It’s major confession time. I have a TV habit. I think it started with the X-Files, which Denise and I started watching every week about the middle of its run. We watched and loved Millennium, and a short-lived series called Brimstone. We’ve always had at least one regular series we try to catch each week for a “cheap date at home.”
Now, however, things are seriously out of hand. We’re religiously loyal to all three CSI‘s, plus Without a Trace and Cold Case. All CBS, Jerry Bruckheimer productions; all shows where good police officers solve mysteries and crimes with a mixture of skillful discovery of evidence, science and hard work. All programs with flawed, but earnestly well-intentioned, characters. Every show has just enough mixture of the personal and the professional to keep us involved with the human side of each character. As a teacher, I have my junior english students create characters, and I’ve got a few good ones running around in my head waiting for a story or a novel to let them live. I give Bruckheimer high marks for his characters. They are fascinating, believably human and rarely dull.
For example, Cold Case’s Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris) is a driven young homicide detective specializing in reopening and solving cases that were closed “unsolved.” She’s as tough as they come, but it doesn’t take long to see that Rush is tough because she’s grown up hard, has lost family and romance, and has closed down her vulnerable side to almost everyone except her cats. She’s a good detective, but there are plenty of moments we wonder if she can retain her humanity along the path of loneliness and isolation she’s chosen.
Or CSI Miami’s Horatio Caine (David Caruso.) Caine usually gets emotionally involved in cases, perseveres over his opponents and relishes all his victories. He’s also a man with other, less obvious passions that make him a character with depth. He’s attracted to his (supposedly) deceased brother’s wife, but she’s involved with the abusive head of internal affairs. Caine will take matters in his own hands and do things his own way, then go back and make sure that everyone is all right and everything was done fairly. He’s wonderful with children and the victims of crime. Watching his reaction to the shooting death of one of his officer’s last season was great television. You have the suspicion that Caine’s integrity and concern for people will some day be tested to the breaking point.
Or Without A Trace’s Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia), the head of the New York City FBI’s missing person’s unit. Malone’s life is a wreck. He’s had an affair with a co-worker, lost his marriage and his kids, thrown a chair through a window at a custody deposition, and is now watching the former lover have a relationship with another agent on the team. His father has Alzheimer’s, and his oldest daughter is bitterly angry at the divorce, but is far away in Chicago. In some of the show’s most riveting episodes, Malone goes to incomprehensible personal risks to rescue abducted children and adults. Malone is one of the good guys who lives with the constant awareness that he’s two steps away from drowning in despair and darkness.
I love these characters because, despite their fallenness, imperfections and personal tragedies, they turn their pain into the redemption, salvation and deliverance of others. Religion is hardly ever mentioned in these shows, though Malone makes his way to a Catholic Church occasionally, where it’s clear that yet another part of his personal wreckage is the question of a God he holds in contempt, but can’t completely reject. These characters work with science, yet science is not the answer for their personal emptiness. Their humanity always outruns the chemistry and computers that dominate these shows. And the end of any successful case, they still go home to broken families, empty beds, doubts, heart disease, secret longings, and their own sins.
This year I discovered House, M.D., a medical drama on Fox (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.). House, M.D. is not a Bruckheimer production, and is totally unlike any character driven drama I have ever seen on television. I highly recommend you watch a few episodes. I can’t believe it will be on for long. Too real. Too good. For me as a Christian, a tremendously rewarding show with profound echoes of the fall and hints of grace.
First, what you expect. Dr. Gregory House is a legendary diagnostic expert, specializing in the cases other doctors can’t solve. Each episode begins with a medical mystery, usually an illness, and the patient winds up in the “Diagnostic Medicine” program of House’s hospital. Here, with three doctors on his staff, House pursues each case like a criminal investigation. Using medical knowledge, technology, logic, intuition and plenty of trial and error, the show takes the viewer on an exciting ride each week. (Warning: If you are squeamish, this show is quite graphic. And unlike CSI, everyone being cut up or invaded with a camera is alive.)
