Archive for December, 2004

Ask the Sinister Minister Part I: The Question

So I got this letter from a reader the other day. I’m posting it here, edited for space reasons, with his permission.

Mr. Broaddus,

You offered the chance to ask you a question on your website, so I’m taking you up on the offer. I’m in a quandary and you may have been through the same thing I have. The following is a private post I slapped on my blog:

“A bit of a background on this: I’m from a religious family (obviously) and my father holds five degrees (including a PhD) in biblical stuff. The PhD is from Dallas Theological Seminary and he currently teaches at Oregon Theological Seminary even though he lives in Colorado. My brother, who was a graphic artist in Cambridge, decided to move his family cross country to “follow the will of God” and start over in the basement of my parents’ house, attend Seminary and work in a nursing home. I guess it’s something he’s always wanted to do (he went to Norway on a missions trip when he was 15), but drawing advertisements paid the bills. Whatever works for him, I

guess.

“Now the black sheep here has never had a desire to do anything related to the missions business or the church. I have my own beliefs and I tend to keep them to myself. I think I’m more of a student of theology than they are in some respects because I’m willing to look around, open my eyes and see just what all these other religions, sects or teachings have to say. I don’t look down on anyone for their beliefs or their non-beliefs, and in return, I’d hope that no one would look down on me for my beliefs (or, for that matter, what I do for a living). Someone said it best once that religion and spirituality are two totally different things. Indeed.

“So, the consistent internal battle with the attitude of my parents and brother toward my writing genre is getting under my nerves a little more than usual. I could blame it on the season, but they’ve been this way for years. Never once have I heard any praise for selling a story, finishing a novel or whatever. If I sold a book for six-figures they’d probably wonder when I’m going to church. On the flip-side, if I followed my brother and became a missionary to Uganda and plummeted my family into poverty and lived on the edge of starvation, then they’d rejoice and all that stuff.”

Anyway, a friend asked me the other day if you could really be a

church-going Christian and a horror writer at the same time. Have you ever battled this type of dissent within your own family or church? If so, how do you deal with it?

I’ll post my response tomorrow.

2005 Goals and Resolutions

I, too, prefer to set goals rather than make resolutions. Resolutions are cheap promises that I’m prone to breaking at my earliest convenience. Goals are something to work toward.

For 2004, my goals were to write ten new short stories, get published in an anthology, get three new publishing credits, finish my second novel, and get a book deal with an agent or publisher. How did I do? I wrote eight new stories (Mysterium Tremendum, Nurse’s Requiem, Black Frontiers, A Dog’s Day, Dead Love, Managed Anger, Secret Garden, and Night of the Living Baseheads). I was published in three anthologies (Hollywood Jesus Reviews, Crossings, and Small Bites), which, along with Night of the Living Baseheads, made for five new publishing credits (not including my reviews on the Hollywood Jesus web site, www.HollywoodJesus.com). I finished my second novel, Pantheon of Dreams, and am in the final third of my third novel, Caught Up!. But, no book deal. Came close a few times, but no.

For 2005, I’m trying to up the ante a bit, push myself a little more. I still aim to finish ten new short stories (I already have six in mind). I want to do second drafts on Pantheon of Dreams and Caught Up!. I have two non-fiction books that I have to draft (Stepping on Toes, a dating book, and an untitled project on spirituality, culture, and television). There are two horror novels I have rattling around in my head, so I want to draft one of those and research/outline the second. I’m aiming for five new publishing credits. Most importantly, I’m going to find an agent and a publisher for my first novel, Strange Fruit.

However, I am solemnly making a resolution to exercise more and lose 25 lbs. It’s a bit easier to stick to those goals since 1) I’m the cook in the family, thus what I eat, they eat; and 2) convention season is right around the corner and I’m just vain enough to need to look good for the World Horror Convention.

Because I Said So

So I realized the other day that I have officially become my parents. [Okay, I have come to this realization on a regular basis since I have had kids, thus also concluding that maybe my parents weren’t the total whack jobs that I had often believed them to be, but that’s beside the point.] Anyway, this day’s realization came when the words “because I said so” came flying out of my pie hole.

Because. I. Said. So.

I’ve heard many people object to this circular bit of reasoning, usually teenagers or teenagers masquerading as adults, but I listened to their objections and it got me to thinking. My conclusion? I still don’t owe my kids an explanation. My kid, I make the rules. Don’t get me wrong, even at the tender ages of 2 and 3, I often explain why I want them to do what I have asked. I like to maintain that channel of communication. However, there is that whole possibility that even if I did explain things, it’s no guarantee that they would like or accept my reasons.

I think it boils down to respect. We’ve lost our respect for the office of parent. We have authorities in our lives. God, government, employers, parents. God doesn’t owe me an explanation for why He does things. The government doesn’t owe me an explanation. My boss doesn’t owe me an explanation. And my parents don’t owe me an explanation. But we want them. We love to question authority. That’s fine, that’s good, that whole “not blindly accepting everything” thing. Partly it’s because we’ve lost our respect, our trust, of authority. Somewhere along the line, those in authority have (or we’ve felt like they have) broken that unspoken agreement of doing things in our best interest. Partly its our rebellious nature, that self-important, exaggerated sense that we are owed a hearing, that anarchist streak that is often little more than adolescent petulance.

