Our obsession with anti-heroes
Despite my two kids, I managed to view the season premiere of what was one of my favorite shows: The Walking Dead. I won’t spoil anything for you, not out of principle, but just because the story isn’t really worth telling. It’s just too negative, too vengeful, and too full of violence.
My friend Andrew made such a salient point about shows like The Walking Dead and their anti-heroes (heroes like Frank Underwood and Walter White) that he convinced me to start asking bigger questions about the TV that I consume. He argued that stories carry theological narrative with them. The ones that are showcasing the evils of humankind through their anti-heroes are no exception. He thinks they are channeling the negative theology that Augustine codified; Calvin eventually called all humans totally depraved.
Augustine was a great theologian, but just too influential for his own good. Rather than engaging in dialogue, he offered his personal experiences as doctrine and changed how we think about humanity. (In that era, John Cassian is the greatest person, if you ask me.) He would have been better off moving toward a dialogue of love. Now, the narrative continues: we have stories of people and their wickedness. The stories tell of humans and their depravity. Meanwhile, they do not mention the hope for redemption that one can find in Jesus.
Moreover, they don’t mention the idea that humankind’s sin is no match for God’s grace and how he created us. My sin is great, but the fact that I am related to God my sin is no match for the goodness that God gave me and the rest of us.
Negative stories sell, but they lie
So why don’t the networks tell us stories about our goodness? Well, it seems like they just don’t sell! If the ratings are any indication, people are drawn to the drama of our own wickedness. They are also drawn to the idea that more violence may indeed bring us redemption. Both major presidential candidates telling us about how they will punish our enemies, for example. Make no mistake, they are no angels themselves. We are drawn to their own evil too.
The other day, Newt was yelling at Megyn Kelly, as both of them were arguing about which candidates’ evil deeds were worth the Fox News’ airtime. They are anti-heroes in their own right and they keep reinforcing the negative narrative about human beings. These stories are manufactured to scare us. They aren’t true and they aren’t complete. They paint a theological picture of who we are and it brings us little but despair. The Walking Dead the other night had me feeling empty. Maybe I’ll never watch the show again.
Another thing these negative stories do is caricaturize the past. We hear of the horrors of the “Dark Ages,” the evils of foreign empires. But that is rarely the complete story. They tell us how bad humans are, almost as a way of showing us how far we’ve come. Negative stories about humans and societies of the past give us an inflated sense of who we are now and add fuel to the myth of progress. In a sense, they undermine the hope that Jesus gives us because they make it seem like things will just inevitably get better. Furthermore, when you witness an extraordinarily negative character of TV, whether it’s Rick Grimes or Trump, you might think, I’ll never be that bad. You might actually believe that you are OK as you are and that you don’t need to move toward transformation with Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I find stories about the goodness of humanity more uplifting and not just that, but more true too. These are real stories of real people in real places. The Love Feast last Saturday was filled with them. People are connecting with God and are moving to change the world. Their life isn’t perfect and they are obviously far from “sinless.” But their authenticity brings hope and it shows us how God is alive and working in the world. The people and their stories point to God and not just about how bad people are. I’d rather do that, then just get burned out watching a dude with a bat wrapped in barbed wire wail on my favorite characters.