Hope beyond Depravity from Dexter Morgan to Frank Underwood to a Bridge in Selma

In its heyday, Dexter was one of my favorite television shows. A serial killer with a code of honor to only kill “really bad” people? I’m captivated. I mean, my love of Dexter wasn’t really surprising; most popular television shows of late are probably going to draw me in given their care for the complexity of their characters. How about Breaking Bad, for example? A chemistry teacher with late-stage cancer turned meth cook? Sign me up! Or maybe there’s House of Cards‘ league of narcissistic politicians that have every power-hungry hack in Washington wishing he could be as cutthroat and evil as Frank Underwood? And then in this season of the Walking Dead, our post-apocalyptic zombie-killing friends (who have – until now – mostly been “the good guys”) appear to be slowly going down a really dark rabbit hole. I won’t give away any spoilers there, but let’s just say the zombies are starting to look like saints. So, what’s this about? When did the whole of entertainment become obsessed with making us love and crave seeing murderers or meth cooks or Machiavellian politicians sink deeper into depravity? And don’t even get me started on Mad Men or Game of Thrones. Is there something ethically “off” that we’ve come to care so much for such, well, awful people – even if they are mere fiction?

Maybe this is a good place to point out there’s important nuance in all of these shows. Whether he’s right or wrong, Dexter wants to believe he’s still good, that his “code” keeps him in check. So, too, our meth cook Walter White tells himself the majority of the show that he does what he does for his family in an America with a broken healthcare system that breaks the bank of the American dream. And, of course, most characters from the Walking Dead start off as goodhearted people driven to make awful choices in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s not their fault they had to kill to stay alive, right? I’m not so sure. Dexter’s code is a lie convenient to justifying his psychosis; so is Walter White’s conviction that the American dream was stolen from him; so, too, have the characters of the Walking Dead justified horrific acts in returning to a world where “eye for an eye” is the only rule of law. And Frank Underwood? I fail to see a single redeeming quality in him at all. He’s pure narcissism, and that I – and we – have come to somehow “love” him should probably scare or at least concern us.

Of course, I suppose you could point back to the height of the Roman Empire’s desire for blood in the Colosseum and say, “See, Phil, this is nothing new; humans are depraved and so they seek to empathize with the depravity of other fellow humans.” And there’s long been this ongoing debate about us wee beings and whether we are “totally depraved” as much of religion has suggested or whether we are innately good at heart. Someone like Anne Frank, “despite everything,” the horrors she at that point witnessed from Nazi Germany, believed people were still good. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and others were less sure long before then. In today’s entertainment, I don’t think we have yet answered that question, but we seem to be trying. You almost get the impression that modern entertainment carries a maxim of, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” with every character consumed by their belief and hope that they aren’t quite as awful as they feel like they are. But then, there’s Frank Underwood again, breaking that mold: he knows he’s terrible, and he doesn’t care. Even with the new season’s picture of Frank as “weaker” or even “humanized,” as some critics have suggested, his weakness is evidenced by a lack of the power he craves and is not a turn to a desire for good or any kind of change of heart. So, if I can justify finding something good in the other characters of today’s entertainment medium (and not sure I can), I’m especially having a hard time rationalizing why it’s okay for me to like watching Frank be frank.

At this point, though, I guess you could say, “It’s not reality, Phil. It’s just escapism – similar to playing a video game,” and in that sense, I agree. I don’t want to jump to assume we are all going to pretend to be Frank Underwood in our everyday lives just because we so love how he takes control and manipulates everyone to get his way on a thirteen-episode television show. While there may be psychotic folks out there influenced by such media, I’m worried far less how we react to such entertainment and far more about why we get sucked into it in the first place? Or, perhaps, what is it about our culture that would have screenwriters writing this sort of thing for us?

I take our fascination with this kind of entertainment to say a ton about our culture at this moment in history. We’ve become a culture that is beginning to crave complexity. We’re slowly but surely starting to desire the painful truth that all of us are neither wholly good nor wholly bad but at times can be both. I take that as a win for our culture. If we can find good in Dexter or in Walter White, can we also learn to find good in real humans who commit horrific acts of violence? As the debate over capital punishment rages on, that might be an important question to ask right now. In the world of entertainment, we watch what we relate with, so in some scary sense, we find ourselves relating to, say, Dexter. Not because we’re about to go kill anybody, but because we know what it is to carry a “dark passenger,” to be overwhelmed by the question of our goodness the way Dexter is. We love this kind of writing in television because it’s honest, and frankly, it allows us to live out a kind of honesty on the screen that we can’t or won’t live out in reality. Because honesty is scary. That’s why the alcoholic or the drug addict, too often, remains an addict. Confronting ugly truths around the culture of fear that lead us into escaping ourselves is too painful, but we can appreciate that honesty we don’t offer ourselves when it plays out on the screen.

