NBC gets religion. Sort of.

By Nicole Greenfield

There’s always a lot of hype surrounding a new TV series, even when it’s just another indistinguishable reality show. The most recent buzz, good, bad, and astonishingly bad, has been about last Friday night’s NBC premiere of “Three Wishes,” hosted by Christian singer Amy Grant. The San Francisco Chronicle raves about the show and advises snobs to “look away” when corporate product placement sullies the sap; Reuters takes a harder line, terming the show’s relentless product puffing “manipulative”; and The Miami Herald‘s Glenn Garvin writes that his three wishes all involve “the flesh of Amy Grant being devoured by rabid weasels.” Their complaints are strictly secular: too much materialism. Only Ned Martel of The New York Times seemed to understand the true significance of the program. Well, sort of.

The show, a tear-jerking combination of Oprah and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” sends Amy to make the “hopes and dreams of deserving people” in small-town America come true. In the first episode, Amy “grants” wishes to an injured young girl in need of expensive surgery and a lovable young boy who wants to surprise his stepfather with an official, public adoption ceremony. Later in the show, an Astroturf field not only brings joy to Sonora, California athletes, but to a cancer-stricken coach, too.

Some reviewers criticize the show’s overt product placement and its nauseating sappiness, but the Times’ Ned Martel digs a bit further to uncover religion as an issue as well. Grant is trying play God in her show, and Martel is the only one bold enough to call her out on it. In his cleverly titled article, “Manna from Hollywood: Charity Begins on TV,” he argues that “ ‘Three Wishes’ operates like a traveling ministry, with revival tents pitched in a different small town each week.” He goes on to describe the masses of “unhealed souls” — including Catholic nuns — lined up with the hope of “Grant Herself” answering their prayers.

Although Martel makes the valuable connection between the show and religion, he misses (or chooses not to comment on) the more important point: Amy Grant is, herself, an evangelical Christian in a theologically and politically conservative tradition. The five-time Grammy winner is often referred to as the “Queen of Christian Pop” because of her groundbreaking success in introducing Christian music to the mainstream. By accomplishing the difficult task of “cultural cross-over,” Amy won the utmost respect within the evangelical community and is considered an inspiration by fellow evangelical artists.

It should come as no surprise that, in light of the premiere of “Three Wishes,” Amy is this week’s featured artist at Christian Post and her face comprises one of four rotating photo headlines at Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Crosswalk.com notes that “after a rumored scandal that led to divorce and remarriage, however, Amy Grant became persona non grata for many Christians.” But with “Three Wishes,” they write, “Grant is back on top once again.”Agape Press, predictably, loves the show; so does the political website GOPUSA, which republishes Agape’s gushing review. Rightwing Townhall.comignores the show’s religion, but praises the show for not simply offering “hand-outs” to needy people (true, indeed; actors are normally paid cash for commercial work). Amy Grant has “crossed over” yet again and evangelicals — and conservatives — are proud.

Amy is aware, though, that on the show — unlike in her music — she must conceal her religious beliefs. CBN reports, however, that “glimpses of Grant’s faith come through the screen.” At the outset, Grant wondered about the exact role that her faith could play in such a show and was pleased to learn, after her promise to pray for a participant didn’t provoke any criticism, that she could “react naturally” to the show’s emotional subject matter.

Grant hopes that this opportunity to help needy small-town Americans will provide inspiration for new songs. But I envision it doing much more. Amy’s God-like position on “Three Wishes” will provide inspiration for fellow evangelicals. If she can host a prime time show on a major network — and, more importantly, “react naturally” on it — surely other evangelicals can, too. It’s only a matter of time before evangelical television breaks free from its own networks and into the mainstream.

So when Ned Martel asks “what, pray tell, did the nuns, whom we see waiting in line, really need from this secular savior?”, we know that he is missing a piece of the puzzle. What the nuns need, and will receive, is inspiration not just from any secular savior, but rather from an influential Christian one. Amy Grant is responsible for building one of the first bridges between evangelical and mainstream, religious and secular, culture. That, Mr. Martel, is the missing piece.