Ben of 'Arcadia' - Telling Hollywood About God
Ben Eicher likes to joke that he's like God in the CBS hit show “Joan of Arcadia.”
He says he hovers invisibly around the periphery of the award-winning television production, making suggestions. That's in his role as theology consultant to “Arcadia.” Educated as an attorney, he also teaches religion at St. Thomas More High School in Rapid City, S.D., and serves on the board of directors for the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, publisher of the quarterly journal Pro Ecclesia.
He recently spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake.
Tell me about your background. Where are you from originally?
I was born on June 11, 1959, at Lutheran Hospital in St. Louis and received holy baptism at St. James Lutheran Church in Burlington, Ohio, on July 5.
My father, Rev. Robert Eicher, is now deceased. He died of a heart attack on Reformation Sunday, Oct. 31, 1995, in Edon, Ohio, where he was pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church. My mother, Janice, passed away this past Jan. 18 from lung cancer.
My father's family historically had been Mennonite. My mother's family on the paternal side were Irish Catholics who were late-1800s immigrants to the United States.
After serving a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War, my father attended Concordia College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and then transferred to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. There he received his bachelor of arts degree and in 1960 his master of divinity degree.
His classmates in the class of 1960 included two men who 10 or 15 years ago became noted converts to Catholicism — Father Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Louis Wilken.
Do you have a favorite childhood memory?
My father expressed to us that Christian unity under one ecclesial home was not only a goal but also a requirement and one we should attempt to achieve in our lifetimes.
An outward sign of this came on Oct. 22, 1967, in Wayne, New Jersey, at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church when my father participated with other Lutheran and Catholic clergy in an ecumenical service. He told me—an 8-year-old boy—that day, “Someday we'll all be Catholics.”
Was there a time when you fell away from the practice of your faith?
Following my graduation from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1985, I moved to Rapid City, South Dakota At first I “church shopped” among Lutheran parishes. At the congregations I attended, holy communion was never offered more than monthly and a vestmentless, nonsacramental generic Christianity seemed to be the norm.
I eventually drifted away from church attendance altogether. As one might suspect, my drift from church attendance began to manifest itself in a spiritual malaise.
What led you to the Catholic Church?
Late in a relationship dating a Catholic woman named Marina, probably as a result of the strain of it beginning to break apart, I started to feel the tug of faith reaching toward me. Marina and I talked about attending church regularly on Sundays. The question then quickly became, “Which church?” I suggested we alternate one week at a Lutheran church and the next at a Catholic church.
I think I only made it through two Lutheran services before I was ready to bail out on the brand of Lutheranism I was seeing practiced. On the other hand, my experience at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was profound. As much as I do not hold to a kind of “experiential” view of Christian practice, I could literally feel myself spiritually filled while in the Catholic church. The liturgy was completely familiar. The “high church” practice there was akin to what I'd grown up with. Also, it felt wonderful to be in a church where not only was there weekly holy Communion but also daily if one desired it.
And no one complained or made the regularity of its celebration a source of contention, as my dad had experienced when he instituted weekly communion in his parishes. I had the overriding feeling I was “home.”
Although the relationship between Marina and me ended, I decided I would be a Catholic attendee but not a Catholic. Marina's brother, Paul, noticed me attending Mass regularly and reached out to me.
He invited me to a Sunday-night Bible study led by the then local Catholic high school religious-education director, Timothy Gray [now a Scripture professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in the Archdiocese of Denver].
Tim was young, energetic, vibrant and more biblically knowledgeable than anyone I'd met other than my own father. I was trans-fixed and inspired. His study on Matthew 16 made me realize my journey “home to Rome” had truly begun.
Shortly thereafter, I began to attend RCIA classes at the cathedral, with Paul as my sponsor. In June 1994 I received the sacrament of confirmation from then Rapid City, South Dakota, Bishop Charles Chaput.
How did you come to work on “Joan of Arcadia”?
Since 1987 I have been a contributing editor for the national music and politics newsletter Rock and Rap Confidential. It was founded by former Rolling Stone magazine associate editor Dave Marsh.
Through my friendship with Dave, I had heard a lot about television writer Barbara Hall. Her television ré sumé included stints with “Moonlighting,” “Chicago Hope” and “Judging Amy.” In June 1993 I met Barbara, and we immediately forged a very close friendship. I began to correspond frequently with her about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Eventually, Barbara became Catholic.
In summer 2003 I visited Barbara in Los Angeles, where she was starting a new series, “Joan of Arcadia.” The idea of God making visits to a teen-aged girl and giving her tasks was superb yet possibly highly controversial. The network had bought the show, but the episodes had not yet been shot at that point.
While I was in Los Angeles, Barbara introduced me to the writing staff and began to share with me discussions about how perhaps God could, would and should interact with people. The series debuted last September and instantly was a hit.
As the first several months went along, Barbara asked me if I would consider taking on the role of the show's official theology consultant. Thanks to the glory of e-mail, the position would not require my moving to Los Angeles.
What does your role involve?
As to my actual involvement in what happens with the episodes, when Amber Tamblyn — the actress who plays the lead character, Joan — asked me the question, “So, what exactly do you do as the theology consultant?” I joked in reply: “Like God, I hover invisibly around the periphery, making suggestions.”
She chuckled, but in essence that really is pretty accurate. Essentially, I'm asked by the writers to supply ideas about biblical angles to situations or issues, or to give general religious information.
Do you use the television show with your students?
I use the episodes regularly in my high-school classes. My 11thand 12th-grade students absolutely love the show. They think it very accurately portrays their lives and concerns. They say the show characterizes very well their spiritual questions about how one does actually interact with God, through prayer, mainly. They appreciate how it shows that God uses even the smallest and least obvious of his children for the good of others.
To me, a crux of the show is its utter Catholicity. What I mean is that its message is always one of community, not individuality at the cost of others, and of having a common stake in the well-being of all. Achieving the fullness of our own individual nature for the common good is a tenet of the show.
I'm happy God is not portrayed as the Grand Game-Show Host who dispenses happy-face prizes, nor is he the stern judge intent on doing more damning than saving. Instead, God is love, but yet he's not a wimp; he's conversational in a two-way manner yet completely in charge.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
- June 6-12, 2004