Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Theology of House

The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
19 February 2009
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School
Chapel Talk

Getting through winter at Kent is tough, and it is very important not to make it any tougher for yourself.  I am from California.  Surviving the winter term at Kent is, for me, every year, a major accomplishment.  But I have learned something about survival in the five years I have lived in New England.  I have learned that pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, wins and losses, winter and spring, are not so far apart.  And you can’t have one without the other.  I have also learned that the best and worst of life at Kent are very close together.  Right now.  More than any other time, the good things and the bad things are neighbors.  The important thing is to keep going, keep the faith, and wait for the sweet release of spring.  It is really coming.  Also, beating Taft in basketball really helps, which my JV team did yesterday—very sweet.  Those rotten kids from Taft had it coming.     
But when my winter wisdom and my basketball team fail to help keep me going, I have no choice: I turn to a doctor.  That’s right, a medical doctor, who helps me survive winter.  He doesn’t give me a prescription, but his name is Doctor Gregory House of Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.  You may have heard of him.  House is the ultimate curmudgeon; he is part Nietzsche as an uberdoctor who doesn’t have to follow the rules, part Sherlock Homes, and part Socrates lifting up the examined life for all of us.  And yet House is, in many ways, a very, very horrible person; yet he inspires both fascination and loathing.  As your chaplain, I confess; I can’t take my eyes off him.  Terribly, tragically, I identify with him.  I love watching him trying to outsmart his wonderful and very attractive supervisor, Dr. Lisa Cuddy.  I would like to have Cuddy as my supervisor, and then I would like to trick her too.  I really like her.     
There is so much that I enjoy about House, but his character is not mine.  We must be clear about that.  I’m much more like Wilson, I think.  I see the good side of people, most of the time, or I try to.  For House, there are no sides to people; otherwise we would be geometric shapes, right? 
There is only the truth that:
            Everybody lies.”
            How many times have you heard House say that?  We will have plenty of Housisms before this talk is over, but here are some early House quotes.  House rules if you will.  
            “I don’t ask why patients lie, I just assume they do.”
            “It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies.  The only variable is about what.”
            “I’ve found that when you want to know the truth about someone that someone is probably the last person you should ask.”
            “Dying people lie too.  Wish they’d worked less, been nicer, opened orphanages for kittens…if you really want to do something, you do it.  You don’t save it for a sound bite.”
            Now the title of this chapel talk is “The Theology of House,” if there can be such a thing.  House’s vision of the human condition is by no means a modern defense of original sin, but it does sound a lot like Augustine, whom House would have definitely hated.  But it certainly presents the world as no longer one of good people and bad people, the sketchy people and the special people.  There are only patients; we are all patients.  There is a radical equality among all people, in the mind of House.  Jesus thought like this too.  Jesus and House.  What a horrible comparison, right?  Jesus is nice, right?  House is a devil.  Not exactly.  You can start reading the gospels tonight.  How many times is Jesus nice?  Stay up all night looking for the answer, and I, like House, will see you in the morning.  Jesus isn’t very nice either.  And Jesus and House both have disciples.  Jesus had James and John and Andrew.  House has Foreman, Chase, Cameron, a disciple named 13, and that guy from the Harold and Kumar movies     
Every time I hear a feeble excuse from a student, like why has Jun Hwan Kim slept through my A block class, again, I think of what House would say.  What would House do?  WWHD.  But I don’t think I would enjoy spending time with a real Dr. House.  What would he say to me?  How would he penetrate my clever lies?  I can only watch him once a day, for an hour.  That’s it.  But there, there it is.  I’m already lying.  If there’s more than one episode, I’m watching it, even if I have papers to grade.  Two nights ago, I watched three episodes in a row.  Two I had seen before. 
I promised House rules, House music.  So here are just a sample of the famous sayings of House, the rudest of the wise men, the curmudgeon messiah.  Here we go:     
            “Humanity is overrated.”
            “If you can fake sincerity, you can fake pretty much anything.”
            “Tragedies happen.”
“Weird works for me.”
“In this universe effect follows cause.  I’ve complained about it but-“
“There’s no I in ‘team.’  There is a me, though, if you jumble it up.”
“Welcome to the end of the thought process.”
“If he gets better, I’m right.  If he dies, you’re right.”
“I hurt my leg.  I have a note.”
“If you talk to God, you’re religious.  If God talks to you, you’re psychotic.”
“Arrogance has to be earned.”
“…the fact that the sexual pleasure center of your brain has been overstimulated by spirochetes is a poor basis for a relationship.  Learned that one the hard way.”
“Never trust doctors.”
 “New is good.  Because old ended in death.”
“What usually happens when you poke something with a stick?  It pokes back.”
“Misery is better than nothing.”
“Reality is almost always wrong.”
“You could think I’m wrong, but that’s no reason to stop thinking.”
My favorite House episode is the one with the hallucinating priest.  Among the many symptoms of the priest, he has seen a disturbing religious vision—of a hovering Jesus who is bleeding from the wounds of the crucifixion.  The priest is completely burned out by his ministry with the homeless, and it is no longer clear that the priest believes in a loving God anymore.  The dialogue between House and the priest is penetrating; each sees beyond the façade of the other man, to the core, the soul.  House calls the Catholic priest “Father Nietzsche.”  He is a patient that House even visits.  Though neither profess a belief in God, things happen to redeem them both that neither can explain.  When House eliminates the hallucination of Jesus as a symptom, rather than as an actual event in time, which it was, the doctor correctly diagnoses the priest’s disease.  At numerous points, House calls the priest a hypocrite.  The priest responds, without missing a beat, that House is the biggest hypocrite he has met in his entire life: for pretending that he doesn’t care about his patients.  Yes, he does care.  And we teachers care about all of you.  He may not like it, but Dr. House has soul.     
            More than anything, House believes that the universe is a puzzle; the answers are out there, we just have to find them.  Is this a kind of faith?  I don’t look to House for faith, I already have that.  He would call this faith my imaginary friend.  Yes, my imaginary friend, the suprarational God who created a rational and intelligible universe, for genius atheists and all of you to figure out.  So spin your Rubik’s cubes, if you still have one.  I love that God.  But enough about him, we talk about him all the time in chapel.  This talk is about House.  House gives me hope in winter.  I look to House to remind me that eccentricity works, and conflict is an intellectual necessity.  Progress comes from the eccentric people in our world, not the followers, and House sure makes it look like a whole lot of fun to think outside the box.  His inability to love is a problem, but hey, nobody’s perfect.  Be an individual, avoid Dr. Cuddy (unless it’s a date), and clinic hours whenever you can, and do not take painkillers without a doctor’s prescription.  Winter is almost over, thank God, but there is still work to be done.  And you can do it; you can even excel, and save the patient, which is you, after all.  The answers to your final exams are out there.  The answers to the problems in the world are out there too.  Now go and find them.  Amen.       

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