When “Good Guys” Break Bad

It’s easy to root for Robin Hood.  Afterall, who doesn’t love the story of someone taking wealth from those who have more than they need and redistributing it to those who have a desperate need?  Sure, we may not directly condone his methods but we like his mission.

It’s easy to root for young Vito Corleone from The Godfather Part II.  He sticks up for the neighborhood by taking it to the current regime of bullies who run the place.  He protects those who can’t protect themselves.  Nevermind that he becomes the self-same monster he first wrestles against in the process; it’s easy to overlook for all his noble rebellion.

It’s…less easy – or perhaps uncomfortable – to root for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in AMC’s cult classic television series Breaking Bad.  If you haven’t seen the show (which debuted 10 years ago and finished in 2013) beware spoilers ahead.  White is a poor public educator at a high school who, when given a terminal cancer diagnosis, turns to the manufacture of illegal drugs (methamphetamine) in order to provide an inheritance for his family upon his death.  A noble cause.

There’s a saying about noble intentions and a certain road to hell that applies here.

From Walter to Heisenberg

In his journey of illegal activity aimed at a noble cause, White transforms into an alter-ego, a crime boss named Heisenberg.  White attempts to keep these personalities secret and separate.  For much of the show, he straddles the line between the two – the meek, family-first Walter White and the violent, cutthroat criminal bent on dominating the meth market.  As the story often goes, however, the two worlds of competing intentions within a person eventually collide and fallout ensues.

In White’s case, he embraces his “Heisenberg” persona.  There’s a pivotal scene in the series where White demands of another dangerous criminal: “Now…say my name.”  The criminal responds “Heisenberg,” to which White is pleased.  The line is no longer straddled: it’s been crossed.  The “good guy” Walter White has become the despicable “Heisenberg” in dramatic fashion.  The pretense is dropped.  The means are not simply justified by the ends – they are abandoned, cast aside, made irrelevant.

As I watched Breaking Bad over those years I found myself starting to root for Walter White.  He was a Robin Hood type – an unlikely hero to an unknowing family.  He was a noble Vito Corleone – challenging the system of terrible teacher pay, the underdog in a street fight where leaving a legacy and setting his family up for success were the stakes.

As he became Heisenberg, however, my perspective shifted.  I realized that I had been duped, cleverly, by good writers crafting a complicated story that was playing on several of my emotions at once.  How could I continue to root for the Walter White I had embraced, loved, cheered on, as he steadily became a monster of his own making?  The question shifted even further: which persona was the real one, Walter White or Heisenberg?  Had Heisenberg been lurking beneath the surface, wearing a Walter White mask all along, and I’d missed it?  Was I implicitly rooting for the bad guy in the first place?

Fessing Up

We are in a disturbed place in our nation right now.  For my generation, this is a time and place in our culture where ideological differences in politics and policy-making are ripping people apart.  People are confessing – along with Kevin Costner – that they no longer ‘recognize’ America.  There is severe mistrust on all sides of the partisan aisles of authorities that comes hot on the heels of multiple movements, an example of which are the revelations that the #MeToo movement has brought into the light.

As a nation, it feels as though the people we trusted to bring about the right kind of change – noble causes, causes that support more responsible freedom, plans that solve tough issues and provide solutions with a high moral bar – are desperately failing.  We handed over the keys to more than just policy and law-making: we handed over the keys to our hearts, to our consciences, to our dreams and collective vision of America.

We got duped.

In the latest crisis, we find out that in the name of safe borders and responsible immigration policies – which no one in their right mind would argue against – children are being separated from their familiesthe process of unifying families is muddy, and the conditions of which appear to be deplorable.  It’s hard as a normal citizen to sort out all of the facts in one supreme, objective column that denies partisan biases, so discernment is necessary here.  By posting these links I am neither condoning or promoting any particular news outlet or commentator.

Our Robin Hoods, or Vito Coreleones, our Walter Whites have gone to accomplish something we can support.  But in the process, they have become Heisenberg.  They have embraced means that can no longer reasonably justify any end.  They have crossed lines that we aren’t willing to walk across.  They’ve misused sacred texts and sought to justify the unjustifiable.

By “we” I am referring to the collective tribe that I belong to: conservative evangelicalism.  This is a dirty word, a tarnished label, a battered brand in our country today.  Some in our tribe cling to that as a frayed badge of honor and cry out “persecution!”  Others (with which I admit that I find my alignment) seek to use that term as little as possible given the baggage assigned it.

Some will say, “I told you so.”  Some will say, “You should’ve seen it coming.”  They’re right.  It’s hard to admit it, but they are.

3 Thoughts on Getting “Un-Duped”

In this already long blog post, I want to offer my opinion on 3 potential ways going forward that can lead us – healthily – out of the “head-stuck-in-sand” ostrich posture that has been taken and into fruitful conversation.  If you aren’t there yet – and you don’t believe that your Walter White politicians have turned into Heisenberg – then you might disagree.  That’s ok.  We’re in this together.  Oh…and check out the first thought, at least.

Quit equating disagreement with hatred.

