and spirituality,
priests, ministers, monks and rabbis are taking on
paid roles as religion consultants.

Divine purpose

December 26, 2004|James Verini | Special to The Times

Ben EICHER, a teacher in Rapid City, S.D., has been to Los Angeles only a few times and rarely watches television. But when he's not teaching religion at St. Thomas More, a boys' Catholic high school, he works as a paid consultant to CBS' "Joan of Arcadia," a series about a student named Joan who has conversations with God.

Eicher is one member of a small but growing niche industry in television: the professional religion consultant. As religion and spirituality become ever more prevalent in prime-time and cable programming, there is a growing demand for such experts.

They come in all forms: Catholic priests, Unitarian ministers, professors, rabbis, even Franciscan monks have found employment advising on a wide range of productions. Occasionally they appear in credits, but more often they do not. Their proliferation seems to reflect a changing attitude toward expressions of faith on television.

Where religion was once seen by advertisers and executives as an exclusionary factor for certain segments of the viewing public and therefore taboo, it now pops up almost everywhere: in hospital, police and family dramas, in self-proclaimed "offbeat" endeavors such as "Joan of Arcadia," in cable documentaries and network movies, not to mention in overtly religious shows like the consistently successful "7th Heaven."

Producers and writers are now more willing to openly claim faith and inject it into their scripts.

David Milch, creator of "NYPD Blue" and the HBO series "Deadwood," said all television writers should be interested in religion because it is "a part of the rhythm and texture of most people's lives, as something that is embraced or rejected."

"Deadwood," a show set in a post-Civil War frontier town in the Black Hills of South Dakota, included a minister as one of the main characters in its first season.

"I think religion is becoming prevalent as a part of commerce," Milch said. "To the extent that you can sell religion, it's just like sex."

Religion consultants' backgrounds and experience with entertainment vary widely. Eicher, a practicing Catholic and motorcycle enthusiast, was raised by a Lutheran parish master in the Midwest. He describes himself as "self-taught" in church history and theology.

Barbara Hall, the creator of "Joan of Arcadia," began calling him for advice a couple of years ago while she was conceiving the show.

"We would talk about God, how the show portrayed God and how God interacts in people's lives," Eicher said of his first discussions with Hall. "As time went on it became official," and CBS began paying him for his work.

Hall or the other writers call or e-mail Eicher with the morality themes of an episode they're working on -- sacrifice, say, or envy -- and ask him to find biblical stories or other religious or spiritual writings that illustrate them. "Joan is not a religious person," Eicher said. "That's the vision -- God works through nonreligious people. Like Jonah she's often reluctant."

Dr. Eric Kolbell, a former Unitarian minister and a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan, says he likes to apply his uncertainty and skepticism -- but also his abiding religious faith -- to his work as an advisor to "7th Heaven."

Kolbell, who was raised an Episcopalian, said he set off to college hoping to answer a question that had been bothering him since childhood: Is faith anti-intellectual? "It certainly can be a dodge, but it doesn't have to be," Kolbell said.

Like Eicher, he landed the consulting position because he was a longtime friend of Brenda Hampton, the creator of "7th Heaven," an Aaron Spelling-produced show on WB about a minister and his travails raising seven children. But, more than aiding in the show's creation, Kolbell served as the model for its main character, Father Eric Camden (played by Stephen Collins).

Camden, like Kolbell, is a jazz buff, Eicher said, and "not afraid to take a drink."

"[Brenda and I] wanted the show to deal with issues like social justice, racism, homophobia, women's rights, emerging sexual discovery," said Kolbell, who was once arrested while protesting the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York on behalf of gay rights. "If you are a person of faith, there's no such thing as a purely secular issue."

Kolbell co-writes episodes and shares sermons he's written with Hampton, which often show up in the television series, wholly intact or piecemeal, as Camden's sermons. No longer a minister, Kolbell has published two books on the teachings of Jesus and said he now prefers to ply the "ministry of the word."

Neither he nor Eicher would say how much he earns per episode. But religion consultants say their work for Hollywood isn't lucrative enough to quit their day jobs.

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