Truth in Unlikely Places

By

Rachelle Gardner, who runs a great blog called Rants and Ramblings (On Life as a Literary Agent), ran a post last week that I thought would fit in well here at the Rabbit Room. She graciously gave me permission to cross-post it but be sure to check out her blog as well (CBA-Ramblings.blogspot.com).

Finding Truth in Unlikely Places by Rachelle Gardner

imagesRecently I’ve been atching “Desperate Housewives” on DVD from the 2007-08 season. Now, that probably surprises some of you. I gather from fellow Christians that we’re not “supposed” to watch and enjoy shows like that. But I’ve found the show to be extremely well-written, laugh-out-loud funny, and to top it off, surprisingly deep. It explores human truth at its essence, and is constantly pointing out how we all have so much good inside, but we all have a dark side too. The show dares to point out the difficulty of accepting that we aren’t all bad or all good. We have both.

How many Christians can deal with that? How many people can deal with that?

One of the biggest themes on the program is secrets. Characters are always hiding things from each other – and often from themselves – but never without consequence. The pitfalls of secret-keeping and living a double life are made abundantly clear. Over and over the characters learn that it’s best to live in the light rather than the dark.

Even though Desperate Housewives has a reputation for being raunchy (and parts of it definitely are), the themes are solidly on the side of good morals. Characters don’t have affairs without major negative repercussions. They don’t lie without it coming back to bite them. They don’t embezzle millions of dollars and then go on to enjoy living off the money. They don’t screw up as parents without learning their lessons and having broken hearts over it. The show consistently delivers the message that being married and having an intact family is better than divorce or promiscuous singlehood. It also repeatedly portrays the significance of the family in shaping children’s lives and futures. Most of all, the show is built on the friendships between these women, always coming back to the theme that we all need each other, we’re not meant to be alone.

I was particularly impressed with the show’s handling of faith in a couple of the episodes. One of the housewives, Lynette, has no heritage of religion, but has been through countless traumas. One Sunday morning she suddenly decides, “We need to go to church!” She realizes she can no longer handle life on her own. She wants help, and she wants answers. What transpires is a funny but insightful series of attempts to find a church and find faith.

Most of the other characters on the show are regular churchgoers; Lynette’s struggle exposes the roteness of this, and encourages at least one other character to examine her faith more deeply. Viewers see the difference between religion and real faith. We hear a minister explaining, “Faith is not about answers; it’s about the questions.” In the touching conclusion to one of the episodes, we see Lynette and another housewife sitting on the porch, heads together, sticky-note-laden Bible between them, deep in conversation.

It gave me chills to watch it. This writing comes from the “secular” world but reinforces that the divisions we Christians create between “religious” and “secular” are artificial.

Here are some of the things I’ve been pondering while watching Desperate Housewives:

1. Christians may rob themselves of potentially life-altering insights (and possibly some worthwhile entertainment) when they try to insulate themselves from the secular world of art, television, movies, and books.

2. As writers, we should be paying attention to the best writing wherever we can find it – television, books, movies – and examining how and why it works.

3. As writers, we can’t be afraid of the truth. Sometimes it feels too messy for Christian writing. Sometimes it may seem too dark. But we must grapple with human experience as it actually exists, not as we wish it were. That’s where our best writing will come from.

4. We might shake our heads at the portrayal of upscale, spoiled housewives as desperate. But that’s the point of the show. The outer trappings of our lives are unimportant; inside, we’re all humans, we all struggle with faith and friendship and marriage and living lives of integrity. In our quiet moments, every single one of us has moments where we feel desperate. (If you haven’t yet, perhaps you are not old enough or have not experienced enough of life’s hardship.)

5. Finally, as Christians, it’s important to be discerning about what kinds of entertainment we allow into our lives. But we need to be careful that our discernment doesn’t turn into fear. We can’t be afraid of the world. God has a way of making Himself seen and known in the most unlikely places.

So what about you? Found any spiritual truths in unlikely places lately? I’d love to hear about it.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


14 Comments

  1. E

    Our church recently did a series on heaven and we performed John Lennon’s “Imagine” right before the sermon. It actually turned out to be amazing and was the perfect thing to do in the larger context of the service.

    But talk about uncomfortable. I was the poor schlub singing that one.

    As we were talking about the possibility of the song and the obvious risk that entailed… someone mentioned that if you really look at the words to the song – it is crying out for all the things heaven actually is. Peace. People experiencing real love and community. Imagine there’s no heaven, but then it goes on to talk about all the things heaven stands for in our hearts… high irony for certain.

    Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I would happily sing / teach / shout at the top of my lungs for the rest of my life to say that John Lennon’s “Imagine” is out to lunch. The fact that the song is exquisitely written makes it WORSE not better for me.