Let’s face it, “because I said so” is often parental short cut (often read: laziness). It’s has the tacit implication of the facts that “I’ve kept you alive thus far”, “you may have to trust that I know what’s best for you”, “I’m motivated by love and your best interests”, and you may have to allow for the possibility that “I may just know more than you.” And don’t get me wrong, authority doesn’t like to be questioned. We don’t like “because I said so” but often our objections amount to “because I don’t want to.”

One of my first “daddy” moments came when I was explaining to my children (granted it was when my oldest wasn’t quite six months old) that I’m not their friend and that they were not always going to like me. Sure, I’d like us to be close, even friendly. But I explained to him that “a friend’s not going to change your stinky-ass diapers and clean up your vomit. Plus, really, you don’t want me to be your friend. You want me to be a parent, issues rules with punishments, and set boundaries.”

And sometimes that means that they’ll have to be satisfied with “because I said so.”

Deadwood (Season One)

Law and Disorder

Have you ever wondered why we seem to have so many television shows revolving around law enforcement? Look at some of our top shows: CSI (Las Vegas, Miami, New York), Law & Order (the original, Crime and Punishment, Trial by Jury, Criminal Intent, Special Victims Unit), The Shield, The Wire, NYPD Blue, the list goes on and on. One reason is the seemingly endless supply of stories that come or can be spun from the lives and encounters of police officers. Another reason betrays our fascination with law and how it works.

Both reasons haunt David Milch. He went from story editor to Executive Producer of Hill Street Blues; was the co-creator of NYPD Blue; created the short-lived series Brooklyn South and Big Apple; and now finds himself on the opposite side of the law with Deadwood. Don’t get me wrong, Deadwood continues Milch’s fascination with looking at the nature of law and law enforcement, he just does it from a new perspective. The theme that he focuses the show around is “‘how does society organize itself in the absence of law?’”

Based on actual evens in the Sioux Indian land of Deadwood, South Dakota during the 1870s, just after Custer’s ill-fated stand at Little Big Horn and as gold is discovered in the Black Hills. The former camp of Deadwood becomes a boomtown. Those people who grew up on a diet of 1950s and 60s era westerns will be shocked by this show. David Milch said that he thinks of the show as a “story as set in the West rather than a Western.” And the casual viewer will be assaulted by some harsh language. Often. We’re talking Good Will Hunting plus Menace II Society levels of profanity. Horror writer Gary Braunbeck calls profanity “violence without action” and never is that more true than on Deadwood. David Milch spent months (some reports say well over a year) doing research for the show, including the level of foul language. Apparently people who visited Deadwood left stunned by how they spoke.

Real life figures such as Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) enter the story however, the real action centers around two other characters. Former law man trying to start his own business, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and corrupt, murderous, scene stealing, saloon owning pimp Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Think of Al as the Kingpin (from the Daredevil movie) or Falstaff (from Shakespeare’s Henry IV) or Tony Soprano (from The Sopranos) of the old west. Hypnotic, charismatic, and brutal, he disposes of the bodies of his victims via hungry pigs. A patron of his said it best, “I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you, but I enjoy the way you lie.” Their stories are set to a backdrop of rampant sex, alcoholism, drug use (laudanum–pure opium in alcohol–being the drug of choice for ladies), greed, racism/fear (because of the omnipresent Indian threat).

All in a state of lawlessness.

The nature of the literal lawlessness of Deadwood came to light during the “trial” of Cock-Eyed Jack McCall after he shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back. It occurred to several prominent citizens, chief among them Al, that no one could appeal to the law in order to settle on a verdict. To do so would invite the Federal government looking at them, annexing them as a state, which they weren’t at the time, and possibly seizing property. So instead, the judge ordered the jurors to deliberate according to common custom, in this case, would it have been common custom to do a revenge killing.

But we don’t live in a state of lawlessness.

C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, makes an argument for a Law of Human Nature, those laws of right and wrong written onto men’s hearts. After all, ethical disputes presuppose some common standard of human decency. But as we look around at the people around us, we’re disturbed by how men actually behave versus how they ought to behave. Something in us tells us that there is a standard of behavior that we ought to adhere or at least aspire to. Ad if there is some kind of code written into each of us, there has to be an Author of that code.

HBO continues its trend of highlighting our fascination with the brooding criminal side of humanity–The Sopranos, The Wire, Oz–perhaps forcing us to face the ugly truth about our natures. Yet, in the sewers of mankind’s heart, without the civilized dress that we like to put on to deceive ourselves about who and what we are, it’s easiest to find God. The seeming absence of Law in Deadwood still points to a Lawgiver. The preacher on the show, at Wild Bill Hickok’s funeral, summed it up this way: “I believe in God’s purposes, not knowing it. I ask Him, moving in Him, to see His will. I ask Him, moving in others, to allow them to see.”

This is a moody, brilliant show, a gritty look at the old west, that is defined by the depth of its characters.

Lost

Once again, Wednesday night is one of the best television nights of the week, with several great shows going head to head. The latest hit is the show Lost from creator J.J. Abrams, who also created the shows Felicity and Alias, and who’s due to helm Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3. The premise of Lost: a plane crashes on an island, stranding 48 survivors. Oh, and there’s a mysterious creature running around terrorizing them. Gilligan’s Island this ain’t. Survivor the scripted show, this ain’t.

There are several things that characterize J.J. Abrams writing. He has a love op pop culture, but doesn’t mistake pop culture references for good writing (very few shows can mix pop references naturally into the rhythm of the show and still produce interesting characters and dialogue and not give into in-joke winking at the audience. An example of the former would be Gilmore Girls; the latter, the movie Shark Tale). He loves witty, romantic banter. He loves strong women. He loves thrillers with constant twists and surprises, and he’s not afraid to veer into science fiction territory, which means he writes above the expectations of the audience, never condescending to them.

