A Breaking Bad Idea

Is it healthy or wise for Christians to watch and enjoy a program so deeply laced with violence and darkness?

ImageIn case you were living in a cave and missed it, last month featured a genuine ‘television event’: the final episode of Breaking Bad. Though I’ve never seen a single episode, it was enough of a sensation to capture my attention and leave me with some big questions.

My first experience of the show came when I was browsing some DVDs in a store last year, saw the cover for Season 1, and thought, ‘Why is Bryan Cranston standing there in his undies?’ I read the back cover and shrugged: chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer, so decides to start making methamphetamine to provide for his family – a slightly strange (even unpleasant) topic, some potential, but nothing special.

Apparently I was wrong. The show ended its run with a fanatical following. Ratings increased exponentially as the buzz spread. More than a few critics and fans proclaimed it the best show of its generation, and the finale drew more than 10 million viewers in the US, an off-the-charts great number. What really interested me was how many of my Christian friends – in personal conversations, but especially in online chatter – were clearly devoted fans of the show.

As the hype increased in the lead-up to the finale, having never seen an episode, I headed to YouTube in search of a primer and found a 9-minute overview of the first five seasons. And I’ll admit, the clip certainly intrigued me and provided a glimpse of why the show is so popular. But more importantly, it also confirmed what I already knew: that Breaking Bad features an overwhelming level of graphic violence and dark subject matter. It was horrible. I barely made it through nine (sanitised) minutes. I could never be a fan.

This is where my questions come in. I certainly understand the show’s general appeal. But what about my Christian friends who were fanatical about it? Is it really a good idea for any Christian to watch Breaking Bad? And why, exactly, would any Christian want to watch it? What about other pop culture phenomena like Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey (which I know that many Christians enjoy)? Are we free to indulge, or should we be asking ourselves some tough questions? Should following Jesus and living for him involve a greater transformation in the things we watch (and for that matter, what we listen to or read)?

And if Breaking Bad is a problem, where do we draw the line? Where do I draw my lines, and why?

I know countless people have asked these questions before me. I know there is no simple answer. And in many ways, I’m surprising myself by asking these questions. I’ve never had a particularly sensitive conscience when it comes to violent movies and TV shows. Heck, for many years, I would have said Pulp Fiction was my favourite movie. But I guess our tastes can change. Am I just getting old? As a father of three small kids, have I just watched too many Wiggles DVDs and Pixar movies?

Or is there more to it? Put simply, should the Christian mind and the Christian conscience be so transformed that we no longer consume the kind of ‘entertainment’ represented by Walter White and his cohorts?

Personally, I’d go so far as to say I think the default Christian response should be to rid ourselves of consuming anything as dark and depraved as Breaking Bad. I think we’d need a compelling reason to do otherwise.

I guess there are several obvious lines of thought that Christians might use to argue against this line of thinking. Some of the more obvious ones would be:

It’s a powerful and realistic depiction of human nature and the destructiveness of sin.

This is certainly the way a number of Christian commentators have argued (for example, see this article from Christianity Today), and it’s a line I’ve heard (and maybe even used) in conversation over the years. But is it really a good enough reason to subject yourself to graphic, visual depictions of sin? And isn’t the Bible’s own depiction of sin more than enough to tell us that it’s real, and that it’s deadly serious?

Yes, artistic depictions of sin have their place and can be used for good. But can’t a talented artist offer those depictions without having to show the bad guy’s brains splattering all over the camera (yeah, I watched the last ten minutes of ‘Felina’)? Or to use another current example, do you have to read Fifty Shades of Grey to know that lots of people have a messed-up view of relationships and that sexual sin hurts people?

Christianity is not about rules and regulations. It’s about having a relationship with God through Jesus’ death on the cross. Christians have a huge amount of freedom, and as a consenting, intelligent adult, what I watch on TV is just part of my Christian freedom.

