Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Faith and The West Wing

by Ben Howard

I have a weird addiction to The West Wing. It’s a great show, plenty of people love it, but it’s also been off the air for about a decade. Yet I still find myself circling back to it every couple of months. It’s comfort food. I want to see Toby Ziegler’s lovable misanthropy, or Leo McGarry’s elder-statesmen confidence, or just Jed Bartlet being all presidential and whatnot. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like government might secretly be functional.

In the wake of the presidential election, I’ve found myself on a bit of a West Wing bender and it’s made me wonder why I like the show so much. In fact, it’s made me wonder why I like Aaron Sorkin’s shows so much in general. I watched season one of The Newsroom even though I don’t have HBO, I’ve watched every episode of Sports Night, I even watched Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip which every critic in the world thinks is terrible, but I found to be a lovely guilty pleasure. I loved them all.

I even love the movies he writes. The Social Network. A Few Good Men. The American President. Charlie Wilson’s War. Moneyball. Love every single one of them.


I like knowing how things work. I like knowing how things tic. Every one of these shows and movies is an insider look at some aspect of culture and life that I’ve always found fascinating from the government to baseball to TV. They are all behind the scenes looks that explore what it’s like to be a part of the inside.

I’ve always craved positions with insider knowledge.

My dad is a preacher so growing up the day to day operations of the church would be a part of normal everyday life. I always knew if there was tension in the church, or if somebody wasn’t getting along with somebody else. Life moved to the rhythms of the church’s calendar. Early summer was for church camp and late summer was for Vacation Bible School. I knew how difficult it was to get teachers, write sermons, find volunteers, and organize events. I knew everything.

My childhood was an Aaron Sorkin show about church, though there was significantly less high-powered intrigue.

I think that’s why I find myself going back to The West Wing. I want to feel like an insider again because that knowledge feels like a security blanket. I don’t know how things will work out in real life, but at least I know how the process works and I can trust the process.

Church has been hard for me since I left home. Not because I can’t find a place to worship, I can do that. I think it’s because I know there’s something I’m missing out on. There is information I don’t have and a side to things that I’m not a part of.

Faith has always been a struggle to me too for the same reasons. Intellectually, I understand that there will be things I don’t know, but I still want to know them. I’ve studied theology and I’ve thought through so many of my personal issues, but my heart is still at war with my head. I still want God to show his work. I want an Aaron Sorkin show about the heavenly realm that shows exactly how “God works for the good of those who love him.”

I would watch that show and even though I would know intellectually that it was fictionalized version of reality, it would soothe my aching soul. It would quiet me even if just for a moment.

One of the most difficult lessons I’ve had to learn in life, one of the most difficult lessons I’m still learning, is that knowing is more than knowledge. Let me unpack that a little.

Our culture instructs us that knowledge is the accumulation of facts. Our knowledge is made up of all the little tidbits of information that we gather on a day to day basis. We then assemble these bits of knowledge rationally until we “know” something and can make confident factual statements about it.

This hasn’t always been the definition of what it means to know something. There is another level of knowing, the level of faith and confidence, that supersedes the simplistic notion of factual knowledge. This is what we mean when we say that we “know” God. We do not have factual proofs. We have faith and we have confidence that God is and that we know and are known to him.

That’s scary to people like me. It’s scary to say that your knowledge is based in faith, not fact, but I’m becoming more and more confident that this is the true foundation for belief.

I may love The West Wing and I may love Sorkin, but at the end of the day that level of information and access is just fiction, a reality-based fantasy that makes me feel a little better.

Reality is messy. I cannot prove that God exists. I do not have insider knowledge and when asked why I believe in God I have no answer beyond a simple, “Because I do.”


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at] gmail.com.

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