No matter how intriguing the premise, if you don’t care about the characters, no one’s going to watch. Abrams focuses on just three folks, making us care about them while whetting our appetite to learn about the others. Based on his previous shows, I expect a love triangle of some sort to develop before too long. The other thing to expect is that no one is as they seem. Jack (Matthew Fox), the doctor, helps the injured and maintains order and civility. Kate (Evangeline Lilly) was a prisoner being transported on the flight. There is a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard; a junkie, British rock ‘n roll bassist (The Lord of the Rings‘ Dominic Monaghan); a black father (Harold Perrinneau, from Oz) and his young son; and a squabbling, supposedly adult, brother and sister among the cast of characters. As a testament to how well the characters are developed, there is an Asian couple who don’t speak English. Yet, despite the language barrier, we know that he is a domineering husband (who at one point orders her to button the top button of her blouse when she is talking to a man) and that she is submissive, but yearns for more (as she unbuttons that same button when he turns his back). Identity and motives all come into question as Abrams layers intrigue with the jockeying of alliances and constant deception.

The whole concept of man on an island reminds us of who we truly are. “Three days ago we all died. We should all be able to start over,” Jack says. Who they were before the crash was their old nature. This time on the island represents their chance at redemption — if they want it. When stripped of the conventions of society, without the veneer of civilization, are we the cast of Lord of the Flies waiting to happen or can we rise above our basic nature? Terry O’Quinn’s character, when talking about backgammon, explains, “there are two players: one is light and one is dark,” echoing the sentiment that there are ultimately two sides, good and evil. The mysterious creature on the island reminds me of the Bible passage “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8).

If you like popcorn thrillers with an air of wit and intelligence, this show is easily one of the best new shows of the year.

Angel: the Search for Redemption


Changing one’s life around is not easy.
To take stock of yourself — who you are and where you’ve been — to see your life for what it is and then do a complete 180 degree turn is a challenge not many are willing to undertake. This show follows the journey of a “man” (and by man, I mean 200-year-old vampire with a soul) who seeks to answer the question: can you ever do enough good to balance the scales for all the evil you’ve done in your past? Have you ever done things so wrong that you are beyond the hope of redemption? When you’ve wasted, or rather, misused your life, what can you do to win it back?

Click to enlargeAngel, the spin off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no longer struggles with its own identity. Though I feared for that identity when Spike (played by James Marsters, who doesn’t get enough credit for his acting) brought his act over from Buffy and joined the cast as a regular, the show has successfully created its own universe with its own mythology. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the television equivalent of Wonder Woman and the celebration of girl power, then Angel is Batman, with a brooding dark knight who helps the helpless rather than preying on them. The triumph of the antihero. While the show had found its perfect stride in season three, in this its fifth and final season, it has shifted and become, in a lot of ways, a different show. When it recently celebrated episode 100, I thought a backward look over the seasons was justified.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly is a self-professed atheist, and yet he can’t help but explore spiritual themes in all of his works. Partly this is because horror lends itself to the spiritual. It almost forces the hand of both the writer and the reader to deal with spiritual matters: life after death, matters of the soul, the unseen world of angels and demons, the possibility of heaven and of hell, and the concept of God.

Click to enlargeThe basic premise of the show is that according to prophecies, a vampire with a soul was destined to become a champion, to play a vital role in the coming apocalypse. You could say that he was one of the elect, one of the chosen, called for a new path, a new way of living. As in all cases of those that are chosen, he was chosen for a purpose: to partner with The Powers That Be, to be their vessel to save the world. He has to walk the path of the champion, the hero, which requires him to be selfless and to sacrifice. In other words, his life is no longer his own. And the character Angel (David Boreanz) does all this, primarily because it is the right thing to do. He, unlike the rest of his vampiric ilk has a soul and thus has moral obligations. (The only other exception is Spike, a vampire created by Angel and a former protege, but he fought to reclaim his soul rather than have one thrust upon him as a curse. Too long a story to cover here.) Angel is also motivated by a promise, a hope, a reward: finite life. He gets a regenerated body to live the finite life of a renewed man.

I hope you noted the inversion: being a vampire, Angel had already possessed eternal life.

Click to enlargeI know that I’m going to upset some people (those who hate horror and those who are vampire purists), but if you look at the book Dracula, which popularized the legend of vampires, you will see that it is deliberately steeped in Christian ideology. It was as if Bram Stoker, the author, set out to create a villain that was, in essence, the ultimate anti-Christ. To give just a few examples: Dracula had his “John the Baptist” forerunner, the madman Renfield; it is through the power of blood that one has eternal life; and, in order to become like him, one must die and three days later, rise. And look at some of the things that stop him: the cross, the sun’s light, and holy water. Which is why you see a lot of modern-day writers of vampire lore go out of their way to distance themselves from its Christian trappings.

Click to enlargeIn his past, Angel went by another name: Angelus. That was the name he used when he had only a demon inside him, before he had a soul. As Angelus, he was a legend of terror, wreaking new acts of horror, inflicting pain in grandiose and creative ways, until he was “cursed” with a soul and became “Angel,” who had to face and to live with the evil that he had done. As Angel, he has fought the good fight — first alongside Buffy, then on his own — principally against the law firm Wolfram & Hart, whose senior partners are powerful elder demons.