This is the core problem with social media in a nutshell: if you don’t agree with me, you hate me.  If you didn’t “like” my post, you don’t like me as a person.  If you don’t embrace my opinion, you don’t embrace me.  If you don’t cheerfully support every thought I have, you ruefully reject me as a person.  This is flawed thinking.

Stop it.

It’s quite possible to love someone without agreeing with them.  It’s quite possible to like someone without “liking” their social media posts.  It’s quite possible to disagree with someone while embracing them and wishing for them to thrive.  It’s quite possible not to support a person’s personal line of thinking and still cheer them on.  One author calls this “covenant-keeping” between one another and argues that when this is outsourced to an institution (government or church, even) it becomes a systematic problem in the process of embracing each other as human beings (see Volf note below).  We’re called to love our neighbors, not to condone everything they think or do.

Critically examine your allegiances.

In an interesting book by Matthew Bates, the Greek word for faith, pistis, is reframed as “allegiance.”  I’m not sure I wholesale agree with Bates on everything, but his thesis is sound: simple intellectual assent is not sufficient as “saving faith” in Jesus; it takes pledging allegiance to God and his kingdom, and this is what is meant when we confess and believe in Jesus (see Bates note below).

Where do your ultimate allegiances lie?  When the people you align with twist biblical interpretation to maintain authority over the land they “possess” or make fun of references to children with disabilities in order to discredit another political agenda, you should be bothered.  If you’re not, you should be asking, “who have I truly pledged my allegiance to?”

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” they say.  I’m fine with that to a point.  The question here is not about whether or not our leaders have flaws and blind spots.  They do – I have faults and blind spots, you have faults and blind spots, we all do.  The question is, who is the “baby” in this example?  If you will, who are you “bathing” or, pledging your allegiance to? I’d much rather have the one baby in history – born of a virgin, to immigrant parents, in a manger because nobody with a room bothered to help a scandalous family in a deep time of need – in my “tub” than anyone or anything else.

Do something with your convictions.

There has been a ton of fire levied at people who say “thoughts and prayers are with” such-and-such.  In many ways, it’s a cynical criticism of people who don’t know or care about what praying means to a person who is faithful.  However, in another sense, it is a warning to the church and to believers of the world’s weariness with words not accompanied by action.  True prayer changes us, says Richard Foster, and it leads us into action (see note on Foster).

The world is tired of Christians telling them how things should be and then doing nothing.

Is your prayer life leading you to act on your convictions?  Great!  Here’s a list of 10 things you can actually do to help immigrant children who’ve been separated.  I haven’t vetted each of these personally, but they sound like a great start.  If you live in these areas, consider being present physically and praying and speaking with families.  Reach out and do something.  Prayer is the place to start, but it can’t be the only thing the church has to offer people who are suffering.

The Greatest of These is Love

I won’t suggest that the intersection of faith and politics in public life is easy.  It’s not.  However, I think there is a way forward, a via media or “middle way,” where the religious and nonreligious can walk hand-in-hand to make reasonable, moral progress in policy-making.  If the church can embrace some steps to being “un-duped,” and if she can place her loyalties where they belong, then maybe – just maybe – she can reject the Heisenberg syndrome of her worldly idols and pledge allegiance to her true Prince of Peace and Lord of Love, Jesus.

 

 

Notes

Miroslav Volf in Exclusion & Embrace, 1996, pp. 140 – 156.

Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 2017, pp. 24 – 25.

Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline, 1998, p. 33.

What Are We Waiting For?

This is the second in a series of blogs for the 2017 Advent season.  Find the first reflection here.

It’s hard to ignore the glaring conflict between the American dream and the Kingdom of God.  Unlike love and marriage or a horse and carriage you can, in fact, have one of these and not the other.  Some would even warn that these two things are mutually exclusive, that they cannot be held side-by-side or co-valued in harmony.

The problem with the American dream is that it is subject to its own little-g god.  This god does have a name and that name is mammon.  Jesus is clear that it is impossible to be a slave “owned” by two competing masters and I think this is the case with the American Dream and the Kingdom of God.

Before we get any further and you think me anti-American, let me clarify something.  I’m infinitely grateful to have been born to the people I was born to in the country I was born in.  I had no control in the matter, which amplifies my gratitude in that I can’t somehow praise myself.  I’m thankful for the freedoms we enjoy in our nation.  I’m thankful that we have a history rooted in Christendom.  I’m thankful that our values and morals have ancestral roots in the Bible.

I am not thankful for the American dream.

The American dream is an ideal that was likely founded with good intentions, something of a morality play on this idea that anyone in a free nation can rise up by their own bootstraps and make a better life for themselves.  It has evolved, grown sharpened teeth and serrated claws.  It’s spit is venomous and disease-ridden and it’s eyes are hungry and dangerous and shifty.  It has enthroned mammon“the way of commodity that is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restfulness without any Sabbath” – and dethroned God, the God of rest.

Traditionally, the second week of advent sees the lighting of the “Love” candle.  As we embrace this season as one of longing, of waiting, of expecting, we are confronted with the question: what is it that we love?  Do we cling to an earthly ideal that mirrors the coveted American dream that plagues our churches?  Do we await the payout of mammon which costs us everything and fails to eternally deliver on any of its promises?