Still, whereas there’s truth and empathy to gain from these ugly portraits of human depravity, there’s another aspect of our culture embedded into these shows that’s dangerous, too. And that’s that sometimes, we like to love our brokenness a little more than we hope to become whole again. It’s kind of like Clem Snide’s song, “Made for TV Movie,” written about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In the song, Eef Barzelay details watching one of those “true-story” dramas which depicts the ugly side of Lucy’s life from spousal abuse to popping pills, and he then sings: “Well, maybe it was different; you know, my facts aren’t always straight, but they would never make a movie if everything was great, because happiness is boring; it’s always black and white. The good times never last; the chocolates move too fast for us all:”

I believe it. Because I’ve been there. I believe very much it’s tempting to fall into the trappings of being in love with our problems and the drama that surrounds them. So, while I’m probably not about to stop watching some of my favorite television, I think how much we learn to love these depraved characters – along with our own depravity we too-often love – is something we have to have an honest conversation about. Because I don’t want for you (or me) to be carrying our dark passengers without getting help any longer. I don’t want the people I love to have to ask questions about whether or not they are the “walking dead.” And I don’t want us to get stuck in a culture that sings that “happiness is boring.” In a sense, the beauty of today’s entertainment is that it presents such honest depictions of the complexity of humanity, but we need not also be sold the lie they sell us that there is no hope or that we are totally depraved. In large sum, that was the message of Obama’s speech in Selma. As long as there has been a future to look to, he suggested, there was something to improve (and, therefore, something broken), but as long as there was something broken – whether it was racial injustice or war and terror or inequality – there was still something to hope for and a reason to remain optimistic. From modern entertainment to our local news stations, we’re constantly fed a different message, but I think that’s why Obama felt it so important to reach back to the words and actions of our past American brothers and sisters from John Lewis to MLK to Sojourner Truth and Langston Hughes. Trials much bigger than fictional zombies and meth addiction and serial killers and evil politicians have been met and faced head-on in America’s heartlands, and they have been and are being overcome little-by-little, day-by-day. More stories like those need to be told and held up. More hope beyond depravity should be our mantra, and maybe in time, we’ll see more of it on the television screen, too.

Broken and Healed, or Holding Close the Tension of the Opposites

Not all that long ago, a friend of mine was telling me about growing up in a rough family situation. His father had committed suicide and his mother’s new fiancé was so abusive that Child Protective Services had to step in and remove him (and his kid sister) from the home. A local Southern Baptist Church became their refuge, their youth pastor’s family taking them in and adopting them. He was literally raised by his church family. But then he went on to remark that because he’s gay, he has an admittedly complex relationship with the church; he is only out to those he can trust, mostly out of fear of being unfairly shunned by the very church that rescued him all those years ago.

“Funny that our churches would be the very places that could both save us and condemn us,” I remarked when he shared his story. I so admired his willingness to stick with a church that could hold such hurtful views about who he is as a person. He seemed to understand, probably from his experience, that the church was more than that one issue, though.

My own story, though different, could resonate with his in a way. It wasn’t too many months ago that I learned that before my adoption, I was the product of a church scandal – a pastor who’d abused his power and come to regret it, a woman who’d buried the truth in just enough manipulative secrecy in a failed attempt to forgo her shame. In learning this, it was a struggle to determine what to make of “church,” if not also what to make of myself. Despite how dramatic it sounds, there were days I thought of myself as a church ‘bastard,’ born in literal sin, doomed to inherit and carry out the bad choices of my progenitors. And the church itself was complicit in that brokenness. On better days, I could see the redemption in adoption, the intense grace of giving an innocent child a shot at a better life, seemingly free of the past, and the metaphor of being a “child of God” was all the more important.

For too long, though, it was either one or the other.

Everywhere I look these days, people seem to be caught up in this fight between good v. evil, liberal v. conservative, Christian v. atheist, science v. religion, the list of false dichotomies goes on and on. If I had to wager a guess, I’d blame Augustine’s Manichean roots for the Western world’s obsession with dualism, but it doesn’t really matter who is at fault. For whatever reason, we’ve colored every issue as though it’s black-or-white without any nuance when in fact the world is very grey. Of course, I suppose it would be nice if the world were as simple as we sometimes like to pretend it is. It would certainly make decision-making (and sticking to the decisions we’ve made) a whole lot easier if there were always a right or a wrong answer (more so if that answer stayed true as time passed).

That said, I’m not intending to harp on some kind of moral relativism when I suggest everything is a little murkier than we wish to admit. I definitely think, after all, there are times when its important to speak truth to power or to stand firm in what you believe. And yet, I only hope to advocate that those of us who think, for example, that the church is pure evil might see the good in a place that would rescue a child from harm and those of us who think all the answers are in the Bible might temper those opinions with the reality that the Bible (i.e. its past interpreters) doesn’t exactly have a kind history to every person of every race or creed. To put that another way, we’ve got to learn to let go of those things we’re certain of, not for the sake of relativism but for the sake of humility. Maybe there’s a fine line between those two, humility and relativism, but it’s better we learn to walk that line than destroy one another (or ourselves) with constant, arrogant certitude.

