Sometimes—as bad as I hate to say it—I worry that TV is not good for me. Really, that’s true of most popular culture—of which I am often a ravenous consumer. “Don’t worry,” I console myself. “It’s all sermon research! If I didn’t watch TV, where would I get sermon illustrations?” I’ve wondered at times if I could write off a high-definition TV as a business expense.
J.B. Phillips (d. 1982) was a canon of the Anglican church and a writer. Fifty years ago, he wrote a little book called Your God is Too Small. Although the book predates the explosive growth of TV viewership and so many other trends that have contributed to a dumbing-down of pop culture, what he says about pop culture and its relationship to religion couldn’t be more on target.
In one section of the book he discusses ways in which we live vicariously through books, films, and plays (and even more so, we can now say, through TV—although music, talk radio, the internet, and even video games will also play their part).
Through pop culture, we experience so much of life second-hand, and these second-hand depictions of life can greatly influence our understanding of God and God’s dealings with the world.
We envisage “God” very largely from the way in which he appears to deal with (or not deal with) His creatures. If, therefore, our knowledge of life is (unknown to us in all probability) faulty or biased or sentimental, we are quite likely to find ourselves with a second-hand god who is quite different from the real one…
A vast amount of fiction presents life as if there were no God at all, and men and women had no religious side to their personalities whatever. We may for instance meet, in fiction, charming people who exhibit the most delightful qualities, surmount incredible difficulties with heart-stirring courage, make the most noble sacrifices and achieve the utmost happiness and serenity—all without the slightest reference to God. The reader is almost bound to reflect that all the fuss Christianity makes about “seeking God’s strength” and so on is much ado about nothing.
He goes on to say, conversely, that we may encounter very evil people in fiction who betray not the “faintest twinge of conscience. There appears to be no spiritual force at work pointing out to them, at vulnerable moments, a better way of living… The reader is again, unconsciously, likely to conclude that God does nothing to influence ‘bad’ characters.”1
I was reminded of this profoundly true insight while watching House last night. (In fact, I’m often reminded of this insight while watching House.) One character, Dr. Taub, who has long been reconciling his relationship with his wife over past infidelities, is intrigued by a patient who claims to be in a happy and successful “open marriage.” Since Taub finds himself sexually attracted to a co-worker (and underling) and has been moving in the direction of a new affair, he broaches the subject of open marriage to his put-upon wife. Would this be a possible solution to his problem with fidelity? She ultimately rejects the idea, and he repents—at least for a few hours.
At the end of the episode, however, he gives in to the temptation—they are seen kissing in the hospital parking deck. The End.
Throughout the episode, House and the his fellow doctors show great interest in Taub’s sex life and unfaithfulness. They needle him about his “ballsy” suggestion to his wife that they “open” the marriage. Inasmuch as Taub cares about the morality of open marriage—or having an affair for that matter—it is only to prevent his wife from being hurt again. If she’s O.K. with it, then anything goes. There is no other consideration; no conscience to wrestle with; no guilt to experience; certainly no god whose judgment anyone need worry about. And here’s a key fact: Taub is generally a sympathetic character. He’s not a sociopath. The viewer is supposed to be repulsed by his behavior (the show is often very moralistic), but not for religious reasons. Religion plays no role. God is entirely absent.
As Phillips would argue, however, this depiction of a “real-life scenario” badly distorts reality. Many people—even lapsed church- or synagogue-goers—give more than a passing thought to God and religion—and a transcendent morality—especially when their actions are known to cause other people pain. People have a sense of right and wrong. People viscerally experience guilt, fear, and self-loathing.
When I was a kid in the ’70s, forced by my parents to listen to country music on the radio, I heard a lot of cheatin’ songs (what happened to those?). There was a lot of adultery depicted in those songs, but there was also a lot of old-fashioned guilt! That seems much more realistic.
The evil, and even the careless, are occasionally touched by their consciences. Moreover, the tension and the crises which are the breath of life to the fiction-writer are the very things which frequently stimulate the latent spiritual or religious sense. It is an extraordinary phenomenon that the modern writer who has, Heaven knows, few reticences… should so frequently use the by-pass road round the whole sphere of a man’s relations with his God.2