Thursday, October 29, 2009

Because of Joan of Arcadia VI

There is a moment in season 1, episode 9 of “Joan of Arcadia” that chills me to the bone. Joan is in history class; the subject is the Hundred Years War; the teacher flashes an image of Joan of Arc on the screen. Joan Girardi, typical teen, looks up with a sudden shock of recognition: Me—a saint—the same?!

This moment gets at the essence of this show and why we care about saints, too. For this moment, a saint is not a story from a book, not even a real person whose exploits are too far above modern-day Joan to matter. For this moment, the saint is Joan's sister. The saint is Joan, the saint is Joan herself.

This is why the saints matter. This is why this silly melodrama about a teenage girl who talks to God still matters to me.

I suspect this episode (“St. Joan”) or the one before it (“The Devil Made Me Do It”) ran during November sweeps. Because with these two stories, the series really hit its stride, taking on questions too serious for most family-night TV watching in contemporary America. What a pity.

In episode 8 (“The Devil Made Me Do It”), God poses an impossible dilemma for Joan. Appearing as a power-walking woman whom Joan meets on her way to school, God tells Joan to help out with the high school art show. The reason seems harmless enough: “Be more physically active!” God chirps. “A happy outlook is all about endorphins.” The Sermon on the Mount it's not. But when Joan walks into the art room, God walks in, this time as a security guard, and says He would rather Adam's art was not part of the show.

Adam is Joan's lovable friend, a talented abstract sculptor whose precocious work is all done in memory of his late mother. God asks Joan to see that Adam's work is not part of the show? How could that be just? Why would God do that? For the remainder of the show—which includes a surprise encounter with Grace's rabbi (!) father (who knew Grace was Jewish?!)—Joan has to wrestle with a key question: Would God ever tell her to do something evil? If not, how can Joan know that God is God, and not the devil in disguise?

The rabbi gives one answer : Our own inclination to evil, he says, comes between us and God. This inclination thrives on "moral confusion." What to do? "Confuse the confuser."

The priest who has been counseling Joan's mother has a different take:

Joan: So the devil really exists?
Priest: Yes, but one of his tricks is to get people to believe he doesn't exist. Or to take on the guise of our Lord. 
Joan: The devil imitates God?
Priest: In essence. 
Joan: Is he any good?
Priest: Very good. In fact, in the Book of Revelation it tells us that when the Antichrist first appears, the godly may be fooled. 
Joan: Yeah, like when you first hear Dave Matthews and think he might be good, but he's not. 
Priest: I don't know who that is. 

In the end, Joan simply does not know how to follow God's directive. When Adam wins the art show and sells his piece for $500, he decides to use the prize as seed money to leave school for a full-time art career. Joan realizes this is a terrible mistake, that Adam is not mature enough yet, that he will be lost. She goes to the art room and smashes Adam's sculpture. Adam remains in school (good), but Adam says he will never be Joan's friend again, if he ever was (bad).

A final encounter with God (the power-walker again) provides the complex moral of the story:

Joan: I'm having second thoughts about you.
God: It's called a crisis of faith. It's all right. It's not really faith if there's no crisis. Faith is an act of will, not a feeling.
Joan: How do I know you're not the devil? . . .
God: I understand you're confused, but there are no dilemmas without confusion, there's no free will without dilemmas, and there's no humanity without free will. 
Joan: You know, I don't understand what you're saying. It's all just blah, blah, blah. . . . 
God: You're confused because I asked you to do something you thought was wrong.
Joan:  I tried talking Adam out of it. I tried buying it. I tried stealing it. What else is there? You wanted me to smash it?
God: Don't blame me for your failure of imagination. What you have to ask yourself is, what are you going to do now? Every new decision is another chance to do the right thing. You don't get that from the other side.

Episode 9 (“St. Joan”) presents another central question in our search for God—not what if God is the devil in disguise, but what if faith is delusional? Joan's history teacher asserts that while legend has it that Joan of Arc talked to God, “Sigmund Freud would have given Joan’s parents a different explanation: paranoid schizophrenia with a messianic complex.” For the rest of the episode, while a plot involving the history teacher unfolds, Joan will repeatedly ask herself, "I'm not crazy, am I?"

Tree-surgeon God tells Joan, a C student, to get an A on her next history test. As usual, Joan takes God at his word and reads several books on Joan of Arc to prepare. When Joan gets an A+, evil vice principal Gavin Price demands that she retake the test, because she must have cheated. Grace Polk (feminist firebrand, daughter of Rabbi Polanski) takes Joan's case to the barricades, organizing a student strike over this terrible injustice. Joan gets swept up in the strike—until God intervenes.

God: About this revolution, cut it out. This wasn't part of the plan.
Joan: What do you mean? I'm taking a stand. It's perfect. 
God: You do know the end of Joan's story. . . . 
Joan: They don't burn people anymore, do they? Especially not kids?
God: I'm not really here to discuss martyrdom with you, Joan. Like most things having to do with me, it's complicated. Retake the test. 
Joan: What?!
God: Retake the test. . . . Here's the thing you need to learn from the martyrs, Joan: They did it the hard way. That's what I'm asking of you.

God's intervention makes for a minor miracle. Joan's history teacher, we learn, gave up a promising music career to go into education, but he began "mailing it in" years ago, "a teacher's greatest fear."

Teacher: Before this event, I was going to quit. This was going to be my last year. It was causing me a lot of pain. I was surrendering in defeat, like the French at Agincourt, floundering in the mud of my students' indifference. But I made you care about history, Miss Girardi. I don't know how I did it, but I did, and that's the whole point! You inspired me to take back my crown. I thank you.
Joan: You have no idea how incredibly cool this is. 
Teacher: Oh, yes I do. 

Next week: “Drive, He Said” and “The Uncertainty Principle”