In the same way that the church, for my friend, was a place of both salvation and condemnation, or – for me – was a place of both scandal and redemption, I suspect rather than being caught up in stories of ‘either/or,’ all of us are really caught up in the ‘both/and,’ having to carry around the worst and best of the decisions that made us who we are – regardless of the institution or background or issue at hand. To accept that our religious (if not all) institutions are going to be both their own worst enemies at times and their own redeemers at others has been to remind me what the metaphors of crucifixion and resurrection are supposed to mean in a way I might not have understood before. That is, we’re constantly battling that cyclical struggle, the “tension of the opposites,” and the way forward lies in that acceptance and in the recognition that we must hold those in tandem, at least for some time, before rushing to reject them outright in the polarized mantra our society so wants us to chant without critical thought or self-awareness. That is what my friend has done so far in remaining a part of a church he recognizes should be ashamed for its response to homosexuality, and it’s what I am trying to do as I contemplate my biological and adoptive origins and their relationship to the Church.

Some Earliest Memories

I always find it strange when I hear people say that their earliest memory is something like their first Christmas as a baby. Or any sort of insanely early memory from those first few years of life. I was not blessed with that kind of brain. In fact, the very first vivid memory I can recall is of Nova Elementary School in the spring of my second grade year.

I guess it’s entirely possible that I have memories earlier than the second grade. After all, I know I won an art contest for drawing a spaceship pretty early on, and I remember my spaceship was placed on the curved school wall along with the fifth grade art winners. You know – the big kids. I think that was before second grade (maybe even kindergarten). But I’m not sure I’d call it a “memory.” It’s just an image, really, of that spaceship on the wall. And a moment of feeling truly proud of myself for the first time. I don’t remember receiving an award. There’s no story that goes along with it, and I kinda feel like memories should tell stories or else they’re just “moments” or “images.” In fact, if I really think about it, there’s a few things I can remember from preschool, too. One is of sitting around a television watching the Challenger shoot into space and then explode. Again, no story. Just an image and feelings of confusion.

But what makes the second grade my “earliest memory” is that I know for a fact it was the second grade; it’s the earliest memory I can put a date on, and more importantly, it’s a full-fledged event: a story – not just a “moment” or some feeling I recall – etched in time in my brain. It was Mrs. Roebuck’s very decorative second grade classroom. I know it was spring, because I remember the smell of the freshly cut grass, the warm weather, and the excitement in the air that the school year was ending.

Mrs. Roebuck had a relatively standard way of dealing with discipline known by most elementary children as the “card system.” Now, my guess is that the card system was and still is the best way to deal with discipline, but in case it’s not as common as I believe it to  be, I’ll provide a brief explanation. On one of the bulletin boards, not far from the multi-colored alphabet or the “four seasons” board, there was a list of every student’s name in the class, and each student had his or her own cardboard slot filled with green, yellow, red, brown, and black cards. As you can imagine, green was the “good” card. It meant you weren’t in any trouble at all. Yellow was a warning. Red meant that you’d lost a privilege of some kind and were in some form of trouble. Brown meant that you were probably being sent to the principal’s office. And black? Well, no one had ever made it to black. Black was so bad, so unimaginable that we didn’t know what happened if you were ever given a black card.

The real brilliance of the card system was the shame it evoked. If you got in trouble, Mrs. Roebuck made you “pull” your own card. And something as simple as getting a red card could really harm your self-esteem. You wanted to be liked by your teacher and your classmates, and for some weird reason, the card system played into how you felt about that.

One day, we lined up and headed off to lunch, and when we returned for nap time, we walked into the class to the sight of complete horror. Every single card had been pulled in our absence to black. What started with a few people gasping and yelling, “They’re all black! All our cards are black!” ended up with the entire class in tears and begging Mrs. Roebuck for her forgiveness. What did we do to deserve this? And what did it mean? There was a panic in the air, as though it was possible our lives were ending, as though the third grade wouldn’t come. I could say that I remember Mrs. Roebuck trying to calm us down and telling us it was a mistake. But I don’t. All I remember is the immediate shame that overwhelmed us. If our cards were all black, we had to have done something wrong.

I’m a big believer that the memories that stick with us tell a story about how we became the people we become. I don’t really know what those black cards and the shame that came with him – the unwarranted shame – says about who I am, but carrying shame is so innately human, is it not? So early on, we’re conditioned to recognize that we are subject to good and evil with rewarding and damaging consequences for our actions, but sometimes, those consequences don’t always match the actions. Sometimes, life turns out so opposite of how good our actions or intentions were; a bit like Job’s friends searching for whatever crime he committed to earn divine punishment, and yet, we can be punished for absolutely no reason at all. The way we carry around shame, it’s as if we always need to understand why something bad happens when there may be no reason at all. Life’s randomness doesn’t stop us from carving some meaning out of it even when there isn’t any.

It’s time to learn that some black cards are handed to us for no reason at all. I guess if I wanted to be thoroughly Augustinian, I could say that we all deserve black cards, because hey, we’ve all done something wrong at some point, and while I think he’s right, you know, that we’re all depraved, I don’t think we should live our lives carrying the shame of the black cards everywhere we go. We should live our lives like we want to believe in the green cards. Or as though there aren’t any cards at all but variations of the green card, because it’s not about earning it. It’s just about trying. And accepting the hand you’re dealt.

That’s my earliest memory.