Television Crime Series
By Phoebe Hudson
Theology I: Theological Analysis Project
Television crime series are inherently religious. They present disturbing questions of death, guilt, justice, mercy, confession and absolution, and hope or hopelessness. One episode may be viewed as a parable, with the center as the courtroom scene with its "moment of truth" when the norm inverts and strangeness enters, as in a parable. They are parables, for parables are the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God is here and now as Jesus said, Mk1:14-15. It breaks into our world and inhabits it while remaining holy.
A parable is the language of Jesus, himself a parable of God. A parable is often introduced by, "The kingdom of God is like . . ." It is without much specific detail and it has a single point of view. Many parables are open-ended and rather mysterious even as they remain attached to nature or the simple life. They are lively and arresting and easy to remember as lessons and they are puzzling.
A short description of the Parable of the Mustard Seed will suffice now; later it will be compared to the crime episode. Briefly, the smallest of seeds, the Mustard, is planted and produces a great shrub or tree where birds can nest. It is labeled a parable of growth but it could also be called a parable of reversal i.e. from small to large, from a dried-up seed of stored life to fecundity.
The crime series receives equally brief treatment until the pivotal courtroom courtroom scene. The characters are two detectives, four attorneys, a grieving mother and her two children, an infant and a boy, both shot: the infant dead, the boy maimed; a wealthy African-American drug dealer and his "errand" boy of thirteen years who did the shootings for his employer and is now on the stand watched over by the evil dealer who lounges impassively in his cashmere coat.
We have come to the courtroom scene in which justice will out, Mark 1:14-15 The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near; repent. . .
All characters are present and the only action is the expressions which cross their faces. The boy’s face shines under his knit cap; he appears innocent, amoral at most. He does not seem to understand the proceedings. He said he had received written instructions and an address to "clean the residence" of a customer behind on his payments. The District Attorney wants to indict the dealer and he introduces, not new evidence, but two different typed sheets which he hands to the boy to read. The boy takes a long time until the attorney asks gently, "You can’t tell the difference can you? You don’t know how to read." (Boy nods.) The boy could not read the assassination note and had gone to the wrong address where he shot two innocent children through a closed door.
Everyone in the courtroom reacts. The jury is horrified and ashamed at once (How could such a thing happen here?); the other lawyers show confusion. The dealer remains expressionless. The mother’s face is most compelling. Until now she has been grieving, angry, and cold. She looks at this boy, this child; his face still shines, still overcomes these circumstances which are not so very different from the circumstances of his life. Her face is troubled. She has a mother’s heart. She cannot condemn him.
Something indescribable passes across her face, something eternal between her and the boy.
It is the end of the story and the credits roll, white letters on black. The ending is not an ending and, like a parable, is odd and full of hope. All characters are moved by the confrontation; their lives will never be the same. The boy’s face shines out from the dark courtroom. Formerly the mother had been spiritually dead; now she is alive. She could love this child. Many details could be stated but this act of love despite all odds is most important. It contains all the rest; it is more than sufficient; it is miraculous and abundant beyond measure.
The episode of the crime series has ended wide open. Parables end in such a manner, in hope and openness (although some parables end in violence or unhappiness: The Wicked Tenant, The Prodigal Son). If Jesus is the parable of God then the parable is of Jesus – holy, transcendent, truthful, and eternal. It is not just a metaphor. Consider the Mustard Seed parable. Mk.4: 30-32.
The Gospels have slightly differing versions which do not influence the comparison. The Mustard Seed is the simplest of parables and an odd choice to compare to a crime series but that is why it was chosen. The parable’s overt elements do not translate directly into the series’ elements. Such crossing-over would obscure deeper, perhaps more delicate meaning.
The vegetal symbol has predecessors in the Hebrew Scriptures. Ezek. 17: 22-24 describes his taking the tender top off a cedar and planting it on a high mountain where it will produce boughs and bear fruit; every kind of bird will live in the shade of its branches. Dan 4: 10-12 describes a similar vision of abundant life and fecundity and peace and harmony. Both visions are in keeping with the parable and the crime episode. All envision it and it has not yet come to pass or rather it is the "already-not-yet." Paul plays with seed and reversal metaphors in 1 Cor. 15: 35-44. It is resurrection imagery, "the symbol of mystery of life out of death."
Sally McFague sees a parabolic theology, one whose context is grounded in everyday life and is a theology for skeptics and for our time but both the Mustard Seed and the crime episode display an extravagance that defies reality. Dodd sees the Kingdom of God as "divine energy." There is an aesthetic working here which is as important as the other elements. The mustard bush is lush beyond proportion, billowing in the breeze and sheltering bright-eyed little birds. The boy’s face shines out and thaws a mother’s frozen heart. But it troubles her; forgiveness is powerful and not "comfortable." Another sort of reversal becomes apparent. Who is absolving whom?
The whole social and legal system is on trial here and no one knows what to do. Only the man-child, the shooter, the one who took lives, seems to have a sense of eternity that fills the courtroom and calls for redemption, his and theirs. His is truth, not an easy thing to confront. The Kingdom of God rushes in like a great wind or it can come gently but the great wind is a cleansing wind. Paul Tillich sees hope in the wreckage and such fragments of hope are all-important:
Tillich goes on to say most eloquently that we are both within and beyond the ordinary. The homely little parable is a touchstone to the Kingdom. A blooming bush that should not be, a boy’s shining face, they exist; there they are.
THE PAINTING BELOW IS TITLED "BLACK ON BLACK."
The painting is so dark it is light. The heart of darkness is light.
THE PAINTING BELOW IS TITLED "WHITE ON WHITE."
Jeremias, Joachim. The Parables of Jesus. New York. SCM, 1963.
Taylor, Mark Kline, ed. Paul Tillich: Theologian of the Boundaries. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1991.
Dodd, Charles H. The Parables of the Kingdom. London. Nisbet & Co. Ltd., 1950.
TeSelle, Sallie McFague. Speaking in Parables. Philadelphia. Fortress Press, 1975.
Crossan, John Dominic. In Parables. New York. Harper & Row, 1973.