    And widowed at a young age, imagining there’s no heaven, even as a ridiculous hypothetical or to setup a sermon that says the opposite really loudly was painful for me.

    But, like it or not, it is a piece of our culture and it might be the most recognizable song mentioning heaven that exists right now. To start there, then move to a biblically conservative sermon on heaven and an extremely personal talk about the death of a parent is not for the faint of heart… but it became a profound exploration of heaven and of hope.

    Definitely an unlikely place to help find spiritual truth.

  2. Travis Prinzi

    @travis

    Well-said, Pete. I’ve never watched Desperate Housewives, but your claim that you can find the truth there doesn’t come as a surprise to me.

    How many Christians can handle that? Not a lot. We usually err one way or the other: we believe so much in human (or at least our own) goodness that we can’t accept the unbelievable power of the dark within us. Or, we’re so committed to a certain formulation of the doctrine of sin that we can’t imagine there’s anything good within us. The first error is easy enough to deal with: take two doses of Romans 3:10-20 and call me in the morning.

    The latter is more difficult, because we have to agree with Paul that “in my flesh dwelleth no good thing.” But even the strongest believers in total depravity do not believe that we are utterly depraved – as bad as we can possibly be. We just need to remember that in practice.

    And further, we have a tendency to think that as Christians, we’ve got a better handle on our fallen nature and our pursuit of the truth than those sinners over there. A perspective that puts us all in the same place – sinners in need of grace – would be a welcome change to the us/them mentality we usually carry around with us. Tolkien believed our original created intent is not so utterly lost that we no longer have good desires or operate in ways we were created to operate – hence, the human activity of sub-creation.

    So it should come as no surprise at all when the truth pops up in a “secular” show. In fact, we should be looking for it, and we should let it surprise us – and, dare I say, even teach us at times.

  3. Tony Heringer

    Pete,

    Thanks. This is a very thoughtful post. I agree, we shouldn’t dismiss anything like this out of hand because we all bear God’s image — whether we follow Christ or not. The common grace of God allows us to find Him everywhere — sometimes in the most unlikely of places. All of our deepest longings point to God, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that His truth would be born out in anyone’s art. God uses all these means to draw us to Himself.

    In similar way I’ve enjoyed “House.” Its not sexually graphic, but the “good” Doctor fills in the blanks there, eh? But the show, in general is not demeaning to persons of faith and in fact, in some ways champions it. It sounds like some of the writers on “Desperate…” have a similar sense of their audience. Which is much different than someone like Bill Mahar or Anne Coulter who tend toward demonization of those they disagree with. Seems that on TV the fictional characters are more real than the non-fiction ones.

    I’ll travel over to her blog and give input.

  4. Drew

    I’d put a plug in for “Mad Men” if only to inspire someone to write a lengthy treatise on it, so I can then respond with “Yeah! That’s it!” An excellent program with more vices on display than I can count. Not a lot of characters to whom one can point and say “There goes virtue!” (In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any.) And yet it perfectly captures the statement that all men lead lives of quiet desperation.

    The series is very well written and acted. Dialogue is often kept to a minimum, and yet still so much is communicated by the actors. And even when very little apparently happens in terms of action, the characters’ interior lives are compelling.

    Anyone else watching this series?

  5. Toni Whitney

    Thank you for the link, Pete. There is alot of good information ‘n stuff on this site.

  6. Stacy Grubb

    I’ve never watched a single episode of “Housewives,” but I sure do agree with what Rachelle is saying. I’ve encountered plenty of folks who winced at the music I was listening to (or writing) because of the various storylines that were devoid of morals, faith, God, and any shred of humans being good. Like Rachelle, the two and two that I put together one day was that all of those things were missing, but the consequences of that were the actual crux of the song. Even the beer drinkin’, bar lovin’, party havin’ songs that I do like generally have the singer struggling with the fact that he or she is partaking in that lifestyle and lamenting that change is necessary. The truth is, life is crappy if we’re not living in God’s will. Even what looks beautiful on the outside is in turmoil on the inside in one form or another without God to fill the voids. So, I ask people to first stop and evaluate: Is there debauchery in this song/show/book/movie/art? Is it glorified or is the protagonist in great agony on account of it? Is it about how fun sin is or is it about how the fun wears off quickly, but the ramifications live in infamy? There is such a thing as being so sin-focused that we can’t find the presence of God where sin exists.

    Stacy

  7. Toni Whitney

    Well said, Stacy. It is certainly easy to get off on that kind of tangent. Jesus didn’t hang out with the righteous, he got down and ate with the sinners. He would have worn jeans in church, too.

