Monday, June 1, 2020

The Key Moment in Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad (TV Series 2008–2013) - IMDb

The key moment in Breaking Bad is in Season 1 Episode 5, which I just finished watching. I know very generally how the story proceeds from here, from what I've seen on news articles, so if you're one of the other few people in the world who haven't seen the show in its entirety and you don't want to hear even very general spoilers, then stop here. But the very general info I know hasn't lessened my interest or appreciation for the episodes I've seen, so I think the important truth I will discuss will compensate for any mild spoiler effect. And if you've seen the whole series, or if you don't plan to watch it, what I'll say here is unquestionably worth a few minutes of your time, because it can effect your eternity.

I started watching Breaking Bad a couple years ago, but my conscience wouldn't let me continue past the first two episodes, for several reasons: 1) They were the only ones that were free to me at that time and I didn't think it was worth the money to watch a show that had so much evil behavior in it, and 2) The evil behavior. A conscience can be legitimately realigned, however, as I explain here, and mine has been, because 1) I can watch more of the show for free now and 2) all the things I've heard about it in the last couple years have convinced me that there may be some redeeming value in watching more of it.

What I've heard includes the widespread view that Breaking Bread is one of the best shows ever produced for television, at least according to secular artistic standards. That interests me as a writer and creator of fiction. But I've also heard (from a Christianity Today article, of all things) that creator Vince Gilligan's religious upbringing bleeds through in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. And so far, after seeing the first five episodes, I'd have to agree that both are true, and that at least those early episodes may be worth watching (for adults only, of course, and only if your conscience is clear:).

The reason I say that is similar to why Shakespeare's Hamlet is worthwhile art, despite its constant depiction of evil behavior and its tragic story arc. In fact, I saw a direct parallel to Hamlet in the key Breaking Bad moment I'll be talking about. Early in the classic play, Shakespeare tells us twice that Hamlet would have gone to Wittenberg to study if the ghost of his father had not appeared to him and called for revenge. I believe this was a hint of why Hamlet's life unravels so horribly and how it could have been avoided, because Wittenberg was where Martin Luther had championed the doctrine of Divine grace over human merit and "salvation by works." If Hamlet had learned that principle, he could have abandoned the pursuit of revenge that doomed him and just about everyone else in the play. (I wrote more about that here.)

In Episode 5 of Breaking Bad, Walter White makes a fateful choice to decline an offer from a rich ex-friend to pay for his cancer treatment, which leaves him with cooking meth as the only way he can make enough money to pay for it (and keep his family out of crippling debt). His motives for the choice are understandable to most of us, because our natures are hard-wired to view receiving "charity" from others negatively. We want to take care of ourselves and not be dependent on others. Plus we've all experienced the impetus to revenge, and that is present in Walter's motives too, because the rich ex-friend married the woman he loved.

I've always said that many non-Christian artists are very accomplished at understanding and depicting the problems with humanity--they just never present the complete solution (unless they borrow from the gospel story, of course). I can see already from five episodes that Breaking Bad (as its title promises) will paint a very accurate picture of how someone can go from good to worst and provide many powerful illustrations of human depravity (as well as many other human experiences, like family dynamics and dealing with cancer). Perhaps I'll write about some more of them if I continue to watch the show. But for now I wanted to say that whether Vince Gilligan and the other creators of the show know it or not, they tapped into a crucial spiritual truth by that development in Episode 5.

Not only does God offer us his "charity" (an old word for self-sacrificial love that comes from the Greek word for grace), but he tells us that we'll never get anywhere without it. We'll never get to have a relationship with him and we'll never get into heaven when the next life arrives. Look at what the apostle Paul says about his fellow Jews who were moral and religious but did not believe in Jesus Christ:

"My heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness." (Romans 10:1-3)

Paul had said earlier in Romans that the only way to be saved was to receive the gift of God's righteousness procured by Christ through his perfect life and substitutionary death on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26, 4:1-8). That is the ultimate "charity," because it's the opposite of what we deserve for our sins (Rom. 6:23). And to receive it, we must admit that to God and let him do for us what we could never do for ourselves. The principle of grace and the principle of "works" (human merit) are mutually exclusive:

"At the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Romans 11:5-6)

Walter White's stubborn pride and skewed sense of justice kept him from receiving a gift from an ex-friend that could have preserved and renewed his life. Are you rejecting an even greater gift from the best-ever friend, one that could redeem your soul?

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, in Shakespeare's English:).

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Painted Veil - God brings good out of an epidemic

Beautifully filmed, skillfully acted, and powerfully meaningful in many ways...this is an overlooked gem of a movie that I highly recommend, especially in light of the current coronavirus crisis. Because of that crisis parts of the movie will not be pleasant to watch, and it may be undesirable altogether for some, but if you can brave the horrors of a deadly epidemic on screen for a couple hours, you will be rewarded with some great and hopeful examples of how good can and does come from such unfortunate circumstances.

I suggest that you watch the movie first and then come back to read my spoiler review below, but before you do let me say something about its content, especially related to children. Fortunately I was able to record it to a DVD several years ago when I had that capability, so I was able to make an edited version with the unnecessary sex and nudity cut out of it, and that's what I showed to my nine and eleven year-old daughters. I'm glad I could do that, because it provoked a lot of good discussion and taught them some important lessons about the nature of true love (as opposed to lust and infatuation), repentance and forgiveness, priorities in life, the path to happiness, self-sacrifice, how God can bring good out of tragedy and suffering (as I mentioned), and other issues. It's unlikely that you will be able to watch an edited version (the one company I know who sells them doesn't offer this movie), so I will tell you where the scenes are in case you want to watch it with children and fast forward those parts. The first one is not long after Kitty and Charlie talk at the theater and when you see their shoes on the floor--it lasts about 40 seconds. The second one occurs late in the movie after Walter and Kitty are drinking at the British man's house and return home--it lasts a little over two minutes. You can simply tell your kids what happens in those scenes, like I did--they don't have to witness it in order to know the significance of what's going on.

For most adults, I don't think what is depicted will be a problem, unless brief views of a women's slip or men's naked behinds are a temptation for you. So watch the movie, thinking about the issues that I just mentioned, and then come back here for some spoiler thoughts from me about it, because I have some interesting insights that you might not catch upon first viewing it--at least my wife and daughters didn't see them until I pointed them out.

The first and most important insight is about the spiritual and religious subtext in the movie. I say "subtext" because on the surface there is very little religion--in fact, Kitty tells the head nun at the orphanage that she doesn't believe much of anything and Walter says of the nuns, "They didn't convert you, did they?" But even those scenes, which seem initially to dismiss religious faith, contain subtle elements that affirm it. Walter's face expresses disappointment when Kitty says no to the question of being converted, for example--I think he was hoping against hope that something like that would happen to her, because after all revenge was not his only reason to bring her with him to a cholera zone. He clearly harbored hope that she would change and there would be a chance for them to love again; otherwise he would have simply divorced her as he had every right to do.

Other examples of subtle spiritual content can be found in the final lines of each main character. Walter's last words are a plea for forgiveness from Kitty, which implies that he had been seeking forgiveness first from God as he lay dying. Only by recognizing his sins of pride and bitterness before the Lord could he have seen his need for forgiveness from her. And one of Kitty's final lines in the movie is to affirm (contrary to one of her earliest lines, well before her repentance) that the beauty and fragrance of flowers is still worth it even though they live such short lives. Though I don't think the filmmakers meant this to happen, that line made me think of what Jesus said in John 12:25: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." 

The second half of that verse is definitely illustrated well in both Walter's sacrifice on behalf of the Chinese people and Kitty's experiences in the orphanage and at Walter's deathbed: "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." They both learn that true "quality of life" lies in giving up your own desires and pleasures for the good of others, and I like to think that they also learned to do so for the glory of God. Like the filmmakers, the author of the source novel (W. Somerset Maugham) was not a Christian, but he lived in a largely Christian culture and unquestionably traded off on Christian themes. Therefore what is depicted about these characters fits well with the Christian doctrines of Divine love (agape), Fatherly discipline, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. It is no crime against the art or artist to view the events of the film through those lenses, and it can be a wonderful blessing to do so.