What if Heaven is Really a Roadside Waffle Joint?: A Chat With The Book of Dallas Creator
By Ariel Nishli
Just over six weeks ago, the incredibly controversial film, Innocence of Muslims, was broadcast on Egyptian television station Al Nas, supposedly sparking the riots across the Middle East that would claim the lives of four Americans, including US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. Ongoing investigations have pointed to a strong possibility that the attacks, which occurred on September 11th, were premeditated.
The movie, with production values about as sophisticated as an amateur pornography film (it’s director, in fact, was a soft-core porn director before his foray into anti-Islamic stories) has reignited a fierce debate about freedom of speech in a world now intimately connected by online video. Sadly, it has also lowered the bar for an important genre rarely taken on by Internet TV creators to begin with: faith, spirituality, and the search for truth.
In the midst of this sociopolitical theological mess, it was a breath of fresh air to watch KoldCast TV’s The Book of Dallas, a ten-episode satire that takes Dallas Mckay, a devout atheist, throws him in front of a bus, then places him face to face with the God he did not believe existed.
You are watching Chapter 1 of The Book of Dallas
Eternal damnation is not in the cards for Dallas. Instead, God – a fast-talking chick with a Dixie haircut who can’t scarf down waffles fast enough – commands him to go back to Earth, write a new Bible and take it on a book tour. Needless to say, his work is met with mixed reviews.
We wanted to hear about this new scripture meant to usurp history’s all-time bestseller straight from its true author, series writer and executive producer Joe Atkinson. As a former reporter, a current professor, and someone who’s given organized religion a whole lot of thought, Joe had a few insightful things to say about his new show and the new conversation he hopes it sparks.
THE SIXTH WALL: So you decided to create an Internet TV series that places religion front and center. It unabashedly pits the secular world against the religious world. And, you know, it seems that you are on the side of the Theist. You take Dallas, an atheist, give him a hard-nosed awareness of God, and then he ends up becoming a crusader. What’s the message behind this series? What debate are you trying to stir up?
JOE ATKINSON: I see your point in saying that it seems to be an Atheism versus Theism thing. But to me ultimately the discussion the series is trying to raise is more along the lines of: Is religion doing us good? Is it doing good in the world when you look around and see the violence, the hatred, the bigotry, and all of these things that come from people acting “in God’s name” whether that be Christianity, Judaism, Islam or whatever?
T6W: It’s a valid question to bring to the table.
JOE: You seem to hear about these things, you know? You read about them in history books; you can go all the way from 9/11 to the crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition. Is that really what religion should be? Is it making us like each other less? Or, is there a better way that we can practice our faith – that we can worship a God or higher power – without judging other people for believing something different?
T6W: I think most well adjusted people would probably agree that’s not what religion should be about, and that whether it’s inherent or learned, human beings are flawed. Because of that, the world’s major religions embrace the idea of striving for perfection; grasping at the divine, which as mortals, we just can’t do without any guidance, i.e. a Bible. The questions you pose suggest that if people didn’t put as much stock in the Bible from the get-go, perhaps we’d avoid all the wars and suffering.
JOE: I don’t think the series goes so far as being a proponent of that. One thing that I don’t want to get into is my own beliefs because I want people to approach the series and see it through the prism of their beliefs, without looking at it and saying, “this person who believes that is who created it, therefore…” People will put a shield up right away if I do that, you know? I want people to question themselves, not me.
T6W: You are a wise man in that respect.
JOE: One of the questions the series asks is whether religion in itself is an issue or what man does with religion that is at issue. I’m getting into themes that are going to pop up stronger in the second half of the series.
T6W: Dallas takes on this God-given mission to write a new Bible. What is it that makes Dallas’s bible better than the bible we currently have?
JOE: Well, we don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on what’s in the book so much as the idea of challenging the things about religion that make people judge, hate and kill eachother over religion. The charge that God gives Dallas right there in Episode 2 is, “Go out and write me a new book that takes those reasons away.” I don’t think how he writes it is as important as the idea of putting something out there that encourages people to unite in a way that they respect each other’s beliefs.
T6W: Would you label Dallas a prophet?
Benjamin Crockett as Dallas McKay in The Book of Dallas.
JOE: That’s actually addressed in Episode 4. Yes, sort of. I think Dallas’ exact line is: “I don’t know that I would use that phrase, but technically it’s not inaccurate.” I’m quoting my own script… God, what’s wrong with me?
Some dialogue from a TV show suddenly starts playing in the background.
JOE: Sorry. One second here. My render just stopped. What the hell? You just heard the first two lines of Episode 6.
T6W: I’m going to tweet them immediately.
JOE: [Laughs] I’m sure people are on the edge of their seats.
T6W: What’s your impression of the current conversation about religion in pop culture and the media in general? Where do you think the dialogue is and where do you think it should be?
JOE: That’s a hell of a question… You’re going to make me think for a minute. [Pauses] Religion is something we’re afraid to talk about in a lot of places because we’re afraid of offending people and people become defensive about it very quickly. And I think that there’s no better example of that than if you look at the current landscape.
We can obviously go to the example of what happened with the guy who made that propaganda film and everything blew up in Libya and Egypt. But on the flip side, I think that’s an extreme example because that film, which allegedly incited the violence, was incendiary. It wasn’t a harmless joke or something like that and I wouldn’t call it an honest debate or honest discussion. Somebody was trying to inflame things.
That’s an exception, not the rule. I think the rule is more along the lines of what you hear being said in our national election and among prominent people. Take this whole Chick-fil-A thing that happened a couple of months ago where people either boycotted or flocked to a restaurant based of one guy making an off-handed comment about his religious beliefs.
