The Foolishness of Stephen Colbert

I’m pleased to publish Dustin Messer for the first time today at Mere Orthodoxy. A Boyce College graduate, Dustin served as Editor-in-Chief of The Bantam Journal at Covenant Theological Seminary before graduating from Covenant in 2014. He and his wife Whitney live in the Dallas area and worship at Christ Church (PCA) in Carrollton, TX. Dustin enjoys working at both Christ Church and Legacy Christian Academy.

“We’re very opposite.” That’s what Bill Maher said to Stephen Colbert in a recent interview. In the conversation—which ranged from mildly awkward, to tense, to nearing hostile—Maher and Colbert take turns sharing jabs about the other’s opinion on the proper response to global terrorism, the presidential election, and religion:

However, despite Maher’s claim to the contrary, the tension in the conversation was not, in fact, due to a difference of opinion—it was not because they are “opposites.” Rather, the tension was a result of a belief Maher and Colbert share, something upon which they profoundly agree. Both Maher and Colbert recognize the all-encompassing scope of Christ’s claims. Both understand that Christ’s lordship extends past the four walls of a church and reaches into the public square, the body politic. Continue reading

When Grace “Fails”—The Music of Call the Midwife

The third episode of the first season of the BBC show Call the Midwife is about what we do when our attempts to love and show mercy to a person seem to fail. The first story in the episode concerns Nurse Lee’s relationship with an old soldier who she visits in-home to help care for his ulcerous feet. The second concerns a pregnant woman in her early 40s who has remarried after becoming a widow but who has married more for her children’s sake than out of love. Continue reading

A Faithless House–Religion in Fox’s “House”

Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy and a writer based in Miami, Florida. Follow him @bernybelvedere on Twitter. Check out more of his writings at

It’s a strange thing that over 177 episodes scattered across eight seasons Fox’s “House,” a show fascinated by philosophical and ethical problems, never once introduces us to a sophisticated believer. To be sure, Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House encounters plenty of proponents of traditional views, yet not one of them is able to offer a credible account of their faith able to withstand House’s relentless rationality.

It is certainly possible that in years of engaging with others on matters of religion and ethics, a man as brilliant as Dr. House never comes across a formidable opponent. After all, intellectual reflection is not exactly a hallmark of religious experience in America. Our culture teems with forms of spirituality, with professions of belief in a higher power, yet this commitment is a mile wide and an inch deep. Still, why wouldn’t more thoughtful approaches to these views ever make an appearance given that Dr. House sometimes spars with those whom you’d expect to have better answers? Continue reading

The Narrow Vision of House of Cards

Spoilers below spoilers below do not blame me for spoiling it if you read this there are spoilers below. Ahem.

Since the debut of House of Cards‘ third season last week the reviews have been a mostly consistent blend of “meh” and “zzzz.” Those reviews are basically right, but a further point needs to be made about the show’s failings in order to understand why the show has gone from an exciting (if also horrifying) first season to a mostly dull and tedious third season.

It’s become a cliche to contrast the 2010s Washington-based hit TV show about politics, Cards, with the 1990s version of the same, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. In most ways the contrasts are obvious–Obama-era disillusionment with Clinton-era hopefulness, Obama-era crises with Clinton-era solutions, etc. But in one way the two shows look more alike than different: for both to be seen and to be in Washington doing political work are one and the same.

Near the end of West Wing‘s run President Bartlett’s former chief of staff Leo McGarry gives a memorable speech to the rest of the Bartlett staffers, telling them that they only have a short time left in the White House and that they can accomplish more good in that limited time than most people can hope to accomplish in a lifetime. Though quite different in how it sees the work done in Washington, Cards has a similar tendency.

Continue reading

3 Thoughts on Kindle Unlimited

Kindle_Paperwhite_3GI have a roundup on Amazon’s latest innovation over at Mere O Notes so if you’re wanting to learn more about Kindle Unlimited, start there.

