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A Christian Mafia: An Interview with Chris Seay, Author of The Gospel According to Tony Soprano

By Jayson Whitehead
January 27, 2003

When Chris Seay first stumbled across an episode of HBO’s "The Sopranos," he immediately liked what he saw. Well-written and peppered with short-clipped dialogue, the show follows the exploits of mob boss Tony Soprano as he confronts crisis after crisis within his own family, with close ties, and with outside foes. Unlike any other popular medium, the show deals realistically with issues like loyalty, spirituality, fear, insecurity and infidelity–but enacted in a Mafia setting. "The Sopranos" also features scenes of graphic violence, language and sex.

For Seay, pastor of Ecclesia Church in Houston, Texas, the latter elements raised concerns. "There are times that it’s so grotesque, it’s unbelievable," he says. Yet, Seay felt himself drawn to the show week after week, and season after season. "‘The Sopranos’ … exists inside this very real struggle to find redemption and to find wholeness, and that’s what I’m drawn to most about it."

Rectifying his own inner struggle with the show’s objectionable content ("I’m used to that dissonance," he says), Seay set out to write a justification of its merits for a Christian audience, and for those simply curious about spiritual parallels present in the show. That said, Seay notes that The Gospel According to Tony Soprano is not intended for everyone. "I really wrote it for people who were "Sopranos" fans, and those who are spiritually aware. There are people who can’t believe I’m dealing with the subject matter, but most of those people won’t take the time to pick up the book and read it anyway."

oldSpeak recently spoke with Seay about Christianity’s interaction with secular culture, "The Sopranos" appeal to a Christian audience, and how Tony Soprano is like King Solomon.

oldSpeak: Were you disturbed at first that you liked the show?

CS: Absolutely. There are times that it’s so grotesque, it’s unbelievable. And still, even in the fourth season, having written the book, talked about it publicly and openly, and done six or seven appearances on CNN and different places like that talking about the show, I still sometimes think, "This is unbelievable. This is just so grotesque and dark and sick." But I think that’s part of the reason the show works.

Did it take a while for you to resolve your feelings for the show with your beliefs?

I’d say that tension is present with me in a lot of stuff. I really believe we’re all called to engage the whole of art, culture and film. So I’m used to that dissonance as I live in it, as I watch films, as I listen to music. Although "The Sopranos" is a bit darker at times than other things, at the same time it really hasn’t been that much different. It’s a natural tension I’m pretty accustomed to living in.

One of the show’s qualities is its ability to point to characteristics of everyday life, like Tony’s capacity to recognize faults in others while ignoring his own.

It’s prevalent with everybody in the show. This is one of the main reasons I love the show. You can’t help but see yourself in these characters. They’re hyperboles but they’re very much like you and me and the rest of the world. They just take sin another step.

The characters in "The Sopranos" are in a closed, set-apart world. They have their own moral code as well. Does that raise more comparisons to the world of religion?

Yeah, I think it does. They exist in their own unique culture and have to figure out how to relate to one another. There is definitely some crossover there to people of faith. I think that’s one of the main attractions for people of faith, and for people in general. I think everybody wants to belong to something. And these people clearly belong to one another. Men write to me and say, "I want to be a part of a Christian Mafia." What they’re really saying is "I want to be a part of a group of men that are so committed to each other that they would die for each other." The men [in "The Sopranos"] are incredibly affectionate to one another. They kiss more than any other men you’ve ever seen, so there’s this deeply rooted love and trust that exists there. The challenge is when you violate that trust they’ll kill you. That sucks. But the glue that holds them together and the fact that they are so tightly bound is real attractive to people, myself included.

In your introduction you attack the Focus on the Family approach to art–the "garbage in, garbage out" approach–and you write, "Art should reflect reality, not religious fantasy." I’m sure that kind of mindset is something you’ve come into contact with quite a bit.

Yeah, absolutely. I think Christians’ idea of art is religious fantasy. That’s why Christians in the visual arts flock to artists like Thomas Kinkade–people who paint a world that doesn’t really exist. And they do the same thing with film; they’re into the after school specials. They’re not the reality of where people really live and exist. I think most of us are really affected by art that really hits home.

It’s the same reason that Left Behind sells ten billion copies. Because they don’t want to live in and exist in the world that we live and exist in. They’re ready for the afterlife. They want to move to another place. It’s a challenge. To live in this world and be a person of faith is not an easy thing.

Christians often use Philippians 4:8 ("Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.") to argue against the type of interaction with culture that you advocate. How do you respond to that?

Part of it is the very first words you get there: focus on what is true. I think we have to deal with what’s real and what’s true. That’s what Scripture focuses on. I don’t think it means think about ice cream and lollipops. Again, we just think about religious fantasy. Well, we have to deal with the sin at hand. If there is no redemption or no hint of redemption, if it’s something that’s just trash, then yeah I think we throw it out. The thing that I love about "The Sopranos" is that it exists inside this very real struggle to find redemption and to find wholeness and that’s what I’m drawn to most about it.

You point out that the show’s creator, David Chase, was raised a Baptist. Do you see that manifested in the show a lot?

Yeah, I do. I think that’s where so many of these spiritual and religious themes come from. What other show would take an entire episode that deals with issues of heaven and hell, and the characters struggling to figure out if they’re going to heaven or hell? All over the place you get these really strong and beautiful religious themes that I think come out of David’s own question about the existence of hell, and where he’s going and what that means. I think that tension is all over the show.

You compare Tony to King Solomon.

As you look at the book of Ecclesiastes, and a man who says he’s going on a journey to find truth apart form God, truth under the sun–that’s pretty much Tony’s journey–to find something that fulfills him, except for spiritual things. Solomon tries to do that in Ecclesiastes. He goes after an incredible amount of sex, and building huge mountains, and achieving great knowledge, and all the things that we can try to do, work and toil, and it doesn’t get him anywhere. That’s what Tony is going through. And so he tries it all and tries to numb himself along the way. Laughter is short-lived and orgasms only last a short while. And then you’re left at this place thinking, "There’s got to be more."

The rumors are that the next season will be the last one. Where do you see everything going?

I really do think that the characters that thrive in the end are going to be characters that are better spiritually founded. But I really believe we’re going to see some strong religious themes. I see this last season as the inner struggle. I think it’s rooted in David’s worldview that the people who really do thrive and do well are going to be people that seek things, as Solomon would say, "above the sun."