The entire cast deals with issues of loss and proving their self-worth. All of them are trying to make up for the past while not slipping from the path they have chosen. Difficult, when they find themselves running the company they have been fighting against for four seasons.

Click to enlargeIn episode 100, we saw the return of
Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), one of the members of “Team Angel,” who had fallen during last season. Her role on the show was often that of the conscience of the group in general, and as a mirror specifically for Angel. She was one of his all-too-few ties to humanity and often had to remind him that his actions affected others. She showed him the good parts of himself, counterbalancing the brooding self-loathing and self-flagellation that he was so often caught up in.

Click to enlargeOne of the subplots of this season was that Angel was on the verge of giving up. Plagued by doubts about his purpose, his mission, and his methods; doubts about the prophecy and his role in things to come; doubts about his reward — he was at a spiritual low, wondering if he had in fact become complacent and enamored with the trappings provided by Wolfram & Hart. Whereas once he had battled them and all that they stood for, this season found him and his team in charge of the law firm that represented only evil (as in, demonic) clients. And the hypocrisy of using evil to thwart evil had been slowly eating at him because, as he puts it, “evil wins, ‘cause instead of just wiping it out, we negotiate with it. Or worse, for it.”

This was the second time he has made this mistake in the course of the series. The first was in season two, when he decided that in order to battle Wolfram & Hart, he had to descend to their level and methods. In that case, he chose to be evil himself, he couldn’t blame it on a reversion to Angelus. Along the way, he alienated his friends, the Powers That Be, and himself. This time his choices were a series of moral compromises, starting very small at first, as he deluded himself that he could remain good while using the tools and profits of evil.

Enter Cordelia.

One of the sacrifices that heroes, especially anti-heroes, often make is that of a personal life. Angel’s personal life is a series of missed moments. The love of his life had been Buffy, with whom he could not have a moment of perfect happiness for fear of reverting to Angelus (long story). Then there was Cordelia, who was taken by The Powers That Be the night the two were going to confess their mutual love for each other. She had been in a coma from the end of last season (another long story), and was back because The Powers That Be owed her a favor that she was calling in. She arrived in time to thwart the plan of Lindsey, the villain for the episode and former golden-boy lawyer for the firm Angel now ran. Lindsey’s grand plan revolved around making Angel doubt himself. He even mocked him by saying “There’s always time for redemption. Isn’t that your whole thing?” Cordelia’s job was to get her guy back on track, back on the road to redemption. “You know how you’re always trying to save, oh, every single person in the world? Did it ever occur to you, you were one of them?” Cordelia asked.

Redemption is what we all hope for. It is difficult to do a show that has as its heart the theme of redemption without slipping into moralizing or treacly simple-minded pabulum. In the real world, stories aren’t often clearly black and white with well-defined heroes and villains. High themes indeed, but the show works.

Plus it has lots of monsters and kung fu fighting. What more can you ask?

All in all, while not its best season (again, that would be season three which just came out on DVD), this season of Angel has been a very good one: lighter in tone than most of the series, but still marked by all the things that has made it great: great writing with wit and humor, great direction and well-rounded characters. This episode, characteristic of the best episodes of the show, had a way of making you laugh one minute, scaring you the next, thrilling you the next, then pulling your heart strings. And while I am saddened at its abrupt cancellation, I know that the series will have quite the second life on DVD.


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Saw

“How can you walk through life pretending that you’re happy?” That is the question that apparently only a serial killer can help you answer. Such is the premise of the movie Saw. Saw is either a cynical look at a moral(less) universe or a cynical look at a moral(less) God. The movie sets itself up as Seven meets Phone Booth, being about judgment, atonement, and redemption.

Click to enlarge The Jigsaw Killer, as the serial killer is known, sets himself up as God in this universe, and people are expected to play by his rules. He is the ultimate judge. The motivation given to the serial killer is that he is dying, which has given him a unique perspective and appreciation for life. The ultimate sin, in his universe, is to squander the gift of your life. He goes about, sitting in judgment of others, until he finds subjects guilty of wasting their lives. He then puts them in elaborate scenarios, forcing them to reflect on their lives and the gift they’ve been given, and then he makes them pay for their sin. The one victim to have escaped goes as far as to say “He helped me.”

Click to enlargeThe atonement takes the form of the victim being punished for his sin by, in one way or another, mirroring that sin. Free will is reduced to two choices, a series of either-ors: do something horrible to someone else or let something horrible happen to you. There is no morally good option (unless you count self-mutilation) only the lesser of two evils. I won’t be more specific with the choices –believe me, you don’t want to hear their grisly choices– other than to say that Dr. Gordon has to do something drastic or else his wife and child will be killed. And that the movie is titled Saw for a reason. If you don’t play by the “rules,” you are punished, then forced back into the game. In this mad display of twisted morality, the victims have to make atonement -to cover over, often with the blood of a sacrifice- their sin. The sin, or role to play in order to escape, isn’t as clear for Adam (the other man in the scenario), though he seems to be guilty of smoking.

“How did I get here? I had everything in perfect order,” Dr. Gordon says, echoing the sentiment we have when we find ourselves at the end of our downward spiral into sin. His series of compromises started with innocent flirtation and ended with him in a seedy hotel with a woman other than his wife. In a lot of ways, the movie both wants to be the movie Seven but also throw you off by not being the movie Seven. The Jigsaw killer seems to be preaching a message of being grateful for the life that you have, and his schemes play out like an extreme version of scared straight. Only in the realization of gratitude does one find redemption.

