Tag Archives: religion

Morality at Home and Morality at Work: Guilt and Repentance on The Good Wife

I admit to being a latecomer to The Good Wife.  I only began watching it a few weeks ago, succumbing to various recommendations, but I am all caught up and felt I had to write something about it. The Good Wife fills a space recently vacated by the original Law and Order by entertainingly and critically using “ripped from the headlines” episodic storytelling that is grounded in characters who exist in the tension between idealism and practicality.  But unlike Law and Order, The Good Wife revels in its melodramatic serial elements.  It recalls 19th century novels, particularly Austen and Dickens in a few ways: the constant presence of public scrutiny, the romantic tension between Alicia and Will (and especially the missed connection represented by the “lost” voicemail from the end of the first season, reminiscent of the miscommunications that undergird the romantic novels), and, perhaps most interestingly, the kind of semi-Victorian attention to guilt.  Guilt is not shame in this conceptualization, though they are linked.  I’m using guilt here to play not only on the legal elements of the show but also to confine the affect to the specific sphere of the Florrick family.  While Peter and Alicia might feel shame (or at least portray themselves in public as ashamed as required by the political machine) as a result of the press and public attention to Peter’s affair, guilt within the Florrick family is a little more slippery.

The reference to morality at home and morality at work in the title of this post is lifted from the second-season episode “Wrongful Termination.”  Michael J. Fox’s character, Louis Canning, an in-court antagonist to Alicia, describes her as feeling guilty about what she does in her job, particularly the moral compromises required of her as a high-powered lawyer.  He advocates moral compartmentalization while much of Alicia’s character arc over the two seasons occurs in the space between her (and others’) idea of herself as a moral person and the moral pragmatism required of her as both a lawyer and a politician’s wife.  And yet, as Suzanne Leonard wrote for Flow, Alicia is often afforded a degree of privacy that somewhat obscures the question of her morality.  She is shaped by the political world around her and is mostly reactive to it.  Attention to her morality (and her guilt) is elliptical.

Giving Angela Landsbury a run for her money in the category of playing hateful, manipulative, political matriarchs

Jackie Florrick: She may look harmless, but she can out-maneuver Eli Gold (while being less charming).

If Alicia does, as Canning claims, go home and feel guilty about her work, it seems in direct contrast to Peter and his mother, Jackie.  The show executes a fairly masterful work of sleight-of-hand in its jump from the initial press conference where Peter resigns from his post as State Attorney and admits to his adultery to six months later when Peter is in jail and Alicia has started her job.  It keeps the viewer from seeing his apologies, from seeing his expressions of guilt.  By the time the action of the series really begins, it’s six months later and any apologies seem rote instead of earnest.  Jackie tells Peter in “Boom,” “You are a good man. You want to blame yourself. But you apologized. You apologized again, and again. Anybody who wants another apology from you only wants you to be weak. So stop this. Stop this now. My son will not be made weak.”  It’s a moment that she is pitting herself against Alicia and her requirements and reminders of Peter’s guilt.

Apologies are easy; repentance is hard, and it’s repentance that Alicia seems to want.  Repentance requires acknowledgement of guilt from within then earnest attempts to atone; it requires humility and acknowledgement of one’s own weakness.  Jackie thinks only in terms of public scrutiny: Peter apologized publicly and went through the motions of a repentant politician, but–and this may be due to Chris Noth’s performance and intertextual persona–Peter never seemed all that guilty at home, particularly in his relationship with Alicia.  He accepted her requirements for his return home, including sleeping in separate rooms, but he often framed his self-reform in terms of never committing the same sin again.  This is a key element in religious repentance, yes, but it elides over the deeper issues in his personality and in their marriage that led to his affairs.  He goes through the steps of repentance, especially as mandated by Christianity, but I never got the sense that Peter feels guilty.  And Jackie serves as an absolving force, pushing Peter away from feelings of guilt and casting Alicia’s desire to see his guilt as completely ludicrous and cruel.  Jackie even sets herself against the possibility of Peter’s movement toward guilt and atonement when she tells the pastor from whom Peter seeks spiritual guidance, “You just say ‘God’ and you think you can make people feel bad about themselves. . . . You don’t know my son. This is a phase. You are a phase” (“Running”).  But I never saw Peter feeling bad about himself, in deference to neither God nor Alicia.

