Friday, October 16, 2015

A theological review of M*A*S*H

Jewish date:  3 Marḥeshwan 5776.

Today’s holidays:  Feast of Ida Craddock (Thelema), Feast Day of St. Mrs. Emma Peel/St. Lynne England (Church of the Subgenius).


Sorry I have not posted in over a year.  I got a full-time job, and do not have a lot of free time for writing these days.  Other things going on in my life have also reduced my available writing time.  One of these things has been my mother’s untimely departure from this world a year ago.  As part of the mourning process, I felt the need to write a theological review relevant to her.  And so I spent a lot of time reviewing the relevant material and (even harder) writing the review included below.



A theological review of M*A*S*H
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

This review is dedicated to the memory of my late mother, Carol Jeanne Adelman, whose favorite show was M*A*S*H.

The original incarnation of M*A*S*H was a novel by Richard Hooker which came out in 1968.  A movie version was released in 1970.  The movie was adapted into a TV series which ran for 11 seasons from 1972 to 1983.  There are also a number of sequels to the original books and a TV series sequel to the movie (Trapper John, M.D.).  The TV series spawned two sequels:  AfterM*A*S*H, which lasted a season and a half, and W*A*L*T*E*R, which never made in past the pilot.  All three versions of M*A*S*H (but not their sequels) are set during the Korean War (1950 to 1953) and deal primarily with the lives of doctors, nurses, and other personnel at the 4077th MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital).  The book, the movie, and the earliest seasons of the original series were released during the Vietnam War (1955 to 1975), and the anti-war attitudes that many Americans had at the time are reflected in the writing, especial for the TV show.

No version of M*A*S*H is primarily theological fiction.  The book and the movie are essentially comedies focusing on the crazy things done by the doctors and the nurses at MASH 4077, but at a relatively shallow level.  As such, in the movie religion is treated as something to laugh at (along with pretty much everything else in the film).  Hence Captain Frank Burns’s prayers are mocked by his tent-mates; only later do we find out that he is morally reprehensible and worthy of our hatred.  And Father Mulcahy is depicted as weak and fairly insignificant.  There really is not much to analyze.

The TV series, however, delves a lot more into the backgrounds and thinking of the characters and explores why they do crazy things.  War is presented as horrifically ugly.  War wrecks people’s lives and often ends them.  It is brutal for those whose country the war occurs in and those who serve in the armies fighting the war.  The situation is so bad that it is frequently referred to metaphorically as “Hell”.  Indeed, in “The General’s Practitioner”, Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce argues that war is worse than Hell; only sinners go to Hell, while war is full of innocent bystanders.

Faced with everything from primitive living conditions to unpalatable food to bureaucracy to forced separation from their loved ones to the real possibility of being killed, the personnel of the 4077th, paradoxically, deal with the insanity around them by acting in an insane manner.  It is the insanity of the situation and the insane things which the characters do which are the focus of the humor of the show; the war itself and explorations into the thinking of the characters—even the reasons for insanity as a psychological self-defense mechanism—are never treated as funny.

Given the TV series’ tendency to delve into the thinking of the characters, it is no surprise that their thoughts on religion get discussed over the span of 11 seasons.  In fact, the majority of episodes have some sort of religious reference.  There are so many religious references—your humble blogger’s notes on the subject run to 21 pages—that detailing them all is not compatible with keeping this review to a reasonable length.  (I apologize for not analyzing all the religiously themed jokes.)  However, in all this data, there is a very consistent pattern on how religion is depicted:  Religion is presented very positively.  Or to be more precise, religion done correctly is presented very positively.  Abuses of religion—the sorts of things which seriously religious people in real life often complain about—on the other hand, are depicted negatively.  To illustrate, let us examine two central characters, Father Mulcahy and Major Burns.

Father Mulcahy:  The most obvious manifestation of religion—and example of religion done correctly—is Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy, a Catholic priest and the camp chaplain.  At times he seems naïve, but the writers had a lot of fun expanding on his character to the extent that this review cannot truly do him justice, though the general idea seems to be that he should be a holy, yet human, character.  In the episode “Heroes”, he relates the following origin story to the dying boxer “Gentleman” Joe Cavanaugh:

I’m sure people tell you this all the time, but you’ve always been quite a hero to me.  Actually, when I was growing up I had two heroes, no offense:  you and Plato.  I know that sounds strange.  I loved Plato’s notion of an ideal plane.  I could even picture it:  rambling fields and trees, sort of like the suburbs, but in the sky.  I wished I could live there myself.  I suppose that’s because my real life was less than ideal.  I was small and wore thick glasses, probably from reading too much Plato.  And I was an easy target for the neighborhood kids.  I didn’t even try to fight back.  I didn’t think fisticuffs were very, oh, Platonic.  Well, when I was 12, my father dragged me to see my first fight.  It was you versus Tony Giovanetti.  By the ninth round, you were punching him at will.  The crowd was yelling, “Put him away!  Put him away!”  My father was one of the loudest.  All of a sudden, you stopped punching.  You stepped back, and you told the ref to stop the fight, because the man had been hurt enough.  And I realized for the first time that it was possible to defend myself and still maintain my principles.  If Plato had been a boxer, I suspect he’d have fought like you.  That was when I made up my mind to keep one foot in the ideal plane and the other foot in the real world.

Father Mulcahy at MASH 4077 works hard to live up to his ideals.  He takes his duty as a priest and the teachings of the Gospels and church seriously, with an emphasis on the most compassionate teachings of Jesus.  Besides holding services, he hears confessions, performs last rites, and prays for his comrades.  He is compassionate to almost everyone.  He is quite tolerant of followers of other religions (“38 Across”, “Ping Pong”, “Exorcism”).  Father Mulcahy helps out at a local orphanage, and eagerly volunteers to help out at camp as necessary.  For an extreme example, in “The Yalu Brick Road” most of the camp is sick with salmonella, and Father Mulcahy—one of the few who are unaffected—happily performs even the most menial chores.  He is also quite willing to stand up for his principles, despite the costs and risks.  He refuses to compromise the sanctity of the confessional, even though it means he has to retrieve stolen sodium pentathol hidden under a bell himself (with the help of Corporal Maxwell Klinger) at risk to his life.  The sanctity of the confessional reappears in “Identity Crisis”, in which Father Mulcahy has to coerce a soldier to abandon a plan to go back to the United States by stealing the identity of a dead comrade—again without publicizing the contents of a confession.  In “A Holy Mess”, Father Mulcahy defends a fugitive soldier’s right to sanctuary in the mess tent—then being used for services—and when appeals to higher-ups deny this right, he has the guts to rebuke the fugitive for attempting to use a loaded gun to get sent back home and grabs the weapon away from him.  

It would have been easy for the writers to write Father Mulcahy as a cliché of a religious character, either making him blandly faultless or hypocritical.  But in the TV series, as previously noted, the writers put a lot of effort into making Father Mulcahy a human character.  So while he is an excellent priest, he is more than just a priest.  For example, he took after “Gentleman” Joe and took up boxing and even taught it in seminary (“Requiem for a Lightweight”).  Appropriately for a comedy show, Father Mulcahy has a sense of humor and regularly trades jokes with Hawkeye—both often referencing religious ideas in the jokes.  (He also has the humility to be amused and not really offended by the Father Mulcahy sound-alike contest in “Movie Night”.)  He plays the piano.  And like many of the characters at the 4077th, he drinks, bets, and plays poker.  (In “Our Finest Hour” he claims he finds the latter relaxing.)

Father Mulcahy is human enough to occasionally show some flaws in his character.  He is disappointed about not being promoted from second lieutenant to captain and makes a fuss about it (“An Eye for a Tooth”, “Captains Outrageous”).  (He is eventually successful.)  On a number of occasions, he gets angry and sometimes even shows it when rebuking sinners.  (Arguably anger is not the best thing for a religious paragon to show, but it is still a natural thing for a human to do.)  In one episode (“Dear Sis”), a wounded soldier insists on being examined by a doctor immediately during triage, and when Father Mulcahy tries to convince him to be patient, the soldier hits the priest.  Instinctively, Father Mulcahy hits back, and he is so upset by what he has done that he spends the rest of the episode trying to atone.

In short, while Father Mulcahy is a holy man, he nevertheless remains a man.

