Not Suitable for Family Time! The Crown has been thrilling — watching (sometimes fictionalized) tensions behind closed doors at Buckingham Palace — but a different Netflix account of “royalty” at the same intersection, that of money, power, and fame is equally thrilling: Peaky Blinders. Like other shows with a cult-like following, Peaky Blinders boasts a stacked cast, gratuitous sex scenes, uninhibited violence, and drug abuse. Its contents are unapologetically raw, gruesome, and do not shy away from depicting the base acts of humanity as they are. So, is there anything of value that can be grasped from its vestiges? Beneath the common elements that pervade television to boost ratings and viewership, the show is rife with proverbs that reflect modern day culture while portraying the world from a century ago. Particular elements of the show grapple with the existence of God, and may serve as an accidental metaphor for the state of the western church.
The show follows the lives and criminal dealings of the Shelby family in Birmingham, England following World War I. They come from mixed ethnic origins, a cross between Irish Traveler and Romani roots, and fully embrace their status as working class minorities. The show’s strength lies in the writing of its characters — an alcoholic eldest brother, a sister sympathetic to communist ideals, a half-cousin poised to be the family’s successor, and the man at the center of it all — Thomas Shelby. Haunted by the horrors of war, his life holds no existentially satisfying meaning. His existence is a constant acknowledgement that he lives on borrowed time. Yet the mantle of the family business falls upon his shoulders, and this burden transforms into his sense of purpose as he rises up to become the gang leader of the show’s namesake. By the final season, the Shelby family resides comfortably in a mansion filled with servants, far away from their humble beginnings on the gritty streets of Birmingham.
“All religion is a foolish answer to a foolish question.” – Tommy Shelby, Season 6
Thomas, more frequently referred to as ‘Tommy’, lives in the shadow of the Enlightenment. Throughout the show’s six seasons, he takes every challenge in the stride of a man who has discarded religion for reason. He plots his moves from a place of total control. Tommy can predict outcomes because he has set the dominos exactly where he needs them to be. However once in a blue moon, his refined swagger reaches too far and sullies his calculations. This almost always results in the death of those he loves — his wife, his brother, and his daughter. It’s at these critical moments when he is pushed to the limits of his intellect and humanity, that he resorts to engaging with the religiosity and superstition he supposedly does not believe in. He blames a piece of cursed jewelry for the death of his wife, and blames an ex-relative for cursing his family and causing the death of his daughter. He claims that he can talk to the spirit of his dead aunt, Polly Gray. It’s a strange cognitive dissonance for the attentive viewer. How can he be so insistent on the foolishness of believing in anything other than matter, while at the same time light a candle to accompany his conversations with the dead?
One hundred years after the stated events of the fictional show, ‘religion as foolery’ is a normalized narrative to which we have become accustomed. Empiricism is still the ruler of our day and age. Yet we, like Tommy, constantly oscillate between operating as enlightened individuals and clinging onto some version of religiosity when reason alone is not enough to make sense of the fractured world we inhabit. Instead of believing we can talk to dead spirits, we have devised AI methods to actually do so. While the technology was never pushed to production, it is revealing about the human longing to never lose the ones we love to the trauma of death. Rejection of the technology also reveals our natural intuition that replicas can never replace the impact of the real and embodied person we once held in our arms.
Could this impulse of reaching out into the ether beyond reason point to what the book of Romans tells us — that we actually know God?
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. – Romans 1:19-21
Can we admit that we know God exists, want him to answer for our tragedies, and tell us that there is life after death? To call upon anything other than the creator of the universe himself will only provide unsatisfying replicas. These pseudo-gods may placate our desires, but will ultimately lead to the unsettling feeling that we are being fooled.
Even for those already convinced of God’s goodness as the self-sufficient creator, the path forward is hazy. Those who check the box, ‘Christian’, stare into the abyss of a bleak future. Westerners are wading in the debris of Christian leaders who continually fall from grace. In their wake, tribes are grasping onto the next strong man, and will further cement themselves ahead of the 2024 election. Some Christians are constantly finding themselves ashamed of the label and all that it perpetuates. For these, a walk through the halls of history is necessary.
Before Christianity locked arms with politics and power, it was counter-cultural in ways that made little sense to the prevailing beliefs of the day. Christians shared their possessions with others in a world of scarcity, saved babies from infanticide, and willingly faced torture and death for the sake of Jesus, their slain and risen king. They cared for widows and gave women a voice by receiving their testimony. In addition to paying taxes, they gave money not to improve infrastructure or build schools, but so that communities they would never meet could have a chance at hearing good news.
While such reminders of the past are important to bring clarity to modern perceptions of Christianity, they do not equip us with a way forward. In today’s world, it appears that strength always wins. The loudest voices who speak out on current controversies will garner clout and power, simply because they are amplified above others. The now hotly debated ‘winsome’ approach to address challenging and nuanced issues has gained many critics who argue that the conditions of dialogue have evolved and thus the Christian voice must also change accordingly or risk being ignored completely.
Is engaging in the ‘culture war’ necessary, or is the term altogether passé?
We return to the final season of our fictional show for an odd parallel in considering this question. Tommy, now a wealthy and powerful politician, comes face to face with his own mortality. A terminal medical diagnosis sends him into a frenzy. In a single moment, the foundation he built his entire life upon, that he is the master of his fate and captain of his soul, is no longer strong enough. Seeing the nearing end, he meticulously plans a secretive farewell to the centerpiece of the show and his life — his family. He moves them to a humbler residence, and orders the total destruction of the family mansion in order to make way for public housing. From the outside, it appears like a noble move to serve the working class. From the inside, it marks liberation from the gods that Tommy sacrificed to until this point — domination, refined hedonism, and the Sisyphean plight for ultimate worldly success.
Ironically, the Western church has made sacrifices to similar gods in the name of God himself. Like King David, we have constructed many houses of cedar just because we have the means to, without considering if this is what the Lord actually wants. Instead of gearing up for the next battle in the culture war, the church must first be willing to abandon the superfluous nature of its mansion in order to be set free from shackles that blind it. This could look like locking arms with specific organizations because of the power and security they offer back. It could take the form of perpetuating specific ministry programs that are more performative in nature than they are intent on leading people to Christ. Whatever ‘it’ may be, humility and courage will be needed to both identify what we must let go of and propose how to move forward in a way that is both reverent to the gospel and respectful of the people involved.
“In the bleak midwinter…” At key points in the show to mark the occasion of death or rebirth, characters softly whisper this first line from a Christmas carol made popular amongst soldiers during World War I. The carol heralds the birth of Christ amidst the elements. Breaking through the stillness of 450 years of silence, God who is not bound by space or time came to earth and lay in the dirt-strewn hay of a manger.
While the show’s characters chant the lyrics as a kind of calming mantra in order to face the finality of death, the rest of the song points to hope embodied and incarnate. The first residence of Jesus was a manger and not a mansion. God does not ask us to build him great houses to give credence to his power, but instead asks the leaders among us to feed his sheep.
Are we listening?
 Microsoft devised technology that allowed one to converse with a deceased loved one. Due to the disturbing nature, the technology was not productionalized.
 Drawing upon Van Til’s position, that all people have the psychological knowledge of God, which is often lost due to our repression of it.
 Most recent events — January 6th, the demise of Jerry Falwell Jr., and the crumbling of numerous ‘celebrity pastors’ — are prime examples.
 Kristin Kobes Du Mez provides a thoroughly researched account of Evangelicalism’s relationship with American conceptions of masculinity in her book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.
 Recounted in 2 Samuel 7.