Image: Geoff Wilson on Flickr
I have just watched the TV Drama ‘Time’; it is a three part series about prison life. And it was totally harrowing.BUY THIS IS THAT
Often TV dramas that tackle gritty subjects have so many elements of make-belief in them that however dramatic and awful they are, you realise you are watching a soapy fiction that is designed as entertainment so it is not very real, actually. This one felt the opposite. After seeing the first episode I didn’t want to watch any more. Not because it was full of gratuitous violence, but because it felt too real an experience – a mirror held up to our justice system and the state of our sad and sinful hearts.
The writer Jimmy McGovern is known for his work that reveals and addresses flaws in systems and institutions, but it also highlights that these systemic problems are built upon the foundation of individual’s brokenness and pain. The bible world view is similar. It gives us a critique of the way that families, communities, cultural groups and whole nations are toxic and ridden throughout with sin and corruption – so even good people find it hard to live well within such flawed frameworks. At the same time, the bible shows that we as individuals are not let off the hook or simply allowed to blame the stuff around us. We each have the same kind of sin lurking in our hearts. It may not feel that our own actions have the weight and consequence of a society that is broken, but actually, our own personal worlds are just as thorny and toxic as the culture we find ourselves in.
This is the nature of sin. The series did a great job of showing us this – without using religious words or pushing a particularly Christian agenda. There were themes such moral compromise – where you are faced with choices that both appear wrong and you feel you have to choose one to protect what you most value. There were themes of regret and remorse – knowing that you have done wrong and being unable to change whatever motivated that sin. And themes of deep sorrow, the need for forgiveness and atonement.
And as a viewer I was drawn into this – thinking about what I would do if I were faced with these impossible binds in prison – and also feeling the rise of frustration, anger and revenge on behalf of the characters. This is why drama, even since the days of Greek tragedy two and a half thousand years ago, has been seen as a way of helping people confront their own hidden complexities and gives an emotional jerk to help you think them through and even begin to change them. Again, the bible – some of which is written as drama – has the same effect and we also ask the Holy Spirit to show us what is wrong with the system we are in as well as the state of our hearts, so that we can repent and believe and follow Jesus through it all.
In our church at the moment we are looking at some of the Giants that have been revealed more clearly in our lives and society under the pressure and weight of the pandemic: increasingly polarised politics; the impact of selfish living on the planet and its most poor and vulnerable inhabitants – including animals; our mental ill health even in an age of plenty; and the deep sin of prejudice and racism. All these areas of brokenness are systemic and their corrupt impact is sewn into the fabric of our society. But they are all found in our hearts also. This is the nature of sin – we don’t know we are sinners until our hearts are laid bare and we are convicted. It is painful but helpful for us to be given insight into these issues – not to overwhelm or condemn but so that we turn to God in genuine and active repentance and invite his healing and restoration to our land.
Last week I took a funeral service for someone who had worked in the prison service all their life – he had received medals for his service. One story told was that he was sent to another prison and told to barricade himself in the kitchens. The inmates were going to riot that night and he was ordered to cook them a massive breakfast the following morning because they would be exhausted! He became a Christian 30 years ago and his strong faith coupled with an incredibly upbeat and positive view of life meant that he not only did his job well but also volunteered for Prison Fellowship, ran discipleship courses and arranged for one person to come out for a few hours to get baptised. The funeral service was full of joy as we celebrated someone who lived life well and to the full, even as he served in the darkness and sadness of the effects of crime.
In the face of dramatised or real stories of deep sadness and sin, we are called to not turn or run away but to inspect our own hearts and then follow Jesus into the mess and live in a transformative and holy way. It is an exciting challenge and a dreadful challenge! I am inspired by a friend called Simon who runs Walk Ministries – helping prisoners as they come out of jail and providing accommodation, work and training for them. Another friend Nigel at Yellow Ribbon Community Chaplaincy does a similar work in our region.
Do watch some plays, read some books, follow some speakers and activists. Be ready for what the Greek Philosopher Aristotle called Catharsis – a purging, a cleansing and then a wonder. Such wonder I think is the realisation that when confronted by tragedy we then look for hope and release. Holy Spirit, lead us into being citizens and ambassadors of the new Kingdom of Jesus.
Martin J Young