Sunday, March 1, 2009

Lent I And President Bartlett

Tens of millions of Christians in church today, the first Sunday in Lent, heard the story of Noah (in which God is so grieved by his people's vindictiveness and violence that he washes them away) and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Among many other things, the contrasting stories help explain our attitude toward the substance that essentially comprises us. As Harold Kushner has written, our relationship with water is primal. We're both drawn to it and frightened that it will reclaim us.

By their baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, Christians are cleansed of their iniquities (as the world was in Noah's story) and bound indissolubly to God and therefore made ultimately, perfectly safe. It's a powerful, almost magical sacrament, hence the arguments among denominations about whom (infants or believers) and how (aspersion, affusion, immersion, or submersion). In a conversation between services at St. John's this morning, we took comfort from the notion that while doctrine is often the work of men and women, Christian baptism, however it's practiced, is the work of God's spirit, which flows where it will.

During our class, I'd wanted to show the classic scene from the West Wing episode "Two Cathedrals," when President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen), a faithful Roman Catholic who is tempted to forsake running for a second term because he has lied to the American people about his health, experiences a kind of a civic baptism thanks to a tropical storm that has made its way up the eastern seaboard to Washington. Once Bartlett has been drenched and cleansed, you may guess, if you're not a "West Wing" fan, whether he decides to run again.

What makes the sequence pretty much perfect is the choice of the Dire Straits song “Brothers in Arms” as the soundtrack. Mark Knopfler’s silky progressions and finger-plucked guitar runs are hymn-like. Watch how Bartlett’s body man, Charlie (Dule Hill), takes off his raincoat because the President refuses to wear one. Watch when, as Knopfler sings the words “brothers in arms” for the first time, a trinity of Bartlett aides, Josh, Toby, and Sam, is together in the frame. Watch how, as Bartlett prepares to answer a reporter's question about the election, the American flag unfurls -- symbol of his civic faith, just as the Jerusalem Cross in the transcept of National Cathedral, which we also see in this scene, denotes his faith in Christ.

If you’re a Dire Straits or “West Wing” fan, you’ll want to watch this over and over again. If you’re a fan of both, you probably want to be buried with it. Thanks to a persnickety DVD player, I didn't get to show the scene in the class this morning. My thanks to my St. John's brother John Schafer for providing the YouTube link.


cp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cp said...

(typos edited and link added)

Thank you for the excellent post.

Religious people can often be sanctimonious buffoons in entertainment media (as they can be in real life) and I have always found Aaron Sorkin's writing about President Bartlet's faith moving and inspired. I've wondered if this was fueled a bit by Martin Sheen's outspoken Catholicism. I also have been moved by how Sorkin portrayed Toby's connection with his faith tradition, which sometimes gets expressed as frustration with evangelical political posers. (I can relate!)

It would be great if folks headed to Anaheim this summer (of all opinions) could watch this whole episode, which includes the President's facing off a great loss of a long time friend and an open rant at God for (to him) putting him out in the storm when he felt he had given everything to His will.

Sometimes the storm is exactly where we all need to be, whether we like it or not. Sure we can feel grief about it, but it's no reason to sit on our hands.

"What's next?"