Every now and then, prime-time TV takes God seriously and treats people of faith like beings with both brains and souls. Take the season finale of NBC's "The West Wing," a brilliant drama set in a fictional White House. President Jed Bartlet, portrayed by actor Martin Sheen, is having a bit of a day. Dozens of Americans are being held hostage at the embassy in Haiti, and a tropical storm is bearing down on Washington.
Meanwhile, Bartlet has just disclosed publicly he has multiple sclerosis and has been lying about it for eight years. He might be facing criminal charges, or worse. He's on his way to the funeral of his personal secretary, Mrs. Landingham, who was killed by a drunken driver. And he's still recovering from last season's assassination attempt that nearly took the life of Josh Lyman, a trusted assistant.
After the funeral at the National Cathedral, Bartlet, a deeply religious man, orders the cathedral doors sealed. The grieving, angry president, a man who prays on his knees and often quotes Scripture chapter and verse, has something he wants to say privately to God. He curses God. "(Mrs. Landingham) bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver," he continues. "What? Is that supposed to be funny? I think you're just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to your son but glorify and praise his name?"
Tough stuff, but he isn't done. Bartlet, raised in pre-Vatican II Catholicism, finishes his tirade in Latin. "Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto? A deo scito?" he starts.
Raised in post-Vatican II Protestantism, the only Latin I know is "e pluribus unum." So I called Warner Bros. and got the official translation: "Am I really to believe that these are the acts of a loving God? A just God? A wise God?" Bartlet says. "To hell with your punishments. I was your servant here on Earth. And I spread your word and I did your work. To hell with your punishments. To hell with you."
Wow. Real, honest-to-goodness theology on prime-time television. It's tough stuff, but God can take it.
And it's no tougher than the stuff any Sunday-school kid will find in the Hebrew Scriptures. Those Old Testament folks weren't afraid to question, challenge and even scold God. Abraham and Sarah both laughed at God. Jacob fought with God. Jonah ran away from God. Gideon, in the midst of oppression, had a few questions for God. "If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?" he asked. "Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us into the hand of the Midian."
Jeremiah denounced everyone, including God. "O, Lord, you deceived me and I was deceived," he wailed. "When your words came I ate them; they were my joy, my heart's delight, for I bear your name. Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?" Job, who had a few more bad days than Jed, shared his disappointment with the Lord. "I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer," he said. "I stand up but you merely look at me. You turn on me ruthlessly and with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind. You toss me about in the storm. I know you will bring me down to death."
Bartlet's lament was no different than some of the original Lamentations: "God is like an enemy," it says in that old book. "Even when I cry out for help he shuts out my prayer. He dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help. He has broken my teeth with gravel."
The message is consistent and clear: Prophetic criticism born in grief is an act of faith. The capacity to grieve is "the most visceral announcement that things are not right, not as they should be, not as they were promised," Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote. It's also, Brueggemann adds, the announcement that things "are not as they must be and will be."
That's the flip side of prophetic criticism, of course: prophetic hope born in faith. Those old prophets didn't just complain and quit. They didn't just grieve and go home. They kept at it. They went back out there and went to work, encouraged, emboldened, stronger and more faithful than before. All good theology ends on a hopeful note.
So did the season finale of "The West Wing." Near the end of the show, Bartlet gets a visit from his angel of the Lord, otherwise known as Mrs. Landingham. She tells him not to let his anger or his fear get the best of him. "God doesn't make cars crash and you know it," she tells Bartlet. "Stop using me for an excuse." As Mrs. Landingham talks, Bartlet is reminded of all of God's work there is to be done.
So, like an Old Testament prophet, Jed gets back up and goes to work.