I’m currently watching the 4th season of Big Love, the HBO show about a polygomist family in Utah. If you’ve never seen it, you’re really missing something. Not because it is the best show ever, and not because it’s oh so interesting, but because it depicts what I am learning is the quintessential piece of American life: In America, really absurd things seem incredibly normal. And that’s what this show does, it takes a family whose situation, in real life, I would find questionable at best, and turns them into these odd underdogs that I root for. It makes the idea of polygamy seem as normal as ordinary marriages, and it makes the concept of marriage as a whole seem completely baffling to me. I don’t know if I have ever watched a show that so consistently leaves me saying, “Wait, why is this happening?” It’s not because the things that happen aren’t justified or earned; if there is any genius in this show it is the fact that so many contrary and contradictory things can happen within the span of one episode, and it all actually makes sense. And I think this is because Big Love actually allows its characters to become something that is very rare in television, but especially television about people of faith…it lets them be human. We get to know the Henrickson family in all their mixed up, nonsensical, glorious humanity…and that is really interesting and really maddening and really boring. It’s good stuff.
I’m not going to bother delving into the details of the show, probably anyone who cares has or will watch it for themselves. I will say, though, that season 4 gets even more exceptionally weird than the previous seasons, and this is primarily because it is at that point, I believe, that we are finally meeting the real Bill Henrickson. Bill is the head of the family, played by Bill Paxton, and one of the minor miracles of this show is how much you like this guy. You are never really sure if he is a nut who is really taking advantage of his first wife (Jeanne Triplehorn) and relentlessly seeking his own fame and fortune, or if he is truly a devout person of faith who is doing nothing more than attempting to live the path that he believes God has laid before him. He walks this line so delicately that whenever I find myself going to the side of, “This guy is a ridiculous jerk! The family should leave him! He’s crazy!” then he does something to….not redeem himself, but at least to indicate that he really is a guy struggling with a life and a mission that even he does not seem to fully understand, but he plows ahead because he believes it’s right. And at that point, as a person of faith myself, I am not allowed to judge quite as quickly. I’m not feeling called to do anything that is as ethically icky as Bill Henrickson…but I wouldn’t be surprised if the life I’m trying to live upset or confused others. Those who live in glass houses, and all that…
In the 4th Season, however, all bets are off. Bill crosses some lines, and it is difficult for me to be on his side anymore. But it’s not because I think he is a conman or a crook, I still very much think he is living out his faith to the best of his abilities. And that is mainly my problem. In this particular sequence of events, I can officially say that my problem with Bill Henrickson is not that he does crazy and possibly abusive things in the name of his faith. My problem with Bill Henrickson is that I constantly worry about being Bill Henrickson.
I think there are typically two approaches to life for people of faith to choose from:
1) They can believe in something so fully and truly that their faith becomes the center of their every action and thought, and when the world proves to be incompatible with their beliefs, they work on themselves, to learn, to grow, to become spiritually larger than the inhospitable world in which they reside.
Then there’s 2) They can say, “This faith thing would be a lot easier if the world around me matched what I believe,” and they set out to change the world in any way they can so it matches their faith.
To some extent, this is where we see the difference between more “fundamentalist” types of faith and more ” liberal” types of faith (Important Note: I don’t know how much I believe in these categories, and I don’t know how much they help/hurt the conversation, but you kind of know what I’m talking about when I use these words, so that’s why I use those, and similar words, here). Faith groups that could be described as extremist are labeled as such because they take measures–often violent measures–to transform the world in their own image. Meanwhile, progressive people of faith can, at times, feel uncomfortable making decisions or taking actions based solely on their faith because they fear being depicted as people who disrespect the viewpoints of others. These are opposite ends of a spectrum of faith, with most of us finding ourselves somewhere in between. I have to say, for my personal faith, I find both necessary at times. I’m not talking about violence of any kind, that has no place in the language of faith or the Word of God; but there are times when, if we believe anything at all, we have to artfully, courageously, and respectfully demonstrate those beliefs to the world. On the other hand, a little liberal temperance is always good because it keeps us from replacing God with our own Idols, it reminds us that the world is diverse and full of many different peoples and opinions and God is truly the God of ALL of them. Contemplation and action, respect and conviction, remaining open to new viewpoints while seeking greater dedication to our understanding of what is True…the kind of faith I’m seeking to assemble and live out is found in the tension of these eternal paradoxes.
Having said all of that, Brother Bill Henrickson has, as of the mid-way point of season 4, lost his taste for such tension and seems to have decided that the world around him must change because he’s tired of the stress and hardships that come from adhering to a very fringe and unpopular faith. In Biblical terms, you could say that he is so tired of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land, that he thinks it’s best to return to Egypt…that is, as long as he can play the part of Pharoh. So he has begun making demands of his friends and family that are not fair or righteous, he has officially put his desire for acceptance and need for control before his call to love and serve his family, and even while he attempts to demonstrate how his people can fit into the “mainstream” he begins making the same mistakes, enacting the same atrocities, that pushed his people to the fringe in the first place. I’m not judging really…it’s a tough spot to be in, even for a fictional character. It’s funny because I heard rumblings when this season originally premiered on HBO that people felt this season really went in an unbelievable direction and it seemed like they were just forcing the characters into ridiculous situations for the sake of drama; but, in my mind, the whole story arc seems completely organic, and maybe even answers the question, “What is this show about, anyway?”
I think it’s possible that this entire show is about the struggle that humans find themselves in, especially humans with spirituality: We are finite and flawed creatures with a sense of the eternal and divine. The decisions that we make on this planet, how we choose to live, can sometimes come down to what we value more, the now, the finite, the immediate, or the future, the eternal, the things unseen. The Henricksons have kind of put all of their eggs in the basket of eternity…and that decision causes very real and painful consequences, not just for the adults who chose it, but also their children, their family, their friends. I think the reason this show is so good is because you can’t help but admire the fervid hope and faith that fuel this family, even as your heart sinks at the desperate thought, “What if they are doing all this for nothing? And since I don’t believe as they do…that’s probably exactly what’s happening.” If Bill Henrickson’s concept of eternity, the cosmos, and God is correct, then everything they are doing not only makes sense, it’s essential. If it turns out that God is not actually involved in Bill’s life goals at all, that he’s just a victim of his tortured upbringing and unresolved ego issues…then Big Love is an epic tragedy.
And that’s what I’m interested most…where do we place value? How do we allow what we hold dear to influence our decisions and actions in daily life? If we stopped going through repetitive motions for a little bit every day to just briefly consider what we really value, what we truly have faith in…how might our decisions change? To what extent would we be willing to live out our beliefs in a world that does not share them? How quickly would we give up our faith and fall in with the maddening crowd, just to make daily living a little bit easier? These are the big questions, and it’s fun to sit down and watch fictional characters struggle with them for awhile so that I don’t have to.
Still….Heavenly Father, don’t let me be Bill Henrickson. Don’t let me try to change the world just avoid working on myself. Don’t let me be so sure of my convictions that I discount the voices of others. And, please, please, please….no simultaneous spouses. One seems daunting enough, and You know there’s more than enough work still to be done on me.