Idol Chatter

No character on television represents my own spiritual journey better than Gregory House, protagonist of FOX’s “House.” Flawed yet searching, abrasive in his search for answers, Dr. House has gone through a series of challenges, culminating with last season’s near-death experience. And now that the cranky doctor is still alive and back for a third season, I continue to be amazed at the way this series flips spiritual themes upside down.

In last night’s episode, House is no longer walking with his cane, thanks to the success of a risky surgery performed on his leg. He is now, with great difficulty, adjusting to a new life without physical pain. He is also a somewhat kinder, gentler version of himself. Because his co-workers like the new and improved House, some of them decide they don’t just want to fix him physically, but they also want to fix him spiritually. They feel House gave a reckless diagnosis and treatment to a patient, and so his colleagues take the opportunity to teach House a lesson in humility by telling him the treatment failed–when it fact it had worked.

The failure doesn’t sit well with House, who suddenly questions every personal and medical decision he makes. And then there is the pain in his leg that mysteriously begins to return. Is it real or a symptom of depression?

When House discovers that his co-workers betrayed him, he lashes out at them, and rightly so. While they often have accused him of playing God with his patients, it is, in fact, his fellow doctors who have played God, this time with House’s life, by tricking him. More importantly, House challenges the notion that humility only reveals itself by outward signs of modesty. House is humbled by the leg pain that is returning as well as by the Vicodin addiction he can’t quite beat.

As always, it remains to be seen how House will grow as a person as he continues to wrestle with fresh physical and emotional pain. However, just like my own tumultuous journey, I am sure House’s journey will continue to be unexpected, but, in the end, very rewarding.

St. Francis Church in Macon, GA, is putting a stake through the heart of boring adult education classes, while providing pop culture aficionados with a learning opportunity they can really sink their teeth into. Starting this Thursday, the church will launch “The Gospel According to Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” an adult-ed class designed to explore the Christian virtues portrayed in the show. The Macon Telegraph reports:

“It’s the most artistic and literate program that’s been on TV in 10 years, maybe ever,” [series co-teacher and self-proclaimed “Buffy junkie” Buzz] Tanner said. “Spiritually, Buffy’s virtues are Christian, though it would be hard to say Buffy is a Christian. The show deals with good and evil, right and wrong.”

“It’s about helping people not be so uptight about their religion,” said John Mark Parker, pastoral assistant at St. Francis. “One of things we want people to do is look for themes that reflect what they experience in their faith…. It’s really about creating dialogue.”

The group will watch an episode each week, and then discuss the episode’s spiritual lessons over soft drinks, popcorn, and beer. (As Buffy might have said, “Beer… foamy… good.” Of course, that was right before she said, “Beer bad…” but one can assume that with church supervision, they’ll stop at “foamy… good” before getting to “beer… bad.”) Garlic necklaces and wooden stakes are apparently optional.

Members of the class are being encouraged to read “What Would Buffy Do?: Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide,” and discussion will continue on a special blog. The last class in the eight-week series will take place on Halloween, when participants will be encouraged to dress as their favorite “Buffy” character.

Of course, the Macon church class isn’t the first analysis of the spiritual side of slayage. Over at Hollywood Jesus, horror writer/environmental toxicologist (yes, really) Maurice Broaddus writes about Buffy, Alias, Stephen King and other bastions of pop culture from a spiritual angle. Idol Chatter’s Donna Freitas has made no secret of her spiritual love for all things Buffy. At lives the online International Journal of Buffy Studies, with articles like “The Evolution of Joss Whedon’s Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul” and others. And the cult of Buffy continues to inspire, as the IFC Film Center in NYC takes a cue from Rocky Horror and serves up midnight shows of the soulful musical episode, in sing-along format.

Still, the best thing about having Buffy classes in church? Abundant crucifixes minimize chances of vampire invasion.

…Or so the comedian-turned-liberal political commentator claims during the initial moments of the documentary “Al Franken: God Spoke,” opening in limited released tomorrow.

Hilariously dressed in a Santa Claus-like beard and holding a Ten Commandment-esque tablet–presumably Al Franken’s mode of representing God–the film opens with Franken’s voice booming amid the clouds: “God Spoke! God spoke to me and he told me to write this down….” Franken is of course, mocking pundits and politicians who have been known (and heard) to imply that God speaks through them and the ideas they espouse–most notably President Bush. (This scene is sure to offend some viewers–though then again, those viewers it might offend probably won’t go see a documentary about Al Franken. They are busy at home reading Ann Coulter’s latest diatribe, “Godless.”)

But for viewers hoping for a Franken critique about God and politics, religion and the public square, Franken’s mockery of right-wingers’ claims to bend the ear of God is limited to those first moments. This documentary is not at all about religion or God (at least in any direct way), despite its title’s implications. It is, instead, an overview of two years in the life of Al Franken–which includes a good deal of sparring with Ann Coulter and the rise and subsequent demise of Air America, the liberal radio network Al Franken spearheaded. (OK, maybe “demise” is not the right word–but the network is having its troubles.)

The film is certainly a tribute to the career of Al Franken, specifcally how he uses the claims and foibles of our country’s O’Reillys and Coulters as a means to espouse his liberal point of view and make his targets look stupid in the process. The film also highlights Franken’s recent struggles to make Air America work. (It is having trouble finding its audience and has been dropped altogether in some major markets.)

Though I was disappointed to find out that the film has virtually nothing in common with its title, the documentary is sure to interest Al Franken fans. It’s as “fair and balanced” a film as one can hope from two unabashed fans of the documentary’s subject.

Both Kris and Doug, in their own separate ways, downplay the controversy over ABC’s “The Path to 9/11” miniseries. Maybe it’s just that, unlike them, I am a stereotypical East Coast liberal, but I can’t dismiss Democrats’ complaints over the TV movies’ exaggerations and fabrications so easily. Let’s not forget another based-on-fact miniseries pulled–not just edited, as this one was–because of conservative complaints about truthfulness: “The Reagans,” CBS’s 2003 docudrama about the former president. Let’s apply the same values here.

For better or worse, we Americans look to Hollywood–and the fiction it produces–for insight and, yes, information about news and historical events; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert owe their success to this trend, and they step up to that task responsibly, with a deep thoughtfulness inside their comedic exteriors.

That’s not to say every work of fiction need hew to truthfulness and social responsibility; it just means that if you’re purporting to present fact, do it in a way that is honest and which helps further our understanding instead of muddying it. For ABC, the timing of this miniseries around the fifth anniversary was no coincidence, nor was its hiring of 9-11 Commission chair Tom Kean as a consultant. The clear message, despite the hastily added disclaimers to the contrary, was that this movies dramatized The Truth. If not quite a documentary, it was to be not quite a work of fiction either.

And why would anyone need to fictionalize 9-11? As Maureen Dowd wrote this past weekend, “Isn’t the dire actuality enough?” For a nation still mourning its losses, still trying to figure out how best to respond to the terrorist threat, still trying to understand how our leaders and intelligence services could have missed the clues leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, it’s just plain irresponsible of ABC to air a miniseries that does anything short of depicting truth as it happened. A mix of fact and fiction is the worst of both worlds, allowing us neither to dismiss it as mere entertainment or to embrace it as edifying.

I applaud ABC for re-editing the movie after the complains surfaced, but for me, the movie’s credibility is already lost, and I don’t know what to accept and what to reject in its portrayal of this crucial part of our recent history. “Truthiness” just doesn’t cut it here, and we deserved better.