Does God exist? Do we have any evidence of it? And can a multi-camera sitcom with an old fashioned (and sometimes annoying) laugh track offer a meaningful discussion of these questions? The Netflix reboot of the TV show One Day At A Time says yes!
Seeing Yourself on TV: Popular Culture as a Mirror
The original version of the show, which was created by the great Norman Lear (All in the Family, The Jeffersons) and aired from 1975 until 1984, focused on the struggles of a divorced mother and her three children living in Indianapolis. The new version takes place in LA and focuses on the Alvarez, a Cuban-American family, comprised of a divorced mother, her two children, and their grandmother (played by the great Rita Moreno). I am not a big fan of traditional, multi-camera, laugh track sitcoms and, on the surface, One Day At A Time is just that, more Everybody Loves Raymond than Arrested Development, but as some reviews have pointed out, under the traditional format, there is a show with a heart that is not afraid to deal with complex social issues (immigration, coming out, religion).
Besides the fact that the show is, indeed, funny and socially relevant, what ended up attracting me to it, making it a family favorite in the process, was the similarities that my own family has with the one depicted on the show. I am not divorced, and I am not Cuban-American, but I was born in an Hispanic country (Spain), I am an immigrant here in the US, and now I have a family with kids who navigate both cultures. I can personally relate to many of the issues reflected in the show, from being made fun by my own kids about my accent (one of the jokes in the show has come up in my family too, about how amusing it is for the kids when the word “sheet,” as pronounced by their grandmother (and me!), sounds like “sh#t”), the fact that one of my kids resists speaking Spanish, to the different understandings of family in an Hispanic and in a overwhelming Protestant culture.
God and Faith the Catholic Way
One of the episodes of the show (episode 3) depicts the conflict between Penelope, the mother, and Lydia, the grandmother, regarding the importance of going to church on Sundays. As most Cuban-Americans are, the Alvarez family is Catholic, but what does that mean? The episode explores how being Catholic is understood and lived differently by different members of the family, and in the case of Penelope, even questioned:
Penelope: How about we go on a hike Sunday morning before it gets hot?
Lydia: You seem to have forgot. Sunday morning is for Church.
Penelope: So, we skip Church.
Lydia: You seem to have forgot. We don’t skip Church […]
Penelope: I wanna see these guys this weekend. Come on. ‘Cause I like them!
Lydia: No, no. I have to put my foot down. Sundays, we go to Church. And then, sometimes, we go to Applebees.
Penelope: Well, I have a foot, too, and I’m gonna put my foot down and say this Sunday, we’re not going to Church.
Lydia: Well, I am putting both of my feet down. We are going and that is the end of it. Ya!
Penelope: That’s not your decision to make…
Elena [Daughter]: I’m with mom. We don’t need to go to Church. After all, Abuelita, you don’t even believe half that stuff.
Lydia: I believe everything!
Elena: Really? When you take the communion, you believe you’re eating the actual flesh and blood of Jesus?
Lydia: Ay, no. It’s a symbol. Don’t be gross.
Penelope: Okay, so, if you believe that, then you’re Protestant.
Lydia: There is no need for name-calling. All I know is that a good Catholic does not skip Church… We’re going.
Penelope: No, we are not!… This Sunday, no Church. End of discussion… I’m their mother! I don’t need to ask permission! I decide.
Lydia: And I am your mother, and I decide what you decide!
Dialogue courtesy of Heman Mehta.
For the abuelita (grandmother), being Catholic is part of her identity and heritage: she has crosses all over the house, pictures of all of the recent popes, and goes to Church every Sunday. For her, being a Catholic is not so much about what you believe (the notion of transubstantiation is “gross”), but about what you do: faith, ritual, and practice over argument and reason (“All I know is that a good Catholic does not skip church”).
The mother, Penelope, has a more skeptical approach. As a veteran of the Afghanistan war, she has some doubts about the existence of a God in a world in which such horror occurs.
For the teenage daughter, Elena, the question is not so much about the existence of God, but about its gender, “Why is it a he, and not a she?” (to which Rita Moreno answers, “It is a he. If it was a she, there would be less problems in the world.”).
For the son, going to Church is not so bad since “I meet my friends and eat donuts.” The point that the episode makes is that being Catholic (or religious in general) is not a monolithic thing, and under one label (“Catholic”), many different understandings of it can coexist: faith, ritual, culture, identity, etc.
Embrace the Contradictions
The notion that there is enormous diversity within any religious tradition is, on the surface, quite obvious: most people belonging to the same religious tradition will not hold the exact same beliefs about their faith. Even people who read the Bible literally have different interpretations about what the Bible actually says. Growing up Catholic (I went to Catholic school from 1st grade all the way through high school), I was always surprised by how different American Catholicism is from the one in my native Spain (Catholics in America are, with their emphasis on scripture, remarkably “Protestant”). The same goes for other religious traditions: a Sunni and Shia Muslim hold quite different interpretations of Islam. But, at the same time, there is a consistent and widespread public discourse that tries to obliterate diversity and even contradiction within particular religious traditions. This is obvious when we see TV pundits telling us what Islam is, what the Quran or the Bible says, etc. From these perspectives, only one meaning and interpretation seem to be possible, even when reality points to the contrary. As humans, we seem to have a lot of trouble accepting the fact that religions, like cultures, are rich, and diverse, and yes, contain many contradictions.
Anthropologists like Fredrik Barth made the case for acknowledging the diverse and messy nature of cultures:
[V]ariation in a traditional civilization is not a surface disturbance, to be covered over by generalizations or tidied away by typology. It is a ubiquitous feature of great civilizations, and we should make it a major component of our description and characterization of these societies rather than a difficulty to be overcome […] In a civilization, there is a surfeit of cultural materials and ideational possibilities available from which to construct reality. The anthropologist has no basis for assuming all these materials are contained in one complete, logically compelling package or structure… On the contrary the sense that is being made, the reality that is being created, in any community or circle must be diverse. Balinese Worlds, p. 4.
The same can be said about religions. We should stay away from reductive models, or one-size-fits-all type of answers. We need to allow ourselves to see religious traditions as very complex entities in which diversity is as important as unity. And that is what this episode of One Day At A Time does so well: it displays the contradictory nature of being Catholic (or religious in general) without trying to dispel the many tensions and unanswered questions faced by any religious person. You can take communion and not believe in transubstantiation, you can be Catholic and barely read the Bible (as was the case with my grandmother), or you can go to church every Sunday and be more engaged in the social aspects of seeing your friends than in the sermon. As the cultural studies scholar Lynn Schofield Clark has argued, the power of popular culture is that these tensions found in culture can be expressed in all of its messiness without being perceived as a threat to our own beliefs:
Television’s entertainment value rests on its ability to articulate what we believe without doing so in a way that threatens our very sense of who we believe ourselves to be (and we prefer to believe ourselves to be tolerant, humane, accepting, non-racist, etc.). Popular culture such as television and film, as well as novels, comedy clubs, fashion magazines, and more, are locations in which these contradictions and negotiations are constantly played out through narrative and representation.
“Why Study Popular Culture? Or, How to Build a Case for Your Thesis in a Religious Studies or Theology Department.” (p. 9).
While we may define ourselves as Catholic, or Christian, or Muslim, or even as an Atheist, those labels obscure more than clarify the complex and contradictory nature of our own beliefs. And that’s what One Day At A Time accomplishes in this episode: it shows us that faith is full of mystery and contradiction, and that’s okay; just live with it and embrace it, one day at a time.