By DAVID CRUMM
Hollywood’s century-old love-hate relationship with evangelicals is swinging in the direction of compassionate humor, these days. That’s thanks to the kind hearts and keen talents of writers like Pete Holmes and, debuting in book form this spring, Maggie Rowe.
If you’ve somehow missed the recent coast-to-coast coverage of Pete Holmes’ hit HBO series Crashing, then here’s the gist of it: Real-life stand-up comic Pete Holmes collaborated with Judd Apatow to create a TV series about the struggles of a comic trying to survive in the competitive world of comedy clubs. But, as it turns out, the biggest theme highlighted in media coverage of Crashing (including the New York Times and National Public Radio) is that Holmes also is trying to maintain a loving relationship with his evangelical Christian family. So far, the real Holmes and the series’ main character, a fictionalized version of Holmes, are expressing equal amounts of good, friendly humor toward the evangelical community.
The same can be said of Maggie Rowe, who more than likely will show up on your TV screen in the next year or so with a series based on her new memoir, Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience. This week, ReadTheSpirit is urging readers to discover this remarkable writer, right now. Then, you’ll be way ahead of the trend when her story continues to flower on TV. Already, her memoir has enthusiastic endorsements from:
- Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development (“This book is so honest, so chock full of struggle and philosophical profundity—and ultimately so heartbreakingly funny …”)
- Peter Baynham, co-writer of Borat (“Maggie Rowe’s writing is a rare thing: brilliant, intelligent, hilarious, thoughtful, and, most importantly, utterly believable.”)
- And, Jill Soloway, creator of Tranparent (“A beautifully written, deeply funny memoir.”)
Consider those blurbs part of the process of translating this real-life story into a hit TV series. Maggie Rowe confirms that she’s actively pursuing that idea. She understands the process, because she already is working as a Hollywood insider. She’s the only woman on the writing staff of the current version of Arrested Development.
A NEW KIND OF DIVINE COMEDY
Sin Bravely tells the true story of a debilitating crisis sparked by Maggie’s upbringing in a devoutly evangelical family. From an early age, Maggie became obsessed with threats of Hell and damnation to the point that, while attending college, she could no longer function without outside help. Ultimately, she decided to check herself into a Christian treatment facility and this memoir mainly focuses on what happens, as a result. We won’t spoil the final scenes of this memoir by describing them—but part of her recovery involves, as the title says, sinning bravely.
In an interview, I told Maggie: “Given the way Hollywood sometimes portrays religious zealots on TV and in the movies, this memoir is remarkable for its kind comedy.”
“I love that phrase,” she said, in response. “I have never used that phrase to describe it, but I think your description is a great complement.”
In response, I added: “As you read the story about your quirky fellow in-mates in the treatment program and the well-meaning if off-base staff, it’s obvious that you could have really skewered these people. They’re easy marks for comedy. But that’s not what we find in these chapters. You really do have a kind heart for these folks.”
“Absolutely! Absolutely!” she said.
“Even Bethanie, who could have been cast as the Nurse Ratched in your story, clearly is someone you regard with compassion in retrospect, right?”
“Yes,” she said. “Bethanie was not trying to harm anyone. She was doing the best she could. And I should explain: I was in an evangelical psychiatric recovery facility. The place was designed for Christians with psychological difficulties who wanted both Bible-based work on spirituality and also psychiatrists on staff who could prescribe medicine. One important detail here is: Everyone in the facility was there voluntarily, so that’s a big difference if people are thinking that I was locked up in some kind of Cuckoo’s Nest. We all chose to be there. That’s a key difference.
“Then, within that circle of people you’ll meet in the book—yes, there are some really troubled individuals and I tell their stories along with my own. I think the main thing to consider in reading my book is: Hey, life is hard for all of us. And, we’re all trying to do the best we can.”
That’s the compassionate tone Maggie says she plans to maintain as she develops this memoir into a TV series.
HONEST COMEDY ABOUT FAITH
The idea of savvy, successful young writers turning a kind eye toward staunch evangelicals—as Pete Holmes has done and Maggie Rowe hopes to do—is a remarkable turn in Hollywood culture. Even 100 years ago, movie directors felt besieged by Fundamentalists and were eager to turn the tables. The Library of Congress marks Hells Hinges (1916) as a cultural landmark in silent cinema. The early Western epic stars William S. Hart as a heroic cowboy, squaring off against a demented clergyman who is so evil that he winds up helping to burn down his own church.
