Ever since CTV aired The Sopranos’ first season against CBC’s coverage of the 2000 Summer Olympics, I’ve contended that gritty and raw as it is, in terms of all-round writing brilliance, acting quality, dramatization, and production values, it simply eclipses everything else on the small screen. The only shows that come close in quality and depth are Dick Wolf’s durable Law and Order fleet of TV dramas. The Sopranos is simply one of the all-time great television series, notwithstanding the “violence, nudity, adult situations, and extremely coarse language” the network blurbs warn of at the beginning of each segment.
James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is one of the most complex and fascinating characters that has ever been portrayed on television. In a world awash with nihilism, ironic detachment, and relativism, Tony is an intensely moral man. His morality is not liberal morality and certainly not Christian morality, but he lives by objective standards rather than subjective situational ethics. He cares about right and wrong, and believes that they exist as objective categories, though his perception and interpretation are in many respects dysfunctional. The inner tensions that Tony’s moral struggles impose on his life are the show’s essential theme, built around his wearily trying to resolve his guilt and conflictedness through psychotherapy.
Tony Soprano is, of course, in conventional terms also a moral train-wreck.
He promiscuously cheats on his wife; he lies habitually, steals and extorts; he runs a strip joint; he orders people beaten up and killed, he kills people himself – in one first season episode, with his bare hands. Violence and menace are always lurking just below the surface, but while Tony doesn’t lead a morally wholesome life (to put it mildly), he understands the natural law construct of morality, and acknowledges that he is a sinner. The Sopranos even manages to address religious issues seriously and respectfully, albeit not uncritically. The plotlines and characters raise spiritual issues that shine a spotlight on our own moral ambiguities.
I’m of course not the first or only one such thoughts have occurred to. The Rev. Chris Seay, founding pastor of University Baptist Church in Waco, Tx., now pastor of Ekklesia, an Acts 29 church in Houston, explores the spiritual and moral significance of The Sopranos in depth in his new book, The Gospel According to Tony Soprano: Discovering the Spiritual Insights of Television’s Most Notorious Family.
Seay, 30, who has lectured across the U.S. on issues related to the interface between the Gospel and culture, says that, “The Sopranos shines light into dark areas. It calls hidden secrets to the surface and creates a heightened awareness of the flawed state of mankind … If viewed with an open mind, The Sopranos has the potential to teach as parable about family, love, crime and God.
“How can one become a better person watching a series that is violent and sexually deviant, portrays criminal behaviour, and disrespects the sacred vows that bind the family?” Seay writes. “Many will say it’s not possible. They will likely mock the aim of this book and especially the intentions of Sopranos creator David Chase, who is seen as cashing in on extreme violence and sexuality.”
However, Seay contends, “Art should reflect reality, not religious fantasy. Turning the scandalous men of the Bible like Abraham, Solomon, and Moses into Mr. Rogers-type figures robs the biblical narrative of its power. These men were deeply flawed, not unlike Tony Soprano. Abraham pimps out the matriarch of the Judeo-Christian faith to powerful kings, and his nephew Lot offers his virgin daughter to the townspeople to be gang-raped. Solomon takes a new wife almost daily, and Moses murders a man in a fit of rage.
“When everyone is near perfect there is no progress. No direction. No redemption. Nothing real people can relate to. It is only when a mirror is held up to reflect our own imperfection that we begin to comprehend our need for change. These flawed men and women are broken in the same ways you and I are, and therefore have something to say to us.”