What's the verdict: Guilty or Not Guilty?

While Peter’s relationship with Pastor Isaiah folds into his political ambitions and maneuvering–it helps him shore up the black vote and provides a place for him to surreptitiously meet with political operatives during his house arrest–it is still a viable avenue toward atonement, especially with Alicia if it can help him to display guilt.  However, as the politics of his race for State Attorney heat up and the political benefits of the pastor fall by the wayside, Isaiah is essentially dismissed as spiritual advisor.  This occurs as Peter continues to cover-up an affair from his past that Alicia does not know about.  The cover-up and betrayal push Alicia over the edge, and she moves Peter out of the house.  Guilt would have Peter disclose all his past sins in order to seek atonement and Alicia’s forgiveness.  Such simultaneity is not coincidental, and I’m very interested to see how Peter is characterized next season regarding his affairs, his guilt, and his either continued or halted (and ostensibly completed) path of attempted redemption.  And I’m interested to see where Alicia’s morality goes and how her possible turning away from guilt could be liberating instead of morally isolating.  After the final betrayal, she is hardened but also perhaps more herself, and as she insists to Jackie, “I am this way.  Your son made me this way” (“In Sickness”).


Friday Feast: recipes from religious studies

[Edit: Well, this post seemed to actually turn people away from my blog.  Maybe someday I’ll do something with this project, but it’s unpopularity and my increasing tendency to travel on Fridays have led me to discontinue this proposed weekly posting.  No more Friday feasts unless actual food is involved.]

Welcome to the first “Friday Feast,” a bit of a departure from the regular topics I use this blog to explore.  There will be little to no television-related content in these posts, but it’s a fun little project I want to share.  Beginning today and continuing each Friday in May, I will be posting theoretical “recipes” from my religious studies cookbook.  These were originally the culmination of a graduate seminar in religious studies theory, methods, and history.  The cookbook traces many canonical thinkers and their theory or methods in religious studies.  This essentially represents the field’s intellectual history.  The recipes attempt to encapsulate some element of each thinker’s contribution to the field (when concepts are mixed with real food elements, there is an explanation), and the courses that I will focus on each week mark the general periodization of the field from the 15th century to the present (except for the “main course” which I reordered slightly to fit those thinkers I find foundational).  Each week I will also be posting without much commentary a menu grouping that seeks to make connections among the thinkers.

These postings will not take the place of television-related posts for this month, but I hope they will provide an interesting diversion each Friday

The How I Met Your Mother crew is excited about appetizers and hors d'oeuvres

Appetizers (15th-early 19th centuries)

Herbert of CherburyCommon Notions crudités
There is a Supreme God.
This Sovereign Deity ought to be worshipped.
Worship means genuine piety and morality and not hypocritical displays.
Sins can be forgiven.
There will be rewards and punishments in an after life.

1.Combine ingredients on a platter to present the common denominator of all religions.
2. For variation: There is no variation; this is the universal religious foundation.

David Hume-Hopes and Fears Bruscetta
This recipe serves 6-10 people as the scientifically based origin of religion.  For most accurate results, use hope, fear, and other sentiments with unknown origins and causal processes. Bread base must be all-natural because religion is natural and non-rational; best if recipe used is from a polytheistic religion, as that is the original form of religion according to Hume. DO NOT SERVE WITH DIESTIC APPETIZERS.

6-7 tomatoes, chopped precisely in repeatable half-inch cubes
2 cloves garlic, chopped precisely
6-8 basil leaves, minced
1 Tbsp pure fear
1 Tsp essence of hope
other sentiments to taste
All-natural bread base, toasted.

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F
2. Combine tomatoes, garlic, and basil in a large bowl.  Soak in fears, hopes, and sentiments until completely infused and no longer discernible as separate from the tomatoes, garlic, and basil mixture.
3. Spread mix of sentimental tomatoes on the natural base.
4. Serve warm. Best with other attempts at scientific study of religion.

