I have been watching the reruns of The West Wing on Bravo, as a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. With his dismissal at the end of last season, I was particularly interested in how the tenor of the show might change without his singular voice (every script passed through his hands during his tenure. The slow down in production and delays because of late scripts were some of the reasons for his dismissal). I had gotten used to well-acted smart characters spouting witty dialogue often reminiscent of the banter from 1930s screwball comedies.

The show taps into the Democratic ideal of a president: folksy, idealistic, honest, progressive, strong economic sense, a little hawkish though violence is a last resort, all while being charming. And, like any good politician, the show is aware of its audience and plays to the middle. And, in President Barlett, Sorkin presents an authentic Catholic Christianity that sets him apart not only from his circle, but from most characters on television. Rarely is a character’s religion explored (The Simpsons being one of the few TV families to regularly attend church and explore religion). This is a character who tests Chinese immigrants fleeing because of religious persecution using the shibboleth passage from the Book of Judges.

The show stumbled out the gate, wrapping up Aaron Sorkin’s last story, though leaving the main characters sitting on the sidelines with nothing to say and pretty much watching everything unfold, out of their hands, over a two episode arc. After that, the show has started to pick up again as the new stable of writers find their voice and direction.

Spiritual Connections:

I have always been curious about how people respond when bad things happen. When people try to disprove the idea of God, they often begin with the argument 1) if God is good, 2) if God is all-powerful, 3) why does evil exist. The “solution” to this problem seems to be the stumbling block for many a person’s faith. Katey Sagal’s character on the show 8 Simple Rules, in dealing with the sudden death of John Ritter’s character, explains that she is no longer on speaking terms with God because of it all the while wondering “why did this happen?”

Back to The West Wing. In the last episode of the second season, titled “Two Cathedrals”, President Bartlet is still reeling from the sudden and pointless death of his longtime friend and confident, Mrs. Landingham. Alone in a cathedral, he rails at God. He opens his monologue with “Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?” Here is a man understandably (and believably) angry with God, recalling the imprecatory Psalms. The show, as do most of the characters, often delights in being the smartest person in the room, so the president continues his tirade in Latin. I pulled this translation from the West Wing UnOfficial Continuity Guide website:

“The first line is just a sarcastic, “Thanks a lot, buddy!”

gratias tibi ago, domine.
Thank you, Lord.
haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito?
Am I to believe these things from a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?
cruciatus in crucem
To hell with your punishments! (literally “(put/send) punishments onto a cross”)
tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci.
I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.
cruciatus in crucem — (with a dismissive wave of the hand) eas in crucem
To hell with your punishments!
And to hell with you! (literally, “may you go to a cross”)”

Is his stance heretical? This does seem to come straight out of the “curse God and die” philosophy of dealing with things. But I think this points to something deeper: our feelings are real and they are ours. They cannot be glossed over with platitudes, even biblical platitudes such as “God has a plan.” President Bartlet, as presented, is a man who can dress down a conservative radio talk show psychologist on her haphazard takes on Old Testament laws. He can wax eloquently about the true context and application of a homily from Ephesians (“be subject to one another”). He can take the church to task for not decrying the acts of those who bomb abortion clinics in the name of life and the Lord.

One of the most recent (post-Sorkin) episodes, titled “Disaster Relief”, deals with the president visiting a small Oklahoma town devastated by a tornado. The episode, a stand out for the season, features this line from a Red Cross volunteer to President Bartlet: “I’m sorry. I lost four kids on my route yesterday. At first, you’re just glad it’s not your kids. But you gotta wonder, what kind of God would do such a terrible thing? We go to church every Sunday. We try to do the right thing. What kind of plan could this possibly be?”

This question has been asked over and over again and will continue to be asked, by us, by the church, and by the culture. People look to the church to have an answer or at least defend God from the charges of neglect. Does the question deserve an answer? Or is this a case of who are we to ask the question? Or are we afraid of the mystery that God’s silence on the question presents?