When I saw the title (“Dear God”) and the briefest of plot synopses (Christian mediation) for the episode of The Good Wife that aired on CBS on Sunday, October 5th, I wondered. It’s not very often that television gets this stuff right. Sure, The Good Wife is reliably one of the best dramas on TV (especially broadcast network TV) right now. The writing and directing and acting are consistently top-notch. Many weeks the guest cast list includes at least one notable name. While faith has come up from time to time throughout the seasons, it’s always been a sideline part of a story, not the main focus. Usually it involves mother-in-law Jackie sniping at Eli Gold (her son’s previous campaign manager who is now his chief of staff) about his Jewishness … or more recently daughter Grace and her burgeoning Christian faith.
But overall, far beyond The Good Wife, television has a long history of getting faith more wrong than right. I still regard TV’s best portrayal of Christian faith and life (at least as I’ve experienced it) as the short-lived series Nothing Sacred, which aired from the fall of 1997 until early spring the following year. Set in Chicago (like The Good Wife), the series centered on the staff of fictional Saint Thomas Catholic Church. Characters wrestled with faith and doubt and questions for which there were no simple, clear, easy answers. Angels never showed up to explain anything; this was no Touched by an Angel (a much more popular program that started a few years earlier). Viewers, it seems, prefer fantasy to reality again and again … a dynamic that does not bode well for those seeking honest, realistic portrayals of people of faith on television. So back to The Good Wife and “Dear God” (Episode 3 in this sixth season) …
The primary story for this episode features a client named Ed Pratt (Richard Thomas), a sort-of John-Boy Walton who went to business school and then into agribusiness rather than becoming a writer. (Yes, it is a bit of type-casting; however, few actors can convey earnest sincerity and have it seem natural and unforced like Mr. Thomas does.) Ed is a client of attorney Kary Agos (Matt Czuchry), who is on the sidelines due to pending criminal charges. So Alicia (Julianna Margulies) takes over arguing his case, assisted by newcomer Dean Levine-Wilkins (Taye Diggs). The courtroom sparring between Alicia or Dean and the defendant’s attorney, Carter Schmidt (Christian Borle), does not sit well with Ed or with the defendant, Wendell Keller (familiar face Robert Joy). As it turns out, not only are Ed and Wendell neighbors, they are also Christians. So they decide to try a different approach to resolve their dispute: Christian mediation by what is called “the Matthew Process” and appears to draw from instructions in Chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel.
Now here we go … but in which direction? What variety of Christian behavior and practice is going to be on display?
Enter Robert Sean Leonard (more recognizable here than in his recent turn as Dr. Roger Kadar on TNT’s Falling Skies) as the mediator, Del Paul. His mediation sessions take place at a conference-style table set up in a church sanctuary. In the hands of a lesser writer and a lesser actor, this character could have easily become a buffoonish compilation of clichés that the entertainment industry frequently associates with Christians … which is what I feared would happen. But that is not what happens at all.
As the first mediation session begins, the lawyers attempt to recreate the same arguments and strategies we just saw them using in the courtroom. Del, however, is having none of that. The rules and procedures to which the lawyers are accustomed don’t apply here. Instead, Del’s primary concern is what is going on with Ed and Wendell – what is the issue as each understands it? … which is where any mediation process generally begins. This being a Christian mediation process, Del is also concerned about Ed and Wendell’s on-going relationship as neighbors and as fellow believers, their personal integrity and the role their faith has in their interactions. Hence, it is quickly made clear to the attorneys that scripture is to inform their arguments – not legal precedent.
This sends Alicia home to consult with her daughter Grace (Makenzie Vega) for a crash course in what passages from the Bible would be appropriate for her to use. As Alicia lines up the passages to use to support her case and then to argue against what the opposing counsel is likely to say (yes, “Bible bullets” to shoot back with), Grace explains that the Bible doesn’t work that way. This leads to Grace explaining how things in the Bible can be true “the way poetry is true.” It’s a great moment for the characters and a realistic explanation that most pastors would love for a member of the youth group to be able to articulate.
