Goodnight, hoppers; goodnight, hustlers everywhere

Television | The Wire in its fifth and last season is mercilessly consistent in its vision of a fallen world

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

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).

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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.


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