Friday, January 18, 2008

Hospital chaplains

For years what ER has really needed was a good chaplain written in. They've had clergy come in as patients and occasionally had clergy come in to minister to a dying person but no chaplain. Well, this season they finally get one and she is so lame it hurts.

Last night's episode is a case in point. One story line saw a prison doctor save the life of a young boy from drowning. It turns out that he was responsible for executing 17 prisoners including the boy's father. He has come to the conviction that he was wrong to execute these prisoners and is now doing everything he can to make amends to the families before he dies. He is convinced that what he has done isn't enough and that he will be condemned to hell for killing the inmates. The doctors call in the chaplain to help relieve his torment and she is as helpful as spitting on a forest fire.

She says nothing of significance, doesn't understand his fear, and walks away distraught because she was able to bring no relief. In a scene with one of the doctors she says that she was ordained, she studied Buddhism, she went to an ashram, she thought that kind of synthesized approach would be good in a hospital but what people want when they are suffering is certainty and she can't provide it. Well, duh.

The issue of how to provide spiritual care in secular institutions is a complex one but I don't think the answer is to create some kind of weird esperanto of religious language that speaks to no one and for no one. There is an implicit criticism of the patient in describing what he wants as certainties. I think that what is at the base of this is the idea that people who are firmly within a religious tradition and take the worldview seriously are really people looking for fixed answers because they can't handle ambiguity or uncertainty. Someone who is satisfied by her vague, contentless reassurances is obviously much more spiritually mature.

The patient is tormented because he believes he is a moral agent and that his actions have consequences. Her platitudes aren't just useless, they are insulting, because she fails to take him seriously. She is in effect dismissing his ability to earn damnation, not for theological reasons - she isn't arguing that his repentance is all God needs to forgive him or that God does not condemn people to hell - she is neither a Lutheran or an universalist - but because no one would take the idea that human beings can do things worthy of condemnation seriously. When she concludes that she has nothing to offer patients I responded - ain't that the truth!

How different was the story line a few years ago when Luka treats a bishop dying of Lupus. The bishop sees Luka's torment over the death of his family and speaks words of absolution with authority.

Friends would say to me, it is just a tv show, and it is of course. But the issues raised by this episode get played out in chaplaincy programmes in many places. And you have to wonder how many struggling patients/students/prisoners get offered this kind of spiritual pablum.


Kevin said...

***...but I don't think the answer is to create some kind of weird esperanto of religious language that speaks to no one and for no one.***

Great line. Couldn't agree more. I too, saw ER last night (which is odd since I don't usually watch it) and had the same concerns with the chaplain as you did.

When the prison doctor was was yelling at her, asking what he need to do for forgiveness, I wanted to jump through the screen, and yell at him back (since he wouldn't hear any soft words) that he needed to confess and ask God for forgiveness.

Then I would have opened my communion kit and administered the sacrament of forgiveness.

But I think that episode asks good questions of faith and how it impacts those who suffer, not just with physical problems, but with psycho-spiritual issues.


Kathryn said...

At least there is some sort of idea that the chaplain MIGHT be helpful.
On UK hospital soaps, clergy only appear as ex abusers, fundamentalist bigots damning their gay children to hell, or occasionally sad philanderers seducing the vulnerable.
How did we get to this place?
I too remember the Luka and the Bishop episode - and sat there thinking "If only anyone here saw the church in such a positive light".
Very very sad :-(

aaronorear said...

Don't give up on ER just yet. Remember how useless Noah Wylie's (sp?) character was in the early episodes? Perhaps there's an arc this character will follow, growth into the job.

Erin said...

I'm afraid Aaron that I read her comments and the new romance between what's his name and Sam as the indication that her character is toast. Sigh.
Things are mostly the same here Kathryn with lots of story lines about corrupt clergy. I did a public talk once on clergy in popular culture and it became abundantly clear that there were few examples of positive, effective clergy in pop culture.
Kevin, I thought he had confessed, repented, shown remorse and committed himself to trying to make amends. I would have declare words of absolution and the assurance that God would greet him with open arms. It was good to see the show address the issue even if I was disappointed by their response.

Hjördís said...

Well said.
People like that drive me nuts.

m said...

That's one episode I missed :(
I've been watching the show the last few weeks, though, because many of the young people I encounter on my rounds at St Paul's ask me if I'm 'cool' like the chaplain on ER.
Maybe the writing around her character is weak because the writers are trying NOT to create the image of a spiritual abuser -- but culture doesn't leave the unchurched with very many examples of those people, so they don't have a lot to go on.
I imagine it'd be pretty easy to write a bishop in as forgiving and authoritative -- but how many people actually know bishops?
The stereotype is probably easier to deal with than finding a new or challenging way to write about a chaplain.

Outgoing... said...

Certainty indeed...
I am not sure if I follow all of the intricacies of your disdain for this TV-god-dispenser as I don't watch the show but I think you have raised a valuable point to consider.
absolute certainty has been the backwater of fundamentalist evangelical perspectives for decades and is only now beginning to be revealed for the disease that it really is.
Our human propensity for certainty is mostly unmitigated in most areas of our lives (i would contend that the immediacy of our culture is tree branch from this root). I am likewise refreshed when I encounter spiritual perspectives that do not shy away from uncertainty but rather embrace it. In my spriritual background the requirement of certainty obliterated the ability for genuine curiousity about who God is and as a result the ability to internalize any real sense of who He might be.
What has become more refreshing is something that certain vains of Christian thought have not wandered away from as much as evangelicals have. That is to acknowledge the deep mystery of God and his interaction with humanity and the ability to express faith with a seemingly deeper conviction than that of those peddling certainty. I'm not sure how this resonates with you Erin but there is a sense that the issue of certainty may actually be the foremost aspect of theological debate and discovery in this era...

Erin said...

Outgoing (love the photo) - I agree with much of what you say about certainty and mystery. I think the contrast the chaplain is making isn't between certainty and mystery so much as between certainty and mush. My MA advisor said in a lecture once that Christians historically didn't understand mystery as that which couldn't be understood but rather as that which is infinitely understandable - in the sense that our understanding always just draws us deeper into the mystery rather than exhausting it. I think that people like Thomas Merton and Basil Pennington visited ashrams and talked with Buddhists because they were trying to understand more deeply the mystery of God but they would have offered this tortured doctor more than the platitudes she offered.