As most of you know by now, I watch most of my TV on Netflix (without commercials!) long after the rest of the world has seen it. For instance, I just finished watching season 2 – that is, LAST year’s season – of “Downton Abbey.” What time I spend doing this provides occasional diversion from matters theological and pastoral; but it will not surprise you to hear that I am also searching popular entertainment – just as I often search through the pages of the Sunday “New York Times” – to see what my contemporaries are thinking and wondering and worrying about, particularly on matters spiritual and religious.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; when the dominant culture decided pretty much to discard religion wholesale, it obviously forgot all the useful and reassuring things which religion had been doing for us over the centuries. It should not be surprising, therefore, when we find ourselves missing those things, and needing to reinvent them. Religion was (and still is for some of us) our social, cultural, and moral “glue” – the thing which cemented us together and gave us a shared roadmap for negotiating life’s joys and trials, ups and downs. After all, the Latin roots of the word “religion” mean “the thing that binds together.”
One of the first mother lodes of “spiritual speculation” which I found on Netflix was the popular series “Lost.” I got curious (finally) after reading about reactions to the final episode in the newspapers. So I began to watch the first episodes on season one shortly after “the world” had watched the last episode of season six. The premise involved a magical (or at least supernatural) island which became home to the survivors of a plane crash. In addition to their own moral dilemmas and struggles for survival, these “castaways” eventually discover that there are already people on the island before them.
Anyway, what fascinated me and kept me (and so many viewers before me) watching through 121 hour-long episodes, is how the writers kept us interested in and engaged with interesting, complex characters who they allowed to search for meaning and understanding, to play out their loyalties and rivalries, and to seek out credible leadership and moral behavior. And of course, the exotic environment of the uncharted “supernatural” island allowed these exiles (refugees?) from “civilization” to enter into a new innocence (Eden?) – to go back to human basics for good and for ill, and to live in a “re-enchanted” world where science could no longer claim to have easy answers to every mystery.
Just recently, I have enjoyed watching the first season (12 episodes) of a series called “Touch” (currently in its second season on FOX). It stars Keifer Sutherland as a father, Martin Bohm, who lost his wife in the World Trade Center tragedy. He is now alone and raising his only son, 11-year old Jake, who was still an infant when his mother died. Jake is gifted, particularly in mathematics – but he is also mute. (The boy’s behaviors – including his repetitive patterns, his general refusal to make eye contact, and his intolerance for touching or being touched – are suggestive of autism.)
Over the course of the first season, Martin gradually realizes that his son’s erratic behaviors, together with the seemingly meaningless and endlessly repeated strings of numbers which Jake writes constantly in his notebooks, are in fact coded attempts to communicate with his father. Once deciphered, Jake’s “roadmap” eventually leads Martin to Professor Arthur Teller (Danny Glover), who has seen and worked with cases like Jake’s before. Teller declares that Jake is one of the gifted few who can see the “pain of the universe” through the numbers – and that he wants his father to “make things right.” (Later in the series, a mystical Orthodox Jew declares Jake to be one of the “36 righteous ones” prophesied in the Cabala.)
Is this ringing any bells? A misunderstood innocent, foretold by prophecy, who bears the pain of the world, and who seeks to recruit disciples (Martin is often assisted by a social worker named Clea Hopkins)? Jake then sends these disciples out, guided by his vision, to ease and heal the pain around them. Hmmm… Reminds me of someone else whose name begins with “J”…
“Touch” repeatedly insists on the interconnectedness of all people on earth – the episodes routinely involve multiple countries and languages (with lots of subtitles!). The show dares to assert that we are indeed “our brother’s and sister’s keeper” – that we are responsible for each other and are meant to help one another, even if we are “strangers.” There is also a lot of emphasis on generosity, loyalty, and trusting intuitions to take the next right step, even if the final destination or outcome seems unclear. I think we used to call that faith…
Although Jake never speaks, we (the viewers) hear his thoughts in a voiceover at the beginning and the end of each episode. These inner monologues are part of how we know that Jake is bright, sensitive, and highly attuned to the world and its people around him. In an episode halfway through the first season, Jake offers this little nugget: “During cataclysmic global events, our collective consciousness synchronizes. So do the numeric sequences created by random number generators, and science can’t explain the phenomenon, but religion does. It’s called prayer – a collective request, sent up in unison, a shared hope… a fear relieved… a life spared. Numbers are constant… until they’re not. In times of tragedy, times of collective joy, in these brief moments, it is only the shared emotional experience that makes the world seem less random. Maybe it’s coincidence. Or maybe it’s an answer to our prayers…” Bold stuff for commercial television, no?!
©2013 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.