Friedrich Schleiermacher-Geful Three-Layer Pate 
This recipe best served to rationalists and intellectuals resistant to religion.  Shape pate in manner befitting its surroundings when served.

3 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound beef hearts (feeling), trimmed and chopped
1 pound lamb livers (God), trimmed and cubed
1 pound mixed cauliflower and zucchini (base), chopped
1 cup  affect, thirded
½ cup feeling, thirded
¾ cup Hegelian thought, thirded

1. For each layer of consciousness in the pate (base, feeling, God):

  • a. Sautee one onion and one garlic until browned.
  • b. Add beef, lamb, or vegetables and cook through

2. Set each layer aside to cool.
3. Pulse each layer in food processor while contemplating the experience of the infinite and the feeling that you might experience from encountering it. (Note: this process will be subjective based on the affects and sentiments each cook will feel.)
4. Cook each layer with affect, feeling, and Hegelian thought.
5. Pour each cooked layer into lined mold in order of consciousness: base, feeling, God.
6. Chill at least 4 hours before serving to allow affect and feeling to infuse throughout.

Karl Marx-Vodka Tomatoes
To get the full effect of this opiate of the masses, use the strongest Russian vodka you can find and have it consecrated by a Russian Orthodox priest.  For best results, used tomatoes and basil grown in community garden.

1 pound cherry tomatoes
1 bottle vodka
2 Tbsp fresh chopped basil
2 Tbsp Hegelian dialectic
3 Tsp Feurbachian projection, locus in society

1. Blanche in water infused with Hegelian dialectic and Feuerbachian projection.  Peel tomatoes, maintaining influence of Hegel and Feuerbach.
2. Soak in vodka and basil until one taste would create the illusion of heaven at the price of material concerns.
3. Serve chilled and to the masses.

Variation for presentation: Serve over base of economic concerns and within the superstructure of social institutions.

Ludwig FeuerbachProjection Cheese Puffs
While traditional cheese puffs may call for the diner to resemble the form of the cheese puff, this recipe works best when cheese puffs are formed in the shape of humankind.  Great appetizer for an anthropological or a humanist menu.  Do not serve any puffs that fall flat as they will no longer resemble projection theories.

2 Tbsp Hegelian essence of God/humanity, reversed
1 cup milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Dash cayenne pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups grated Swiss cheese (Emmenthaler or Gruyere)
Course salt

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Bring milk, butter, salt, and cayenne to boil in saucepan.  Remove from heat and mix in flour, stirring vigorously.
3. Transfer to food processor, add eggs, paprika, and cheese. Pulse until well mixed.
4. Form into shape of human on lined baking sheet.  Sprinkle with salt.
5. Bake for about 30 minutes until nicely puffed, forming base and projection layer separated by the air of psychological need.

Structures and Patterns Menu
(Those thinkers who look for patterns in religions that reveal underlying cultural structures)

Appetizer: Herbert of Cherbury-Common Notions crudités
First Course: James Frazer-Practical Magic Onion Soup
Main Course: Max Weber-Ideal Types T-bone Steak
Dessert: Harvey Whitehouse-Doctrinal and Imagistic (black and white) Cookies

Is Glee (still) a melodrama?


"Why are we outside?" "Because Yentl sang this while outside." (no gaps here!)


A few weeks ago, my TV Theory and Criticism class watched Glee‘s second season premiere alongside two episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful in anticipation of a discussion of soap operas.  Instead of drawing comparisons between the two, the contrasts appeared more starkly than I had anticipated.  While the soaps made extensive use of dialogue and plot gaps, emphasizing reaction shots to convey emotions and plot progression, Glee seemed to be saying everything.  The soap opera may be the example par excellence of television melodrama, but Glee seems to be moving away from the elements of melodrama that made the first season (on a whole) interesting.

