I have a confession to make: I love The West Wing. Yes it’s uber-idealistic, it’ often descends into liberalism sans-nuance, and Josh Lyman’s occasional misogyny renders my unabashed crush on him exceedingly problematic, but I just love it! And being the theology nerd that I am with a keen interest in theology and cinema and television, I cannot help but have my ears prick up when anything vaguely theological comes on my radar, and The West Wing delivers theology in abundance.
There are so many places to delve into The West Wing and its theology: “Take This Sabbath Day,” “Shibboleth,” “Pilot” with the questionable biblical exegesis but it’s Bartlet being Bartlet so I’m inclined to let it slide. But I’m going to focus on one episode in particular: “Two Cathedrals,” the final episode of the second series.
In this episode, the world learns that President Bartlet has MS, something he withheld during his election campaign. As reporters gather for a press conference, the President is also dealing with the aftermath of the death of his assistant, Mrs Landingham who died in a car accident. Through flashbacks, we learn that Mrs Landingham knew Jed when he was at school, she recognised his leadership potential, and she tells him about the gender pay gap in action at the school. At her funeral, Jed does some things in church you probably shouldn’t do and which resulted in the National Cathedral banning all future shows from filming there. Caught up in a tropical storm, he heads to a press conference where he is asked whether he is going to run for re-election and then… end of series.
Consumed with grief at Mrs Landingham’s death, feeling the burden of responsibility for the people around him who have been put in harm’s way because of their proximity to him, overwhelmed by the challenges faced by his office, and probably feeling guilty about having hidden his MS from the electorate and the frustration of having such an illness, he paces at the front of the church, talking – yelling – at God.
[tired] You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?
He slowly walks up the center aisle.
She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that
supposed to be funny? “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name? There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the north Atlantic last year… 68 crew. You know what a tender ship does? Fixes the other ships. Doesn’t even carry guns. Just goes around, fixes the other ships and delivers that mail. That’s all it can do. [angry] Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. [holds out arms]
I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new
jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new
acres of land for conservation, put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war,
I’ve raised three children…
He ascends the stairs to the Inner Sanctuary.
[pleading] That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio?
A deo iusto? A deo scito?
He stops at the top of the stairs and extends his arms.
Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus nuntius fui officium perfeci. [angry]
Cruciatus in crucem. [waves dismissively] Eas in crucem!
Bartlet turns away in anger. He descends to the lower sanctuary and lights a cigarette.
He takes a single puff, drops the butt to the floor, and grinds it defiantly with his
shoe. He looks back at the altar.
[betrayed] You get Hoynes!
Bartlet holds back tears as he walks down the aisle.
‘What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name?’ It’s easy to blame God. His hugeness, his otherness, the mystery of him, the creator of the universe who still somehow whispers our name, means that he’s easy to rail against. He can take it, can’t he? And let’s face it, if he is as good as he says he is, then why am I in pain? Why do I feel let down? Why has this bad thing happened to me?
I was talking to a friend from St Anselm recently and something he said has stuck with me, like an itch that refuses to be scratched. He was describing someone who had been like a father to him: powerful, protective, but also someone to be feared. Now, I don’t want to in anyway vindicate fathers/father figures who are abusive, but there’s something to be said for the God the Father who you are slightly afraid of. Not because they will hurt you, not because they will abandon you, not because they are vindictive, but because in that place of fear, you do find the confusing, paradoxical mercy of God, the ‘appalling strangeness.’ I do think God can take it when we get angry or frustrated at him; if he didn’t, then his Son wouldn’t have cried from the cross ‘why have you forsaken me?’ But in that anger, we can’t blame him for what happened. Just because you can call God a son of a bitch, doesn’t mean you should.
Mrs Landingham appears to President Bartlet, it’s a figment of his imagination, it’s clear he’s alone in the Oval Office.
Ah… Damn it! Mrs. Landingham!
He turns away, realizing she won’t come to his call, and then the door opens…
[walks in, small and resolute] I really wish you wouldn’t shout, Mr. President.
[beat, as he looks at her in disbelief] The door keeps blowing open.
Yes, but there’s an intercom and you could use it to call me at my desk.
You don’t know how to use the intercom.
It’s not that I don’t know how to use it, it’s just that I haven’t learned yet.
She looks at him and he smiles shyly, as if he’s been caught lying.
I have M.S., and I didn’t tell anybody.
Yeah. So, you’re having a little bit of a day.
You’re gonna make jokes?
God doesn’t make cars crash, and you know it. Stop using me as an excuse.
God doesn’t cause cars to crash. I have a profound pastoral hatred whenever people say things like, ‘God has sent you this tragedy to test you.’ It’s wrong, it’s just impossible to rationalise theologically and sends you into a major theodicy problem. Blaming God, attributing the origin of evil and suffering to him, does the person suffering a huge disservice, to tell someone that God is the author of their pain is to tie their hands behind their back so they can’t reach out for God’s embrace. It is to deny the otherness of pain and suffering and evil, to give it a prominence it was never to have in God’s creation, to bind it inextricably to God when his promise is that on that amazing day there will be no tears and no more pain.
I don’t have a fully worked-out theodicy, if anyone does then I’d be concerned, although when Mike Lloyd finally gets round to finishing his book on the doctrine of evil and suffering then it will probably best articulate the doctrinal position I hold. (I’m a convert to Mike’s position on this issue, but not on his jokes, that needs to be emphatically stated. Also Mike Lloyd was my Principal at Oxford and someone who I respect unreservedly).
In his book, Café Theology, Lloyd writes:
The author [of the Book of Job] is deliberately and carefully distancing God from any imputation of direct involvement in, or responsibility for evil and suffering. He is, in other words, guarding the goodness of God. It seems to me that we should do likewise. We too need to put moral distance between God and evil. We need to be careful in our thinking and our speaking not to suggest that God is the author of suffering. We need to preserve the distinction between what God permits and what He commits. To forget the distinction is to say that God wills Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the Gulag and the Laogai and the killing fields and Enniskillen and September 11th – and that we must never say. We must guard with our theological lives the goodness of God. We may and we must feel the strength of the case against that goodness. There is a Job in each one of us and he must be allowed to rail. But the time must come when we put our hand over our mouth and find our hope in the goodness of God. For only an ultimately good God can be relied upon to answer our cries. Only an ultimately good God can be relied upon to care. Only an ultimately good God can be relied upon to put all things to rights.
I once wrote a short story called ‘Playing The Job Card,‘ where I melodramatically laid the blame for a painful situation I was in firmly at God’s door: ‘Is it part of your plan to deal me the Job card? You’ve forced my hand to play a game it doesn’t want to. Do you hear me? I don’t want to play anymore!’ It finished, ‘Tell me there’s a twist in the game. Make it stop hurting. Please… I’m trusting you. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ The God who causes your pain cannot be the God who wipes away your tears. That makes him vindictive, that makes him a Father you cower from, rather than stand under in fear through worship. The God who wipes away your tears is not the author of your suffering, nor does his goodness nullify the pain you feel, rather it is a deep acknowledgment of it and of you, and of how much he loves you.
God doesn’t make cars crash, and you know it.