Click to enlargeThe movie doesn’t quite work. First off, you don’t really come to care about the characters; in fact, the more they try to characterize them, the less you like them. Second, the movie suffers from what I call “the curse of the red herring,” by which I mean that it doesn’t play fair. There are point-of-view tricks (who’s doing the watching?) that make for holes in logic. The director’s decision to employ speeded up and shaken camera sequences distracted rather than added to the atmosphere, and especially didn’t work during the climax. And because we live in the age of the trick ending, writers and directors go for ever more implausible endings in order to attain the twist. The movie is a series of narrative tricks –over plot and characterization– that leaves you feeling toyed with and cheated.

Like a flawed version of Seven, this movie is an examination of using immoral means to a moral end. Those drawn in by the advertising poster may be a little disappointed, but it does have some effectively creepy moments to it.

The West Wing

I have been watching the reruns of The West Wing on Bravo, as a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. With his dismissal at the end of last season, I was particularly interested in how the tenor of the show might change without his singular voice (every script passed through his hands during his tenure. The slow down in production and delays because of late scripts were some of the reasons for his dismissal). I had gotten used to well-acted smart characters spouting witty dialogue often reminiscent of the banter from 1930s screwball comedies.

The show taps into the Democratic ideal of a president: folksy, idealistic, honest, progressive, strong economic sense, a little hawkish though violence is a last resort, all while being charming. And, like any good politician, the show is aware of its audience and plays to the middle. And, in President Barlett, Sorkin presents an authentic Catholic Christianity that sets him apart not only from his circle, but from most characters on television. Rarely is a character’s religion explored (The Simpsons being one of the few TV families to regularly attend church and explore religion). This is a character who tests Chinese immigrants fleeing because of religious persecution using the shibboleth passage from the Book of Judges.

The show stumbled out the gate, wrapping up Aaron Sorkin’s last story, though leaving the main characters sitting on the sidelines with nothing to say and pretty much watching everything unfold, out of their hands, over a two episode arc. After that, the show has started to pick up again as the new stable of writers find their voice and direction.

Spiritual Connections:

I have always been curious about how people respond when bad things happen. When people try to disprove the idea of God, they often begin with the argument 1) if God is good, 2) if God is all-powerful, 3) why does evil exist. The “solution” to this problem seems to be the stumbling block for many a person’s faith. Katey Sagal’s character on the show 8 Simple Rules, in dealing with the sudden death of John Ritter’s character, explains that she is no longer on speaking terms with God because of it all the while wondering “why did this happen?”

Back to The West Wing. In the last episode of the second season, titled “Two Cathedrals”, President Bartlet is still reeling from the sudden and pointless death of his longtime friend and confident, Mrs. Landingham. Alone in a cathedral, he rails at God. He opens his monologue with “Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?” Here is a man understandably (and believably) angry with God, recalling the imprecatory Psalms. The show, as do most of the characters, often delights in being the smartest person in the room, so the president continues his tirade in Latin. I pulled this translation from the West Wing UnOfficial Continuity Guide website:

“The first line is just a sarcastic, “Thanks a lot, buddy!”

gratias tibi ago, domine.
Thank you, Lord.
haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito?
Am I to believe these things from a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?
cruciatus in crucem
To hell with your punishments! (literally “(put/send) punishments onto a cross”)
tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci.
I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.
cruciatus in crucem — (with a dismissive wave of the hand) eas in crucem
To hell with your punishments!
And to hell with you! (literally, “may you go to a cross”)”

Is his stance heretical? This does seem to come straight out of the “curse God and die” philosophy of dealing with things. But I think this points to something deeper: our feelings are real and they are ours. They cannot be glossed over with platitudes, even biblical platitudes such as “God has a plan.” President Bartlet, as presented, is a man who can dress down a conservative radio talk show psychologist on her haphazard takes on Old Testament laws. He can wax eloquently about the true context and application of a homily from Ephesians (“be subject to one another”). He can take the church to task for not decrying the acts of those who bomb abortion clinics in the name of life and the Lord.

One of the most recent (post-Sorkin) episodes, titled “Disaster Relief”, deals with the president visiting a small Oklahoma town devastated by a tornado. The episode, a stand out for the season, features this line from a Red Cross volunteer to President Bartlet: “I’m sorry. I lost four kids on my route yesterday. At first, you’re just glad it’s not your kids. But you gotta wonder, what kind of God would do such a terrible thing? We go to church every Sunday. We try to do the right thing. What kind of plan could this possibly be?”

This question has been asked over and over again and will continue to be asked, by us, by the church, and by the culture. People look to the church to have an answer or at least defend God from the charges of neglect. Does the question deserve an answer? Or is this a case of who are we to ask the question? Or are we afraid of the mystery that God’s silence on the question presents?

Third Watch

I had often thought that Third Watch had been a show in search of an identity. It just seemed that way because every season John Wells, in his desperate bids to save the show, tinkered with it to the point of recreating it. The premise of the show was to examine the life of those often-unsung heroes: the patrol cops, paramedics, and fire fighters, the people who do the actual work between the homicide cop shows like NYPD Blue and the hospital shows like ER. In season one, as often is the case, the characters were likable, but bland. “Bland” may seem harsh, but the show seemed populated with uninteresting, or at least ill-defined, characters. In season two we saw more soap opera-esque elements as it became the paramedic/fire fighter/patrol cop version of ER. By season three, it decided to try and distinguish itself from the borders of TV land by more creative storytelling: using dramatic voice overs of that episode’s featured character, symbolic imagery, solid character development — less of the outright soap opera. That’s when the show started to gel and really grow on me. By season four, they stumbled on a ratings formula: insert more action shoot-outs, explosions, and major characters dying. They seemed to be pursuing a course that eschewed small-character driven episodes in lieu of the big bang.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the bang.