I. Our Technocratic Libertarianism

While Mark Lilla is basically correct in saying that we live in a libertarian era, that term is not without its problems. (Ross Douthat made this point quite well in a recent blog post.) Despite our libertarian tendencies, we are still creatures bearing the image of God and living in a world as creatures made by that God. So both the essence of our humanity and the nature of our creaturely existence constrains our ability to function as completely autonomous beings. But when you have a society dedicated to such stark libertarianism to the cost of all non-coercive forms of community, this necessarily leaves only the coercive forces of big business and big government as the coherent social bodies able to shape communal life.

Thus we have services like Netflix and now Kindle Unlimited, both of which are premised on giving the user a seemingly infinite amount of choice, yet all of the choices available are defined by the business providing the service. So our experience of the service might seem libertarian because there are so many choices and there’s nothing stopping us from choosing anything on offer.

Yet the choices available to our libertarian will are themselves defined and handed down by the only viable social bodies left to us. We just don’t notice them as much these days because Amazon and Netflix have so completely blended into the fabric of our lives that we seldom look beyond them when looking for a movie or book. This is particularly troubling with Amazon given their current spat with Hachette and their history of questionable behavior regarding Kindle books.  Continue reading

The Abolition of Walter White

In most ways, the debate regarding TV’s big four–The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men–will rage on as each team makes their case for why their show is superior. In many cases, this really will come down to individual taste. But there’s one way in which Breaking Bad, which returns this Sunday night for its final eight episodes, is clearly unique amongst the four. Breaking Bad is a show based on the wholesale rejection of a definitive element of most TV dramas. In conventional TV dramas, characters basically stay the same and the drama comes from watching their true colors emerge over time and seeing what happens as a result, or perhaps seeing what happens as they try to change but prove unable to do so.

The conflict between Lee Adama and his father William Adama in Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of this. Neither Adama changes in some dramatic and undeniable way during the series, it’s simply that eventually certain events conspire to make their differences more apparent and throw them into conflict. You could say the same thing about the fights between Tim Riggins and Smash Williams in Friday Night Lights or the conflict between Toby Ziegler and the other senior staffers in The West Wing. The characters don’t change, but their surroundings do. (A similar thing happens with Don Draper in Mad Men, although it is made more complex by the fact that Don keeps trying to change but so far has struggled to do so, although the end of season 6 suggests that perhaps he’s finally made a breakthrough.) Typically though, when the surroundings change, differences that have always existed bubble up into conflict. The story isn’t about change, therefore, but simply about how events can come together to make what’s been there all along suddenly seem more apparent. But Breaking Bad is different. In Breaking Bad, the entire drama is based around seeing how characters change–something foreshadowed masterfully in the series pilot when Walt gives the following speech to his high-school chemistry students:

“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.”

You could say, therefore, that the entire series is about chemistry. Viewed this way, Walt’s occupation as a chemistry teacher isn’t simply a convenient plot device to explain how he learned to make such a superior version of meth. It’s actually a clue that explains the entire series. Breaking Bad is the story of how a person who has given their life to understanding change is himself changed and how those changes in turn change the people closest to him.

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Pedro at 40: How a Television Show Changed the Way a Generation Viewed LGBTQ Persons

Credit: wikipedia

Vote for Pedro

My generation might best be defined as those who remember watching Pedro Zamora die of AIDS in our living rooms.

If you’re not familiar with Pedro, he was an openly gay, HIV-positive castmember in the third season of MTV’s the Real World which aired in 1994. Those who watched Pedro’s life play out on the tiny 4:3 screens of the time were presented with a high definition portrait of kind young man who didn’t fit any of the caricatures of homosexuality that one might see in the movies or hear about from the pulpit.

He was warm, funny, and extremely thoughtful, always facing his illness and his antagonistic, homophobic roommate “Puck” with a kind of conflicted dignity that captivated viewers.

But just as the Real World: San Francisco started airing that summer, Pedro’s health began deteriorating rapidly, and he was soon diagnosed with progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. Although MTV offered to pay for his medical expenses, Pedro’s health continued to worsen and, hours after the season finale aired, Pedro died, surrounded by his friends and the family members Bill Clinton had flown in from Cuba.

