ROME –In today’s increasingly polarized world, faith is often seen as a taboo that is better kept quiet. But a new show on the small screen tries to look at the connective and unifying power of religion, with a special twist for the Millennial audience.
“God Friended Me,” a CBS network comedy-drama that premiered Sept. 30, tells the story of Miles (played by up and coming actor Brandon Micheal Hall), the atheist son of a Christian preacher who hosts a podcast where he argues against the existence of God.
To make matters more complicated for Miles, who is striving to land a spot for his show on Sirius radio, one day he receives a Facebook friendship request from none other than God. The almighty’s profile shows a picture of a single fluffy cloud, has no friends and lists “nature” as its only interest.
From that moment on, Miles becomes embroiled in a network of coincidences – or miracles, depending on your perspective – where friend requests, as well as pokes and likes, lead him to explore complicated questions of faith.
“It’s very important to talk about religion,” said Javicia Leslie, who plays the role of Miles’s sister Ali on the show, in an interview with Crux. “When we communicate about our differences, we learn more about each other and are able to respect what makes us individually unique.”
“‘God Friended Me’ is a show that sparks conversation because everyone can find someone to relate to,” she added.
Leslie, who’s past acting experiences include her lead role in the movie “Killer Coach,” said that she can relate to her character on the CBS show, because they both share a keen desire to support people.
“Ali is all about helping others,” she said, explaining that in the TV show Ali and Miles lost their mother at a young age, though her character did not stray from the Church.
“I am happiest when those around me are living the highest version of themselves,” she added.
Before acting, Leslie had a government job working alongside U.S. army veterans in a project called the Retroactive Stop Loss Program, paying soldiers their dues when they were held beyond their contracts. In earlier interviews she shared her own journey to conversion, which she said she did “following her own path.”
“God Friended Me” does not present a particular divine entity, though it can be classified as belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, it portrays an all-knowing God who points to the common threads that interconnect not only religions but also people.
“How can we grow if we don’t communicate? This show sparks that communication!” said Leslie.
“Life is bigger than our differences, and the most important thing that we can all agree on, is that we are stronger as a unit. I love this quote by Reverend Finer [a character in the show]: ‘Faith is supposed to unite us, not divide us.’ When we talk about our differences, we are able to respect our differences. This show is that conversation.”
In its effort to present an ecumenical, tree-hugging, loving God through the lens of social media, she said, “God Friended Me” actually hits the mark in terms of belief among Millennials. Pew Research Center studies show that many young people today are less likely to affiliate with any specific religion, while still maintaining interest in life’s big questions.
What attracted the 31-year-old actress to the script was the way it narrates “all of these different types of people, from different walks of life, connecting and helping each other,” she said.
The show does not shy away from some of the more contentious issues regarding religion in many parts of the world, from family to sexuality, “God Friended Me” tackles it all never trying to give an answer, but always asking the questions.
As Miles attempts to establish a relationship with the Almighty Father on Facebook, he also tries to handle his complicated rapport with his estranged father, a reverend played by Joe Morton who objects to his son’s militant approach to atheism.
“It’s interesting because his relationship with the Father goes hand and hand with his relationship with our Dad,” Leslie said, adding that in the story much of Miles’s resentment toward religion is born from the fact that his father drew closer to the church than his family after the loss of his mother.
“But the beautiful part, is life is a full circle… this show shows that full circle,” the actress continued. “It shows how finding his faith again becomes a choice rather than something that he grew up doing.”
Leslie’s character views family as “the most important thing in the world,” she said, and therefore acts as “a great bridge between the two completely different perspectives of her dad and brother.”
While the show – starting with its title – comfortably slides into cliché at times, its creators Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt say they try to use social networks as a ploy, never the narrative, which remains anchored in family and relationships, in what brings people together instead of tearing them apart.