Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2004

By James Verini

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.

Class material

Aside from the extra money, the Rapid City teacher gets class material: the high school juniors and seniors he teaches at St. Thomas More are required to watch the series each week and write essays. “There isn’t a single one who doesn’t absolutely love it,” Eicher said. “Even my students who aren’t religious.”

While Eicher and Kolbell backed into their jobs and remain largely removed from Hollywood, other religious figures are deeply involved in the world of television.

Joseph Telushkin, the head rabbi at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, for instance, has written episodes of “The Practice” and “Boston Public.”

The Rev. Frank Desiderio, a Catholic priest at Corpus Christi Church in the Palisades, has advised the Lifetime hospital show “Strong Medicine” and produced numerous History and Discovery Channel shows.

In 2000, Desiderio, a former campus chaplain at UCLA, was made chief of Paulist Productions, a small production company based in Malibu that specializes in religion-themed entertainment. (The mission statement on the company’s website reads: “Paulist Productions creates films and television programs that reveal God’s presence in the contemporary human experience. Our mission is to challenge our viewers to love others and to liberate one another from all that is dehumanizing. We encourage other entertainment professionals to help unify the human family through the power of the media.”)

At the moment, Desiderio is consulting on two documentaries on biblical history for the History Channel. His largest production to date, “Judas,” an ABC television movie that he co-produced with Tom Fontana, creator of the HBO prison drama “Oz,” aired in March.

He refers to the box office popularity of “The Passion of the Christ” and “The DaVinci Code” and sees Americans being far more upfront about their religious faith. Church attendance began rising after the Sept. 11 attacks, and people began telling pollsters that family and church were more important to them, Desiderio said.

“I think what’s happening is studios and television networks are recognizing there’s a underserved audience of religious people and they’re trying to tap into it,” he said. “[The Passion] brought people into the movie theater who don’t normally watch movies.”

A onetime children’s book author who studied communications at the University of Southern California, Desiderio still oversees the 5:30 p.m. Sunday mass at Corpus Christi.

How important are religion consultants to television shows?

Hall, the creator of “Joan of Arcadia,” said Eicher’s influence “is felt on every episode.”

But Milch, for one, doesn’t see their use. “It’s a silly idea to think that you need particular expertise,” he said. “If you’re any good as a writer you’re engaged imaginatively in the human drama, and religion is part of that.”

Regardless of whether TV producers and writers believe they’re getting reliable insight from religion advisors, one conservative watchdog group contends that Hollywood has failed to accurately portray Christian beliefs. This month, the Parents Television Council released a study of prime-time programming that it said showed that Hollywood “has virtually no respect for religion.”

Among the growing cadre of consultants, there are those religious consultants who exist on the other, more ascetic end of the business — in self-willed obscurity. For instance, the police-hospital hybrid drama “Third Watch” employs a practicing rabbi in New York, where the show is filmed. However, the rabbi did not want to be interviewed about his consulting work, and the show’s producers would not divulge his name or the name of his temple.

A more enigmatic example is the Rev. Eric Hall, a Franciscan monk who worked as a consultant on the short-lived John Wells-produced NBC drama “Trinity” in 1998. “Trinity” was about an Irish Catholic family living in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan.

A former stockbroker, Hall had left Wall Street to take up residence in a parish house in the Bronx. He would go to the set every day in his traditional habit and rope belt. “He was this amazing spiritual presence,” said Matthew Carnahan, “Trinity’s” creator. “At the time I was reexploring my own faith, and I think the show became that for a lot of the crew, because of him.”