Or do we await the coming King who will usher in the true Kingdom of the God of rest, the Lord of the Sabbath?  We are reminded with a easily-worded but deeply difficult exhortation that requires wrestling from 2 Peter 3:11-13:

“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.  That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.  But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”

The way of this world has already been judged by God, who – thanks to the nature of his grace – sent us his son, Jesus who proclaimed both freedom and salvation to all who surrender their lives to him.  The fulfillment of this narrative of salvation is something theologians refer to the consummation and it’s the topic Peter is honing in on in our passage above.

Everything we know now – in its fallen way, in its broken state – won’t be mended or fixed and put back the way that it is. That’s not the message of consummation. The message is rebirth.  Remaking.  Recreation.  This is a brand new thing.  Yeah, DC Talk was right.

We reflect on Christ’s coming during Advent as the newborn king; but we also await the next time he comes to set finish what he started.  Until then we strive to live holy and godly lives – as those sealed by and empowered in the Holy Spirit.  We don’t do this so that we can transactionally earn God’s grace – we can’t.  We do this because this is the stuff of God: holiness, justice, righteousness.  We’re living, practicing for a kingdom that’s coming.  We’re accepting God’s formation as a way of aligning our own lives with the life of Jesus.  We want our loves and habits to reflect the things of God.

What is it that we are waiting for?

Are we waiting for the kinds of things that the world tries to tune our hearts to – money, possessions, power, the idols of self?  Or are we expectant for Jesus to make things right.  Are we hoping for more of the same?

A Posturing Prayer

Lately, I’ve found myself more and more concerned with my prayer posture.

There are certain physical postures appropriate to prayer, such as bowingkneelinglying face downlifting up hands, and a lot more. I think physical postures are important and they are meaningful and they should be assumed as the Holy Spirit leads.

I’m not talking about physical posture today. I want to talk about the inner posture of prayer.  Evelyn Underhill, a spiritual who lived at the turn of the 20th century, put it this way: “prayer, then, begins by an intellectual adjustment.”1  This quote stuck with me and on me like an aroma or a bandaid – take your pick.

A couple of months ago I noted a “posturing prayer” in my journal, a prayer to return to that inspires me to adopt an intellectual adjustment for prayer.  The words might not mean much to you reading this post, but perhaps the spirit of the prayer is something you can capture for your own prayer life.  I hope that it serves as a reminder of the inner posture of our life, the necessity of assuming a internal position of surrender in our hearts.

A Posturing Prayer

Lord:

Let me be still.
Let me be quiet.
Let me be empty.
Let me fall dumb.

So that:

You will move.
You will speak.
You will fill.
You will wizen.

“May the words of my mouth-”

be few! –

“And the meditations of my heart-”

be pure! –

“Be pleasing in your sight, O Lord,

My Strength
and My Redeemer.

Footnotes

1. This is a quote from a selection found in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups edited by Richard Foster & James Bryan Smith.

Two Dogs, a Beer, a Funeral…& Jesus

I originally wrote this piece for my church’s website in January 2017.  This reflection comes from an event that occurred when my wife and I pastored in northeast Wyoming.

I had a hard time seeing the sign for the turnoff – not only was the setting sun blaring into my face through my car’s windshield, but this was the kind of place that GPS didn’t know about.  I had paper directions.  The last time I used paper directions was when I printed them out from MapQuest at a university computer lab.

I was headed to a funeral service.  I’m not sure that service is the best descriptor.  A service denotes order, specific function, and an agreed upon liturgy.  This…funeral didn’t have any of those elements.  But it did have hurting people, and I do hold one simple conviction as a pastor if I hold any: hurting people need to be loved.

Keep Reading

The Beauty in Longing

This is the first in a series of blogs for the 2017 Advent season.

This year will be the first Christmas without my grandpa.

Since he passed on that hot afternoon in late August, my family has been making firsts.  Dad turned 60 without him around.  The first Thanksgiving came and went without him. His birthday was December 22 and it’ll come steadily into focus and then fade away just before Christmas – without him.

Read the Whole Post

Slaying a Giant

“And so castles made of sand, fall in the sea…eventually.”

When Harvey Weinstein’s story broke, a chink in the armor of the rich and the powerful of Hollywood’s elite was exposed.  Thankfully (in this case), the media and the nation at large jumped at an opportunity to expose moral corruption in the ranks of the culture-makers who move and shape using the power of visual arts.  It wasn’t long before the long, sharp blade of scrutiny pierced through this particular armor and began to wound a system of abuse.  A list of the accused* has steadily grown.  The authorities have mobilized,vowing justice.

The problem is, reputations carry weight.  How we have conducted and do conduct ourselves matters and the things we do don’t go away or disappear with time.  I don’t mean to suggest that people don’t change – they can, they do.  And I don’t want to imply that there is no room for repentance and forgiveness.  But that’s not what we’re talking about, here.  We’re talking about people leveraging status and power to do things they knew they shouldn’t have been doing and now find themselves “caught.”

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