Monday, May 15, 2006

Heads up on the Da Vinci Movie and an Hommage to the West Wing

This is just to let all of you know that I have been granted an early viewing of the Da Vinci Code movie, and by Thursday night late I intend to post a full movie review and viewer's guide, if pastors and others want to use it next Sunday and the following weeks. Thus far the news flash.


My main reason for writing this post however is that I have just viewed the final episode of my favorite TV show of the last seven years (indeed almost my only TV drama show of the last seven years)--- West Wing. Its consistently high level of drama and dialogue rightly won it numerous Emmies. But while our own nation is floating along on a wing and a prayer, this show reminded us that governing could be done so much better than it has been in recent decades. It gave me hope in our political process that it could still work.

This show made clear that it was possible to have quality television on a major network with excellent scripts and acting, and often scripts that raised important issues about the relationship of politics and religion. Whether or not you agreed with the politics of the Bartlett administration or not was quite beside the point. What you learned was something of the huge moral dilemmas a President faces day after day, and the numerous compromise and compromising decisions one has to make day after day to govern our country. What you also learned is that in a democracy patriotism is not an ideological stance-- one can be a patriot and hold widely divergent views from other patriots.

The level of public discourse in America has gone down dramatically in the last two decades. We have degenerated into shouting matches, and spitting contests, and it has not helped us resolve any issues. This show in its best moments helped us think hard about the profound issues that confront us as a people and as individuals, and regularly the issue of what role religion should play in our democracy came to the fore. I shall sorely miss this show, as it did a better job of stirring up real patriotism and love for our country at its best than much of what passes for honorable rhetoric these days. Would that there were candidates like Arnie Vinnick and Matt Santos that we had to choose from in the next election. A country, it has been said, should be judged at its best, not its worst. Any country that can produce this kind of drama that honors freedom, democracy, and even at times the Bible and Christianity can't be all bad.

God bless America, and God bless producer John Wells and all those who gave us West Wing for the last seven years. May we aspire to better things in 2008.


Ed Brenegar said...

The West Wing is also my favorite. I loved it when the Bravo channel on Mondays would run the show virtually all day. It was a great show for many reasons. The dignity and nobility it gave to the Presidency and to President Bartlett. The presence of not just smart people, but learned, literate, intelligent ones. Just how alone it is to be leader of a nation. What real team work looks like. The difficulty of managing the line between ethics and politics. Characters who have feet of clay, who have real strengths and real problems. And politics as a very tough, dangerous game of power. Thank goodness its on DVD.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Steve:

I thought that particular show was excellent. I thought both the way that the Dr. Laura character was played and the way she was responded to showed the emotion invested at both ends of the spectrum on such an issue. I would have liked more balance in the critique, but certainly I know people who are like that.

Any one who says West Wing was just an inane left wing show that simply parroted left wing views obviously has not bothered to watch much of the show for sure.

The only thing worse than knee jerk liberals who condemn things they are ignorant about is knee jerk conservatives doing the very same thing. And when they are Christians this is a case of Christians behaving badly.



Dustin said...

"I never took the time to watch it. Any thoughts on that episode in which the President goes after a Dr. Laura type character & her beliefs on homosexuality? (see here)"

I would have to say that the fictional President Bartlett's treatment of this character was right on. I, for one, believe homosexuality to be a sin. However, I also find most "Christian" treatment of homosexuals sinful as well. In the show, Bartlett was simply pointing out the hypocrisy.

As far as the show goes, I am an avid fan, who had to "catch up" a couple years ago, after missing the first three seasons. Now, I have all the seasons out so far on DVD, and plan to relive the glory days of good TV over and over again.

Sandalstraps said...

We agree on something: The West Wing was far and away the best show on TV for the duration of its 7 year run. My favorite show since Northern Exposure, another show which, while excellent in and of itself, was even better at generating conversations worth having. Thanks for noting the passing of one of the closest things to art that has come out of our soceity of late.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those strange people who shunned The West Wing, not because of its politics, but because I resent "quality" television that, in my view, relentlessly tells me what to feel. Granted, I never saw an entire season of the show, but I felt that it lacked emotional subtlety.

That said, I wholeheartedly agree, Ben, that its picture of politicians transcending divisive rhetoric was much needed. Dad's comment reinforces your diagnosis of the problem in a way that is so blatant it's hilarious. Taking someone off of your list of favorites over a television show? Talk about politicizing everything!

Denny Burk said...

I too was a big fan of the West Wing, but for different reasons, I suppose. I liked the drama and the dialogue, but I didn't like the politics.

