Grey’s Anatomy and the Examination of Conscience

greysby Claire Bischoff

Growing up, I understood sin in black and white terms. To lie to your parents was wrong. To lust after your neighbor’s wife, whatever that meant, was wrong. Unlike many of my Catholic-school compatriots, I relished participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (except for the smell of Father Tom’s chicken noodle soup breath—ick!). I studiously reviewed the Ten Commandments, decided in what ways I had transgressed these timeless rules, confessed my sins, and felt the lightness that comes with knowing God’s forgiveness.

As a result of college theology courses and my own maturing in faith, my understanding of sin became more complex in young adulthood. The ways I had been taught to examine my conscience in preparation for Reconciliation no longer were sufficient, as it was less in concrete actions and more in patterns of relationships in which I found myself falling short. Confession as I had known it meant reciting a laundry list of sinful actions, and now I sensed it would be more akin to airing the dirty laundry of my relationships with family, friends, and self, something I felt more comfortable doing with a counselor than a priest. So I quit confessing, easy enough to do when you attend a Lutheran college followed by a Lutheran seminary.

On what I promise will be a related note, five years ago I started watching Grey’s Anatomy religiously. Why do I keep tuning in? First, it is entertaining, and second, the show’s philosophy that “real life only comes in shades of grey” mirrors the emotional, relational, intellectual, and spiritual journey of my young adulthood thus far. Yet what keeps me involved with the show more than anything is that it invites me to reflect on my life, to step back and scrutinize my own actions and relationships, to name where I am falling short and to aspire to do better.

Two structural features of the show promote this. First, parallel plot lines between the lives of the doctors and the patients paves the way for me to consider what comparable things are going on in my life. Second, each episode is framed by an opening and closing voiceover, usually given by Meredith. As she shares what she has learned in that episode, I am invited to do the same, to take a break from living long enough to offer a voiceover on my own experiences. In contrast to the Ten Commandments, Grey’s Anatomy invites me to reflect on my life through its and my own narrative, thus enabling me to grapple with sin not only as wrong actions but also in all its relational complexity.

Each Thursday I find myself contemplating how the theme of that week’s show is manifest in my life. Often I recognize places where I am falling short and experience little moments of conversion, internal turnabouts that, to use more explicitly theological language, have become part of my continual and ongoing journey toward God. In fact, Grey’s Anatomy induces an examination of conscience, a traditional practice from my Roman Catholic background done in an unconventional way.

Claire Bischoff is a stay-at-home mom and a Ph.D. candidate in religion at Emory University in religious education and practical theology. She co-edited My Red Couch and Other Stories on Seeking a Feminist Faith.

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