THE CHURCH ON TV: Portrayals of Priests, Pastors and Nuns on American Television Series

By McMahon, Eileen | American Studies, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

THE CHURCH ON TV: Portrayals of Priests, Pastors and Nuns on American Television Series


McMahon, Eileen, American Studies


THE CHURCH ON TV: Portrayals of Priests, Pastors and Nuns on American Television Series. By Richard Wolf. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. 2010.

Richard Wolf's study of The Church on TV is a thorough, well-written analysis of how the television medium has explored the relevance of religious institutions to contemporary social challenges through various prime time serial programs. Interested readers in the fields of communication and the media, religious studies, sociology, and the history of religion will find this book interesting and useful.

Television programming of this sort first aired in 1962 with Going My Way and continued into the early twenty-first century with 7th Heaven. All the main characters from the programs discussed are priests, pastors, nuns, bishops, deacons, and rabbis. The laity play supporting roles. One of Wolf's main goals is to compare how church historians have assessed the challenges and issues of the churches in this era with how television grapples with them. What he has discovered is what one might expect-the programs that did well in the ratings tended to take a lighthearted and sentimental position of the church in the contemporary world, such as The Flying Nun. This does not mean, however, that networks did not attempt more hard-edge examinations of the challenges of making the church relevant to the contemporary social and spiritual problems, but failed to appeal to a broad, mass market.

In the period of the 1960s and 1970s all religiously based programs focused on the Catholic Church as many of its challenges were in the forefront of the news, such as the effects of Vatican II that significantly impacted its theology and practices as well as elevated the role of the laity. The Catholic Church is also territorially defined. When its European immigrant population moved to the suburbs, its parishes became part of the "inner city. …

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