FSE: House’s Search for Meaning

I watched House, M.D. with my dad last night. This was the first time that I had ever watched the show. I’m not sure if I’ll watch it regularly when I return to Cincinnati, but I liked that particular episode.

It was about a Hasidic Jewish woman with bleeding problems. She was a convert to Hadism, for she had previously been in the drugs and sex culture of the music industry.

There were at least two issues on the show. First of all, there were the reactions of the various characters to Hasidism. Dr. House was your typical village atheist, who viewed religion as a belief in imaginary friends. He seemed to know some about the Bible, however, and he had an understanding of the Hasidic mindset. When he was trying to convince the Jewish woman’s husband to trust him, he said, “You follow 600 commandments, right?” The Hasid corrected House’s number, and answered in the affirmative. House continued, “Well, you don’t know the reason for all of them, but you keep them because many of them make sense, and you trust that the big guy knows what he’s doing.” The Hasid answered “yes.” House then said, “Well, in this temple, I’m Dr. Yahweh.”

I’m surprised that House’s utterance of the sacred name did not shock the Hasid, but his summary of the Hasid’s approach to the commandments was interesting. On some level, that is how I view God’s law, even though I don’t go as far as the Hasid in my observance (since I’m not a Jew). Or, actually, I question the laws I don’t like, but I think that I should trust that the big guy knows what he’s doing when he makes commands.

There was another doctor who was a secular Jew. He came to sympathize with the Hasids, believing that they offered something valuable that was absent in modern culture. At first, he was skeptical, for he didn’t buy the idea of arranged marriage. But someone told him that divorce in that community was very low. And the Hasid said to him that spouses should come to love one another the more years that they are together, since they are getting to know each other more and more. And the doctor respected the Hasid’s strict regard for his wife’s modesty. These values differed from the shallow approach of modern society to sex.

I didn’t think that this episode was condescending to Hasidism, either. When the Hasid was turning his back to his wife out of respect for her modesty, the nurse respected his wish, but he said to her, “You respect my wish, but you see this as a quaint custom. But it’s not that. It’s a commandment. And I honor my wife by respecting her modesty.” The episode also tried to avoid being patronizing by presenting debate about the validity of religion.

I’ve often complained about the entertainment industry’s anti-religious slant. So many times, it depicts religious characters as kooks. I think of Brea on Desperate Housewives. She is probably the only character on that show who believes in God and holds to biblical principles, yet the program presents her as a social snob. But, on another level, the entertainment industry honors religion, perhaps because it recognizes that modern society is often shallow and selfish without it. Eli Stone, for example, presents a man with a mission from God. Maybe the industry is responding to the success of religiously-oriented movies and programs, such as Passion of the Christ and Touched by an Angel.

Second, this episode of House was addressing the question of whether human beings can truly change. Overall, I had a hard time understanding how this fit into the episode. It wasn’t exactly like 7th Heaven, where there is a common theme that lies beneath all of the plots and sub-plots. I don’t even know how this episode resolved the question.

Who was trying to change? There was the Hasidic woman, who had converted from an illicit and empty lifestyle to a strict culture. There was a woman who was dating a friend of House, and she was trying to change from her conniving, ruthless ways. House made a reference to alcoholics. “They’ve not had a drink in ten years? Well, that’s because they’ve not lived long enough,” he remarked with his customary sarcasm.

Can people change? I often look at myself, and I feel that the problems in me right now are the same problems that have bothered me for years. But there are people who talk about the change that has occurred in their lives. I was talking with a Christian woman, a student at a famous Christian college. She said that she was once religious, but she tried to cram religion down people’s throats. In her mind at the time, she was right and everyone else was wrong. She then got into alcohol, drugs, and promiscuous sex. One day, as she was throwing up in her bathroom, she cried out to God for help, and he answered. Now, she tries to love people. Her dream is to start a program for recovery, one that accepts people where they are while also helping them to grow.

Her testimony was not a “been there, done that” sort of narrative, one in which she said that she was once bad but she is now good. She acknowledged that she still struggles in certain relationships, and she emphasized the importance of reading her Bible and worshipping God, which was her definition of “abiding in Christ.” “I’m capable of murder and all sorts of horrible things,” she said. “And that is why I need to abide in Christ. The world has a lot of temptations. I need to feed on God’s word, surround myself with encouraging believers, and worship God, who is bigger than all of my problems.” I could identify with much that she was saying, particularly the part about her capacity to sin. There are many times when I have problems with the doctrine of human depravity, particularly my own. But am I capable of horrible sins? Yes, if I’m not careful.

I’ve heard stories from recovering alcoholics about change. The promises of Alcoholics Anonymous are that, if we follow the twelve steps, we will become happy, less selfish, and less fearful of people and economic insecurity. Recovering alcoholics have told me about where they were and where they are now. They acknowledge that they must continue to be vigilant, meaning that no one has truly arrived. But they are evidence that change can occur, among people of all sorts of backgrounds.

I hope for change in myself, or, better yet, growth. I look at myself and see the same selfishness that has existed within me over many years, but maybe I will not always be in this rut. Change is possible.

What was interesting about the Hasidic woman on House was the dramatic transition that she made. She went from the music industry to a culture that had no television, movies, or stereos. Did her old self completely vanish? I don’t know. But she was committed to a new and radically different life. What she was leaving behind did not appeal to her as much anymore, for she saw it as bankrupt. I don’t know if I would go as far as she did in making my own changes. But, somehow, in my life and in the lives of all Christians, old things must pass away as all becomes new.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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