Not surprising, the gay community mourned the untimely loss of this bright, energetic educator and activist. But what was surprising was that many people who wouldn’t think of themselves as “pro gay” at the time were also deeply affected. Continue reading

The Frame for Watching Mad Men: When Joan sells Johnny

Brian R. Gumm is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren, worshiping and periodically ministering in a United Methodist parish in rural Iowa. His telecommuting day job is Distance Learning Technology Analyst for Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which is where he received an Mdiv and MA in Conflict Transformation in 2012. Brian blogs regularly at Restorative Theology and can be found on Twitter.

The exchange between Nick Olson and Jake Meador on Christian engagement with the hit AMC drama, Mad Men, was helpful reading for watching the premier. I especially resonate with Olson’s sentiment of no longer feeling a desire to have a drink while watching the show. In the early seasons, the show’s aesthetics exuded a certain aura of coolness around drinking hard liquor and smoking cigarettes. But last season, that aura started to fade, laying bare the nihilism and selfishness of the show’s primary characters. Don Draper’s cool, composed gaze morphed into a cold, dead gaze.

*Spoiler alerts*

With respect to Don, this seems to be bearing itself out in the narrative that season six started. Before the premier, Olson’s assertion held up, that “(w)hen Don Draper gets in a boardroom to sell a product, he sells you on his ability to sell.” But that didn’t happen in the first episode.mad-men-promo-poster

The show opens with Don’s and Megan’s trip to Hawaii, which was “field work” for a potential client of the firm, a Hawaiian resort company. Upon returning to a wintry Manhattan, Don designs the creative strategy for the ad campaign, during which he’s characteristically tight-lipped, to the chagrin of Peter Campbell. When the potential clients see the proofs, Don slides into his born-salesman character and pitches them his vision for the ad campaign. The viewer expects yet another home run, but the clients don’t buy it. The copy he and his team produced strikes them as dark and morbid, even suicidal. When the potential clients leave the boardroom, Pete is exasperated while Don stares in disbelief at the copy, seemingly unable to comprehend how on earth they could have mistaken his creative vision. By the end of the episode it’s clear that Don, who through season five seemed one of the more sane characters, has started sliding back into the moral black hole from which he had crawled out of after the first few seasons.

But something else struck me about this latest episode that wasn’t mentioned in Olson’s and Meador’s conversation, namely “the frame” within which Mad Men is experienced. Their conversation focused on the show itself, which is all right and good. What I noticed happened around the edges of the show, just beyond its green curtain. In one of the commercials that played during the show,the voluptuous Joan Harris walks toward you/the camera. She picks up a glass of whiskey while describing its virtues of being “classic” and “bold,” then says as she looks you/the camera straight in the eye, “It’s Johnny Walker, and you ordered it.” You then get the company logo and the signature of Christina Hendricks, the actress who portrays Joan in Mad Men.

Here is a show that has done a fairly good job of showing the lack of any moral center that lies beneath the gloss of the world of advertising and consumerism, and now one of its actors is pitching real products during the commercial break. Not that celebrity ad pitches are new by any stretch. Far from it; the irony in this case is that it somewhat deflates the power of the show’s critical edge, however subtle it may be. When Joan sells Johnny, the bad medicine described by the show’s narrative is being prescribed to us just outside the narrative’s frame. If it doesn’t go down smooth there, why should it here?

Now, one can rightly argue, “Yes, but that’s the name of the game/necessary evil” and so forth. In a range of senses the show about advertising couldn’t exist without advertising. But treating that as inevitable and given should give Christians pause. I strongly affirm Olson’s point that “(a)esthetics and ethics are inevitably bound together,” but would add narrative to that set. And the nihilistic narrative ethics of Mad Men does a sort of deconstruction on the very frame which makes it possible in the first place, and that frame is just as “storied” as the story it brings us in the show.

It’s like philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s joke about chocolate ex-lax: Mad Men is the tasty thing which undoes itself. It’s this sort of nested auto-deconstruction which I think is brilliant about the show, and why it’s disappointing to see Joan selling Johnny. But the question has begun to dawn on me: When is enough enough?

If our (American Christians’) social imagination is coterminous with capitalism and consumer culture, then we need to learn to break open the frame of that imaginary, however briefly. And perhaps Mad Men is a site where such interventions can take place. But the renewing of our minds and disciplining of our bodies which produces the critical vision to perform such critique doesn’t come from within the world which makes Mad Men possible; it comes from the gifts of the Holy Spirit conferred upon the body of Christ through its own liturgies. Perhaps six seasons of Mad Men is giving too much, even when its fangs have supposedly been pulled.

Should Christians Watch Mad Men? A Rejoinder

Editor’s Note:  This guest post is by Nick Olson, who writes film reviews at a host of places including Filmwell and Christ and Pop Culture

I have a confession: when watching seasons 1 through 4 of Mad Men a couple of years ago, I often had the overwhelming desire to have a drink to go along with the madness. And I don’t think I’m alone. My friend and colleague Josh Larsen seems to have had the exact same response. As he put it, “How do I know that Mad Men has reached a new level of artistic maturity in its fourth season? I no longer want to have a drink while watching it.” I’m not sure if my timeline runs parallel with Josh’s, but I can attest that by the end of season 5, when the general tone of has been captured in the image of Don looking down the abyss of an elevator shaft, a glass of bourbon with Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Campbell and company has grown less enticing.

Mad Men

Mad Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This confession might seem like confirmation of Jake Meador’s recent post on the ethics of watching Mad Men, in which he says that the show has lost him because, “[u]ltimately, Mad Men follows the standard narrative of our ad-addled culture, which says that if you dress something up enough, people will buy anything–even things that are morally depraved and terrifying.”  But I don’t think my initial anecdote is quite a confirmation. Rather, I think Mad Men itself is like an enticing drink that doesn’t go down smoothly. And the series, while playing up the alluring shape that deceit often takes, clearly emphasizes the destructive aftermath.

But before offering a few friendly counterpoints to Jake’s article, I want to establish a few points of agreement which, on scale, seem as important here as my disagreement with some of his assertions regarding the ethics of watching Mad Men.

First, I agree with Jake when he suggests that Mad Men is “a horse of a different color” than a show like Breaking Bad. When asked which of the two shows I prefer, I’ve often said that I’d choose the latter because I do think Breaking Bad is a show more intentionally concerned with moral deterioration—or, with a person who has known the goodness of self-restraint and is steadily losing it. The difference between the two shows is evident in their titles. Greg Wolfe probably put it best during a podcast when he said that Breaking Bad, unlike Mad Men, seems to have a more distinct sense of a “moral center.” But it’s important to recognize that the absence of a moral center is also precisely the point. It’s the nature of their madness qua madness that they have no moral center. Their insanity is qualified by their inability to have judicious self-restraint.

Further, I think Jake is right to suggest that perhaps some Christians have overreacted to the cultural legalism that might have characterized their upbringing. I’m all for an article which carefully and humbly questions the cultural artifacts that we enjoy (some indignation may even be appropriate in some cases); Jake’s article is like a Gardnerian analysis brought to bear on television. Christ and Pop Culture had a relatively similar article assessing whether Game of Thrones is a worthwhile cultural artifact. I like Gardner, but I also disagree with his assessment of Updike and Percy. Speaking of Updike, I’ve often thought that Don Draper is basically “Mr. Death” himself, Rabbit Angstrom. There just aren’t many Kruppenbach’s on Madison Avenue in the ‘60’s.

So I agree with the shape of Jake’s argument. I think it’s important that we negotiate enjoying art with discernment, and moral discrimination can undoubtedly be part of that discernment without descending into a kind of legalistic moralism. I’m a film columnist and I often make these sorts of discretionary choices. A recent example was my decision to forego Spring Breakers. Several critics have suggested that it’s a film which subverts spring break culture, but after doing some reading and interacting with some film critic communities regarding their impressions of Mr. Korine, I decided not to see and review it for my audience. Christian critics should both do a kind of direct diagnostic work, but also occasionally (as necessary) provide some discretionary warning. For example, I respect Jeffrey Overstreet for his willingness to not only be transparent about the fact that he walked out of Compliance, but then present his reasons for doing so instead of just ditching the review altogether. These warnings and discretionary moves don’t even necessarily have to be conclusive declarations.

So, in short, I’m glad that Jake has started this conversation on the ethics of watching Mad Men; even in my disagreement with his conclusion, I recognize the benefits of having the conversation. It pushes me—a person who enjoys and plans to continue watching Mad Men—to more carefully evaluate my position.

Frankly, it’s not my intention or desire here to go into a long-winded analysis of the show. Continue reading

The Ethics of Watching Mad Men

In a recent Comment piece, Jamie Smith argued that one of the foremost challenges facing Christians today is not whether or not we ought to engage popular culture–that battle has been won. The new question we have to face is what the shape of our engagement will be. We’re no longer wondering “Is it OK for Christians to watch R rated movies?” or “Is it OK for Christians to work in politics?” Those questions have been definitively answered in the affirmative. Now the questions are “how do Christians watch movies?” and “what sort of political presence should Christians pursue?”

This weekend Christians will have an excellent chance to put this thinking into practice as we consider AMC’s returning hit Mad Men, which opens season six on Sunday evening. In years past, evangelicals would brush the show aside, put off by its libertine sexual ethics, the colorful language used by some of the characters, and the general moral free-for-all that defines the show. Today’s evangelicals, reacting against the legalism (real or perceived) of their childhood faith, have often instead embraced the show, citing its exquisite settings and costumes, excellent writing, and tremendously complex characters.

While it is certainly good that evangelicals can recognize and appreciate good art when they see it (it was not always so), I do feel some trepidation all the same about our embrace of shows like Mad Men. Churchill famously said that first we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us. I suspect that something similar happens when we’re talking about stories.

In older stories, what Chesterton would likely call the great fairy tales, we hear a story of a great hero who we come to love. We cheer for him in his triumphs and grieve his failings and above all we hope for him to come to a good end. So we cheer when Frodo destroys the ring or when Orlando and Rosalind are finally brought together.

Mad Men

Of course, other stories create a different sort of hero or, more properly, an anti-hero–a protagonist that we initially admire and support but who becomes a loathsome villain as the story is told. Dorian Gray, Macbeth, and Walter White all come to mind as good examples of anti-heroes.

The important commonality both types of stories share is that there’s a real moral universe standing behind the story and the story takes place in that predefined world. So Frodo is an heroic figure and if we grow to love him we will have done well. Likewise we ought to learn to despise Walter White, even while perhaps holding out hope that something might get through his pride and ego deep enough to remind him of the man he once was.

But there is another way to tell a story, which begins by blowing up that moral backdrop and replacing it with an aimless, purposeless, utterly silent universe. (Here Matt would say that we’re simply talking about the old Greek debate between the chaos of Homer and the order of Plato.) In chaotic stories, we can’t really judge characters as being good or evil, but simply as being effective or ineffective at doing what they want to do. Think of Albert Camus’ The Stranger or the recent film There Will Be Blood. In a chaotic story, all that ultimately exists is the individual. And the individuals in the story are either strong enough to act as free beings unencumbered by limitation (think of Camus’ narrator who kills a man on the beach and feels no remorse) or they’re too weak and are crushed by rival characters more willing to do what’s needed (think of Daniel Plainview killing Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood or Francis Underwood’s manipulation of Congressman Russo in House of Cards). Oftentimes, these chaotic stories may be compelling narratives, but the universe in which they take place is so bleak and terrifying that we can’t feel any attraction to it. (Game of Thrones would be another good example of this, I think.) “Life’s a bitch” may make for an interesting story, but it doesn’t make for much of a world. And when we see the bleak chaos of Sartre’s Nausea or the 2007 film No Country for Old Men, we are rightly horrified and come away from it hoping for something to bring order to the chaos.

And this brings us back to AMC’s Mad Men. Continue reading