Yes, absolutely, Christians have a huge amount of freedom. It’s one of the blessings of the gospel. So I can’t go as far as saying that viewers of Breaking Bad are in sin. But in our quest to exercise our precious Christian freedom, do we miss the point? Do we miss the reality of what we were set free for? “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” (Gal 5:13) God didn’t save us so we could go on living the same old lives with the same old passions and priorities; he saved us so we could do the good works that he prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:8-10).

What does real Christian maturity look like? Is it an increased ability to consume explicit content without being affected, to demonstrate our glorious freedom? Or is it an increased ability (and desire) to turn it off and fill your mind with something useful instead? Which one is closer to the Bible’s idea of freedom?

I watch it because my friends do, and I want to be able to talk to them about their interests and show that Christians aren’t just prudes.

Again, there’s some truth here. But I’ll always remember the advice I received when The Passion of the Christ was released back in 2004: “This is a very violent movie. Don’t feel that you have to watch it just because everyone expects you to. I’ve found lots of great opportunities have come because I’ve told people why I don’t want to watch it.”

I think it’s tempting to believe that our non-Christian friends will pay attention to us once we’ve shown them that we’re really just the same as them. But isn’t the Bible’s vision completely different? Doesn’t the Bible tell us that we should be different – “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9, using images from the Old Testament to capture something of the way in which Israel was to be different from the nations around them)?

The same kind of idea is pretty clear in passages like Matthew 5:13-16, John 17:14-16, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Philippians 2:14-16, and 1 Peter 1:13-16. We shouldn’t expect to win people to Jesus by being the same as them, but we just might win them over if they see we’re different (in real ways, not just for the sake of being different).

You’re missing the point: just because something contains no sex, violence or bad language doesn’t mean it’s good for you. 

I actually have a lot of sympathy with this idea. The Robson household watches its fair share of kids’ movies, and I’m convinced that the ‘G’ rating is a dangerous trap for parents. Yes, it usually means you’re free from the more obvious dangers. But it doesn’t mean you can press play and walk away. The moral message of movies and TV shows teach kids (and adults!) how to think. If I see one more Disney movie where the moral of the story is, ‘Follow your heart’, ‘Do whatever is going to make you happy’, or ‘If you can dream it, you can do it’, I’ll scream. (Honestly, I will – I’m not just saying that.) Biblical ways of seeing the world can be undermined even more insidiously when false ideas have pristine packaging.

However, I think that’s a separate conversation. It may warn us about the dangers of the G-rated material, but it doesn’t get us any closer to justifying our enjoyment of the R-rated stuff.

I know it’s dangerous to comment on a show that I’ve never really watched. No doubt, someone will contact me and say, “You’ve missed the point” or something similar. Some might believe I’m a hypocrite for enjoying Mad Men, reading ‘Harry Potter’ or ever watching an M-rated movie. And I know this is a question of where we draw lines, not whether we draw lines. I know I’m leaving myself open to those critiques. But I think it’s worth the risk.

It’s worth the risk because, in my judgment, we Christians face a tricky temptation in these areas. On one side of the coin, some will veer towards legalism. “Christians must never watch Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. It’s always sin.” I can’t quite go there. It’s not that simple.

But where I will go is to suggest that the greater temptation for most of us lies in the other direction: giving ourselves too much freedom – or perhaps more accurately, misapplying and misusing the freedom that is ours in Christ. Trusting ourselves too much. Consuming without thought or self-reflection. Using specious reasoning to justify sinning against our own consciences, or searing our consciences by filling them with trash. Getting swept along with the tide, and failing to realize that what we watch, see, and hear will impact our minds – and our lives.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)


4 thoughts on “A Breaking Bad Idea

  1. I think Ephesians 5, especially v3 & v12 makes a pretty strong case that such things are out of place in the life of a Christian as we should be “making the best use of the time”, being “imitators of God” and “children of light” while we “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”

    I guess it opens up the whole question of “entertainment” and its place in the Christian life and how that impacts our mindsets, which you touch on in your final paragraph.