  8. Charlotte

    I agree that sometimes truth can come from unlikely places… I think it’s just hard to know if it’s worth it. Are the lessons your learning worth the raunchiness in it? What are you seeing that you wish you hadn’t? Do the lessons your learning make it all worth it…? That’s just my thought for myself… do I really want to put all this impure in my heart just to get a bit of truth?

  9. Margret

    Our Heavenly Father longs for a relationship with every man, woman, and child who has ever lived/ever will live. Knowing each of us better than we know ourselves, it makes perfect sense that He plants His truths, His echoes of grace, and His love in the most unlikely places, simply to get the attention of one more person.

    Thank You, Daddy God, for going to such great lengths to convince us we are loved!

  10. Tony Heringer

    Charlotte

    Thanks for your comments. This is a place where we can work this sort of thing out. Check out http://www.rabbitroom.com/?p=1356. This thread delves into this topic and also cross references a couple of other posts along the same lines.

    The thought I had after I posted here before was not so much the worth of the material as the worth of the commentary. I don’t know Rachelle, so her commentary might be like the commentary I heard on the History Channel about the last Star Wars movie — Episode III. The commentary on the film made it sound like it was a great epic belonging in the realm of classic literature. It made George Lucas out like a modern day Dante. All I could think as I watched this documentary was, “Wow! These guys are making a bad movie look pretty good.” There could be some of that going on here too.

    I heard an interview with Stanley Fish on the recent Mars Hill Audio Journal where he asserts that folks are disabusing the writing of John Milton to justify current ideological opinion. In another words, they high jacking (pun intended) the author’s intent for their own ideological purposes. For example, Rachelle asserts “Most of the other characters on the show are regular churchgoers.” In reading the comments on her blog, there appears to be some dissent on that comment. So, if she is exaggerating here, where else has she exaggerated?

    However, there is another train of thought here. One that Tolkien talks about in the forward to “The Lord Of The Rings.” He asserts that the applicability of a story is at the discretion of the reader or, in this case, viewer. This is the sort of thing that I think stories like this can provide. I have the freedom to choose to view this show or not. If choose to watch, why? Am I looking for solid writing, like a guy who would say “I read Playboy for the interviews?” Or am I really trying to understand something about life through the lives of these characters – as flawed and depraved as they may be.

    We have to approach any and all stories with this type of freedom. Like all freedom, it comes with responsibility and One to whom we are all accoutable. For me, given my background, it would be unwise to watch this show. However, it is good to know that the writers are tackling substantive subjects and its not just “Sex In The Suburbs”.

    Thanks again for the feedback. I look forward to hearing more from others on this topic.

  11. Brian Roberts

    Tony,
    thanks for those balanced words. As a former “Desperate Housewives” watcher who bailed on the show during the second season, when Bree’s pharmacist killed her husband and then proceeded to drug her in a date-rate attempt, I decided whatever “morals” and insights creator Mark Cherry had to offer were not worth the depravity I had to suffer to get to them. While I agree that we should not NECESSARILY turn our noses up at “Secular” (particular morally offensive secular) media and that it can often have something meaningful to say, that surely does not mean that we have a prerogative to participate in it. I think it’s also a stretch to say that “Because Jesus dined with sinners” we should watch trashy television.
    In my own life, I often put my desire to enjoy questionable entertainment against this verse
    “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is fair, whatever is pure, whatever is acceptable, whatever is commendable, if there is anything of excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy-keep thinking about these things.”

  12. Stacy Grubb

    Charlotte and Brian,

    It’s definitely a matter of having to know our own boundaries and what, if anything, we as individuals might take away from what we’re viewing/hearing. I have my own limits, as well. There is music out there that I choose to not listen to because I just can’t get beyond what’s lacking morally. That’s not to say that some other person couldn’t glean something useful from it, but I can’t. We also have to be honest with ourselves and know if we’re indulging a flesh desire and claiming that we’re receiving a spiritual lift. Just about anything can be spun around into a justification to watch or listen to something if we want to. It’s kind of like being self-employed. Can I trust myself to be my own boss? I can tell everybody until the cows come home that I get a different message from a song than what they get, but only I know whether or not that’s true. I laugh at crude humor. When I’m watching a Will Ferrel movie about old men who go back to school and streak the neighborhood, I can easily say, “Yeah, but look at the ramifications: He embarrassed his wife and she kicked him out of the house.” (I suspect…uh, I’ve never seen that movie.) I can say that I’m getting a “what not to do” message from it, but really I know that I’m cracking up at Will Ferrell’s naked butt. Anyway, that’s a bunny trail of TMI and probably unnecessary to get my point across. What is my point? That just as an across the board ban isn’t logical, neither is a sweeping stamp of approval.

    Stacy

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