Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Religious Expression and House of Cards

The second season of the acclaimed television drama House of Cards was finally released at the end of last week. For those of you who have not seen it, I highly recommend the series. The entire season, all thirteen episodes, was available to view at one time. Like many, I binge watched over the weekend, though I’ve slowly been savoring each episode again with a second viewing. The series has many parallel story lines and interlocking characters. It’s easy to get confused.

I want to focus specifically on two minor characters. One of them is a former call girl who, under duress, was forced to leave the profession. She provided sexual services for an alcoholic and self-destructive congressman who was later tapped to run for governor of Pennsylvania. Because she knew too much, she found her movements constantly shadowed by the loyal henchman of a power-hungry politician. Her life was no longer her own. With time, as we all would in repressive circumstances like these, she began to resist her confinement.

The second character, also a young woman of about the same age, is a self-professed former heroin addict. As part of her recovery, she joined a small Christian church. The main draw is a self-consciously hip contemporary worship. She finds religion essential to her sanity and it gives her an opportunity to give back to the community. By chance, the two meet on a bus and strike up a fast friendship. The former addict asks the former sex worker if she would be willing to attend, placing literature into her hand. At first, the escort girl is skeptical but is reassured by the addict that she herself, at first, blanched at the very thought of attending church.

Despite her reservations, the former prostitute attends. She enjoys the beautiful music during the service and enjoys taking care of the children while their parents are in worship. The job gives her a kind of stability and grounding she has lacked her whole life. This interlude is by no means glowingly complementary of organized religion, but neither does it see a need to lampoon it. Its portrayal is decidedly neutral. For that, I am thankful.

What we don’t see are tearful confessions, or outright displays of religiosity. There are no scenes of altar calls, communion wafers, or earnest prayers. Scripture is quoted only on one or two occasions, and never for very long. One gets a feeling that this experience, for the two of them, might be somewhat superficial, or meant to fill an immediate need.

In my own life, I’ve observed a man about my own age who briefly attended the young adult group of which I am a member. In the middle of Worship Sharing, he confessed to being an alcoholic in recovery. He was certainly welcome to attend again as often as he liked, but he felt far too internally conflicted to feel a part of any group. He hated himself for his past transgressions, even though we did not judge him for them. Shame is what led him away from religion.

Jesus got a lot of criticism from the so-called keepers of the law based on the company he kept.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with such scum?" When Jesus heard this, he said, "Healthy people don't need a doctor--sick people do."Then he added, "Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: 'I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.' For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners."

I return to the lives of two such sinners. In a series of rapidly building scenes, the lesbian subtext grows ever more potent. The two becomes lovers. And yet, much remains unseen and unexplained. How did others in the church respond to them? They must have been entrusted with great responsibility to take care of the kids. This is especially true nowadays with the possibility of an incident happening and the equal risk of potential legal repercussions to follow.

In my Meeting, those who have any contact at all with children must undergo a background check and have others vouch for their character. Everyone’s paranoid now about sex offenders and no one wants to take any chances. Both of these characters have skeletons in their closet and I find it likely that they also have criminal records.

This is what really struck me. My judgmental side believes that everyone ought to take their responsibilities seriously, and adopt a more substantial role within a house of worship. By that exacting standard, these two women do not fit the profile, even assisting with childcare and in regularly attending worship. A brief scene shows one of them reading the Bible aloud to the other, but their conduct is mostly unchanged. The language they use is of their past, and I see no application of moral lessons in months of attending church.

Before I come down too harshly, I must also admit that their loneliness and need for stable social interaction has been enough for many to embrace religion. Any twelve-step program emphasizes a belief in a higher power. For those who have struggled and fought to stay clean, religion can be a soothing salve to heal cuts to the psyche. Many formerly successful musicians and those in the public eye have become Christians when their popularity waned and the money for drugs ran out.

Yet once again we ask for answers and receive few of them. How would the members of the church or the minister think about this same-sex relationship? We hear their praise songs, tastefully underscored by softly lilting guitars and a group sing-along. We see the cross hanging on the wall, in a brief pan that takes in the Butler Building that houses the small sanctuary. Theology is never expressed and the other worshipers are static figures. We never see their faces in profile, only from behind. The director wants the focus to be on two fallen women with substantial baggage.

There is a passage in the Gospel of John I return to frequently. It regards an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other. Jews saw Samaritans as bastard half-breeds and Samaritans saw Jews as cold-hearted elitists.

So Jesus came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there; and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noontime. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?"
The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, "You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?"

"Go and get your husband," Jesus told her. "I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true." "Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet.

But the time is coming--indeed it's here now--when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth."

Though I would have preferred more detail, I am satisfied with what I’ve observed. If it had been my screenplay to write, I would have seen skepticism of religion fall away. I would have shown a great comfort in belief. And I would have seen a wedding between two women ordained by God and all who were present. That being said, I recognize that this doesn’t fit the tone of a very dark, malevolent series where favorable outcomes are few, and short-lived if they exist at all.

I’m happy that Christianity was treated with dignity, because I honestly believe in its redemptive power for each of us, regardless of our past conduct. Few faiths give us the ability to be forgiven and make a fresh start. And by forgiveness, I mean an internal sort of exercise for our own benefit, not someone else’s. The inner work comes first. Exteriors are the reasons why many of us find ourselves being unduly scrutinized, but real redemption starts the moment we listen to the truth.

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