Last week we published Maggie Smith’s touching and ultimately hopeful poem “Good Bones.” I found the poem in an article that Heidi Schlumpf wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in July of last year (July 2, 2018). The article focused on TV screenwriter Joy Gregory and her efforts to deal with the big questions on television.
Heidi Schlumpf is a national correspondent for NCR. A fellow Notre Dame graduate, she has been covering issues relating to religion, spirituality, social justice, and women’s issues for thirty years. Whenever an article by her appears in NCR, I know I am in for a rich intellectual experience.
Here is Heidi’s account of Joy Gregory’s efforts to bring spiritual matters to your television screen.
It has been an excruciatingly painful day for “Madam Secretary” and her staff. A plot to negotiate the release of a kidnapped American aid worker fails, and the young woman — together with others who have been trafficked — is found dead from asphyxiation in the back of a truck in Kyrgyzstan. In the final scene of the episode of the CBS drama, as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (played by Téa Leoni) tries to console distraught staff members in the wake of this unspeakable evil, the senior policy adviser shares part of a poem [“Good Bones”] by Maggie Smith.
It’s a moment of grace, created by Catholic screenwriter and co-executive producer Joy Gregory, who believes the divine speaks through poetry and who has made it her mission to bring stories about “tangling with the big questions” to television.
“I like to ‘sneak the vegetables in’ without people knowing about it,” Gregory told NCR, referring to how she works in storylines of redemption, spiritual struggle and even overt references to faith as a television writer and producer. That has been easier in her last two jobs on “Madam Secretary” and the teen fantasy drama “Joan of Arcadia” — both created by executive producer Barbara Hall, known for addressing faith on TV. Before that, Gregory often faced resistance in writers’ rooms full of “secular progressives,” most of whom are not religious. “It’s a shocking blind spot in people who preach and practice tolerance in many areas of their lives,” she told a group of religion journalists in January.
But television writers can’t hit audiences over the head with proselytizing either, Gregory said. “Religion too often doesn’t work well on TV because it’s either preaching to a choir, or it’s trying to reach people who have already decided, ‘That’s not me,’ ” she said. “People don’t want to go deep. It’s not cool; they might ‘catch it.’ ” Instead of the overt approach, Hall and Gregory try to “throw a bigger party” to attract audiences with compelling spiritual, or even religious, stories. They were successful on “Joan of Arcadia,” in which a teenage girl had unexpected conversations with God, who was disguised as everyday people. That show, which originally aired on CBS from 2003 to 2005, was Gregory’s favorite, since it was “entirely about arguing with God,” she said. Gregory has also argued with God for much of her life and admits her questioning nature has led her to identify with Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis.
Gregory knew that writing for television would give her a wide influence in bringing Christian and spiritual themes to her storytelling. That, however, was a bit of an uphill battle until she began working with [Barbara] Hall, the Catholic convert who created “Joan of Arcadia” and, later, the character of Henry McCord (played by Tim Daly), Madam Secretary’s husband, a Catholic theology professor and spy on the side.
Hall said Gregory’s interest and curiosity about religion and spirituality is an asset to “Madam Secretary.”
“She makes herself a student of any religious or spiritual story we tell and like any good student, makes it a point to understand all perspectives,” Hall said to NCR in an email interview. “She’s also a great humanitarian and her commitment to social justice is something she practices assiduously.”
Season 2’s episode “Waiting for Taleju,” written by Gregory, was nominated for a Humanitas Prize, which honors film and television writers whose work promotes human dignity, meaning and freedom.
Although the writers use consultants to get the political and religious details right, Gregory has made contributions to many of Henry’s spiritual storylines. The first episode she worked on, “The Time is at Hand” in Season 1, includes a “deep dive into Henry’s Catholicism as both a scholar and a sometimes-struggling believer,” Gregory said. In the episode, Henry is trying to defuse a possible mass suicide with a leader of a Christian cult, so Gregory wrote a scene in which he tells a formative story from his youth. After his best friend fell in a frozen pond and died, Henry found he couldn’t ring the bells during the consecration while serving as an altar boy that following Sunday. The priest tells him after Mass that it’s OK:
“God goes quiet on us all.”
That honest admission of struggle with faith hooks Henry both intellectually and spiritually — as similar approaches to the spiritual life have for Gregory. “It’s those contradictions, the ‘wrestling with angels,’ that I’m drawn to in my own journey with faith,” she said.