Over the subsequent century, religious movies tended to veer from sentimental spirituality (including the swords-and-sandals epics of the 1960s) to vicious send-ups of religion (such as Kevin Smith’s biting satire Dogma). Over the past decade, the rise of a so-called “Christian film industry” has produced dozens of formulaic evangelical movies, most of which are dismissed or ignored by serious film critics. The basic problem with “religious movies” is simply: With some notable exceptions, few filmmakers manage to portray real religious experiences in honest, heart-felt ways.
Overall, Christian themes have fared better in TV series, including shows on cable channels like Hallmark. Now in its fourth season, When Calls the Heart is a popular romantic drama set a century ago in western Canada and regularly features characters kneeling in prayer and talking about their faith.
What’s new, right now, is the sharp-edged talent of Hollywood heavyweights like Judd Appatow or writers, like Maggie, whose credits include co-writing on the hit series Arrested Development. They’re willing to risk their reputations by exploring religion in a balanced way. In one episode of the series Crashing, for example, Appatow and Holmes put some of the smartest, wisest lines in the mouths of the main character’s evangelical parents. That’s part of the pleasant surprise in Crashing—the evangelicals aren’t cast as the butt of every joke. There clearly is potential for a new genre of sophisticated comedy that isn’t afraid to love the evangelicals that other comics, like Kevin Smith, regarded as merely fodder for a good roasting.
HOW SHE DID IT
Maggie’s memoir is a “spiritual page turner.” You’re likely to find yourself smiling and wanting to keep reading scene after scene. And that’s an exceptional complement for a “religious book.” How did she achieve that style? Well, she had some help.
In addition to writing for Arrested Development, Maggie coordinates Sit n Spin, a regular gathering in Hollywood in which a lineup of writers perform their own work. “Sit n Spin has been going on for 14 years now. Each night, it’s five people reading from their work, generally comedic essays about their lives. In choosing people to read, I look for stories that are deeply personal.”
Maggie performed drafts of several key chapters for her new book at Sit n Spin and then continued revising the texts based on audience responses.
“It’s a great way to develop material,” she said. “You get up in front of the audience and you get immediate feedback—responses you couldn’t get if you were writing alone in your room. And the reactions I got? Very positive. The audience really responds to honesty. People can tell right away when you’re exaggerating. So, this helped me to stay very true to what happened. The humor in the book comes from the honesty and I think that’s what you’re responding to when you call this compassionate.”
THE REST OF THE STORY?
So, who should play Maggie in the TV version?
“Well, I’m already pitching the TV version of this, so that’s a good question. Who should play me? Let me think,” Maggie said. “Well, I love Chloe Sevigny‘s work and I also love Brie Larson. But, for this, I probably would try to get Taylor Schilling or Shailene Woodley. I like Woodley in that movie, The Spectacular Now. She’d be wonderful in this TV series.”
Expanding the new book into an entire series would require exploring many tangents from the basic story in the new book. “I might start the TV series with the first day at the facility, but then the story would flash to my life at different ages. We’d expand on the other characters, too, and learn more about them than you’ll find in the book. I’m a fan of Crashing and I would want my series to do the same thing—treat the characters with sympathy. These are people you’ll like and you’ll care about as you find out more about their lives.”
Meanwhile, Maggie already is writing the next volume in her memoir. And, for those left hanging after the last page in this first book, I asked: “So, let’s not leave our readers in suspense when it comes to your attitude about religion. You learned, at an early age, that a lot of evangelical preaching—like Hellfire and brimstone—can be downright dangerous. But, you didn’t come away from these experiences as an enemy of religion, did you?”
“No, I didn’t come away with a screw-you attitude toward faith. Not at all,” she said. “Over the years, I did change from my earlier beliefs that everything in the Bible is literally true. Now, I see the Bible as containing figurative language, poetry and lots of pointers to the truth, but it’s not a book to be read literally in the way I experienced it as a child. Today, I like to follow people like Rob Bell and Peter Rollins. I also like to read mystics—Christian and Buddhist and Hindu mystics. I’d say I’m a spiritual person with ties to a Christian faith.”
What’s more, “I’ve learned to live with my anxieties. It helps that I now know I was wrestling with a kind of OCD that led to my excessive anxiety. My form of OCD sometimes is described as ‘existential obsession’ and I still have a tendency to struggle with some of those questions from time to time. But I think I’ve come away from these experiences with a healthy spirituality, today, and I hope that people who hear my story will find some reassurance that they can find that balance, too.”