Joan of Arcadia ran for two seasons on CBS-TV from 2003 - 2005. Both seasons are now available on DVD. We thoroughly enjoyed this spiritually literate TV seasons. Here's our assessment of some of its spiritual lessons. from its first season to help you get ready for the new season.
"The will of God," writes Robert Farrar Capon, a Christian minister, "is not a list of stops to make to pick up mouthwash, razor blades, and a pound of chopped chuck on the way home. It is his longing that we will take the risk of being nothing but ourselves, desperately in love." For Joan (Amber Tamblyn), a teenager in a town called Arcadia, God does encourage her to be herself — and God's will does sometimes come out as an assignment to pick up some cream of wheat on the way home. Or she might be told to take a class, get a part-time job, volunteer with children, have a garage sale, go out for cheerleading, join the debate team, and even build a boat. Yet these rather mundane suggestions also are about Joan taking a chance to be all that she is meant to be as a child of God.
God appears to Joan as the people around her — a cute boy at school, a chess master, a street sweeper, a goth boy, a dog walker, an overweight student, a lady in the school cafeteria, a Pizza deliveryman, a substitute teacher, a homeless man, a little girl (above), and many others. Usually the first clue that it's God is when the character calls Joan by her name. At first, Joan wonders if she might be crazy, but then she begins to trust these presences and to follow through on their instructions.
At the beginning of the first season, Joan's father, Will Girardi (Joe Mantegna), has just taken the job as Police Chief in a new town. He is having trouble dealing with all the political baggage that comes with the job. His wife, Helen (Mary Steenburgen), works part-time in the office and later becomes an art teacher at the high school attended by Joan and her younger brother Luke (Michael Welch), a science wiz. Helen and Joan are struggling with the typical mother-daughter strife that comes with adolescence. Both parents are concerned about their oldest son Kevin (Jason Ritter), who was in a car accident and is now a paraplegic in a wheelchair. For the time being, he has taken a job as a fact checker at the local newspaper.
Realizing that her parents and brothers probably can't handle it, Joan does not tell them about the conversations she keeps having with God, which sometimes makes it hard for her to explain why she has embarked on a new project or developed an unusual interest. Not that God gives Joan reasons for her assignments nor offers instructions on how to do them. To her continual frustration as a 21st century person, she has to live with mystery and exercise her own free will.
In the process of doing the best she can with her assignments from God, Joan sees again and again that the divine is present in the lives of those closest to her. She respects the tenderness and patience her father demonstrates in the complicated cases which crop up in the small town. She creates an opportunity for her mother to share a secret she has kept for years, and they have a moment of genuine intimacy. In each episode, Joan has to learn to trust God and then act. Sometimes her only function is to set something else in motion. In "The Boat" episode, for example, God tells Joan to build a boat. She gets a kit, assembles all the lumber, and begins putting it together in the garage. Meanwhile, her brother Kevin, who was a star athlete in high school, refuses to participate in a wheelchair basketball game and later burns his father's scrapbook of his sports triumphs. The two men have an angry confrontation. But when Joan abandons her boat project, Kevin, who is good at this kind of thing, takes over. In the last scene of the episode, we see Will join him. Joan has been an indirect instrument of their reconciliation.
While some may wonder why this series does not deal more with institutional religion, it is quite clear that God does use priests and rabbis. Joan's mother has several meetings with Father Ken Mallory (David Burke), a Catholic priest who helps her deal with her questions about faith and her anguish over Kevin. Joan, at a crucial moment in her spiritual development, talks to a rabbi who tells her about the Jewish concept of the evil impulse that resides in us all. And another time when Joan is doubting herself, a psychic says that she has a special connection to the universe.
God's presence is also evident in Joan's relationship with her two best friends, Adam Rove (Christopher Marquette), a supposed stoner who turns out to be a gifted artist, and Grace Polk (Becky Wahlstrom), a rebellious outsider who shows Joan how to stand up for herself and not give in to peer pressure. Through these and other encounters, Joan is forced to deal with her selfishness and her capacity to be loyal. Her friends recognize both her weaknesses and her strengths, and they always encourage her to be true to herself.
In the "Anonymous" episode, after Joan throws out some submissions for the school yearbook, God tells her to look for them in the garbage dumpster. She's been trying to impress Adam with her work on the yearbook but after this fiasco, she has to admit that she's not the photographer, not the literary editor, she's just "someone digging around in the garbage trying to find something that matters." "And that's what I love about you," says Adam.
That's what we love about her too. Here are some spiritual lessons we have learned from watching Joan of Arcadia this season — arranged in no particular order and not matched to the episodes since many themes run through all of them. These insights, epiphanies, and messages have stirred our souls and helped us recognize the sacred in everyday life..
• God speaks to us in many voices, and we must always be on the lookout for the divine presence in family, friends, strangers, and even seeming enemies.
• God is a mystery and our efforts to imprison God within the confines of reason or belief systems are futile; God is full of surprises.
• We are used to thinking of miracles as supernatural acts that shock us into a state of awe, but the real marvels are the little miracles that are happening all around us every day — the little kindnesses that lift our spirits, the small changes that signal that transformation is possible.
- Relationships are a great workshop for God, who uses them to help us connect with others and with our deeper selves.
- If only we could let go of our expectations and our limited perspectives on things, we could trust in the wisdom of the unfolding present moment where God is ever present.
- It is always worth the effort to do the right thing — no matter how tough that may be.
- God wants us to be all we can be with our gifts and talents, and discovering where that path leads is what gives our lives meaning.
- It is hard not to know the outcome of our actions or the impact we have on others. But sometimes all we can do is plant a seed and walk away. Resting in this state of unknowing is what keeps us from becoming rigid know-it-alls.
- We are connected to others in ways that we do not know. God opens our eyes to these ties which are the source of so much joy and fulfillment in our lives.
- Having and being a good friend is a spiritual challenge that demands love, patience, loyalty, commitment, and playfulness.
- God provides so many wonderful grace moments in our lives when we come upon one thing while looking for another.
- God expects us to be good detectives — always on the lookout for signs of divine activity. The first assignment on the spiritual path is to pay attention.
- With God reaching out to us through so many diverse people and ways, it is possible to feel good about ourselves and see that we are part of the continuing divine drama unfolding day by day.
A Closing Thought
In the last analysis, Joan of Arcadia is about what's possible for all of us. This passage about Joan's namesake is from Edward Hays' book Secular Sanctity: Looking at Everyday Life from the Inside, and Seeing It Charged with Divine Mystery:
"Let us conclude with a few lines recalled from George Bernard Shaw's play, Saint Joan. The play is about Joan of Arc, an uneducated, seventeen-year-old peasant girl in France. She lived in the middle of the fifteenth century, when the English occupied a part of France. In her prayer, Saint Joan heard voices that told her to place Charles VII on the French throne and to win back France from the English. Faithful to her prayer, the voices told her how to wage the war against the English. Historians call this illiterate seventeen-year-old girl a military genius! In Shaw's play, the king, a weak man, is upset because he does not hear the voices. He says to Joan, 'Why do I not hear your voices? Am I not the king? Should they not be speaking to me instead of to you, a simple peasant girl?' And Saint Joan answers, 'My Leige, you too can hear them, but you must learn to listen. Listen after the trilling of the angelus bells. In the stillness, after the bells have ceased, listen, and then, my Leige, you too will hear the voices.' "
Joan's Conversations with God