One of the side effects of my nightly Lenten selah is that my television viewing has dwindled substantially. This isn't a bad thing, per se, because television viewing was beginning to feel oppressively mandatory. David Carr addressed this feeling a few weeks ago, concluding:
Television’s golden age is also a gilded cage, an always-on ecosystem of immense riches that leaves me feeling less like the master of my own universe, and more as if I am surrounded.
So taking my deliberate pause for reflection every night has not only helped me reacquaint myself with the dimly-recollected acts of stringing thoughts and words together for the sheer, profitless joy of it, it's also helped me slither through the bars of that gilded cage.
But I'm not wholly free of television. I always make the time for a handful of shows: Phil and I have wonderfully uneventful fortysomething Friday nights eating charcuterie and heckling the would-be moguls on Shark Tank; we watch Archer and Bob's Burgers within 24 hours of their broadcast; we're slowly working through this season of Justified. (Michael Rapaport is best in very small doses.)
And on my own, I watch Vikings. That show is far better than it has any right to be, which is something I also said about one of Michael Hirst's previous historic soaps, The Tudors. Both shows have much in common: Exquisite costuming that instantly creates a sense of a fundamentally different time and place; pacing that balances moments of tremendous emotional import with crazy, loud, alien-feeling violence; an approach to history that is fast and loose. They also invite the viewer to think on what an incredible thing civilization-building is, and how the modern mind as we live in it is really the culmination of a long chain of unpopular ideas bravely wielded by men and women.
Also, the actors and actresses are incredibly dishy. I can't emphasize this enough. (At left: I am a-twitter.)
Anyway, I really like Vikings, because it is a lot of fun to watch a show where the central premise is "When you are a man ahead of your time, you don't wait for people to catch up" and a supporting argument is "We will feature many, many, many well-muscled shirtless men with fantastic hair that suggests levels of virility that have not been seen since the Black Plague."
In the most recent episode, "Eye For An Eye," there is a scene where what passes for the Saxon intelligensia is meeting with King Ecbert to solve a recent civic problem, that problem being that holy shit, Vikings are really good at this raping and pillaging thing. Ecbert says coolly that he plans to negotiate with these guys, and he'll be doing that by exchanging high-status hostages. His submission? His son. (Who performs "history's" first documented spit-take on hearing this news, apparently for the first time.) Some fat bishop who will likely be speared by a Viking in the next few episodes protests that this tactic won't work because Vikings don't have anyone valuable to them, on account of them being terrifying subhuman savages.
Ecbert, proving that he is a man ahead of his time, calmly replies, "We are Christians, but not so long ago, we were also pagans. And, when we were pagans, do you think we cared nothing for our families? Our children?"
I watched Vikings this evening, and then I read an article on the disconnect between ministering to the poor in America and understanding the people to whom you're ministering. The author says:
From the outside, poverty is a lack of money that results from past choices and failure to plan. From inside, poverty is the diligent effort to love family and live securely, maybe even comfortably, with very little.
It strikes me that very often, people in this country who are poor are all lumped together as "The Poor," as if they are a monolithic bloc, a giant organism that's here to suck an actual individual dry of her resources, then turn its voracious maw toward the next innocent citizen.
It is easy to dehumanize "the poor." It is harder to think of them as people who love their children just as fiercely as the parent who's turned her life into a calendar grid of carpools and sports practices and homework help.
When I passed on the article to the nice pastor who's running my social justice study group, I asked, "I think this acknowledgment that poor people love as fiercely, as purely, as those who are comfortable leads to a question I am not sure how to answer: Why do we fear acknowledging the humanity of the poor?"
For me, I think, the answer is the flip side of the insight that Vikings character had: If we have to acknowledge our similarities, then we have to face the possibility that we are just as vulnerable, and we have to face a really frightening question: What are we afraid of losing, and why?
I don't know the answer. I think I may watch some TV and avoid the scary questions for tonight.