The Alien Work of Dr. House

We love to talk about Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death. In it, he […]

JDK / 7.16.10

We love to talk about Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death. In it, he argues that the most fundamental drive we have—going beyond Freud—is that of our fear of death. In reaction, we invest all sorts of things with importance in order to convince (trick?) ourselves that our lives are actually meaningful. As with all fears, a consequence of its power is the impulse to worship and revere. In the “old days”—before germ theory—this fear/worship was directed towards the heavens, as a recognition that a divine power held the keys to life and death. Today, however, the increasingly common assumption is that if there is a god, then it is powerless over life and death (but it is really, really cheering for you–hoping for the best), and the real responsibility for life and death lies with us. Not surprisingly, the priests of this new religion are not wearing collars, but stethoscopes, and minister in their own towering cathedrals.

In fact, one could argue that the advance of technology in the realm of human health has done more for the depotentating of religion than any other. Religious people have been able to incorporate the fossil record, the possibility of aliens and flying cars (thank God) into their theocentric worldviews much more easily than Neosporin. The idea is: stop praying about your heart condition, put down the schnitzel and go for a run.

This displacement of fear has left many within the church with an increasingly acute sense of insecurity, as people are more afraid of a cancer diagnosis than they are of the “wrath of god.” As a result, religious people have always tried to one-up the zeitgeist. You think cancer is bad? How about cancer AND eternal conscious torment?
As a minister I’m sympathetic to fear-mongering, because I don’t like to be dismissed any more than anyone else; however, it is the task of a theologian (meaning, all Christians) to work to distinguish law and gospel in each and every circumstance, trusting that God is, in fact, at work, and the current milieu is no exception.

Enter Dr. House.

One of the oft-repeated axioms of this awesome show is “Everybody lies.” Routinely, we are shown how patient histories are falsified or embellished to present a picture of the person that will not seem as contemptible to the doctors, but it never works. From a law-gospel perspective, this phenomenon is a prime example of what theologians would call God’s alien work, because this fear—this sting of death—is a result of the power of the law.

People venerate the powers that, they believe, control their lives, but this veneration is often self-serving and manipulative. For religious people, this veneration (often) takes the form of Hail Marys, pilgrimages, prayers and spin classes. They do not differ in degree, only kind. Into this default setting comes the law, which exacerbates and increases the penalty of this veneration by deluding us that our motives are pure, that our fundamental priority is not ourselves. Tragically, these pious idols of health, wealth, country, family and good teeth, are not only “by their nature, not gods,” but in worshiping them we are further enslaved to our fear of ultimate inconsequence, of death. Into this world we have been given a message of hope, not that we will not die, but that one has gone before us and promised to redeem us, to walk with us, “through the valley of the shadow of death.” With Jars of Clay (below), we can sing, “It don’t matter where you bury me, ’cause I’ll be home and I’ll be free.”

Into this world of inveterate self-serving self-worshipers, Jesus came, and when this “law of sin and death,” finds its end by faith in him, we are freed to face our real patient histories, without shame—no matter how many schnitzels we’ve eaten.