[Cue title music]
There are many, many reasons why everyone loves The West Wing. In the behind-the-scenes footage from season 1, the creators explained that Democrats were saying they loved the politics and loved the show; Republicans were saying they hated the politics…and loved the show. So along those boundaries at least, in a nation characterised by polarisation, the show was and continues to be a hit. [Incidentally when I refer to the show I generally mean seasons 1-4, written by creator Aaron Sorkin; seasons 5-7 were basically a spin-off, though at times well-written.]
But why do Christians love The West Wing? Now for me, it’s anecdotal; but I can reel off a list very quickly of a lot of Christian friends and family who have watched the show, and then (perhaps to our shame, almost evangelistically) have enthused about its greatness, inspiring others to watch it too. I’m never surprised when I hear another Christian wax lyrical about that fantastic prank war between CJ and Charlie (“he crazy-glued my phone!”) or the meeting with cartographers (remember the upside-down map?) or Josh’s hilarious mangled press briefing when CJ had ‘woot canal’. Earlier today I found a blog post by UK Christian blogger Andrew Wilson on the spine tingling scene about ‘The Women of Qumar’.
Maybe it’s just the soft language (no hard swearing) and no on-screen sex. Not that WW was Puritanical; the opening episode is almost built around Sam’s mistaken night spent with a call-girl, who also happens to ‘love pot’ – and drug use get a fair amount of air time in the show, more than you might ordinarily expect in a show about the White House. But we Christians can be forgiven for gravitating towards well-written shows that stay refreshingly clear of the graphic sex and sexuality, and violence/swearing/drug use. Call us thin-skinned; I for one appreciate something that can do well in the ratings because of great writing and great acting, rather than how much flesh is revealed, or explosions-per-minute (EPM). That can’t be said for a lot of successful shows.
But aside from that superficial answer, is there something else about the show that attracts praise from Christian audiences? Some, especially on the more fundamentalist end of the spectrum, could find a number of things to object to – such as the obviously liberal agenda spinning out in favour of homosexuality and abortion, or the frequent belittling of fundamentalist Christians that also takes its place in the pilot episode.
Yet the show maintains to some degree a healthy respect for God, Christianity and the Bible, that others going the way of liberalism might be tempted to trash altogether. Bartlett’s Catholicism plays a frequent and decisive part in many of the decisions and actions he takes. In the pilot episode where the fundamentalist Christians are brought in, Bartlett’s first words are (dramatically) “I am the Lord your God; thou shalt worship no other god before me.” The entertaining bashing he gives the fundamentalists focuses not on bashing the Bible, but upholding it and denouncing abhorrent practices which somehow spring out of cultic groups. Now before anyone thinks I’m crediting the show with a consistent theology, I don’t for a minute think it does or that it is necessarily concerned to; but Bartlett, liberal Catholic that he is, manages to stay this balance, and at least reminds us, even if we don’t agree with all of his conclusions, that our faith can and ought to be subject to scrutiny, especially with regard to our use of Scripture. His equally forceful rhetoric against a fundamentalist radio host isn’t necessarily a tirade against Scripture, only against a literalist use of it.
The other outstanding example is his rant on Ephesians 5, which (with the help of Abby) both dismantles the errors in interpretation and establishes a valuable hermeneutical point to help one understand the passage – you can’t help but think ‘hooray’ when he says “be subject to one another – it’s about all of us”.
Even in his famous rant against God in the stunning finalé of season 2 – filled with intentional irony and invective, reserving some of his strongest language for delivery in Catholicism’s sacred tongue, Latin – one afterwards gets the sense that he reaches reconciliation in his faith in God, and that the character of God stands not against him but, at least, patiently and silently watching him.
I suppose in asking the question ‘Why do Christians love the West Wing?’, I am suggesting that if there are things we love about it, it must be possible for there to be things in culture, ‘in the world’ if you like, which can resonate not just with us as human beings (though perhaps that would be enough, if we believe in imagio dei), but as followers of Jesus. So for example Andrew Wilson’s blog highlighting the plight of the oppressed as depicted in the women of Qumar – obviously we can get passionate about that. It’s just that we can tend to get nervous about finding Christian messages in secular sources, and I can understand that. I suppose I would want to see it as fragments of truth which shine through and connect with the person of truth in us that is Christ. Put another way, CS Lewis and others have spoken and written about the hints and echoes of the Biblical story in other cultures as being, again, fragments of God’s truth which, when the good news finally meets these cultures, ought to find a home therein.
That being said then, the one other chief pleasure I get is (again, mainly in seasons 1-4) witnessing a team of people that know how to work well together and love each other, and that are deeply passionate about the cause they are working for and the person they are serving. I wish you could find that kind of devotion and energy in some church circles! And perhaps, also, we need a few more wise and visionary leaders like Bartlett. I leave you with this: