"Family Values," the most recent episode of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent,
" returned to an issue the program often deals with in a less than flattering way: religion. The episode, which premiered last Sunday, ran true to form, at least on the surface.
But as I've often noted in the past (most recently here
), getting too caught up in the surfaces of cultural products often causes one to fail to see their true meaning. That's the case with "Family Values."
Certainly the story seems calculated to make a particular religious belief look bad, specifically evangelical Christianity. It concerns a serial killer who is a evidently devout Christian. (And indeed, the numerous promos on the USA Network leading up to the airing of the episode highlighted that sensationalistic concept.) In addition, the episode's title, "Family Values," seems calculated to annoy evangelical Christians, in an obvious sardonic reference to former Vice President Dan Quayle's most famous political quest.
The man, apparently happily married and the father of a teenage girl, has set out on a campaign of murders after being fired as a scapegoat after his bank lost money on subprime loans they had forced him to make.
Thus the villain is a twofer: a murdering Christian driven to it by evil, rapacious capitalists. He's a an anti-Christian socialist's dream, and hence a superb bogeyman for our contemporary elites.
This mad--though seemingly normal-seeming--villain is "killing people to send them to Heaven," as the police captain puts it. In the course of the episode we are shown several murders he commits, and realize that he's seriously deranged. In the dramatic climax of the episode, the show's main character, NYPD detective Bobby Goren, discusses religion with the killer, in order to get under his skin and lure him into confessing his crimes. That's one of the show's formula elements, Goren's use of psychology to trap the killer.
Thus Goren debates conceptions of God with the killer, and on the surface it seems clear that he's doing it just to trap him. There's more to the scene, however, which makes it more sopisticated--and much more sympathetic to Christianity and to the idea of a caring, benevolent God--than is apparent on the surface.
The killer'sconception of God is as a distant, unforgiving deity, one who expects us to pay for our own sins. Goren homes in on that notion and attacks it astutely. In doing so, he argues exactly as a Christian would; the idea of God that Goren presents is quite biblically accurate, whereas that of the fanatic is a perversion of the Gospel (and indeed something of an inversion of it).
Ultimately, Goren says that the killer does not serve God, he serves Satan, "the liar, the trickster; . . . You serve the deceiver," he says.
Now, Goren clearly is not presenting himself as a Christian but instead using theology to accomplish the same sort of psychological manipulation he employs against all the criminals he faces. In the end, however, his arguments show a very sound understanding of the Jewish and Christian conception of God and effectively convey it to the audience. It's a very interesting episode in that way, and much more favorable to religion than a mere surface look may reveal.