Walter White (Breaking Bad), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Don Draper (Mad Men), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy) – what do all of these names have in common? They all are the main characters in some of the most popular shows on television today. True, but, what else do they share? A meth cook/drug lord, a serial killer, an adulterous womanizer, a mobster, and weapons dealer; doesn’t seem like a gang of the most positive role models, right? Walter White couldn’t be further from Ward Cleaver, the patriarch of the Cleaver family from Leave it to Beaver. In his inaugural Oxford lecture, Professor Stephen Garrett commentates on these new “Anti-Heroes” as “at best morally ambiguous, at worst monsters.” But for some reason, America finds these monsters relatable and worthy of our late night devotion.
But how did we get here? How did America’s role models shift from straight-laced, wholesome, Bible-believing Americans to the grungy under-belly of society? At the beginning of the 20th Century, Modernism promised us that through advances in medicine, sciences and education, mankind was going to succeed in scrubbing the world of most of its injustices and evils. It prophesied of a time where we could forsake our needed religious conceptions of mystery, heaven, hell and miracles, because we would have simply evolved past them. Mankind pushed God off of his throne and exalted ourselves to take the position, simply because we didn’t need deep mysteries any longer – we had figured them all out. And yet, that didn’t last very long. Columnist Jonathan Michael from Relevant Magazine notes what deflated Modernism’s balloon of optimism,
“In the mid-1940s, U.S. soldiers came back from WWII after witnessing unspeakable atrocities. Then of course there was the Korean War, the Vietnam War, student protests, two Kennedy assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, Watergate, the Cold War, and the Carter-era oil crisis, among others. Not only did we see some of the worst acts in human history committed during this time, but many of our fathers and mothers experienced it firsthand and took part in their own questionable behavior. Endless cultural progress was Modernism’s empty promise, and it resulted in a deep-seated mistrust of the establishment, including it’s boundaries between right and wrong.”
America’s “true north” of their moral compass was dramatically bent during the twentieth century. Things that we were certain would never happen in our modern age, did. And sometimes we found out that it was America itself who was the one doing it. In time, we began to question that maybe “true north” wasn’t what we thought it was, and eventually began to question whether there even was such a thing.
And as the foundation of culture shifted, its movement was reflected in the media that it created. The Brady Bunch and Little House on the Prairie lost their connection with a culture that wouldn’t buy that anyone could be so perfect and clean cut. And what took their place was The Sopranos, Dexter and Mad Men; shows filled with such morally ambiguous main characters that you at times are appalled at what they are doing, and yet you continue to root for them. Why is that?
America tunes in every week to see these “anti-heroes” commit morally ambiguous, and at times monstrous, acts because they speak to a morally ambiguous culture. Sure, maybe the majority of Americans aren’t butchering people or supplying drug cartels with weapons, but America knows what its like to have do some “bad things” sometimes, as long as our intentions, we would say, are good. So if a husband does cheat on his wife, instead of using that tired, regressive understanding of morality (right and wrong), we ask whether or not the intention was good. Maybe he was unhappily married to his wife and had fallen out of love, and was “in love” with his mistress – should he be stopped from fulfilling his desire just because it is “wrong”? What is “wrong” anyway? This evisceration of “right and wrong” as an objective reality and its replacement with “personal fulfillment” is what fuels American culture, and therein, the media of our time.
This is what makes stories today so different from stories in the past. Today, the line between hero and villain is so blurred that sometimes you aren’t sure if you want the hero to win or lose. In Dr. Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he narrates on all great ancient myths and the necessity for there to be a quintessential villain and hero, respectively. He provides a brief synopsis of what the villain of any great story looks like,
“He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘me and mine’. The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairy tale as being universal throughout his domain. The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world – no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self- terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment…Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then – more miserably – within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence will liberate the land.”
But those kind of characters rarely come across our television screens anymore. More often, we see a blend of hero and villain in our main characters. Depending on their circumstances, they may have to do something very villain-like to achieve true fulfillment, and be the hero. Quite the paradox we have today. I do think that kind of story has potential to be more than just entertaining, but truly enlightening; the way it deals with the reality of human sinfulness and brokenness is something we can all relate to. Older TV shows, such as Leave it to Beaver, provided such a flattened, phony conception of what real life was like (Aw’ shucks, mister!). I can’t think of a single time in my life where I have felt like the perfect knight in shining armor that Campbell describes as the “hero” here. I can, however, think of a billion times where I have felt like the idiot, the let down, the chump and the bad guy.
