A recent episode of House, M.D., Fox TV’s eccentric and interesting new medical drama (Tuesday nights at 9 P.M. EST), continued the current trend of more sophisticated and evenhanded treatment of religion in television fiction programs. This development first manifested itself, of course, with the surprising decision of CBS to run the explicitly religious program Touched by an Angel in the late 1990s, but what has been even more important has been how the treatment of religion has changed in programs not explicitly devoted to the topic.
From the early 1970s until the late 1990s, TV depictions of religious faith, both fiction and nonfiction, had been largely dismissive of religious faith, usually quite openly so; I will not belabor the point with examples but just note that many books have been written about the subject, such as those by social critic Michael Medved. Although there were exceptions in a couple of programs developed by the late actor Michael Landon, and some other brief points of light, in general American TV was a vast spiritual wasteland during that nearly three-decade period.
That has changed in recent years, and programs as seemingly unlikely as the USA Network’s Touching Evil and NBC’s Crossing Jordan and Law and Order: Criminal Intent have in the past year presented scenes and entire episodes explicitly approving of religious faith.
Earlier this year, the NBC program Medical Investigation provided a vivid example of this trend in an episode revolving around religious issues. A central scene shows the star of the show, the leader of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) team that investigates the most baffling disease outbreaks, entering a Catholic church. It is a rather sinister scene at first, because there appears to be a strong possibility that the church is somehow spreading a ghastly disease. One feels set up for more antireligious TV-fiction symbolism.
But no, not this time. As the team leader enters the sanctuary, he dips his fingers in the holy water, makes the sign of the cross, and begins to pray to God that He will help him find out what is causing the disease outbreak. This man is one of the most successful doctors in the world, a top scientist at the NIH. The message is obvious (as it usually is on television): Science and faith can reside quite comfortably together in the same individual.
Last week’s episode of House, M.D. took a somewhat different approach, as is probably appropriate to Fox’s more “edgy” programming style. The disease victim who comes in for treatment by the diagnostic team headed by Dr. Gregory House, the cranky, cynical genius doctor played by Hugh Laurie, is a nun, and immediately House is both rude toward her and dismissive of her faith. In addition, one of the team members–the handsome young Englishman Dr. Robert Chase–says explicitly, “I hate nuns.”
Having set up this open hostility toward religion, however, the program then goes about systematically demolishing it. First, the good-natured young Dr. Eric Foreman makes it clear that he disagrees with Dr. Chase. Then, it becomes evident that Dr. House has quite possibly misplaced his faith in his own powers of diagnosis. The nuns, for their part, show surprising insights into the doctors’ minds.
In this regard, the faithful women are portrayed as far more complex and intelligent than one might have expected. Both their ideas and their personal histories are quite sophisticated, and in the case of the one stricken by illness, the revelations of her many past sins show not hypocrisy but the redemptive power of religious faith. The nuns argue quite evenly with Dr. House, and though he usually wins through the sheer force of his great intellect and even greater will, the emptiness in his soul becomes increasingly clear. His doubts in his own abilities suggest that for this man, science is not enough.
Throughout all of this, Christmas is prominent in the background. It is Advent, and the hospital staff members are reacting in various ways appropriate to their characters. Dr. House, in particular, increasingly reveals a loneliness and personal despair that has been strongly hinted at in previous episodes. The context, however, points the viewer inexorably toward a spiritual explanation of his problem: Dr. House is a lost soul who desperately needs to find some transcendent meaning to his life. Though he claims to be a strict materialist, his frequent references to Dante’s Circles of Hell suggest what is really troubling him.
Most strikingly of all, young Dr. Chase reveals to the nun, whose health is rapidly failing, that he had attended seminary school for a time. At this point, one could be forgiven for thinking that Dr. Chase will tell of some scandalous reason for his bitterness. Yet the very opposite happens. Dr. Chase says that he dropped out simply because he did not have as much faith as the nun, placing all the blame on himself. He says that he failed–not God, and not the Church. Furthermore, in a quite moving moment, the nun reveals her terror of her impending death, and Dr. Chase tries to comfort her. They share a favorite Bible verse by St. Peter, and Dr. Chase offers to pray with her. They begin to pray together as the scene fades out.
At the end of the episode, we see Dr. Chase at a Catholic church service at the monastery (as it is called in the program) where the now-healed nun and her sisters in Christ live. Dr. Chase, we then see, is at home spending Christmas with Dr. James Wilson, a quite likeable married colleague who has left his wife home alone for Christmas so that he can keep Dr. House company. As if this act of Christian charity (on the part of both Wilson and his apparently long-suffering wife) were not enough, the episode ends with Dr. House playing a Christmas hymn on the piano.
It is an appropriately ambiguous but hopeful ending, and the sophisticated treatment of religious faith in the episode provides some comfort for Dr. House and for those of us who have long hoped that the American popular culture could be redeemed and become at least a little fairer in its treatment of Christianity. A few TV episodes do not a religious revival make, but they are much more than we had a decade ago. A little leavening can have great consequences.
–S. T. Karnick is senior editor of The Heartland Institute, associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute, and coeditor of The Reform Club.