I love the West Wing. It still rates as one of the most well informed and influential series of the genre. Its speeches have been stolen by people who have osmosed its hope for a better way of doing politics. When we watch it today it holds a very particular kind of resonance because it demonstrates a civility that has been drowned in a sea of hate. It has positive images of a wrestled out faith, is rich with camaraderie and pith and is just good telly.
But its bad for me.
It pains me to admit this, but the West Wing makes me think I can change the world in a way that is simply not helpful.
It holds out the present hope that the world can turn on a single conversation. With the brave statement or right turn of phrase one might change the debate, and in turn might change the world entire. The moment in the Oval where they realise that if they take no credit they can save social security. The moment where Donna remembers to pay welfare payments. The realisation that all the NATO people are on board for the peace deal.
And sometimes thats true. Real history bears witness to ‘the room’- that place or moment where the course of world events pivots on a single fulcrum. The chance conversation, the quick line, the desperate phone call- all of these are ways in which history turns towards a new place. Rosa Parkes sat down.
But most of the time its not true. Most of the time change is wrought through gently nudging the conversation, through being consistent in one approach, through saying the same thing endless times. Before Rosa Parkes sat down many people had lived lives of faithful resistance, softly chanting the rumour that things were not right and could and should be different.
My theory of history is that it turns on the interplay of single event and big theme. The pivot moment can only happen when the fulcrum is shifted to the right point, when it is blown into place by the exhalation of gentle truths whispered over time. The big theme of history is built by the countless people who begin to shift their thinking and way of being and talk about it, not just in ‘the room’ but in any room.
I am aware that all of us live in the big theme, but many of us long to be part of the single event. Certainly many of us who have watched the West Wing.
I confess that it shapes how I do my life- I would most likely drop a one to one with a local person in order to have the chance to do the big talk. I seek out the ‘magic bullet’ of preaching or teaching when the lights go on and room full of people are enlightened (or agree with me which is a poor second place). I get excited when I am invited into something that might be ‘the room’, only then to be disappointed that decision seems to be being made in the one next door.
Every time I do this I miss a moment to shape the big theme. In recent months I have started a new job. It is challenging- in no small part because I am realising daily that I can’t cut corners. There is no ‘the room’ here- there are just many rooms. I have to take time to listen in those rooms and to start chanting a rumour. My own particular rumour is about God being alive and well and on our side. Its not a new rumour, and its always been one that has best been spread in quiet and conversation, in silence and service. It has often been subverted by our desire to reduce it to a magic bullet moment.
The gentle chanting of rumours is not glamorous. It doesn’t move the world quickly. It doesn’t please my desire to see a direct correlation of input and result. It takes time, and effort. Its fragile because all costly things seem to be. Its slow exhalation is inhibited when we take in the smoke and mirrors of ‘the room’.
And so in order to pursue the big change, I am giving up the West Wing.