This fall and winter, I watched every season on HBO’s The Wire. While I could wax philosophical about the characters and their needs, their compulsions, their flaws, what I loved most about The Wire, and in fact, a key feature in many of HBO’s original series, are the perfectly executed set pieces. That’s what I call them, though I’m sure there’s a fancier word.
I also think of them as what Larry Brooks would call a Pinch Point: a short exchange in fiction that points to something key in the story, without being a neon sign blaring: THIS HERE IS THE BAD GUY. A pinch point gives the viewer or reader just enough information to hear, if one has ears to hear, the subtext.
Perhaps my favorite example from The Wire is an early season one scene. A group of mid-level drug dealers sit around a makeshift chessboard. Two guys take turns moving their players, as if the game were checkers, not chess. As their friend watches, he begins to explain the rules of chess, which elude me now and forever.
We hear, on one level, the actual words spoken: kings and queens, power plays, pawns and strategy. But as they sit in urban squalor, trapped by circumstances and raised by chance, we can also see who they are: they are the pawns in the drug dealing game. We can also see the holders of real power, and how tenuous their grasp. And to carry it further, we also see that even the pawns make power grabs when they can, so to not be the first guy out of the game.
To the viewer, it is an interesting bit of information. To the writer, it is helpful instruction on how to convey details without being obnoxious about it.
And this has what exactly to do with the Gospel?
During Lent, I’ve been reading the gospel of Mark. I’m particularly fascinated with the last days Jesus spent on earth. I am fascinated by the logistics of it, for one. The daily travel between Jerusalem and Bethany, the care and feeding of those punks, the disciples, who still had no clue what was going on. The choices Jesus makes in his last days often confuse me.
It’s like reading a novel and trying to predict what this character will do, and being wrong every time.
Take the fig tree for instance. He’s hungry on his travels, and the fig tree is barren, so Jesus decides that forever more that fig tree will be not just barren, but withered and worthless.
Say what? Dude. Seems kinda harsh, no?
I’m a tiny bit lazy, but and I’m also a tiny bit interested in what the human brain can do, so I did not retrieve my giant concordances and dictionaries and commentaries. Instead, I just let it sit there, in my head, making me nuts.
Why on God’s green earth would he curse a thing just for not having what he wanted?
Days passed. Finally, because God’s word is a tad bit more complex than an HBO script, I realized he’s dropped a pinch point right in the middle of this radical stuff he’s doing. He’s teaching, healing, trying to prepare these guys for impending doom, a—with the fig tree—he’s giving a very visual representation.
I think he’s trying to show what results when we do not even try to bear fruit, when we reject the pruning work of the gardener, and the helpful nurture of the soil.
But that’s beside the point (not really, but it’s beside this point). The point is, we can see the dead fig tree and walk on, or we can see what’s behind the scenes. He will not thunder his truth into us. He will not force the knowledge on us. He will set the table and wait for us to eat.