It’s been 2 weeks since the season finale of Preacher aired, so it’s high time to talk about Preacher and its theology. If you haven’t seen the first season of Preacher, on AMC, stop before you click the cut, go find it, watch it and then come back. I’ll wait. Go on.
Spoilers for all episodes, including the season finale, behind the jump:
Aside from The Simpsons, Preacher might be one of the only tv shows on prime time portraying main characters pursuing the plan they believe God has for them, talking about the nature of a God that allows good and evil to thrive, or contemplating a silent or absent God.
The cold open of the first episode lands the viewer in “Africa” (more on that in the Bad Stuff section), where a priest/pastor is giving an impassioned sermon, right before he explodes with angel-demon baby power. The following scene immediately jumps to the titular preacher, Jesse Custer, struggling with his own sermon and inattentive congregation in West Texas. Cassidy, a century old vampire, is introduced when religious vigilante vampire hunters attempt to kill him, which makes sense – he has an antagonistic relationship with religion and God. Tulip’s introduction, displaying her prowess as an outlaw for hire, is irreligious, fitting with her atheist views – but again, that makes sense. And regardless of views, all three main characters end up in All Saints’ Congregational at the end of the pilot episode, listening to Jesse preach with a renewed passion about saving the people of the town by bringing them back to God.
There’s baptisms, and visiting the sick, and exhausting late night phone calls from emotionally dependent parishioners, and altars calls, and hokey church raffles as an attempt to draw in crowds. All things in the daily life of a priest/pastor/preacher, washed in dreary sepia tones to highlight exactly how excruciating the life can be. In fact, Rogen, Goldberg & co. do such a good job capturing the feel of small-town church life that it was a series of contentious debate about what denomination All Saints’ is. I started out arguing for low-church Episcopal, but after Chris made a compelling case for Methodist, I came to agree with him. They do share a very similar prayer of confession, and Jesse never wears a cassock, chausible or stole. The title of “preacher” is a bit awkward compared to minister or pastor, but it fits as a callback to the title and comic origins, as well as the fact that outside of the baptisms, we don’t see Jesse do anything in the church other than preach or make announcements. Even the prayer of confession is led by a congregation member.
Probably the most consistent theological tradition comes from Eugene Root, a kid who’s “walking the earth with a face like an arsehole,” due to a botched suicide attempt. Eugene never stops asking questions about the nature of faith, and God, and what it means to be a faithful person in God. Like Reverend Lovejoy and Ned Flanders, this kind of behaviour ends up irritating the shit out of Rev. Custer, to the end that he ends up using the Voice on Eugene to send him to Hell at the end of “Sundowner”.
It’s plain that Genesis has a role in Jesse’s descent into his own kind of sanctimony, since in the pilot, he reassures Eugene that there is nothing so bad that God won’t forgive, despite his own doubts that God is present or listening at all. It can be taken at a face value interpretation of Paul’s bit about being like a child in faith; Genesis is, after all, a literal infant. It’s also an examination of how Jesse begins to conflate the power of the Voice with God’s own power, despite the fact his commands with the Voice have all the theological backbone of a self-help book: “Open your heart”; “Trust your judgment”; and so on.
There are so many characters with so many different arcs of coming to faith, losing faith, tolerating faith, and so on, that the show becomes a satisfying reflection of the diversity of humans in community with a church at the heart.
There’s another angle to the Genesis-as-infant element of the show, which is that like young children, it is distressingly literal. For that matter, it could also be read as a critique of fundamentalist Christianity exhibiting that same literalism. As a for instance, Jesse’s advice of “open your heart” to one parishioner leads to him carving his heart out of his chest in front of his mother. Telling a pedophile to forget the girl on the school bus he drives leads to the bewildered driver not recognizing her at all the next day.
Despite that, it’s still not enough to stop Jesse from using the power all the time. His coup de grace (no pun intended) is to use the Voice to command local atheist and meat packing plant owner Odin Quincannon (the Mr. Burns to Jesse’s Lovejoy) to “Serve God”. Which works out perfectly – if you consider the fact that Odin’s god is not the same as Jesse’s. This particular monkey’s paw wish is the axis on which the season turns, as Quincannon moves from apathetic inertia to acquisition and destruction of Jesse’s church in the name of serving his God of Meat.
The curious thing about Preacher is how God’s existence is treated in these discussions. To keep Quincannon off his back, Jesse asks for one more Sunday at the church, so he can call God and take them to task about their shortcomings. It works because there’s nothing Quincannon would like more than to tell God off right to their face. There’s no question that God won’t answer because they don’t exist, or can’t be seen by mortal eyes, or so on – which means Odin could be right the existence of the God of Meat. It’s all very biblical – the admonishments against idols in the Torah aren’t because other gods aren’t real, after all, but that God is the one above all of them.
Even though the God that answers Jesse’s phone call in the finale is a fraud, God is very much real in the world of Annville – only absent (Fled or dead). The plan that propels viewers into Season Two (which is also where the comics begin their story) is for Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy to find God and either help or kick God’s ass. So not only is God real, but corporeal. It’s another neat similarity to how God is treated on the Simpsons, as a real being (with five fingers, even!)
This is getting kind of long, so why don’t we break it up into 3 parts? Here’s the proposed line-up for the next 2 posts: