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Posts from the ‘The Wire’ Category


Some notes from “Speaking truth into popculture”

We had a bit of an experiment on Sunday night at All Souls. Instead of the normal evening service, we had a condensed corporate time for around half an hour, and then split into 3 seminars in different venues. Prof John Wyatt did one on Truth in the Brave New World of medical ethics, Nola Leach of CARE did one on Truth in the Public Square and I did one on popculture. The whole thing worked really well and it seemed refreshing to do this sort of thing every now and then. Read more »


In the company of spies: Charles Cumming’s Trinity Six

I’ve just found this in my drafts box having obviously never posted it. So better late than never…

It wasn’t particularly by design, but over Christmas and New Year, I found myself in the company of spies. I read and thoroughly enjoyed Le Carré’s latest, Our Kind of Traitor. Read more »


The gauntlet laid by Tim Keller’s Generous Justice

Keller at DG 2006 by Sola Lumina Captura

So having been motivated by the biblical appeal to action in Keller’s Generous Justice (see previous post), what’s the difference? It would hardly be right to leave us as armchair activists with an impetus to think but not act.

The political tightrope

Speaking as a transatlantic observer, it seems to me that one of the acute problems for American Christians when talking about matters political or social is that hearers are constantly trying to identify tell-tale signs of partisan politics. These quickly become a weapon to justify ignoring a case or to add it to your name-checks of supporters. And meanwhile the importance of the issues at stake gets lost.

Keller does not give hostages to fortune. There’s no way that either Republicans or Democrats can claim him as their own – which is entirely as it should be – he finds biblical grounds for challenges and affirmations to both.

Take, for example, the rather fundamental discussion of what justice is:

But underneath all the name calling are sharp differences of opinion about what justice actually is. Democrats think of it in more collective terms. They believe a low tax rate is unfair because it deprives the poor and minorities of the help they need to overcome years of discrimination. Republicans think of justice more individualistically. They believe that a high tax rate is unjust because it robs people of their due who have risked much and worked hard to keep what they earn.

… The fact is that the word ‘justice’ does not have a definition in our culture that we can all agree on. So we just use it as a bludgeon.  We self-righteously imply that those on the other side know they are simply being unjust. But they don’t. (p150)

Or then there is this discussion of families trapped poverty:

Conservatives may argue that this is the parents’ fault. It is due to a failure of moral character and the breakdown of the family. Liberals, however, see it as a failure of the government system to stem systemic racism and to change unjust social structures. But nobody says that it is the children’s fault they were born where they were. Those children are in poverty largely because they were not born into a family like mine. My three sons, just by being born where they were, have a far better chance to have a flourishing, happy life in society. There is an inequitable distribution of goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice. (p92)

But as mentioned in the last post, it is gospel grace that transforms social attitudes, and thus it supersedes political creeds or loyalties. Here are 3 striking quotations which show how this happens…

In Christ we receive grace, unmerited favour. Nevertheless, in the mind of the Old Testament prophets as well as the teaching of Jesus, an encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice. (p49)
My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating towards the materially poor. (p102)
I believe, however, when justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and the gospel, this ‘pushes the button’ down deep in believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up. (p107)

And he goes on to illustrate precisely how this works with an extended quotation from a sermon by nineteenth century pastor and Keller hero Murray M’Cheyne. (p107 ff)

There should be no poor among you…

As can then be appreciated, how to help bring about justice for the marginalised and trapped is going to be very complex. After all, the ideologies of left and right have evolved over decades of thought and experience – and complexity simply begets more complexity. But Keller’s point is that the Bible’s analysis of poverty and injustice is far from simplistic – it’s much more nuanced than many give it credit for. Drawing on commentators like Chris Wright, for example, (and especially his excellent commentary on Deuteronomy), Keller explains how the Bible understands both poverty’s causes and appropriate responses. A key passage is Deuteronomy 15 (one which i was challenged to revisit with further study) as well as a number of others, which together offer 4 provisions for those trapped in poverty (p26 ff):

  • Release from debts
  • Provision for gleaning (i.e. leaving some food by not harvesting the edge of fields): ‘gleaning was not … what would ordinarily be called an act of charity. It enabled the poor to provide for themselves without relying on benevolence’ (p26)
  • Tithing for the poor every third year.
  • The Year of Jubilee


If we combine the requirements of radical generosity with the regulations on profit-taking and property use, we are not surprised that God could say, ‘there should be no poor among you.’ This does not mean that people would not continue to fall into poverty. But if Israel as an entire society had kept God’s laws perfectly with all their hearts, there would have been no permanent, long-term poverty. (p28)

But the bible is not naïve about how poverty arises. And Keller’s analysis is all the more striking because he approaches it all from a theological background more commonly associated with the Christian right.

The three causes of poverty, according to the Bible, are oppression, calamity and personal moral failure. Having surveyed the Bible on these texts numerous times, I have concluded that the emphasis is usually on the larger structural factors. (p38)

So what to do…

This book gave me one of those lightbulb moments at the point where he ingeniously imagined a Good Samaritan follow-up.

Imagine a sequel to the Good Samaritan parable. The months go by and every time he makes his trip from Jerusalem  to Jericho he finds another man in the road, beaten and robbed. Finally the Samaritan says, ‘How do we stop the violence?’

The answer to that question would be some kind of social reform – instituting a new social arrangement that stops the flow of victims because of a change of social conditions. (p126)

And thus, every problem is part of a wider context – what he calls a ‘matrix of causes’ (p33). Which is why it needs a matrix of responses. He articulates 3 levels of support – relief, development and reform. Here he draws on the famous theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper and his distinction between the institutional and organic church (the latter being the impact of individual Christians going about their business in the world).

I believe Kuyper is generally right. We have spoken of different ‘levels’ of ministry to the poor – relief, development and reform. As we have said, churches under their leaders should definitely carry out ministries of relief and some development among their own members and in their neighbourhoods and cities, as the natural and crucial way to show the world God’s character, and to love the people that they are evangelising. But if we apply Kuyper’s view, then when we get to the more ambitious work of social reform and the addressing of social structure, believers should work through associations and organizations rather than through the local church. While the institutional church should do relief inside and around its community, the ‘organic’ church should be doing development and social reform. (p145)

The book does give examples of transformational work happening through churches and individuals. And as an avid devotee of The Wire (having devoured all 5 seasons in with equal measures of horror and rapt amazement!), I was hugely encouraged to hear of the work of New Song Urban Ministries in Sandtown Baltimore (started up by his friend Mark Gornik). Here all these levels are being worked out.

But, that’s definitely quite enough for now! Read the book – he says it all much more fluently and coherently. His case is cogent and hard to dismiss.

Finally, for those who think our only responsibility is to help fellow believers, there’s this resounding battle cry. Ignore it your peril:

However, the Bible is clear that Christians’ practical love, their generous justice, is not to be confined to only those who believe as we do. Galatians 6:10 strikes the balance when Paul says: ‘Do good to all people, especially the family of faith.’ Helping ‘all people’ is not optional, it is a command. (p61)


Everything Bad is Good For You

Have recently finished reading Steven Johnson’s 2004 book on pop culture: Everything Bad is Good For You. A fascinating read – and certainly helps to explain the prevailing resurgence in TV programming (and makes me feel a bit better about my West Wing (et al) obsessions – after all it’s always good to understand one’s own hang ups a little better). Like a lot of such books, its case could probably have been presented in half the space. But there you go.

The main thesis is that pop culture (in particular movies, tv series, computer games, internet etc), far from the bain of all bookworms and luddites is actually beneficial. It stimulates the mind in unexpected but constructive ways and even prepares people for the complexities of modern life! Well how about that! Here are a few quotes:

The impact of computer games

To non-players, games bear a superficial resemblance to music videos: flashy graphics; the layered mix of image, music, and text; the occasional burst of speed, particularly during the pre-rendered opening sequences. But what you actually do in playing a game – the way your mind has to work – is radically different. It’s not about tolerating or aestheticizing chaos; it’s about finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order. (p62)

Then check this out:

The game scholar James Paul Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the ‘probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink’ cycle:

1. The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
2. Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artefact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
3. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
4. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.
Put another way: when gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method. (p44-45)

On what ACTUALLY happens if you are addicted to computer games:

Another recent study looked at three distinct groups of white-collar professionals: hard-core gamers, occasional gamers, and non-gamers. The results contradict nearly all the received ideas about the impact of games: the gaming population turned out to be consistently more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively. They also showed no evidence of reduced attention spans compared with non-gamers.

The impact of TV

On the complexities and in-jokes of modern series like The Simpsons:

According to one fan site that has exhaustively chronicled these matters, the average Simpsons episode includes around eight gags that explicitly refer to movies: a plotline, a snipped of dialogue, a visual pun on a famous cinematic sequences (Seinfeld featured a number of episodes that mirrored movie plots, including Midnight Cowboy and JFK). The Halloween episodes have historically been the most baroque in their cinematic allusions, with the all-time champ being an episode from the 1995 season, integrating material from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Godzilla, Ghostbusters, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Pagemaster, Maximum Overdrive, The Terminator and Terminator 2, Alien III, Tron, Beyond the Mind’s Eye, The Black Hole, Poltergeist, Howard the Duck, and The Shining.

The film parodies and cultural sampling of The Simpsons usually get filed away as textbook postmodernism: media riffing on other media… But I think it’s more instructive to see both these devices as sharing a key attribute: they are comic devices that reward further scrutiny. The show gets funnier the more you study it – precisely because the jokes point outside the immediate context of the episode, and because the creators refuse to supply flashing arrows to translate the gags for the uninitiated. (86)

On why the famed TV debate between Nixon & Kennedy might not have been set such a bad precedent after all:

So what we’re getting out of the much-maligned Oprahization of politics is not boxers-or-briefs personal trivia – it’s crucial information about the emotional IQ of a potential president, information we had no access to until television came along and gave us that tight focus…

That’s not to imply that all political debate should be reduced to talk-show banter; there’s still plenty of room for position papers and formal speeches. But we shouldn’t underestimate the information conveyed by the close-ups of the unscripted television appearance. That first Nixon-Kennedy debate has long been cited as the founding moment of the triumph of image over substance – among all those TV viewers who thought Nixon’s sweating and five-o’clock shadow made him look shifty and untrustworthy in the end. Perhaps all those voters who thought he had won after they heard the debate on the radio or read the transcript in the papers simply didn’t have access to the range of emotional information conveyed by television. Nixon lost on TV because he didn’t look like someone you would want as president, and where emotional IQ is concerned, looks don’t always deceive. (102-103)

In the 70s the mandate of TV producers was to provide Least Objectionable Programming (LOP – in order to maximise ratings) – mainly because you would only see a programme once and not again. But with the advent of DVDs and the web, the chance to rewatch programmes has multiplied. Now the aim is to produce Most Repeatable Programming (MPR) Neil Postman was reacting rightly to the shallow and pathetic of 70s TV. But things are different. Programmes like The West Wing, Lost, 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, are light years away from 70s stuff – which is why they are so addictive, and more significantly, rewatchable:

The MRP model cultivates nuance and depth; it welcomes ‘tricks’ like backward episodes and dense allusions to Hollywood movies. Writing only a few years after Klein’s [LOP] speech, Neil Postman announced that two of television’s golden rules were: ‘Though shalt have no prerequisites’ (meaning that no previous knowledge should be required for viewers to understand a program) and ‘Thou shalt induce no perplexity.’ Postman had it right at the time, if you ignored the developing narrative techniques of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. But twenty years later, many of the most popular shows in television regularly flaunt those principles. (162)

The impact of the Internet

Steve Jobs on why the Internet is better than TV

Almost all forms of online activity sustained are participatory in nature: writing e-mails, sending IMs, creating photo logs, posting two-page analyses of last night’s Apprentice episode. Steve Jobs likes to describe the difference between television and the Web as the difference between lean-back and sit-forward media. The networked computer makes you lean in, focus, engage, while television encourages you to zone out. (Though not as much as it used to, of course.) This is the familiar interactivity-is-good-for-you argument, and it’s proof that the conventional wisdom is every now and then, actually wise. (118)

On how the internet actually reverses a decades-long cultural trend:

Television and automobile society locked people up in their living rooms, away from the clash and vitality of public space, but the Net has reversed that long-term trend. After a half-century of technological isolation, we’re finally learning new ways to connect. (124)

Perhaps, the book overstates its case a bit. But it was definitely stimulating and thought-provoking. Which is all one really wants in a book. Especially if it is going to keep me away from watching the West Wing extras disk in my TWW boxed set.


Iconic American roles – by Brits!

On receiving his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire, back in 1982, he famously cried ‘The British Are Coming!’ Well, the British film industry hasn’t exactly taken over the movie-making world, so it sounds rather like hubris in retrospect; although British presence at this year’s Golden Globes (and therefore presumably the Oscars too) was not to be sniffed at.

But the funny thing is, his prediction has come true rather in some ways – not on the big screen but on the small screen. I’ve not seen anyone spot this yet, or at least draw the link. But i guess some have. But many have recognized the fact that we seem to have been enjoying bit of a golden age as far as American TV series are concerned. There’s the obvious: West Wing of course, then 24, Alias, Heroes, Lost etc etc. But it suddenly struck me that 3 actors have taken US TV by storm – by playing Americans, utterly convincingly in House, The Wire & Band of Brothers.


But here they are: Hugh Laurie playing House, Dominic West playing McNulty in The Wire (which is being hailed as the greatest and grittiest TV drama ever) and Damian Lewis in Spielberg’s Band of Brothers (and now starring in his own cop show, LIFE).

But you know what – besides all 3 being remarkably good British actors, who all pull off being authentically American (such that American friends simply can’t believe they’re not home-grown), they all have something else in common. They all went to Eton. Well fancy that.