Major Burns:  Just as M*A*S*H has a realistic religious person, it also has an example of a religious hypocrite in Major Frank Burns.  Major Burns portrays himself as an upstanding Christian.  He reads his Bible regularly.  He speaks constantly about morality and the sanctity of marriage.  These do not make up for the fact that what he practices is anything but what Jesus actually preached.  He lies, he cheats, and he steals.  (E.g., in “The Gun”, Frank steals a colonel’s antique gun, passes it off as his own to Margaret, denies it, lets Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly take the blame, and only reluctantly returns the gun back under threat of being exposed.)  He treats almost every other character in the series with contempt and lacks sympathy for anyone.  He is greedy (“Major Fred C. Dobbs”, “Movie Tonight”). He is ill-tempered, with him insulting someone in probably every episode in which he appears.  He hates non-Christians (including atheists) and even tries to stop the practice of religions other than Christianity (“Life with Father”, “The Abduction of Margaret Houlihan”, “The Korean Surgeon”, “Exorcism”, “38 Across”, “Ping Pong”, “Love Story”, “Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde”).  He is also ignorant that Greek Orthodoxy is a form of Christianity (“Private Charles Lamb”).  Most infamously, for much of his time at the 4077th he has an affair with Major Margaret Houlihan and tries to hide it from his wife Louise.

To be fair, real-life humans (including this review’s author) are generally a bit hypocritical.  It is very easy for one to have high ideals.  Living up to those ideals is another matter entirely.  Many of us recognize that we do not truly live up to our ideals.  Many of us who recognize our shortcomings make some attempt to do better.  What makes Frank particularly hypocritical is that  he never gets very far in trying to do better.  He always remains rotten to the core.  He has a few moments where he shows a more human, sympathetic side, but his gains are always wiped out by the next episode.  He shows little in the way of guilt and only admits wrongdoing if he is caught.  “Repentance” is not in his vocabulary.  

Other characters:  This bifurcated depiction of religion is carried over to other characters as well.  No other regular character is as visibly religious as Father Mulcahy or consistently evil as Frank Burns, but while religion-related jokes are abundant (e.g., Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake claiming “I avoid church religiously” in “Operation Noselift”), making fun of religion is conspicuously absent; making fun of hypocrisy and evil is constant.  No one makes fun of Captain B.J. Hunnicutt for being a Presbyterian or Radar for being a Methodist.  No one even makes fun of Klinger for wavering between atheism and Catholicism.  (In “The Kids” he is caught praying and claims he gave up atheism for Lent.)  Even the bomber who cracks and believes himself to be Jesus is treated sympathetically (“Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?”).

Treated less sympathetically is Margaret, Frank’s partner in faithlessness.  She starts off as co-antagonist along with Frank and is likewise treated unsympathetically by the writers.  However, once she dumps Frank and gets friendlier, the writers make her a more sympathetic character.  (She is not alone in such treatment.  Major Charles Emerson Winchester III starts off as a selfish jerk, but he becomes more friendly and compassionate as the series progresses.  Accordingly, the writers are more inclined to depict him positively as time goes on.)

The positive depiction of Father Mulcahy as a good religious figure extends to how the other characters view him.  The vast majority of characters treat him with at least deference—including the black market (“Out of Gas”)—regardless of their religion or lack thereof.  Father Mulcahy is generally well liked and respected.  Some characters (such as Radar and Colonel Sherman T. Potter) are on their best behavior around him or apologize if they are not.  Whenever Father Mulcahy feels that he does not make enough of a difference at the 4077th, Hawkeye—a secularist by all appearances—steps up and praises him for being an inspiration for his “decency” and “humanity”.

Frank Burns, on the other hand, is the regular character most hated by everyone else at the 4077th, with even Margaret periodically getting angry at him and eventually dumping him for Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscot.  When Frank is eventually transferred back to the USA, no one is sorry to see him go.

The style of humor presented in M*A*S*H is arguably socially functional.  People’s religious beliefs and practices are frequently serious business—whether or not we agree with said beliefs and practices.  Many people’s religion has deep emotional and even rational roots, letting them make some sense of the World.  Religion also helps many people live more moral lives (according to many common views of what constitutes “moral”).  Religion helps many people connect with others or find some sense of purpose or meaning.  Whether or not one agrees with other people’s religions, they are not jokes.  Laughing at religion, especially religion which brings out the best in people, is thus mean-spirited and a slap in the face of people trying to do good—something to avoid.

Laughing at evil people, on the other hand, is a time-honored tradition.  Many of those reading this will recall cartoons from childhood in which bad things happened to characters who deserve them.  Frank Burns is the live-action equivalent of Elmer Fudd or Sylvester.  As an unwavering evil (and a mediocre doctor), he is constantly on the receiving end of insults, practical jokes, and undisguised contempt from all sides—and we are meant to side against him and find what happens to him funny.  Little wonder also that Frank did not last the entire series; without the ability to grow, there was only so much they could do with his character.  He is the example of what is generally agreed how we should not behave.

Hopefully one can learn from M*A*S*H something about what deserves and does not deserve to be treated as funny.