  2. I’m going to add my $2NZD worth to this thread (hey, it’s worth a lot more this year!).
    I remember having a discussion about this subject with some students at MYC at least a decade ago about the film ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The point had been made about engaging with culture. I remember arguing strongly that I did not need to witness a rape scene on film to understand the horror of rape or to be able to be compassionate towards those who have been subject to such horrors (and indeed I have since ministered to women in this exact situation and it truly is horror to an exponential degree.)
    I agree that even seemingly ‘benign’ shows can depict a world view and morality that is so obscured that we start to buy into it without even realising. I love the ‘Gilmore Girls’ and yet, when I found myself wanting Lorelai to end her marriage in order to be with the man she REALLY loved, I realised just how sucked in I’d become. We buy into this stuff ALL the time and we need to take heed and watch out that we do not begin to love the acceptable wordliness that pervades our culture.

    However there is, in my opinion, still a difference between being sucked into a world view, however unhelpful, and subjecting oneself to visual images of excessive violence and debauchery. It is true that many people in our world experience these events personally. We only have to look at Syria or the Sudan to know that these events occur on a daily basis. But do we really need to experience them on film…as entertainment?

    I told those students back then that, as long as I lived, I hoped I would never have to witness a scene of rape – real or staged. Unfortunately, a year ago, I went to the movies on my own and watched ‘The girl with the dragon tatoo’. I hadn’t done my research and I had no idea what the movie was about. I hadn’t read the book and I hadn’t seen a preview. Here in NZ it was rated R16+ (which I mistakenly assumed was the equivalent of MA15). I didn’t walk out – almost did – but I did spend quite a substantial portion of the film sitting with my eyes closed, covering my ears. Still, the parts of the film I did see made me feel sick to my very core. I spent the next 24 hours praying fervently that the images I had been subjected to would not stay with me permanently and that I would never have to witness anything like that ever again. The only good thing to come of it is that I now no longer trust any movie ratings. There is no way on this earth that I would ever want any child of mine at age 16 to expose themselves to the viewing of such realistic sadism. Thankfully, in God’s kindness, the images did disappear and I am left with nothing more than a bad taste in my mouth. But it is a taste I will savour if it reminds me to do everything I can to prevent it from ever occurring again.

    I hope that I am never so desensitised to this violence that I can view it without it turning my stomach. But more than that, I hope that I will never again voluntarily put myself through that in the name of entertainment. I hope that neither my sons, nor my daughter will ever have to witness something as horrible – real or staged. I hope that I can teach them to be discerning without feeling the need to subject them to it to make my point.
    I hope that, as Christians, we can be discerning about what we watch and the subjects with which we feed our hearts and minds and that we can encourage each other to actively pursue holiness. Is there not a case to be made that rather than walk as close to the line as we can get, maybe we should, in fact – flee?

    I don’t think it means we need to be deliberately naive, that’s not going to be beneficial for anyone. I don’t think it is a bad idea to read a book on the holocaust or to inform ourselves about the latest genocide in *insert country here*. There is a way to be informed about evil and sin which provokes us to compassion, moves us to prayer and brings us to our knees in thankfulness that we were not born in such times or places. (As an aside, sadly, many of those currently seeking asylum in Australia are not so fortunate and this should be remembered in the midst of our country’s appalling political rhetoric.)

    But we are able to chose what we screen into our homes on a weekly basis. It’s a choice we CAN make. Images stick. Why don’t we chose to, instead, “set (our) hearts on things above” and “set (our) minds on things above and not on earthly things”. Seeing as we have been raised with Christ.

    The Apostle Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen, giving approval to his violent, bloody murder (Acts 7:58). Because of this and, as far as we know, many other violent acts, he describes himself as ‘the worst’ of sinners. His comprehension of God’s grace and mercy towards him is all the more powerful for it. But I can’t imagine he would have enjoyed sitting down with a cold beer after work and being entertained by a tv mini-series of his life, however thought provoking or well scripted it may have been.

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