This season it has flourished on Friday nights in what was heretofore the “NBC, 10 p.m. cop show death slot” (see Homicide: Life on the Streets). This is especially ironic considering that it is replacing the much better, and recently canceled cop show, Boomtown). The show alternates between a return to its more character-driven roots and the occasional bout of bombast, which threatened to overpower anything approaching character development, but the writing remains strong.

Third Watch, in typical John Wells tradition, is a good show. ER is a good show. The West Wing, under his sole direction, is a good show (but not the “art” that it often came close to being under the brilliant, if erratic, voice of Aaron Sorkin). It has shifted its focus mostly to the cops, occasionally the paramedics, with the fire fighters, at best, making guest appearances. But meanwhile, the show has become a solid, second-tier cop show, not great like The Shield or Boomtown, but easily as good as any Law & Order.

Third Watch aired episode 100, “A Call for Help,”on Friday, January 9. It was a stand-alone episode, and if you watch closely, you sense the effort of straining for an Emmy nomination. This episode was reminiscent of the late, great, much-lamented Homicide: Life on the Streets. It was stylized, filmed in ten-minute segments (as opposed to the usual one) without cuts, a feat of direction and acting since a screwed-up line would mean filming the whole ten-minute sequence all over from the beginning.

It may be my favorite episode to date.

Spiritual Connections

There are numerous spiritual connections in the show. In season four, after a near-fatal heart attack, Fred Yokas, the husband of police officer Faith Yokas, abruptly discovers Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Suddenly the family had to cope with its anchor doing an about-face and becoming a religious zealot while he struggled to incorporate spirituality into their lives. But since this element of his character has been ignored of late (particularly curious in light of Faith’s struggle to regain the use of her legs after one of the aforementioned “big bang” episodes), there is another recurring theme that I want to examine: the show’s fascination with theodicies.

An Aside About Theodicies

A theodicy, simply put, is man’s attempt to justify God or explain suffering. Commonly, it addresses an issue often called “the problem of evil.” The problem came about in response to our changing view of God. “Consider the goodness and severity of God” Romans 11:22 states, and that thought ruled the day. Then, in the last couple hundred years, the image of God as both good and severe was gradually replaced with a God who is only good. He became a loving father, then a nice, kind father-figure, then just a granter of good gifts . . . a Santa God. There is nothing wrong with seeing God as good, as long as you realize that is not all He is. We have many sides to us, so we can only imagine how complex He is. Anyway, this was a subtle shift that proved inherently problematic, because it didn’t take long for someone to realize “wait a minute: if there is a good, loving God, why does He let bad things happen?”

The basic argument, in its four-pronged form, goes something like this:

a) If God is good, He would destroy evil

b) If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil

c) But evil exists

d) Therefore, there is no God

Obviously Christian apologists got tired of hearing this “ah-ha, what do you have to say about that?” argument all the time, so they developed their counterarguments, usually getting by with weakening each of the propositions. Maybe God is arbitrary or capricious; His definition/standard of good being different from ours. Maybe God can’t destroy evil; He’s limited by our free will. Maybe evil isn’t real, we only perceive things as evil. But there is a God. You’ll note however, God never justifies His actions. The closest He came was in the book of Job, though He never answers Job’s questions and basically tells Job “I’m God, you’re not. Shut up.”

But I digress.

So What Does Third Watch Say?

Third Watch tends to apply a reverse perspective to theodicies, one that I can’t say that I’ve heard anywhere else. Let me give you an example from season one (an example that obviously has stuck with me), from an episode titled “Ohio.” The paramedics are stationed in a hotel garage, during a Clinton-Giuliani debate, discussing their worst cases, religion, and relationships. At one point, I believe it was Bobby turns to Doc and asks “after all the stuff we’ve seen, how can you still believe in God?” Then Doc gives an answer that pushed me over the edge and made me want to give the show a chance: “You’re asking the wrong question. After all the things we’ve seen, how can you still believe in man?”

That’s one way to answer the problem of evil: Holding man accountable for the evil he creates and perpetrates on himself.

This brings me to “A Call for Help.”

A series of little annoyances and incongruities result in the apprehension of a man who, as it turns out, has gruesomely killed his friend. Throat cut, face hacked up, stabbed some fifty odd times — a random and wholly unnecessary act of violence. This left the cops wondering if the arrest was the result of dumb luck, good police work, or the work of a “higher power.”

Sasha: Maybe “someone” wanted him caught . . .
Bosco: You ever ask yourself how “someone” co
uld let something like this happen in the first place?

Sasha: It’s free will. We all have a choice in what we do with our time here. Some of us choose to be cops. Some of us choose to be killers. It’s all up to us. It’s our choice.