After last week’s Glee, with its explicit discussions of religion and atheism, it seems nothing was left unsaid.  On popular television, explicit religion is often reserved for didactic religious television such as 7th Heaven and Touched By An Angel.  There are exceptions, of course.  Battlestar Galactica perpetually dealt with explicit questions of faith and belief and atheism, but the degree of displacement afforded by science-fiction (particularly on BSG where monotheism was defamiliarized through its association with the Cylons) presents explicit religion as if it were implicit, requiring similar interpretive reading strategies.  As Horace Newcomb writes in “Religion on Television,” “Producers avoid the specifics of belief, the words of faith, and concrete images of the transcendent like the plague.  Such specificity could cost them audience.  In the meantime, we are given the deeply, powerfully embedded notions of the good that must come from  . . . somewhere.”

Religion, like may topics deemed too polemic for broadcast, often goes unsaid, conveyed instead through costuming or set dressing (i.e. a cross necklace or a menorah in the background in a TV apartment).  As with melodrama, there exists a “feeling that there is always more to tell than can be said” (Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury.”).  If melodrama corresponds with “a sublimation of dramatic conflict into decor, color, gesture, and composition of the frame,” as Thomas Elsaesser argues in “Tales of Sound and Fury,” then is Glee (still) a melodrama?


Finn, praying to Grilled Cheesus


Though one episode isn’t really enough to make a case either way, “Grilled Cheesus” is an exemplar of the trend seen thus far in Glee‘s second season: the text is consuming the subtext.  In Glee the subtext that would often be sublimated in melodrama often finds expression (though through some displacement still) in the musical sequences.  Last season, such sequences were mixed in their presentation: variation between integrated musical numbers (with the characters taking the stage or self-consciously performing the songs) and fantasy sequences (see: “Like A Virgin,” “Keep Me Hanging On”) with many songs sliding between the two modes of address.  This season, however, even the fantasy sequences are explained: in the Brittany Spears episode all of the fantasy songs resulted from a dentist’s disbursement of nitrous oxide.  And “Grilled Cheesus” is the first fully integrated musical episode of the show, according to Amanda Ann Klein at AntennaGlee is clearly moving away from the sublimation of action or emotion into fantasy song sequences.

Something is lost in the movement away from melodrama’s mode of expression, but in the instance of “Grilled Cheesus” and its primary subject matter: religion and atheism, perhaps it was necessary.  The episode pushed at the boundaries of explicit religion and–more uniquely–explicit atheism presented earnestly on television.  Kurt, as the voice of atheism for the show, needs to be explicit and steadfast in his non-belief to provide balance with the explicit beliefs of his Christian and Jewish peers.  Glee has always been somewhat socially didactic, calling for tolerance explicitly and implicitly, but “Grilled Cheesus” foregrounded that strain to confront the controversial topic of atheism.


Mercedes tries to comfort Kurt through the power of song (and God)


To a degree, this subject’s avoidance of subtext and sublimation worked.  Most clearly, it worked when it was exploring the limits of how people offer comfort.  Mercedes, Rachel, Quinn, and Finn cannot conceptualize offerings of comfort outside of their religions.  Mercedes, as Kurt’s closest friend, has the most trouble.  First, she sings “I Look To You,” saying that it’s about looking to God in times of darkness, and even tells Kurt after he rebuffs her attempt at religious comfort, “I feel like I don’t know how to be around you anymore.”  Mercedes connects with Kurt on many levels of friendship and understanding, but she never really sees how Kurt can find any comfort outside of God and religion.  Kurt’s continued resistance to religious forms of comfort and Mercedes repeated explicitly religious attempts  would not work a well as they do in creating tension if one or both were sublimated.

However, the erosion of subtext on Glee also makes the show less engaging for me as an active viewer.  I find less gaps in both narrative and character development to fill with my imagination or interpretation.  Like the choice of “Losing My Religion” and “One of Us,” the episode seemed much more literal than figurative, flattening out the story, songs, and characters.