And while I think that a great story is wonderful, as a Christian I must ask, does the Bible have anything to say about the stories we create and the philosophies that support them?
Yes, yes it does. Hollywood would like to think it is doing something new and daring with shrugging off the fundamentalist laurels of the 40’s, when this is what the Bible has been doing for thousands of years. If you were to make the Bible into a movie, it would be very explicit, and very graphic – not at all a family-friendly flick. The Bible doesn’t pull any punches when describing the extent of human depravity, whether discussing the “good guys” or “bad guys”. Remember King David? Good guy, right? A man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), surely the Bible would have him exalted as a picture perfect example of virtue and morality. Well… except for that time where he forced a married woman to have sex with him and she got pregnant, so he had her husband (who was actually fighting in a war for David) executed after he wouldn’t be coerced. And to top it all off the baby that was produced from the nasty debacle died shortly after being born, (2 Sam. 11-12) and the David’s family was then scarred by episodes of rape, incest, and assassination attempts on David’s life. Kind of sounds like an episode of Game of Thrones right? The Bible is chock full of moral ambiguity and monstrosities committed by both God’s people and everyone else; even the Apostles of Christ are shown to be cowards. This is because the Bible has a very robust teaching on the doctrine of total depravity (Rom. 3:23); essentially, there are no good guys. It would appear that the modern philosophy of moral ambiguity is nearly in step with the Bible.
But is it?
At this point, Christianity actually stands radically different from the modern philosophy of our time. Not only do the anti-heroes of modern television show us how horrible this world can be – they show us that this horrible world is all there is; there is no hero coming to save the day. There is no “carrier of the shining blade” because no one is qualified enough to wield it, and if anyone says they are you shouldn’t trust them. Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (Macbeth). That is what the real world is like, so our TV’s tell us, and believing otherwise may be hopeful, but it is naive. A child hoping to find a quarter under their pillow for their lost tooth can hang onto their belief that the Fairy is real, but in time the smelling salts of reality will waken them from it. This is why so many of the most popular TV shows today are so hopelessly bleak.
The Bible, however, doesn’t play that game.
The Bible affirms that we all are in fact flawed and that this world really is horrible, but it does not do this at the expense of giving up a moral “right and wrong” or hope in there being a True flawless hero. While the Bible is full of characters who compromise, cheat, and fail, there is One who does not, and the whole book is really about Him. There is a Redeemer, a true fighter of justice, a carrier of the shining blade, a true King who will return and liberate the land from the oppression of the enemy. And 2,000 years ago He humbled Himself by becoming a man and fought the true villain: Satan.
Jesus, the unassuming hero that nobody expected, broke the power of Satan through conquering him in defeat, not in victory. Defeat? How do you win through defeat? Well, our sin had warranted death and Satan to devour us, but Jesus surrendered Himself over to the forces of darkness in our stead, purchasing our freedom from the pit of death, on the cross. He, like soldier tossing himself on a grenade, was our substitute. And after satisfying the righteous wrath of sin, because of His own sinlessness, death couldn’t hold Him any longer; He rose from the grave. Every Easter Sunday, we celebrate the explosive power of the resurrection, where Christ shoved His boot onto the neck of Satan, and now sits exalted on high. And for those who trust in Him by faith, we are now united to Him, and share in His heavenly blessings. His inheritance has now become ours. All of us broken, fallen, messed up sinners, the little villains, have been rescued and given a new name: child of God. That is the work of a true Hero.
That isn’t a fairytale; that is reality.
Unlike our TV shows, the Gospel is a narrative that honestly explains the reason why and the degree to which this world is broken, but does so without succumbing to despair; it provides an understanding of the sin nature that lives inside of us, but does so without abandoning “right and wrong”; it gives us eyes that can look at the ugliest sin, but a heart that believes that anyone can be saved; it tells me that while this world is fallen, it will still one day be redeemed. And for those who are united to Christ, we all will live with our King, happily ever after.
Don’t buy the bleak, nihilistic narrative Walter White is meant to represent; come to King Jesus, friend of sinners, death conqueror, satan crusher, world renewer, and listen to His truer and better story. The very story we all were made for.