Are you old enough to remember a TV show from the early 70″s called “Treasury Agent?” It starred David Janssen as Jim O’Hara. Believe it or not, it was part of the Nixon administration’s “War on Drugs,” a war that we don’t seem to be able to bring to an end. What a ludicrous bit it was. One week Jim would be a Secret Service Agent, then the next week he was an IRS Agent, then he would be a Customs Agent. Nothing could have been further from reality. I remember one show in particular when he is chasing some bad guys and goes on a Marine base, flashes his badge, commandeers a jet plane, and takes off after them. What a surprise! I hadn’t realized I could do that! It certainly wasn’t mentioned in basic agent training. Well anyway, our ‘get tough on crime” new Commissioner of Customs, invites the star, David Janssen, to come and tour the Customs headquarters, then at 23rd and K St, and meet some real agents. All the agents thought that that was as ridiculous as the TV show. Not so the secretarial staff though. For three or four days before “the day” not much work was done. Nothing but buzz about David Janssen this, David Janssen that, did you see David Janssen do such and such, David’s coming tomorrow! And what made it even more strange to me observing all this was that the women who were about to meet their heart-throb worked daily with the real thing – not just 30 guys who each were the “real thing” but one in particular, the guy who was the actual case agent in the international drug bust that was portrayed in the movie “The French Connection.” And John could have played himself in the movie, trim, classic “tall, dark, and handsome” and in his blue pinstripe and with his pencil moustache easily as sinister and seductive as any real world mafia don. But no heart flips for John. And poor David; when he came around for meet and greet, it was obvious that he hadn’t been briefed at all and that had not the first clue about what we did. He was just a pretty face reading lines someone else had written.
Sort of related to this I’ve been reflecting for a while on the difference in the reward for pretending to be something and actually being something: between the salaries and the real life day-to-day experience of, say, actual police officers and people pretending to be police officers on TV; or being a bishop in a South American country murdered at your communion rail and pretending to be that bishop in a movie. Quite different. (As an aside, I must tip my hat to Raul Julia, who apprently underwent a profound conversion in the course of portraying Oscar Romero.) I hope this doesn’t seem churlish or envious. I love movies, and to a really large extent they have shaped my life as much as anyones. The vicarious experiences and iconic scenes and lines are part of my makeup as much as yours. And I admire some of the characters, both fictional and historical, that have been played, being careful, I hope, not to ever think the actors are anything like the roles they have played. And I don’t begrudge those of higher income what they have. It’s just this one specific, narrow, aspect that I think is so weird; that pretending to be something is prized so much more highly than actually being something. “It is a puzzlement,” (to quote Yul Brenner in “The King and I.”)
Are there biblical passages that speak to this? I can only think of one at the moment, from the psalms, “that which is worthless is highly prized by everyone.” But that might be a little too harsh. Maybe you can come up with something better. In the meantime, let us all celebrate the reality of actually being something – with all its hopes and fears, uncertainties, accomplishments and setbacks, triumphs, dangers and tragedies – and not just pretending – reading lines written by someone else.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC