Whether you do it for nostalgia’s sake or, like me, you weren’t around at the time, I think many of us who have grown accustomed to modern Netflix and HBO series have sat through an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Leave It to Beaver” and had this thought: “Man, this isn’t so much a story as a sermon.”
There is a reason for this, and I don’t think it is simply that they’re old. Shows and movies from a generation before them may not have had the profanity or the violent special effects that we see today, but they did not hesitate to wade into heavy and harry topics, which reflected real things that were going on in the world around them. “Citizen Kane" (1941) addressed the tower-of-Babel-like futility of material wealth and human ambition. “Gone with the Wind" (1939) is credited for making strides (for the time) in de-stereotyping how African-Americans are depicted on screen. “Duck Soup" (1933) used barbed satire to portray war as the lovechild of insecure leaders and groupthink-ing masses.
So it’s not as simple as just saying that movies and TV shows minded their manners better back in the day, nor was everything written and directed by Pollyanna in the 50s, the same decade that gave us “12 Angry Men (1957)” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).” But it’s hard not to get the feeling, when you’re watching an episode of “Father Knows Best,” that there must have been a very strong pressure from the suburbanizing culture for these shows to portray characters whose actions are prescriptive rather than descriptive.
In other words, these shows were never intending to say, “Humans are like this,” but rather, “Humans should be like that.” That would make “Davey and Goliath,” the clay-mation fodder of Sunday School classrooms everywhere, something like the logical absurd of this trajectory. Characters with no real flaws in a world with no real problems make moral decisions of no real consequence.
I know. I’m being hard on these shows. And truthfully (putting aside all the white, male-oriented undertones), there maybe is a time and place to escape into a world that is happier and simpler than the one that is as long as you don’t stay there forever. But if someone were to argue that the saccharinity of these shows only reflects the age group for which they were intended and that it’s impossible to tell a story to kids with real, complex ethical conundra, while still sheltering them from needless vulgarities, I would bring up the “Harry Potter” series or any of the dozens of phenomenal Pixar movies.
The fact is that when all of a protagonist’s actions are commendable and all of the answers are obvious, it just doesn’t make for a very interesting story. And a character’s actions can’t always be that predictably good without sacrificing relate-ability, since none of us know what it’s like to live life free of mixed motivations and conflicting options.
I don't necessarily think that the brutal cynicism we see so much today is better for us in some way. But one of the things that made “Breaking Bad” such a breakthrough was that all of Walter White’s actions needed to somehow develop organically from the circumstances of the storyline. He couldn’t just descend from staid chemistry teacher into ruthless drug dealer because the writers willed it so. That would be farcical. The brilliance of the show was that the circumstances of his life and the traits of his character made even his most outrageous decisions feel plausible, without, at the same time, becoming morally deterministic. Every step along the way, you, the viewer, could say, “Yeah, I can see how x would lead to y” without, at the same time, saying, “that justifies it.” And the show leaned heavily on our natural inclination to sympathize with the main character, no matter what, to the point where we were forced to ask not just “What is Walter White capable of?” but “What am I capable of?”
Or to use a less criminal example of real life moral ambiguity, I’m not ashamed to say I love the scene from the Notebook where the main character Allie’s mother explains to her that while she and Allie’s father were always good and faithful to one another, she was never passionately in love with him as she was with another man, whom she was prohibited from marrying for reasons of class and station. What I find beautiful about this scene is that there is no wooden “moral of the story,” no “So ya see kid, here’s what you should do.” Life isn’t that simple, and there is usually a painful opportunity cost to any hard decision that we make. But that doesn’t imply either that it was the wrong decision or that there would have been no cost to the alternative. She simply lets her own experience be known and then leaves Allie to glean from it whatever she can.
Whether you’re like me, and you prefer a story to a sermon, or you miss the days when the main characters were less conflicted and more commendable, there is absolutely no question that the stories in the Bible are more like “Breaking Bad” and “The Notebook” than they are like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver.” That is to say, the vast majority of the human behavior in the Bible is descriptive, not prescriptive. It communicates what human life is, not what it should be.
This may sound strange to those were taught that the Bible was basically a list of ham-fisted dos and don’ts. But think past that reading lens, that was maybe given to you by a youth pastor or a Sunday School teacher, and consider the actual stories that you can remember just off the top of your head.
Which universal moral principle is Abraham following when he lies to Abimelech, saying that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife, in order to save his own hide (Genesis 20)?
What is commendable about the protagonist in the story of Samson (Judges 13-16)?
Who is the bad guy in the book of Job?
Where is the black and white code of right and wrong in The Parable of the Dishonest Land Manager (Luke 16:1-9)?
You would be an insane person if you read all these things prescriptively. To be sure there are some “laws,” some shoulds and should nots. But these can generally be divided up into those that are clearly intended for the betterment of human life and keeping the powerful from preying on the weak (“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the immigrants who are in your land…You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is poor and counts on it.” - Deut. 24:14-15), and those that reek of a more cynical human agenda (“When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably…then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you…If it makes no peace with you…then you shall besiege it…You shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones…you shall take as plunder” – Deut. 20:10-14). You will not be able to turn your brain off when trying to sort between the two.
In any case, when the biblical story is read intelligently as a whole, the main thing that is going on, the only really “good” thing that actually offers something “new” into the world, is not the shoulds and should nots. It’s the descriptive story about humans doing the things that humans do—lying, cheating, plotting, hurting, getting revenge, waking up and doing it all over again the next day—and the mysterious God figure who somehow saves them from themselves not in the form of a conquering king but in the form of a slave who would rather spill his own blood than his enemies.
Queue the moral lesson, at this point, right?
Actually, no. That God never asks for their permission to come into their world and save them in this way, nor is much instruction given as to what they’re supposed to do with this information. They’re told to go share the “Good News” with others—a task which they will undoubtedly screw up, turning a hopeful message for everyone into an exclusive club in the course of about fifteen minutes—but at no point does God tell them that its up to them to make the plan a success. It just says descriptively that hope has already come.
Look for that story. It’s so much more interesting than “Andy Griffith.”
Peace and Cheers,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.