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Driving Nails in Lear's Thesis

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.