Wednesday, November 19, 2014

West Wing Christianity

Emily and I have noticed that it seems like there haven't been many strong, admirable Christian characters in mainstream TV in recent years. Usually you end up with someone like Kenneth on 30Rock or Angela on The Office, characters with an extreme and quirky, comedic sort of faith. Ned Flanders on The Simpsons may or may not be an exception. (And there's always Shepherd Book from Firefly!)

Martin Sheen as Josiah Bartlet
But one Christian character from just a few years back who stands out in my mind as intelligent, likable, well-written, and just real, is President Jed Bartlet from The West Wing, played by Martin Sheen. Here is a character who struggles to be faithful amidst the burdens and ambiguities of his work and the tragedies and hurts of life, on a show that consistently and ably addresses some of the most pressing and divisive social issues of our time.

If you couldn't tell, I'm a fan.

Well, at the Hixon home we've recently begun watching The West Wing on Netflix, from beginning to end (the show premiered in 1999 and wrapped up in 2006). I haven't seen an episode of this in years, but as I'm getting reacquainted, I haven't been disappointed. The show, which is consistently ranked as one of the best-written shows in television history, is smart, witty, full of great performances, thoughtful, and powerful when it raises the important questions.

Last night we watched an episode from season 1 that raises one of those questions: "Take This Sabbath Day," where the President and White House staff wrestle with the question of capital punishment as a man's execution hour draws near.
There are characters on all sides of this debate: a Jew and a Quaker who object for religious reasons (Quaker Christians have consistently opposed all violence since the group emerged in the 1600s); 'bleeding heart liberals' who reject the death penalty; apathetic characters; others who feel this is simple justice for a man convicted of a double-homicide; and a character who passionately supports capital punishment because his mother was a cop recently killed in the line of duty. President Bartlet himself is a devoted Roman Catholic, and so he is opposed to capital punishment (the RCC is resolutely pro-life - anti-abortion and anti-death penalty).
The episode isn't meant to settle the debate on capital punishment, just to get you thinking. They debate the Torah, talk about the limits of executive power, and consider the writings of St. Augustine. In my opinion, it's really excellent television.

But why am I bringing this up?

At the end of the episode, the President is in the Oval Office talking with an old friend, who is a priest, about the situation and how he struggled with his decision. Then the priest asks him, "Did you pray?"
President: "I did, Tom. I know it's hard to believe, but I prayed for wisdom."
Priest: "And none came?"
President: "It never has. And I'm a little pissed off about that... I'm not kidding."

Have you ever felt that way? I've prayed for wisdom, I've prayed for direction, and nothing came. It never has.

What comes next is powerful. (The whole scene is worth watching, but the part I'm talking about begins at 1:35 on the video.)

If you don't have a few minutes to watch the clip, here is what the priest says next:
You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town, and that all of the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, 'I'm religious, I prayed, God loves me, God will save me'. The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along, and he shouted, 'Hey, hey, you! You in there! The town is flooding! Let me take you to safety!' But the man shouted back, 'I'm religious, I prayed, God loves me, God will save me!' A helicopter was hovering over head, and a guy with a megaphone shouted, 'Hey you, you down there! The town is flooding! Let me drop this ladder, and I'll take you to safety!' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him, and that God would take him to safety. Well, the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord', he said, 'I'm a religious man. I pray. I thought you love me. Why did this happen?' God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?'
He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President, not to mention his Son, Jesus Christ. What do you want from Him?

It's an old, familiar joke. When the priest started to recite it, I thought this would ruin the end of the episode, honestly. But it worked. You prayed for wisdom, and God sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker - not to mention Jesus! What do you want from him?

Maybe sometimes the answers to our prayers are right in front of us, but we refuse to see them. Maybe sometimes the wisdom we need is right there, but we just don't want to listen to it. We wait for God to zap us with lightning from heaven or send a golden shaft of light and an almighty voice to answer our questions, and we ignore the answers God actually sends.
And the greatest irony is, in Jesus God actually did miraculously come down from heaven and offer us some direction, but so often we won't even listen to that.

Usually TV shows just use Christianity for an easy laugh. But sometimes they preach.

Have you ever recognized the answer to a pray that was right in front of your nose? Do you ever struggle to listen to the wisdom and guidance God offers you?
Are there other likable, faithful Christian characters you've seen on TV?

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