Policeman and doctors are both in the business of fighting evil and doing good, and both kinds of shows use similar approaches to problem solving. But there is an interesting twist involved with House, and it plays on our perception of doctors.
Doctors are supposed to be, if not superhuman, certainly far above the average person. They are supposed to be competent, intelligent, certain, compassionate and saintly, in a medical sort of way. Now, we all know this is ridiculous, and doctors are as screwed up as the rest of us. But we don’t really want to know this. We want our images of doctors to partake of the fantasy. If we can’t be sure of God, we want to be sure of the best doctors. We want to know that, for enough money, they can make us momentarily immortal.
If you need this illusion to persist in order to go to your doctor, don’t watch House. House rips the lid off of the competency and saintliness of doctors in a way that scares me to death.
For instance, Dr. Gregory House is addicted to pain killers. On one show, he tried to quit, but became a delirious, drooling mass of pain who was nearly arrested. One of his fellow doctors convinced him to get back on the dope. His pain is the result of a blood clot in his leg. The pain is horrible, and he walks, quite poorly, with a cane. On one occasion, House lied about a woman’s eating disorder so she would remain on a heart transplant list. He once accepted the gift of a Corvette from a mobster to keep quiet about a patient’s homosexuality.
House hates dealing directly with patients, especially the commonly sick variety. In most episodes, he spends considerable time avoiding required clinic duty by any method possible. He rarely actually sees the patient-of-the-week, sending his cohorts instead to do everything. When House does see a patient, it is quite an adventure. How can I describe this?
House is mean, rude, sarcastic, ugly, smart-alecky, superior, contemptuous and often disinterested. His disdain for ordinary medicine and the “common cold” type patient is incredible. I’ve never seen anyone as sarcastic and cruel as House. Patients are frequently stunned and disoriented by his “manner.” In fact, if House is nice, you can be sure something is very wrong.
When House sees the “patient of the week,” it’s usually for a life-saving confrontation that can’t be avoided. It’s not to diagnose, ask questions or teach. It’s to fight, bring bad news, call someone a liar, confront a family with their deceptions, announce unpleasant choices or attempt to force a patient to do what’s necessary to live, all done with virtually no grace or kindness.
When House isn’t with other doctors working on a case, he’s watching soaps or playing Gameboy. He always looks haggard and unshaven. He never wears a lab coat. He is, without a doubt, the most verbally abusive, abrasive, arrogant and irritating person I’ve ever seen portrayed in drama. Even House’s one consistent friend, Oncologist James Wilson, must suffer through a mile of abuse to find an ounce of friendship.
If there were a cynicism and insult meter, this program would easily be the most sarcastic, cynical program on television. House himself is constant barrage of bitter, sarcastic wit. His co-workers have little choice but to answer- and work- in the same terms. House won’t even turn it off for strangers or patients. Add to this the fact that for most of the hour, the doctors are openly guessing what the disease-of-the-week might be in something not unlike a parlor game of “20 Questions.” Yes, they conduct tests and use the most technologically sophisticated diagnostic techniques and they are all very bright, but in almost every show you will hear some version of “We have no idea what this is,” and “Let’s try this and see if it kills them.”
Plus, the doctors make mistakes. Lots of them, and often resulting in terrible complications. The patient may not know the doctors are clueless because House’s staff can play the game, including lying outright to patients. The viewer knows, however, and may never look at doctors the same way again. Indiana Jones once said, in response to the query of what he was going to do next, “I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along.” If you don’t want to see doctors living this creed, don’t watch.
