With only a few episodes left, I suppose that now is as good of a time as any to admit to my current TV-viewing guilty pleasure–“American Inventor.” It’s not that I think it is an exciting, well-orchestrated reality show in comparison to the zillion other reality shows on the tube. It’s just that at the end of every episode I am left with this nagging feeling that I have just witnessed a uniquely American reflection on our culture’s attitudes toward faith–in ourselves, in the ideal we call the American Dream, and even faith in God.
The premise of the show, whose producer credits include American Idol’s Simon Cowell, is a typical reality show-style competition designed to find the next great American invention. Contestants demonstrate their inventions for the prerequisite reality show panel of expert judges–each, of course, with his or her distinctive quirks–and hope the judges will vote them through to the next round. Some of the inventions, such as the Sackmaster 2000, which helps fill sandbags quickly in a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, were designed truly for the benefit of mankind. Other inventions are designed for educational purposes, like the multicultural doll, Niya, and some inventions, of course, are just plain stupid. In tonight’s back-to-back episodes, the final four inventors will take the prototypes of their inventions to the American public, so we–the American public–can call in and decide who will win the million-dollar grand prize.
What makes this series such a mesmerizing train wreck–one which is uplifting one moment and horrifying the next–are the back stories of the inventors themselves. The sacrifices these people have made are astounding, and in some cases, possibly a little insane. Yes, some of these competitors are an inspiration because of the risks they have taken to achieve something significant, but many other competitors, no matter how good their intentions, provide a cautionary tale about the dangers of putting your faith only in the material, the tangible, or the self-serving instead of having faith in something greater than ourselves. (In one instance, a man told the judges he donated a kidney so he would have good karma going into the competition).
But the real reason I will be watching tonight’s episodes is that in spite of the more outrageous aspects of this show, I find that “American Inventor” challenges me spiritually in an unexpected way. While I consider myself a big dreamer, I am not exactly a huge risk-taker, and this show makes me think about where in my life I spiritually can walk a little more by faith–just not solely in my own strength.
It has been evident for a while that John Locke is no longer the only man of faith stranded on the mysterious island that the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 have inhabited for the first two seasons of ABC’s “Lost.” With the appearance this fall of Mr. Eko, a passenger from the back of the plane who stayed silent during the first 40 days and nights after the crash, it was obvious Mr. Eko would, at some point, give Locke a run for his money in this category.
Last night’s episode may have been a turning point for these two, with Ecco eclipsing Locke in his role as the island’s spiritual locus.
Prophetic dreams and leaps of faith abounded, as Eko convinced Locke to join forces with him in a kind of island scavenger hunt, spurred on by Eko’s visionary encounter with his dead priest-brother, who urged him to follow the question mark. With Locke’s help, the dreams and visions led them back to the downed airplane that carried the body of Eko’s brother to its final resting place–the island–and to the fact that below the plane has yet another mysterious hatch.
While it’s unveiling caused quite a crisis of faith for Locke, it did the opposite for Eko–it inspired newfound religious fervor in this church-building, newly ministerial member of the survivors. Locke found himself on new ground–as someone in need of spiritual leadership, looking to Eko for guidance, rather than the other way around.
Whether or not faith leadership will stay in the hands of Eko in future episodes remains to be seen.
For the group we might call “Graham Green Catholics,” the flap generated by the upcoming release of “The Da Vinci Code” is another arrow in the side. The Catholic intellectual of the 20th century saw culture and art as another province of faith, where the mystery of suffering was explored through subjects like sex, death, and politics. The Catholic thinker and writer’s profile was one of faithful but world-weary engagement. Moral certainty was the downfall of characters like Pyle, the idealistic and probably Protestant CIA operative set loose in pre-war (Vietnam War) Saigon in Greene’s novel “The Quiet American.”
Now, with the CIA on its heels, Dan Brown has fashioned Opus Dei, the Catholic Church’s secretive, exclusive society, as a stand-in, and Opus Dei, nonsensically, has played along. I’m not comparing Brown to Greene, nor “The Da Vinci Code” in book or movie form to any of the British writer’s masterpieces of moral torment. But Opus Dei’s demand that director Ron Howard insert a disclaimer disavowing the accuracy of the movie’s depiction of the group smacks more of the arrogant and overachieving Pyle than any postulant. (And even at that, Pyle’s CIA never dignified Hollywood’s many slings and arrows by demanding disclaimers that they were in fact a bunch of family guys.) The Vatican itself, meanwhile, has called for boycotts, calling the film “a slander.”
That leaves Protestants to articulate Christianity’s forebearance. When Sony Pictures set up “The DaVinci Challenge,” a website that invited Christians to use the movie as a teaching moment, the Protestant biggies who signed on, including Richard Mouw, Darrell Bock and George Barna, far outnumbered the Catholic defenders of the faith. For Graham Greene Catholics, the world is a wearier place.
Yes, I have already blogged–and recently–about Fox’s medical drama, House, which week after week seems to find some new, thought-provoking way to tackle spirituality. But I can’t help but rave one more time about this show’s smart writing that intertwines faith and doubt into the complex storylines in subtle yet powerful ways.
In last night’s episode, not one, but two, of Gregory House’s co-workers reconnected–even if only briefly in one instance–with faith in a higher power. Building off of last week’s episode, in which Dr. Foreman almost died after contracting a dangerous virus from a patient he was treating along with House, Foreman now is suddenly filled with peace and gratitude because his life has been miraculously spared. (Foreman’s father had kept a fervent prayer vigil as his son underwent life threatening surgery.) Because he has been given a second chance at life, Foreman is now so kind to his co-workers that he becomes annoying–not only to House, who has grudging respect for the way Foreman has dealt with House’s unorthodox ways in the past–but also to the soft-spoken Dr. Cameron. The best line of the night belonged to Cameron, who has had her own issues with Foreman in the past, as she tells him, “Insisting every day is a blessing from God makes everyone else look shallow.” Really? Sounds like faith clashing with doubt–or cynicism, at least–one more time.
But it is not only Foreman who embraces God in a moment of crisis. The greedy, narcissistic playboy of the bunch, Dr. Chase, who had tried to save a mother and her baby, but failed, stands over the lifeless body of the baby and begins to quietly pray for the baby’s soul to be released to heaven. Unlike Foreman, no one is aroud to see the change in Chase, as he cries out to God, hoping desparately God will answer.
And that is where this series truly reflects the authenticity of these characters’ various spiritual journeys. We do not know whose spiritual encounter will truly take root in his soul and grow, and who will quickly forget his moment of spiritual insight and return to his former ways. Will Foreman go back to his old ways and will Chase be the one to change (and would anyone take him seriously if he did)? “House” viewers know anything is possible, but nothing is certain with this group of misfits, which is why we always stay tuned.
(P.S.: And if you “House” fans want to read an insider’s take on the show, you might want to check out the blog of one of the writers by going here.)