Back in mediation, Alicia and Carter give working from Scripture their best efforts, but they are still attorneys. Del acknowledges that they have done their homework … while at the same time subtly conveying his awareness that their use of scripture is utilitarian … in a manner that is not condescending or insulting. And when Del states he will pray and reflect on the points that have been raised, inviting the others to do the same, he comes across as genuine and conveys an openness to possibilities rather than a mind that is set on a foregone conclusion. When the next mediation session convenes, Del has reached an understanding that opens a safe place for one party to confess … and to explain why he felt he had few options other than to act as he did … and for both parties to work out a means of restitution that honors their relationship as neighbors and friends by not forcing the party in the wrong into destitution.
Also during the back-and-forth of dueling scripture passages in the second mediation, as the Alicia and Carter attempt to use scripture much as they do case law, the heretofore quiet second-chair Dean spontaneously cites a very relevant passage of scripture. That leads to a conversation with Alicia that exposes some backstory for Dean’s character … that he considered going into the priesthood before To Kill a Mockingbird drew his interest to what legal practice could accomplish … and, like Alicia, he didn’t consider himself to be “genetically built to believe in God” … until he did. Without this bit of self-disclosure, who would have guessed – or even wondered for a moment – that this character might also be a Christian?
What makes Dean different now that we know he has faith in God, that he considers himself a Christian? Maybe nothing really. After all, what did we assume about this character (or any other character) initially? Do we expect characters we encounter in stories, whether on TV or in film or in books, to be Christian (or have any kind of faith affiliation)? Do we assume, if it isn’t made clear and expressed in a specific way, that some form of religious faith is, therefore, absent?
What about the people we meet in real life, day to day? What do we expect or assume about them? If they don’t say they’re Christian … if they don’t throw the word blessed around … if they aren’t given to spouting phrases like “praise the Lord” or “the Lord laid it my heart… if they aren’t constantly putting it out there, do we imagine they might possibly be Christian? Statistics indicate that most of the people we cross paths with (except for those we did see at church on Sunday – if we were there) were not at church the previous Sunday. But is regular church attendance the definition of a Christian? Or is it attending Bible studies? Or does some indication of devotional practices or a prayer life prove that one is a Christian?
What do we expect of people? What do we take as a given to be true of them? And how do our expectations change if we know they are Christian … or if we know they are not?
Looking at this episode of The Good Wife, what evidenced the characters as Christian wasn’t necessarily what they said or the way they said it. What made the mediation process Christian was not the role of prayer (at no time did any of the parties clearly pray during the mediation) or the use of scripture — the non-believing Alicia and the who-knows-what-he-believes Carter cited scripture the most. What marked the characters identified as Christian – Ed, first, and also Wendell and Dean as well as Del – was a sense of integrity.
The dictionary defines integrity as soundness or completeness, honesty and sincerity. The word shares a root with integrate, meaning to bring the pieces together into a whole. It’s not that having religious faith, whether particularly Christian faith or any faith at all, is essential to having integrity. People without religious beliefs can – and do – have integrity. But for those who do have religious faith, that faith is a part that must be included in the whole-making necessary of integrity. The faith has to be expressed in how you live … the way you look at other people and life and things … and how you do what you do in the world.
“A Christian cobbler,” Martin Luther famously explained, “makes good shoes, not shoes with little crosses on them.” Faith isn’t lived out by putting a pious gloss on something, whether it’s little crosses or fish symbols or a “blessed.” Faith is lived out by doing our best work consistently because it is the right thing to do, not because we’ll get a bigger reward (this life or the next … take your pick). Faith is lived out in relationships marked by care, respect, honesty, a concern for the well-being of the other equal to one’s own. “See how they love one another?” remarked a confounded critic, observing the early Christians. This sort of faith made visible in relations with others, how and why we do what we do, is a key piece in Christian integrity.
Kudos to The Good Wife for getting faith right (at least in this aspect). Can we do the same?
And, speaking of people doing their best work in whatever role is given, also check out Linda Lavin’s work in this episode. She has a significant role in this episode as part the on-going story line involving criminal charges against Kary. As Joy Grubick, Kary’s Pretrial Service Officer while he’s out on bond, she hits all her marks as a dedicated, hard-working, probably underpaid, clearly underappreciated public servant. Ms. Lavin’s performance in her last scene in this episode is as real as it gets.