I don’t know if Glee will continue to eat its own subtext or if, as is its wont, it will be consistent in its inconsistency, but I want to close with a comparison of one of the last scenes of “Grilled Cheesus” with one of the last scenes of Supernatural‘s “Swan Song.”  In both scenes, a two-person family unit is brought back from the brink by the phrase,  “I’m right here; I’m not going anywhere/going to leave you.”  Kurt tells his comatose father, Burt, this after saying that he loves him and that he believes in him.  In Supernatural, however, Dean tells this to his Lucifer-possessed brother, Sam, without saying anything else.  The phrase is not the punctuation to a sentiment; it is imbued with the sentiment through the sublimation of brotherly love into banal expression, presence, and most importantly an object, the family Impala.  Both scenes argue for humanism if not over then before religion, yet it is the horror show that expresses it through the melodramatic mode, not the supposed melodrama, Glee.

The Fantastic, Feminist Religion of Wonderfalls at FLOW

As a summer column editor for flowtv.org, I got the chance to write an article for them.  It appeared last week; you should read it (and the other great columns Flow puts out biweekly!).

The Fantastic, Feminist Religion of Wonderfalls

The Wax Lion says, "Read the words."

We Save Each Other: Humanistic Soteriology in Lost vs. Supernatural

In some ways, I really wish I could avoid this post.  Everyone’s talking about the Lost finale and offering these incredibly eloquent reviews and retrospectives on the series.  I love that so many people love to discuss this show; I think it’s a wonderful sign for television criticism (both academic and not) and especially for the evolving relationship between “quality” and “genre” labels.  I, however, am somewhat intimidated by the cacophony of voices in the discourse of Lost, especially in academic circles, and am trepidatious about discussing a show that so many people love but that I only like.  But I am a television scholar focusing on religion and genre television, and once I commented on Louisa Stein’s take on the finale, I realized I had to do it.

I watched the Lost finale live with a friend who loves the series, so I tried to curb my less-than-favorable reactions to the final scenes in the church for her sake.  I understand what it means to mourn a series, and I didn’t want to tarnish that, but alone moments later all I could do was compare “The End” to Supernatural‘s fifth season finale “Swan Song,” and the former suffered from the comparison.  There are quite a few interesting parallels between the two, but there seems to be so few people who are invested in both, that Stein’s comparison is the only one I’ve seen.

Looking for an actor to play a powerful, plot-driving being who is always three steps ahead? Mark Pellegrino: Lucifer on SPN and Jacob on Lost

Lost and Supernatural operate on vastly different scales: Lost is an epic with an enormous cast and sprawling sets and locations, while Supernatural had no standing set until the third season and a cast of regulars that has grown from two to four over five seasons.  Yet they share similar ambitions, especially regarding their overall worldviews.  Both shows frame their narrative mythology in Christian terms but leave plenty of room to play with non-Christian and sometimes non-religious symbols, themes, and messages.  The ultimate concern of both series seems to be that salvation can be achieved through humanity and its expression through love and communitas on earth.  I must first–admittedly briefly and, for now, through broad strokes–analyze the Christian frames to the shows’ mythologies in order to argue why Lost (perhaps unintentionally) denies its ultimate concern by focusing on the afterlife in the last 15 minutes of the series.

Both Lost and Supernatural may make gestures to a more Universalist idea of religion, but these gestures are contained by Christian symbols.  This containment becomes clearest in Supernatural‘s “Hammer of the Gods” and in Lost‘s “The End.”  In “Hammer of the Gods,” Kali tells the Winchesters, “Westerners, I swear — the sheer arrogance. You think you’re the only ones on Earth? You pillage and you butcher in your God’s name. But you’re not the only religion. And he’s not the only god. Now you think you can just rip the planet apart? You’re wrong. There are billions of us, and we were here first. If anyone gets to end this world…it’s me.”  Kali seems to act as an acknowledgment of other religions’ importance and their own apocalyptic narratives and prophecies, but the episode culminates in Lucifer easily decimating the gathering of non-Christian gods, implying that the Christian figure of the Devil is more powerful than Norse, Taoist, Greek, Hindu, and animist gods.  Christianity is the frame for this particular narrative, giving Lucifer the power over other gods, but not over humanity.  Lucifer is ultimately himself contained by the willpower of Sam Winchester because of his brotherhood with Dean and their shared human experiences in life.

