Why a show about meth dealers made me feel closer to God
I mentioned the TV show Breaking Bad in yesterday’s post, and it made me a little nervous when a few upstanding Christian ladies said that they’d never heard of it but might check it out on my recommendation.
It immediately triggered one of my Dominican Sisters nightmares: I pictured one of the sweet nuns checking in on my blog, seeing my recommendation for the show, and assuming that its title must be short for something like Breaking Bad Habits! She pulls it up during recreation time, and the other sisters walk in to see dead drug dealers and methamphetamine labs on the convent television as she screams in confused horror, “Jen Fulwiler recommended it!!!”
So let me throw in this caveat right now: Breaking Bad is about meth dealers. And it, umm, contains exactly the kind of content you would expect from a show about meth dealers.
This prompted me to ask myself, “Why do I watch this show, then?”, and I quickly came up with an answer: because my life is insane and by the end of the day I am so desperate to relax and turn my brain off that I have no standards because I JUST DON’T CARE ANYMORE.
Then I thought about it some more, and came up with a longer answer. It turns out that I do, in fact, have standards for any art that I consume, whether it’s a TV show, a book, a movie, a blog, or anything else. There are a few things I care about, but by far the biggest one is this:
It must be true. Specifically, it must accurately portray the human moral landscape.
One of the first things that caught my attention about Christianity was its idea that objective moral laws exist. As C.S. Lewis explains so well in Mere Christianity, these rules are from God, and they function like a doctor’s prescription for living a life of peace and love. We don’t have to follow them, but our lives will be messed up if we don’t. Christianity articulates those rules, but they apply to every human, whether he considers himself a Christian or not. So, a man living in rural Mongolia may not have ever read the Bible verse about turning the other cheek, but life experience will show him that choosing forgiveness and kindness will lead to a better life than choosing anger and vengefulness.
I often think of humans and our unseen moral landscape as being like a blind person in a room: you’re aware that there’s this stuff all around you, and you can get an idea of what’s there on your own, but you’d be able to move around much more freely if someone would tell you the details.
One of the reasons I considered myself a secular humanist when I was an atheist is because that philosophy offered a pretty good description of the room, so to speak. Its core tenets that emphasized kindness and giving back to other felt right (though I see now that it was based on a lot of unquestioned assumptions). To use the room analogy, it said there was a large chair to my left, and there was. It said there was a rug on the floor to the right, and I’d feel it under my feet when I walked that direction. When it came to the details, however, I found it to be wildly inaccurate. It would say that there was a lovely little fern in a pot by the window, and I’d reach out to touch it and find that not only was it not a fern, but it was a freaking jumping cholla cactus and now I had painful thorns stuck under my skin.
When I discovered Christianity, I was shocked by how much it knew about the room. It told me about the big stuff, but it also claimed that there was a three-foot-high bureau next to the door with two paper clips in the drawer. I’d feel my way over there and find the two paper clips, just like it said. Having this knowledge allowed me to move through the room without falling on my face, or accidentally grabbing any cacti. I found Christianity’s knowledge of this space to be so incredibly accurate and detailed that I concluded that it could only have come from the One who built the room.
But this analogy probably makes sense to no one but me, so I’ll move on to my point:
I do try to avoid books and shows that would tempt me to be a worse person than I already am, yet this doesn’t mean that I avoid all tales that depict immorality. I believe that if a story is truthful about the human moral landscape, it will probably not lead people too far astray. It’s the stories that do a fabulous job of presenting a false moral world that I worry about. I found Eat, Pray, Love and Sex and the City to be far more problematic than The Kite Runner and Breaking Bad, even though the latter two stories contain horrific violence and the former don’t. Eat, Pray, Love and Sex and the City present a beautifully alluring world in which selfishness leads to a glamorous, fulfilling life, whereas The Kite Runner and Breaking Bad speak truth about what is good and what is bad, and accurately show what tends to happen when we choose selfishness over love.
This all clicked for me last night, when I finished another episode of Breaking Bad, and found it to be an oddly faith-strengthening experience. It seemed like a strange reaction, considering that I’d just seen depictions of drug use and murder. But when I thought about it, I realized why.
One of the main themes the series explores is the truth that “if you do evil things, you will bring evil into your life, even if you were attempting to achieve a greater good.” In this episode, the main character once again thought he’d do one small bad thing, because he had all these elaborate ideas about why it would ultimately make his life better. I watched with the character as his plans crumbled and his one bad action triggered a chain reaction of evil that spread even into his loved one’s lives, and I felt his pain as he found himself burdened with new and more painful problems.
Like all good art, it made me feel the pain that you can only experience if you have a soul, which is to say that it made me feel more human. It reminded me that sin makes things complicated and loves makes things simple. And as I closed my tablet after the harrowing episode’s end, I was overwhelmed with the faith-affirming thought, This is what it is to live in God’s world.
(I’d be interested to hear: What are your standards for books, shows, or movies?)