Dr. House isn’t a one-dimensional ogre, however. He has relationships, a history and an inner life. Already, we know he has an ex-wife, an ex-lover (now his supervisor at the hospital) and the romantic interest of one of his young female associates. Why would anyone ever love such a character? It’s a marvelous question. Why is grace, grace? House deserves no friends or lovers, because he gives them all nothing except his bitterness, sarcasm or silence. The fact that House needs to be loved, and is a walking advertisement for what humanity without love can become seems to be part of the answer. House would have fit in well on the 70’s show “M.A.S.H.” or in Joseph Heller’s “Catch -22.” Cynical and sarcastic, but in the end, you realize these characters had to cope with themselves and their fears, with the war, its hypocrisies and its losses. Their twisted adaptations weren’t their ultimate human face, but it was the one that came to dominate in the day to day.
When young, idealistic Dr. Cameron declares her feelings for House, and resigns from his staff at the same time, he is speechless. Not flabberghasted, but simply silent because he cannot accept and respond to such undeserved affection. He is silent in shame. An expert in science, in the realm of love he is incompetent. He obviously has strong feelings for her as well, but he has no idea what to do with them, so he is utterly silent. She begs for some recognition of the feelings she knows are there, but he cannot speak a word. Utterly unable to respond at all to the love that he does not deserve. Sound familiar?
In the end, Dr. House whose life is a contradiction: a brilliant man, an emotional incompetent, and a doctor who will do anything to save his patient. In a recent story line, House runs off a $100 million dollar investor in the hospital by his refusal to conform to the “business model” of health care. He despises all else in the “health care industry” except what can be done for the suffering of patients. It is plain that House derives little pleasure from money, possessions or success, but finds his only meaning in defeating the diseases that take away life. He is, in his way, monastic and saintly, while at the same time, being ugly and revoltingly cruel.
House has occasionally commented on both religion and atheism, insulting both equally. If I were to guess, I would say that Dr. House is in a battle with the capricious God of Deism, that power that set up nature as mindless, efficient, dangerous and impersonal.God plays no sides and does not intervene. House is famously cruel to the superstitous. He has no respect for those who attempt to make such a God worthy of worship, but he also cannot give the nod to the arrogance that says there is no God behind the intricacy of physiology, biology and life itself. Instead of blaming God, looking for God or worshiping God, he works with what is in front of him: his pain, and his patient’s problems. Like the existentialist who must create meaning in a universe where there seems to be none, so House is creating the meaning that “God” or ‘”the universe” seem to have denied him and his patients. The dark humor of the doctors’ conversations are often the filler for intelligent, questioning people who can’t allow themselves to be persuaded there is a God who balances the books in the end.
What is there for a Christian to like about House, M.D.? For me there has been plenty. Here’s a quick summary.
House presents, for once, an unafraid portrayal of our depravity in terms that most of us can relate to: the stony refusal of offered love, the seeming logic of the idolatry of addiction and the petty, useless cruelties to those around us who love, need, and must work with us.. House isn’t the usual prodigal son in the far country doing “bad things.” He’s a jerk. He’s just like me apart from God. Empty of grace, love and gratitude, so addiction is easy. Ashamed, petty, hurtful and selfish. No spectacular evil acts. Just a brilliant man living a miserable life that mixes healing and hurtfulness. You look, you listen, and you ask yourself “Is this what I am like?” Oh yes. Apart from grace, House of a picture of what we can turn into. He’s so close to many of us that it’s uncomfortable. Sure, he’s exaggerated, but not by much.
House clearly shows that we are a mixture of God’s glorious creation intentions and the bitter results of the fall. House is brilliant. His mind can unravel mysteries and see connections that few can comprehend. His brilliance is like Adam, God’s intended master of creation. You can see the mind that named and ruled all that God had made in this man. At the same time, here is a man who cannot find simple kindness. A wounded man, limping physically and in every other way. God’s glorious intention, brought down and turned inward. The previous glory still resides, but the man before you is a brute. Ugly. Cruel and unhappy.
House models our typical response to the grace of God and others. House is loved. And he is silent. He is not transformed by this love. He fights it, and keeps it at a distance. He knows he needs such love like he needs air. He knows that he is sick and needs a cure that comes in the form of love, but he cannot simply take the gift. Such is our situation. We are unlovable, loved, but silent and ashamed.
House draws us to the redemptive nature of compassion as an echo of Jesus. Jesus was a compassionate healer. They brought to him all the diseased and the cases no one else could cure. One woman had spent all her money of physicians and yet was still cursed with perpetual bleeding. House would love that case. In healing, Jesus communicated God’s love and power to move through and beyond the wreckage of the fall and bring redemption. Gregory House would hardly be called compassionate, but he knows the power of compassion. He understands that all healing is grace, and in some sense, a God-like action. Mere mortals cannot truly heal without knowledge and power greater than their own resources. It may be portrayed as luck, science or determination, but a Christian watching it all sees Jesus in the midst of all that human wreckage, doing what he has always done. Unrecognized, yet essential to every cure. Even Dr. House finds that, at the end of his rope, it is his compassion for his patients that saves him. He is, like Henri Nouwen suggested, the “wounded healer” who has the key to true compassion in his own suffering.
House reminds me of the frequent futility and emptiness of those the world calls “wise” and “successful.” The disciples were surprised when Jesus didn’t announce that a rich man was automatically in heaven. Why should the smart people need to be “born again” to see the Kingdom? What did Paul mean when he said that the wisdom of this world was foolishness to God? In every episode, House shows those with the resources for success and happiness living lives of desperation and futility, looking to medicine as a kind of salvation. Because they must constantly live with the truth of physical conditions, the doctors often have little insight into the truths of their own lives. If they did, they would see what the viewers can see: unhappiness, emptiness, vanity. “Thou hast made us for thyself, and we are restless till we find our rest in thee.”
What is striking to me is how these doctor’s who reject the ultimate meaning of the Christian faith fight so hard to create meaning through their battle with death and disease. This stands in contrast to many Christians, who loudly advertise that they know the meaning to life, yet how much is the average Christian or Christian community fighting evil, suffering, injustice and death? Do today’s culture war Christians interpret their politics as the extent of their compassion? How is it that these unbelievers, out of their emptiness, bring a dignity and determination to their work that Christian believers so often cannot muster in the face of a world Jesus died to save and loved with his tenatious compassion? Where is the source of our compassion? Have we looked at the ministry of Jesus as a model for compassionate involvement in the sufferings of others, or do we simply offer a way to heaven and the promise of “your best life now?”
House is the kind of art Christians ought to be producing. It’s been frequently pointed out that Christian publishers, who claim to represent the church’s interest in good art, are so straight-jacketed in their presentation of the human story that anyone knowing how people REALLY talked and REALLY act could never be published by a major evangelical publisher. This doesn’t just extend to saying “golly gee darn, Bob,” but to the portrayal of realistic characters. House is a show where, as best I can tell, the world operates very much as the Bible says it will in the aftermath of the fall. Instead of making grand conspiratorial villains or tales of spiritual warfare, House presents unhappy, fallen, wrecked people fighting to do something that matters in a world that is dying. Most evangelical Christians would be out of place in this world.
God is in this story, but I wonder where? Why can’t Christians create the story where we see the whole truth: bad, worse, good and true?
Yet this is, of all the things I’ve watched on television, the most like the world in which I live, and the most like what I have come to know about myself. It is the most like the world Jesus lived in and died for. Gregory House could easily be the cynical tax collector or the unseeing Nicodemus. He would recognize the people Jesus was drawn toward. He would certainly understand those times when Jesus wept and raised the dead. To speak of God in this world isn’t easy. The mere “Godlessness’ of the world is profound. We get along without God, but our empty lives bear the mark of something deeply necessary that is absent.
I hope more Christians can show the story of Jesus and the Gospel in a world this real. Art has many purposes. One of them is to assure us that the world, as we experience it, is indeed the world of the fall and redemption that the Bible describes. In the wreckage and the ruin, there is the truth, and the beginnings of the story of redemption.