Friday, July 25, 2008

God, Hugh Laurie, and 'House, MD'

A new article has me thinking more about the religious content of my favorite show on television: House, MD on Fox, starring Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House.

I don't like to record it because I don't like to wait for it. My world stops for the start of a new episode.

My affection is against the rules.

I am a theist -- frustrated, searching, liturgically minded, often-doubting, usually more philosophical than theological, yet ultimately a Christian of some sort.

Laurie and his TV character House are both strident, stringent atheists. The actor and the character ridicule all stripes of believers with ease and regularity.

Oddly enough, series creator and executive producer David Shore has twin brothers who are Orthodox rabbis, according to an article in the Spring 2008 edition of Religion in the News (which just arrived in my mailbox today, in late July).

The brother of rabbis creating and guiding a show about an atheist? Maybe that's why I find the religious content of House, MD to be remarkably well-informed and true to the state of religious thought in our time. (I'm not totally ignorant of the subject, either -- hey, I won a Medal of Distinction in the Battleground God game at The Philosopher's Magazine Web site!)

"To ignore issues of faith is to ignore a pretty fundamental part of all people's lives when they're in the hospital, facing death," Shore said in an NPR interview last year. "I'm not saying all people find God, but they certainly do ask those questions."

I'll never forget the episode (can't remember the title or season) in which Dr. Robert Chase, played by Jesse Spencer, spends time talking with a nun who has (what else?) an undiagnosed illness. We learn that Dr. Chase had once been a seminary student, and the way his lingering knowledge of the Christian faith -- and his apparent desire but inability to believe -- are brought to the surface rings true. Kudos to both the acting and the writing.

Here's an example of the program's religious content, from Christine McCarthy McMorris's article "Playing Godless" in Religion in the News:

In "House vs. God" (Season 2), a teenaged faith healer is brought to the hospital, where House sets up a scoreboard for both him and God to win points. Although he discovers that the young healer has contracted a sexually transmitted disease that he is hiding from his father, exposure to the boy's virus seems to (miraculously) shrink the tumor of a cancer patient at the hospital. Although House remains unconvinced ("I fear for the human race. A teenager claims to be the voice of God, and people with advanced degrees are listening,"), by the end of the program the score is even.

But some people have to latch onto the most simplistic, surface-level interpretations, rather than identifying the messiness of life and faith and doubt, and rather than understanding that television programs, like many creative works, are at their best when they jump into ambiguities and uncertainties, following William Shakespeare's genius as explained by John Keats: "I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Uninspired by such an approach would be The Parents Television Council, the leadership of which called Fox "the most anti-religious network" and accused House, MD of "consistently mocking religion and people of faith."

Indeed, Dr. House's ridicule of religious people has included not only Christians, but also Mormons and Orthodox Jews. But the program's story lines don't actually allow a cut-and-dried verdict on complex topics. Maybe that's why I find it so rewarding to watch.

--Colin Foote Burch, member, Society of Professional Journalists, and affiliate member, Religion Newswriters Association

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