A still from Innocence of Muslims and the posters for director Alan Roberts’ previous softcore porn films.
T6W: You’re not seeing people organizing religious debates for mass audiences. A good number took place between Christopher Hitchens and a few prominent rabbis and priests. They make for some of the most dramatic and compelling exchange of ideas out there.
JOE: Hitchens’ book tour challenged people to debate him about religion. It started a very honest conversation. But again, even when he did that people became very defensive, very quickly, about religion. And I think that being absolutely tied to anything; to any belief without being open-minded enough to entertain other ideas, is dangerous. And I mean that politically, I mean that religiously, I mean that for any sphere.
T6W: It sounds like you do have something to say with The Book of Dallas.
JOE: I agree. Yes.
T6W: And that is…
JOE: Well, it’s starting a discussion about the dangers of believing anything absolutely and the dangers of prescribing to these religions so vehemently that you’re willing to commit harm to other people, and judge other people, and take rights from other people based on what you believe, and them disagreeing with that.
A group of protesters, led by Timothy Paul Taylor (left), in a scene from Chapter 5 of The Book of Dallas.
T6W: Do you find that the dark side of religious dogma is embodied in the series’ character Benjamin? Is his story a cautionary tale?
JOE: That’s getting into a little more spoiler territory than I want to right now. I think that Benjamin is – at this point in the series – he is very lost. To go all Bono on you, Benjamin “still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.”
T6W: He found a gun.
JOE: He did find a gun. He did find a gun… And man, Kevin Roach, the actor who plays Benjamin, is just fantastic. He talks very little in Episode 3 but he registers a great deal. And then in Episode 4, in that scene with his therapist, it’s one of my favorite scenes on the page, and Kevin just made it better. That guy’s such a good actor.
T6W: He has an intensity that almost prohibits you from looking away from his eyes. He’s feeling every moment of that scene.
JOE: It got to the point where I said, “Guys, don’t talk to him in between takes. Everybody just shut up and let him do his scene. He’s here right now, he’s in this moment.” Kevin nailed it. So I think Benjamin is trying to find something, and it goes without saying that he very much connects with what Dallas brings to the table.
Kevin Roach as Benjamin Dolerman in Chapter 4 of The Book of Dallas.
T6W: Good thing it’s a comedy.
JOE: Yeah, no kidding! To me, I think that again, my goal in this series is really just to make people think about how they treat religion and think about how they treat others who disagree with them and the idea of being open-minded.
T6W: What inspired you tackle this controversial subject? What inspired you to write it in the first place?
JOE: It was actually a crisis of faith that brought on this process. I was raised Catholic in an extremely Catholic family. My mom was one of 14 kids; my dad was one of seven; both from families of the 50’s and 60’s that didn’t believe in birth control because the priest said that you couldn’t use it. They were very, very religious people.
And of course I went along with everything. That dogma was what I was exposed to all the way up, and pretty much only that. There was no room for any other truth to exist. Then I got to college and started questioning it. Is this really where my belief structure is? I started wondering about it and at some point it really got under my skin. I did research and read about various religions. I was reading everything from A History of God to Christopher Hitchens, to the Koran and the Bible – anything else that you could come up with — just kind of studying religion. And of course as a writer and a reporter, what came out of that was that I started writing about it.
T6W: Were you able to reconcile some of your own questioning and your own search by virtue of creating this series?
JOE: Yes, I’m much more of a well-adjusted person in that arena at this point.
Writer and Executive Producer Joe Atkinson on set.
T6W: Of course I’m still really curious about your own religious beliefs and how they influenced the show, but you don’t want to talk about that.
JOE: I’d absolutely dodge the question, you’re right.
T6W: Well, between you and co-creators Jakob Bilinski and Marx Hernandez Pyle, there are three minds behind the show. Maybe you can allude to the dynamic there.
JOE: I would say there’s a mix. I would say that there are two of us who have the same belief structure. We’ve had this conversation among the three of us. Jake asked me pretty poignantly as we were in the writing process, “What is your belief structure?” And of course, I answered him and at the same time I said, “I’m not going to answer this for anybody else, but I will tell you.”
Clockwise from top: Benjamin confronts Dallas on his book tour, Kristine Renee Farley as God in Chapter 2; a copy of ‘The Word’.
T6W: I would imagine you need that spirit of openness if you’re going to co-create a substantial story with someone.
JOE: That’s exactly where we came from when we had that conversation. I would say that there’s definitely a mix of beliefs among the three of us and even on set. There were people who came to the series whose postings on Facebook clearly pointed to them as very religious people. I made a point of seeking them out and saying, “Here’s the whole script. You’ve read this; you’re okay with it, right? Because we’re taking religion off its pedestal and kicking it around a little bit. I’m not saying we don’t put it back up on the pedestal at the end of the series, but we kick it around a little bit in this thing.”
T6W: Was the response fairly positive overall?
JOE: What was interesting was that those people who are extremely devout in their faith were stronger believers in the message of the series. So even among the cast, among the crew, and among the producers, I think you can say that we probably span the entire spectrum of belief levels, from the extremely devout to some atheists on set. And everything was pretty unified.
Anyway, how’s that for answering your question without answering your question?
T6W: You know what, I think it works.
What if Heaven is really a roadside waffle joint?
Click to watch Episode 2 of Book of Dallas!
Ariel Nishli is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sixth Wall. He’s got a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007, he worked in the motion picture literary department at ICM, and then moved on to feature film development at Parkes MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and journalism when he’s not obsessing over this magazine.