Similarly, Lost visualizes other religions within a church that acts as a way-station to the afterlife.  In the quarters of the church, Jack encounters symbols of almost every world religion, most clearly in the stained glass window that acts as the backdrop to his emotional and revelatory discussion with his father.  While the stained glass window does contain symbols of (from top left to bottom right) Islam, Judaism, Hinduism (and other Indian religions), Christianity, Buddhism or Jainism, and Taoism, the symbols and the window are all contained within a church.  Architecturally and symbolically, Christianity holds all the other represented religions, a point further supported by the character Christian Shepherd leading the castaways into the white light over the church threshold that is flanked by two angelic fonts.

Jack and the "Universalist" window in the church

The problem is that Lost contains these religions in the afterlife.  It may be a creation of the characters inhabiting it, but its nature as “the afterlife” ties it to a larger, transcendent power.  This sanctions the containment in a way that Supernatural doesn’t.  In the latter, Lucifer may appear to cut a swath through the other gods, but the episode is ultimately a Trickster episode, signaling that there may be alternate explanations, that everything may not be as it appears.  Moreover, Kali, the character who acts as voice of the ignored or minimized non-Abrahamic religions survives.  She still exists to prove that Christianity is “not the only religion.”  I read Lost‘s afterlife church as a statement of Christian “Truth;” all of the castaways, regardless of creed, gather in a church to “move on,” presumably to heaven as the heretofore “sideways-verse” had been mostly happy and positive–and the whole being led by (the) Christian Shepherd past the gates bit.

Half of the sixth season was devoted to events in the “sideways” realm that is revealed to be the afterlife; thus, the focus in the final season retroactively shifts from the relationship between two alternate earthly lives to the relationship between a life on earth and the afterlife beyond earth.  On the island in “The End,” Jack insists that “All of this matters,” but in the church afterlife that becomes patently untrue.  To a degree, the characters’ experiences on the island matter–and certainly matter from a character standpoint–but including relatively short-lived characters like Boone, Libby, or Ana-Lucia (who may not have been “ready” but is still existing in the afterlife-anteroom reality) emphasizes for the narrative the event and survival of the crash over the life led thereafter.  We know nothing about Sawyer, Kate, or Claire’s lives after they left the island, nor do we know how Hurley and Ben governed the island after Jack’s death.  I would be fine with not knowing these things except for the knowing about what happens after they all die and subtly insisting that knowledge is what really matters.  The reunions, the recognition of love and communitas, that had previously made me giddy with happiness now seem hollow because that happiness now seems only possible after life.  The choice is no longer “Live together, [or] die alone;” instead, it’s “Live together in order to die together.”  The tragedies and victories of life become important only in that they lead to a happy afterlife.

The Winchester communitas: Sam, Dean, and the Metallicar

Supernatural takes the opposite view.  Any glimpse of the afterlife is always directly connected back to earthly life.  Dean goes to hell so that Sam may live, and Sam jumps into the Pit to contain Lucifer, save Dean’s life and the world.  Both Winchesters briefly visit heaven in “Dark Side of the Moon” but find it full of memories from life and lacking as a result.  Dean says, “That’s not Nivana; that’s the Matrix;” Heaven is many simulations of life with each individual existing separately from others, and it’s anything but pleasurable to the Winchesters.  Every visit to an afterlife is used to cement life on earth as the most important realm of existence.  Earthly tragedies and victories mean everything on Supernatural because life is where it all happens.  Winchester brotherly communitas may extend beyond life–instigating both brothers’ trips to hell and shaping their shared axis mundi in heaven (an exception to the separation rule)–but on earth and in life their bond is formed, cultivated, tested, and affirmed.  If Lost ultimately undermines salvation through humanity on earth by shifting emphasis to communitas after life, Supernatural has continually underlined salvation through humanity on earth by minimizing the power and possibility of communitas beyond earth.  If salvation is to be found, it is through human bonds on earth, and it is all the more precious for being limited to one lifetime.

Image Credits
1. Mark Pellegrino
2. Lost Church
3. Winchester Communitas