‘Northern Exposure’ & the Kingdom of God


My favorite TV show of all time is ‘Northern Exposure’. Haven’t heard of it? Perhaps that’s because it made its premier in the summer of 1990. My first memories of watching the show actually goes back to when it was syndicated on cable TV; I remember getting home after school and watching it along with an after school snack. I watched various episodes over the next few years. Later, my seminary roommate would show up with several seasons of this beloved show from my childhood, and I was hooked for good. We would watch favorite episodes into the night together, talking about the intricacies of the characters and the universal themes within.

So here’s the story…

Joel Fleischman, a Jewish New York City medical school graduate, reports to duty as a form of repayment for his financial support from the state of Alaska. Little does he know, he will not be serving his time in the metropolis of Anchorage or even Fairbanks. No, he will set up shop in the small mountain town of Cicely, where the townspeople represent Native Americans, former convicts, aged American heroes, and characters of all sorts—in short, a collection of America’s motley crew of citizenry.

What begins as a collision between Cicely’s small town ways and Joel’s big city expectations, eventually turns into stories and experiences of relationships formed, life’s mysteries held, and daily self discovery for both the young doctor and the townspeople alike. In short, what happens in Cicely is representative of many of our lives, filled with adventure and boredom, joy and sadness, achievement and failure.

One Sunday I was approached by a gentleman after a sermon that made mention of Joel Fleischman. ‘You like Northern Exposure?’ he said.

‘Yes, sir. It’s my favorite TV show of all time.’ I replied as certain as I believed the sun would rise the next day.

He responded, ‘That says not only a lot about your TV preferences, but about you as a person.’

So what does ‘Northern Exposure’ say about the Kingdom of God? What does ‘Northern Exposure’ say about a person? Rather than write a book on the subject (I’ve been tempted at times), here are a few thoughts with episode references should you be inspired enough to check it out yourself.

God is so big (‘Seoul Mates’, season 3, episode 10). One lesson that keeps showing up throughout the series is just how big and diverse God is. One episode in particular hits on the beauty of God’s diversity as Christmas in Cicely brings with it a surprise for Maurice Minnifield, and the celebration of the Raven festival with Marilyn Whirlwind.

Embrace the mystery of life (‘Fish Story’, season 5, episode 18). One of my favorite episodes seeks inspiration from the Jonah and the fish biblical story. Several characters are trying to make sense of this thing called life, with a special guest appearance for Joel.

We are called to relationship beyond race, education, economic status (‘Aurora Borealis, season 1, episode 8). Chris Stevens is one of my favorite characters of the entire show. He is continually challenged to think and live beyond his previous life expectations, including family as he meets Bernard Stevens.

We have so much to learn from others (‘The Body in Question’, season 3, episode 6). Holling Vincoeur’s bar, ‘The Brick’ takes on Christ’s table in so many ways, as the many different characters, guests, and life events all take place within the confines of this wonderfully inviting place. Holling’s relationship with Shelly Tambo is especially life-giving.

Expect the unexpected (‘Our Wedding’, season 3, episode 22). Two characters, Adam and Eve, are just fantastic. There are several episodes that bring these characters to the forefront, but the chaotic collision of rationalism and fantasy often is best displayed in the comments and behavior of these two.

The last shall be first (‘Revelations’, season 4, episode 12). Two other characters which you will fall in love with are Maurice, the rich former astronaut who owns half the town, and Ruth-Anne Miller, the store clerk who shuns the materialistic world of her past in the lower 48. The interaction between the two provides for wonderful illustrations of these two life perspectives.

Love is hard (‘Ill Wind’, season 4, episode 16). The relationship of Joel & Maggie O’Connell runs throughout the entirety of the series, and illustrates just how hard loving one another can be. What is so great about how the writers approached this relationship is that they never make it easy, which is true for our real life relationships.

The extraordinary lies within the ordinary (‘Burning Down the House,’ season 3, episode 14). Chris Stevens will say that ‘true art is in the process, not the product.’ This teaching of his holds true as he is inspired to hurl a cow in the air for an art project.

God calls us to unimagined lives (‘Heal Thyself’, season 5, episode 8). What happens to us when our dreams are interrupted by God’s call in our lives? Ed Chigliak is in a process of discovery as he wrestles his own demons to understand his larger calling.

We are all connected (‘The Great Mushroom’, season 6, episode 11). The episode is a little sad for me as we witness the exit of Joel Fleischman, but it does provide for us a great illustration; we are all connected. If this doctor from New York City can figure this out, then maybe we all have a shot.

Okay, so this is just a start, but I welcome any other comments/suggestions of pertinent episodes and themes from this wonderful show. If anything comes of this, take 46 minutes to watch one of these episodes some evening, appreciate the 90’s fashion, and fall in love with Cicely as I have done time and time again.



One comment

  1. Chris’ whole speech at the end of “Burning Down The House” is a powerful sermon the importance of the process “It’s not the the you fling, but it is the fling that matters!’ (something like that). I use it all the time when trying to make the point that how we get there is just as important as the result! Thanks for this Jeff!


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