A Bit of Theology from the Lincoln Lawyer

There are very few popular authors that I will always read. Michael Connelly is one of them. Not only does he write compelling crime fiction, but he always has some deeper ruminations on life and existence. The Harry Bosch universe, including the Amazon Prime, and now the Freevee, TV shows, is the best detective story going. Connelly expanded that universe with six Michael (Mickey) Haller books. (Haller and Bosch eventually discover that they are half-brothers.) Haller likes to work out of the back of a Lincoln; hence his nickname, the Lincoln Lawyer. Netflix recently released the first season of The Lincoln Lawyer, and it has already been renewed for another season.

The series, as with Amazon’s Bosch, moves at much the same pace as Connelly’s books. I rarely take more than a day or two to read the novels, because Connelly is so good at keeping the plot twisting and moving. Connelly worked as a reporter covering crime in both Florida and Los Angeles, and his novels reflect his accumulated knowledge, sources, and information about police procedure. Both Bosch and Haller face the frustrations of bureaucracy, red tape, and the burden of proof, mostly from opposite sides of the law. I never get the impression that Connelly has given short shrift to the actual day-to-day hard work of police and legal professions.

If I had to pick, as a personal preference, I might choose Bosch over The Lincoln Lawyer, although both are entertaining. With respect to my own interests, while Bosch is straightforward (though not overbearing) about his inability to believe in God, mainly because of the injustice he constantly faces, in the last episode of The Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) makes two interesting comments.

First, in the car with his driver, Izzy (Jazz Raycole), they pull up to the gates of the prison where Jesus Menendez (Saul Huezo) is being freed after Mickey finally tracked down an exonerating witness, and he asks Izzy if she’s religious. She says she grew up in a very religious home, and Mickey tells her that his mother was religious, but not his father. He says that Christmas seems like the major holiday, but his mother told him that the more important holiday was Easter. Resurrection is a theme running through the entire first season, from Mickey getting sober, to beginning to work again after a year, to trying to revive his relationship with his first ex-wife, Maggie McPherson (Neve Campbell), to Jesus (Menendez, not the Christ) walking free after being wrongly convicted. Indeed, Mickey’s mother was correct: the Resurrection is most important, and at the heart of everything.

And second, while speaking to his daughter, Hayley (Krista Warner) about a situation that has caused difficulty in reconciling with Maggie, Haller tells her, “There’s three things you need to know in life, hija: what you desire, what you believe, and what you have to do. They don’t always line up.” Hayley says, “Is that from your dad?” and Haller says, “St. Thomas Aquinas.” Which is an intriguing, and surprisingly specific, religious reference. I am not familiar enough with Aquinas to trace the exact source, but it is cited here as a title of a painting by Philip Guston. The exact quotation seems to run like this: “Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do,” and it is attributed to a work called “Two Precepts on Charity,” from 1273.

(I realize this is only tangential to the show, so if this does not interest you, I will simply say that the show is worth watching. Can’t wait for Season 2!) The differences in the quotation may be attributable to nothing more than the way that people generally remember things they’ve read or heard. Even so, there is more than one difference in the quotes. The most apparent difference is that Haller cites Aquinas for what his daughter should learn about life, while Aquinas is talking about what is necessary for salvation (broadly construed, obviously). But there is the more subtle difference between, on the one hand, what one desires, believes, and has to do, and, on the other, what one ought to believe, desire, and do.

I think that is actually the more significant difference, and it seems to be a particularly modern shift. Aquinas understood, following Aristotle, that knowing what one desires, believes, and has to do are tied inseparably to what one’s goal or end is. Therefore, the “ought” is bound to the “end,” rather than to one’s personal decisions about right and wrong. Haller has a valid point about how life often presents us with a constellation of choices. The different choices may be connected to what we desire, or what we believe, or what we have to do, and they don’t always line up. Lutherans might say the same thing in terms of the responsibilities of our vocations in different relationships. My vocation as pastor may not always line up with my vocation as husband or parent; and both of those responsibilities may come into conflict with my responsibilities as citizen or son or brother.

But Aquinas’s “ought” moves the difficulty to an entirely different level. There may be tension or conflict between or among my various responsibilities, including the compounding difficulty of what I desire, what I believe, and what I perceive as necessary for me to do. But now there is the additional tension between what I desire and what I ought to desire; what I believe and what I ought to believe; what I think is necessary to do, and what I ought to do—and all of those “oughts” lie outside me, either in some version of divine law, or in whatever I conceive to be the goal and end of human beings. Without some end or goal, to which my “oughts” are tied, I am left within the circular maze of the reasoning and emotion of my own skull.

And that, in a roundabout way, brings us back to what Mickey says to Izzy outside the prison: the goal and end of a human life in this creation—subject to injustice, difficulty, frustration, and the conflict of vocational responsibilities—is the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, with “all wrongs forgotten and all vengeance made right/the suffering verbs put to sleep in the night” (Josh Ritter, “Thin Blue Flame”). And if that is the end and goal of human life, it casts a particularly illuminating brilliance on the tensions and conflicts of what we ought to desire, to believe, and to do.