The grittiness of some historical accounts is one way the Bible differs from other ancient scriptures. Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim religious writings, for example, claim that holy men such as The Buddha and Muhammad were perfect. Many biblical heroes, though, sinned early and often.
Criminal justice professor Mark Jones brings this out in Criminals of the Bible: 25 Case Studies of Biblical Crimes and Outlaws (FaithWalk, 2006). Jacob's sons alone-the forebears of Israel's 12 tribes-had a rap sheet as long as a scroll, with fornication, murder, human trafficking, and prostitution prominently displayed. Moses, who brought down from Mount Sinai tablets that said, "Do not murder," was a murderer.
Israel's kings engaged in war crimes, adultery and conspiracy to commit murder (by David, the man after God's own heart), rape, treason, polygamy, and subornation of perjury. The Bible records such events and we're supposed to read about them, for "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16).
We're also supposed to follow the apostle Paul's injunction in Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." And therein lies what could be a contradiction: Despite the teaching that all Scripture is useful, should we cut out or skip over the radically dishonorable, impure and unlovely history on many of its pages?
Since the Bible does not contradict itself, we know that Paul could not possibly have meant that we are to think about only what is commendable and excellent. Had he averted his eyes from evil, he could not even have walked through Athens and other cities, and then criticized the sin he saw. So let me suggest another interpretation of Philippians 4:8: We should meditate on God's excellencies and praise Him-and we should think about those even more lovingly in juxtaposition to the sin around us.
In short, the heavens show the glory of God, the streets display the sinfulness of man, and we learn from both. That's why WORLD, striving for biblical objectivity, covers sin without approving of it. That's why it's right for novelists to write about adultery, as long as they do not lie by praising it as true romance. That's why it's OK for directors to include murder as long as they don't glamorize the murderers, whether Bonnie and Clyde or Che Guevara. All can show, as Proverbs explains, that he who digs a pit falls into it.
The line between showing enough to make it real, and so much that we will merely be coarsened, is sometimes fine-but, in general, we need to keep our eyes open because our hearts are naturally cauterized, deadened by sin. We should not miss the tragedy of humans living like animals when we are really the sons and daughters of the King.
And that leads me to the most difficult review I've ever written for this magazine. The difficulty is not because the television series under review-HBO's The Wire, which has the DVD of its fifth and last season scheduled for release on Aug. 12-lacks critical laud and honor.
The Wire's fourth season received a 98 from Metacritic, which gathers reviews from published news sources: That's its highest score ever for a television show.
Time, Entertainment Weekly, Slate, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Philadelphia Daily News are among the publications that called The Wire the best show on television. Salon called it "the best TV show of all time." And US Weekly in March quoted Barack Obama calling The Wire the best show on TV.
These folks are rapturous in part because The Wire is a cop show that consistently transcends cop shows. Sure, it's about the war between Baltimore police and drug dealers, with dockworkers, politicians, teachers, and journalists more often part of the problem than the solution-but it's the opposite of the shows that wrap up everything at the end of an hour. Instead, The Wire is about seemingly intractable urban problems.
The Wire goes beneath the surface and mines the worldview best expressed through most of Ecclesiastes: "All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted." The Wire shows us public schools that capture truants once a month just so they can maximize their funding, and police departments that doctor statistics so as to maintain the illusion of progress against crime.
The "wire" in question is a wiretap of a Baltimore drug ring, but the series title implies that viewers are listening in on an unfamiliar world, seeing and hearing what we usually do not. Maybe The Wire is also about walking a tightrope where we may fall off on one side into utter cynicism or on the other into unrealistic idealism. The show never received high ratings because, instead of signaling plot turns three blocks in advance, it demands that viewers pay attention. Ecclesiastes: "For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them."
The Wire regularly shows the difference between appearance and reality: Police hoping that bureaucrats will pay attention make up crimes, and reporters looking for advancement make up stories. Those who are wise realize they're seeing only part of the picture. As one of the good guys from season five, newspaper editor Augustus Haynes, says, "If you want to look at who these kids really are, you have to look at the parenting or lack of it in the city, the drug culture, the economics of these neighborhoods. It's like you're up on the corner of a roof and you're showing some people how a couple shingles came loose. Meanwhile, a hurricane wrecked the rest of the --- house."
That last sentence brings to the fore a major problem of the series, and the one that forces me to fence off this recommendation. The Wire has violence, sex, and bad language. People are shot in the head-although not in glamorizing slow motion, as in a Sam Peckinpah film. Some people are shown in sexually indecent exposure, and several times adultery seems to go along with adulthood. Either the violence or the sex would be sufficient to make many WORLD readers want no part of this series, and for some to question whether anyone should watch.
The violence and sex are periodic, but the series has one constant: obscene language. Criminals assault English in virtually every sentence, and police aren't much better. Dockworkers, reporters, and others also kick back a few, partly because some spend many evenings drunk, but in large part because this, realistically, is their common verbal currency. Is the realism worth it? Some WORLD readers again will say no.
For me-and I know many will disagree-some enormous positives balance those large detriments. The Wire reflects better than anything else I've ever seen on television the teaching of Ecclesiastes about "the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them." Newspapers lack money for investigative reporting. Police lack money for overtime or even for cars that aren't over-the-hill. Drug dealers, though, commonly bring out fat rolls and casually peel off $100 bills.
The series is full of memorable characters like drug-snitch Bubbles, stick-up man Omar, and teachers forced to live and die by test scores. It includes myriads of fleeting but memorable moments, including the look on a boy's face as he realizes his complicity in murder. Those of us who have read Goodnight, Moon to our children grasp the poignancy of a detective holding a child up to the window and saying goodnight, moon but also goodnight, hoppers; goodnight, hustlers; good night, scammers.
The show moralizes only minimally, but the plots convey lessons: one person at a time, one day at a time. Think locally, don't obsess globally. Reporters should enjoy their work on the Baltimore Sun and not plot a move to The Washington Post. Policemen can save one child and put to the side nightmares about thousands. The Right Stuff among police is honest, grimy detective work, and the same is true in newspaper work-including getting the grammar right.
A few moments of hope do emerge. A gangbanger, taken into a loving but firm home, becomes a good student. An ex-convict sets up a boxing gym and becomes a youth leader. A heroin user cleans up his act. A crooked cop goes straight. But tangled rules constrain judges from doing what is right, and ambition turns politicians from ideals to deals. Ecclesiastes: "I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness."
The Wire is mercilessly consistent in that vision. Petty larceny on street corners parallels grand larceny in corner suites. Uninspired police, instead of pounding the pavement, flip through porn magazines or create doll furniture. As bad as things are, the powers in every institution seek to keep things the same and even to create the myth of "back in the day" when things were better. Ecclesiastes: "Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart."
The Wire takes no easy ways out. It doesn't turn the press into heroes: Uninspired journalists don't do investigative work and don't even chase fires, but watch them out the windows of their offices, from a distance. It refuses to embrace either racism or reverse racism: A black death in the "wrong ZIP code" is less media-significant than a white one, but a corrupt black state senator steals from all and plays the race card when caught.
The sadness of The Wire is that "the game"-drug trafficking, but in a larger sense the established pattern of institutional relationships-goes on and on. One drug lord succeeds another, one "corner boy" succeeds another, a new stick-up artist replaces one who dies, and on it goes. Ecclesiastes: "A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever."
Many television shows are non-biblical or anti-biblical. They say that man without God is fine-but as former Baltimorean Whittaker Chambers noted, "Man without God is a beast, and never more beastly than when he is most intelligent about his beastliness." The hopelessness of The Wire conveys to us a biblical truth about our condition, and television drama does not tell us how God has fixed and is fixing the problem.