The Vinnick v. Santos race was completely unrealistic, not because Vinnick was an atheist, but because he was pro-choice. It is not possible for a pro-choice person to win in the Republican primary elections for President. Likewise, it is not possible for a pro-life candidate to win a Democrat primary for President. So I thought the entire race and address of the abortion issue was completely superficial. They just made them both pro-choice so they didn't have to debate the substance of the issue.

I thought President Bartlett was pompous and imperious. He never passed up an opportunity to show everyone how he was the smartest man in the world. He even would strut his biblical knowledge when he had the chance. I thought his knowledge of the Bible and his religious views were just there to show conservatives that "See, Democrats are religious too, and they know more Bible than you do."

Anywho, I thought the show was diminished after Aaron Sorkin left. I think it began to lose its zip after his departure. But I have to say, about three years ago, I thought it was the best show on TV.

Denny Burk

Terry Hamblin said...

I watched series 2, 3 and 4 in the UK, but then found it hard to find the time to fit it in.

I thought that Bartlett was too good to be true. He might have had flaws, but they were all laudable flaws. Certainly, one felt good after watching it, but on reflection life is not really like that. It's more evil and even politicians that appear clean are hiding little (and sometimes large) areas of corruption.

I also thought that he was too liberal ever to get elected in the US.

I am glad that you are going to give us your view on the Da Vinci Code movie. I'm sure it will be professionally done with high production values. The book was a rattling good thriller with ridiculous theology and whopping errors of fact. Still, given the average person's knowledge of Scripture and history, the movie will undoubtedly do a lot of harm to the vulnerable.

Gordon Hackman said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for all of your work on The Da Vinci Code. I look forward to hearing your review of the movie.

All I can say is that it strikes me as pretty sad when someone will take you off their list of favorites simply for liking a show or movie that they deem politically incorrect. This kind of reactionary, defensive narrow-mindedness exemplifies what is wrong with so much of evangelicalism. Whatever happened to "unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and in all things charity?"

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Dad:

As for the politics of Martin Sheen, they are irrelevant to the evaluation of the character Jed Bartlett, who was indeed a Christian, and one with a a conscience as well.

What was it in particular that you didn't like, not in the positions taken, but in the way the government was run on this show? I often did agree with some of the political positions, but that's really not relevant. The question is-- was this a good way to government? I think it was, and that it honored the Constitution and our founding documents in various ways.

And by the way, it is not possible to stick just to the Bible or politics since the Bible is full of ethics which have social and political implications.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

Oops, I meant, I often did NOT agree with many of the political decisions on this show....


Gordon Hackman said...


You said: "The first problem with your statement is the fact that nobody can agree on what exactly are the "essentials", you are one layer removed from reality."

I disagree. The essentials are those beliefs contained in the ecumenical creeds of Christendom (ie the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). Furthermore, since the individuals involved in this particular discussion (namely "dad" and Dr. Witherington) are both theologically conservative evangelicals, I doubt there is serious disagreement about this point.

Political beliefs are not an essential, even though many people (both liberals and conservatives) seem to think they are. I have friends who are theologically conservative, but politically liberal. I may not agree with them, but I try to respect them and don't feel the need to write them off my "list of favorites" simply for having different views from mine.

I have never watched a single episode of West Wing and could really care less about it one way or the other. My point was that it is sad that someone would condescendingly judge another person and say "You are off my list of favorites" simply for liking a particular TV show or for holding certain politcal beliefs. I do consider it reactionary and uncharitable and I stand by what I said.

Gordon Hackman said...


You said: If you can't accept a simple difference of opinion like a man, you should go hide under your bed.

For you to say this at this point in the conversation takes a lot of nerve. Your every word since this discussion began makes it clear that you are the one who can't tolerate a simple difference of opinion. I believe my whole point was that I can accept a simple difference of opinion without feeling the need to write someone off of my list of friends. What turns me off is not your difference of opinion, but the nasty, judgemental tone in which you've expressed it since your very first post. Everything you've said since then has only served to reinforce that perception.

Gordon Hackman said...


Thanks for taking the time to respond to my response to you. I think we are in virtual agreement about essentials. I do understand that there is a variety of beliefs about this though. I'm basing my perspective on my broad understanding of Christian history. As you noted, some things have clearly been considered more major (the Trinity, deity of Christ, the resurection, etc.) and others more minor (infant baptism, church order, political views, predestination, etc.).

I'm tired and need to go now, but again, thanks for you response.


byron smith said...

As an Australian who is conservative theologically but feels no particular connection to the political right (of any country - nor necessarily to the left for that matter), I enjoyed West Wing for showing intelligent debate on large-scale issues and three dimensional characterisation. For me it is one of the few things specifically American that has been more boon than frustration in the last few years. I am no hater of America; it is the flaws of one's friends that are most grievious. Thank you Ben for you initial analysis and comments.

God bless his entire hurting world.