Again, the show points to man’s free will being responsible for a lot of the evil that the police, paramedics, fire fighters, and doctors see. There was a similar theodicy on the ABC show 10-8. The concluding voice over of the 1/11/04 episode said the following:

“The thing about the Garden of Eden is that paradise was doomed from the start. Yeah, sure, Eve could’ve said ‘no’ to the serpent. And Adam could’ve said ‘no’ to Eve, but trouble set in before then. Before the knowledge of good and evil. When all-knowing God decided on the sixth day to add humans to the mix, made in His image. At first just one, but God saw Adam was alone and needed someone to help him, knowing the likely outcome of putting more than one of us on the planet. But He took His chances. Why? Who knows? Maybe because He knows that our imperfections and need to help one another are more important than His perfect Eden. Ask me what’s worse: to go solo in paradise without the chance to screw it up or together in a whacked out world to help each other get by. I’ll take the world and take my chances any day of the week.”

A Few Last Words About Theodicies

If you’re anything like me, you’re left wondering “what do we say about the problem of evil?” Well, there are a lot of books written on the subject, so it’s not like I’m going to come up with some great revelation in a couple of paragraphs. But here I go anyway, keeping in mind the lessons learned from Third Watch.

We could argue the philosophy of “the problem of evil”, but in the end, where does that get us? Job had bad things happen to him because he was so righteous. And while the Third Watch argument scores a lot of points by putting the burden on us, it doesn’t address natural evils, such as earthquakes, floods, or tornadoes. There are a few things we just have to learn to live with:

-learn to accept that there is a mystery to creation; a complexity to reality. Some things simply can’t be explained from a human perspective.

-learn to shut up. Arguing philosophy, even if you present good theology, doesn’t help if some tragedy has occurred in a person’s life. Often our advice, whether we intend it or not, is cruel and insensitive. We can’t provide answers because, when all is said and done, we have none to offer. All suffering is not meant to teach us a lesson. The only things that can be said about all suffering are that

1) it is meant to refine our faith;
2) it is to make us more like Christ; and
3) it is to be endured.

-learn to care. Be a part of people’s lives. Be that helping hand. Be that shoulder to lean on. Few things console better than a sympathetic presence, especially by a fellow sufferer.

-learn to trust God in the dark. Again, some things are beyond human explanation and the best we can do is know that God is good and worthy to be trusted.

-and if you absolutely, positively, have to have some example to thwart the “problem of evil” consider this: the presence of evil is not in conflict with the goodness or power of God. Man, if only I could think of an example of when His goodness, His omnipotence, and the reality of evil could be found in one place, yet not be in conflict.

Oh yeah, at the cross of Jesus Christ.

Joan of Arcadia

“Theophanies in a Post-Modern Age”

Even as the opening credits rolled to the Joan Osborne song “What if God was One of Us?”, I was hoping that I would encounter a show that truly dealt with the question. Then again, what would be our reaction if God actually showed up at our doorstep or make it a point to personally encounter us?

Our reaction would probably be a lot like Joan’s. Okay, maybe we wouldn’t immediately think that the incarnation of God was a pervert/stalker. But he continues to “woo” her by appearing not just as an “old guy”, but then as a teenage boy, and then as the cafeteria lady. So naturally, she begins to question her sanity. After all, she’s starting to hear from God. That’s insane. Finding faith is a lot like falling in love, and there is an element of the irrational to both. [Though it should be noted, that when Joan asks her “man of science” brother, Luke, whether or not he believes in God, he remarks that it’s a logical conclusion because he accepts the fact that the universe is governed by laws.]

Being a post-modern teen, in this age of cynicism and snappy comebacks, she lacks the poetry of, for example, a Job. But she does what many would do, asks Him to prove Himself:

Joan: “Let’s see a miracle.”
God: “Okay, how about that?”
Joan: “That’s a tree.”
God: “Let’s see you make one.”

So what does God want? Basically for Joan to follow His directives, in this case, get a job. One reviewer snippily remarked that if you switched to CNN during the commercials, you could see the things God was letting slide in order to give Joan employment advice. That is probably one reason why the father is the chief of police, confronting the evil perpetrated in the world each day. That is probably why the family struggles with Kevin being in a wheelchair, after all, as the Helen laments, God is supposed to be a father: what kind of father wouldn’t fix his children’s problems if he’s capable? It is easy to dismiss this show as family time fluff, but I am fascinated by the questions that it chooses to ask and the answers it gives. Here are some of the lessons learned by Joan about God (in the first episode):

1. “I knew you before you were born.” “I’m omniscient. It comes with the job.”
His response when she asked how He knew so much about her.
2. “I don’t always look the same.” “I am beyond your experience.”
He explains that he doesn’t look or sound like anything she’d recognized, so he had to take a form that she (and by proxy, we) would be comfortable with and could relate to. He goes on to explain that He’s not snippy, she just understands Him as snippy.
3. “I don’t bargain, that would be cruel.”
He confronts her with the fact that she made a list of things that she would do if God allowed her brother to live after his car accident.
4. “It’s not about religion, it’s about fulfilling your nature.”
This was His response when she informed Him that she was not very religious.
5. “Do you notice how I don’t answer the ‘whys’?”
Why do you allow suffering? Why does evil exist?

We also see God as a bit of a master chess player. Joan eventually gets the job. Her employment there leads to the apprehension of one of the evils that her father was hunting. It also pushes her brother back into the world from which he’d withdrawn ever since his accident. All the while, this non-religious teenager starts to see God everywhere and His hand in everything.

I don’t always expect to agree with the theology in the show (of course, I don’t usually look for life-changing theological lessons from network television), but I am pleasantly surprised by how good the show is and how well both the writing and acting are. Most importantly, I enjoy watching a show ask and confront the questions that many people ask when they think about whether or not God exists.

***

Joan of Arcadia: Season Two
“A Season of Doubt”

At the end of the first season of Joan of Arcadia, Joan had been diagnosed with Lyme disease and Joan had come to believe that her conversations with God had all been a matter of “impaired perceptions”. This has led to a rough time, a crisis of faith if you will, as Joan reassesses what it means to believe in God, or if she even does. Her faith is so fundamental to who she is, she probably didn’t know how much, that even her boyfriend, Adam, noticed that something about her was different.

The spiritual struggles aren’t limited to Joan, however. Joan’s mom, Helen, is tentatively reaching out to explore her Catholicism and her faith. She has begun a conversation about Catholicism and God with a (former) nun (Constance Zimmer). This is especially ironic considering that as the season opens, no one in the family seems capable of carrying a conversation with each other. The crux point of one of her struggles is her wrestling with her own theodicy, her justification of God. In her heart, she believes that God is punishing her, thus explaining why He allowed Kevin to be paralyzed and Joan to have to go to “crazy camp”. The family is under-going all many of soul searching due to Andrew Baker–the drunk driver responsible for Joan’s brother’s, Kevin, paralysis–coming back into their lives via a lawsuit against the family. On the one hand, the whole family wrestles with the idea that we are all accountable for our own actions. On the other hand, many of them blame God (or a random, meaningless universe) for what has happened to them.

“She understood me, but now she’s gone. I’m all yours.” The wife of the bookstore owner where Joan works suffers from true mental illness. She’s a symbol of the madness that mankind is prone to when they feel abandoned by God. That is the real mental anguish that Joan suffers from: abandonment by God. St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, called this the “dark night of the soul,” those dark circumstances that God uses to transform people and draw them even nearer to Him.

During this dark night, we feel that God is gone and we’re all alone. We reach the limit of our ability to be in control of things. The familiar spiritual practices that we’d come to depend on, that comforted us, now seem hollow and ineffective. But it is God’s silence that comes with unanswered prayer, that feeling that He has abandoned us, that causes us the greatest pain. Joan’s “dark night of the soul” plays out much like a break up, with all the attendant heartache and depression. God is almost like an ex-boyfriend that she doesn’t want to see anymore.

Joan and her family struggle for answers. People have gotten it into their heads that religious people are supposed to always be happy, after all, they’re supposed to have all of the answers. This happens when you preach a message that proclaims that you have the answers for everything, forgetting that if you have all the answers, what do you need God for? In a lot of ways, we’ve made an idol of answers. We must face the fact that we often learn more looking for answers and not finding it than we do from having an answer handed to us. But that’
s too scary a place to be. Too often we have a fair weather faith, such that when a real crisis arises, it is exposed as empty. Prolonged sadness, prolonged struggle, prolonged questioning has been made to be seen as a lack of faith. Instead, they can serve to grow us.

Asking the questions, struggling with the “why?” and the “what did I do to deserve this?” isn’t bad, but one shouldn’t get trapped in the search for answers, especially where none exist. We need to be willing to live with the questions. There are 288 question marks in the book of Job as Job and his friends wrestle with the issue of “why bad things happen to good people”. God deals with their questions with questions of His own: 78 of the 288 questions are His. Joan of Arcadia knows this. It asks all the right questions and doesn’t answer them. The characters grow by wrestling with the questions not by discovering answers.

As for Joan, nothing seems to be working for her any more. Not her faith, as it was, and not her relationships. She has a Spiritis Virtininus, a “dizzy spirit” that errs in everything. She is trapped in the tyranny of doing things for the sake of simply doing something. Her relationship with Adam sputters along without direction or focus. A friend of hers from “crazy camp”, Judith Montgomery (Sprague Grayden), exerts a bad influence pull in her life. But even her party girl attitude doesn’t fill that gnawing void within her. She’s angry at God because nothing makes sense anymore. Of course, maybe it’s just me, but there’s a certain dark amusement to realizing how little it might bother God for people to keep telling Him that He doesn’t exist.

Crises of faith will either break us and cause us to abandon God or break us down and draw us nearer to Him. They are messy and there are no pat steps on how to get through them. All you can do is hold on to the tether of your faith until things hurt less. But ‘God’ (on the show) honored her unbelief, her struggles, her questions, her doubts. He showed her grace, mercy, and acceptance in the face of her anger. And He loved her while she was broken. By going to Him without pretending, being broken and terrified, she exposed and dealt with her doubts and ended up back in His arms. One of the things that makes this show work is its honest treatment of faithfulness. It constantly teeters on being overwhelmed with its earnestness, but is saved by its sense of humor, being seasoned with an edge of darkness, and its relevance.

***
Barbara Hall, the creator of Joan of Arcadia, wrote a list of guidelines for the writers, which she called “The Ten Commandments of Joan of Arcadia”:

1. God cannot directly intervene.
2. Good and evil exist.
3. God can never identify one religion as being right.
4. The job of every human being is to fulfill his or her true nature.
5. Everyone is allowed to say “no” to God, including Joan.
6. God is not bound by time. This is a human concept.
7. God is not a person and does not possess a human personality.
8. God talks to everyone all the time in different ways.
9. God’s plan is what is good for us, not what is good for him.
10. God’s purpose for talking to Joan, and everyone, is to get her (us) to recognize the interconnectedness of all things – i.e., you cannot hurt a person without hurting yourself; all of your actions have consequences; God can be found in the smallest actions; God expects us to learn and grow from all our experiences. However, the exact nature of God is a mystery, and the mystery can never be solved.