Like millions of Americans, Chris Seay was hooked after watching just a few episodes of The Sopranos, HBO's hit series.
"The characters were so real, so true to life," he recalls. "They were truly flawed heroes, and that is compelling to me."
The saga of an Italian-American family living in northern New Jersey is characterized by award-winning writing and acting. It is also drenched in blood, sex, greed, crime and, most of all, the angst of its protagonist, Mafia boss Tony Soprano.
What makes Seay, 30, different from other fans of the series is that he is a Christian minister. And still he expects to rush home from his Houston church when the show's fourth season opens Sept. 15.
He won't be alone. Eleven million households tuned in to the final episode of The Sopranos' third season, a significant audience for cable (about half as many viewers as a hit network series such as ER, CSI or Friends might pull).
"Who would have guessed that you would have found the great American epic in the Jersey suburbs?" asks Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for Popular Television.
Seay admits that the mob opera was initially a guilty pleasure, discovered during a one-month free promotion for HBO. Despite its abundant profanity and nudity, he says he was captivated by the complex characters and the intense narrative. He was also embarrassed.
"What is my wife going to think that I'm watching when she walks into the room?" he recalls worrying - for good reason. Soon, though, he convinced his wife, Lisa, that The Sopranos is, at its essence, about "faith, forgiveness and family values."
The appeal of the show is undeniable to this man of God. So much so that he felt compelled to link the unlikely, turning out an intriguing spiritual meditation. The Gospel According to Tony Soprano: An Unauthorized Look Into the Soul of TV's Top Mob Boss and His Family has just been published by Relevant Books,.
In his modern-day treatise, Seay writes: "The Sopranos serves as a prescription for the soul. It has the power to condemn or restore." It also manages to show human beings at their brutal worst, and those same characters at their humane best.
The Sopranos as a philosophical teaching tool? Some observers welcome the notion.
"If someone is going to do a treatment of the mob, it would be quite unreal for it not to include depictions of the depravity resulting from a life of crime," says Teresa Blythe, co-author of Watching What We Watch: Prime-Time Television Through the Lens of Faith. "Shows like The Sopranos are excellent reminders that we really do reap what we sow."
Not all theologians are convinced by Seay's approach.
"Christians need to be concerned with culture in general and pop culture specifically," says Steve Brown, professor of communication and practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Oviedo, Fla. "But I would have some real problems with trying to draw on values from a television program that are totally different from what I as a Christian believe - except in an adversarial way."
Seay's interpretation draws on the Bible and other sources to argue that the award-winning series is "subversive and transforming," and that "a show about so much evil and depravity can actually uplift us."
The Sopranos compels involvement, he contends.
"This show does not command imitation; it requires contemplation," he says. "One naturally begins to examine his life, family relationships, finances and the God who created man in this miserable state.
"This contemplation raises questions much deeper than the sociology and economics of mob life. It probes the deeper mysteries of life: the problem of evil, the existence of God, how we experience the divine, the nature of heaven and hell, and the consequences of our actions."
"I want to be sanctimonious and push these hideous characters away," he writes. "But I cannot. We're just too much alike."
The French thinker Blaise Pascal wrote that "Man's greatness comes from knowing he is wretched."
Seay writes that Pascal is correct, and that "The Sopranos has the power to lead you to greatness as it amplifies the wretchedness of us all."
The way Tony Soprano is portrayed "embodies evil in so many ways, and yet viewers can't resist loving him," Seay says. "I don't believe they love him for what he does, but because we see the same propensity in ourselves. You cannot move forward to your redemption until you see your own wretchedness.
"In that space of being disgusted by Tony's wretchedness, and at our own wretchedness, it forces us to strive for something better."
Mark I. Pinsky is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.