What Christians can learn about morality from “Breaking Bad”

I found this post about the TV series “Breaking Bad” through J.W. Wartick’s “Really Recommended Posts“.

The author of the post argues that most of what you see in the arts and entertainment field tries to give us the idea that there is a dichotomy between small choices and big choices. But Breaking Bad rejects this by trying to show how small choices add up to your character.

Take a look:

I think Breaking Bad is a great show because it rejects this line of thinking [small vs big choices], because its running time is a five-season rebuttal to the idea that there are choices that matter and choices that don’t. Walt’s pride at a dinner table is ultimately as important to the villain he becomes as his murder, his lying as corruptive as his violence. In Gilligan’s eyes, there’s no differentiating between Walt’s pride and his rage and his enviousness and his determination to succeed at all costs, to be the Kingpin, the only one. Telling the story of how Walt chose to become the villain takes every minute of all 67 episodes aired so far.

You do not accidentally end up a drug kingpin, says the show. And the story is a five season long a fortiori argument whose conclusion is that you, viewer, also have a choice, in what to watch, or say, in how to treat people, in who to be. To echo James K.A. Smith, there are very few, if any, “morally neutral” practices. We get shaped by the things we do, or don’t do, even unintentionally, even if you’re not paying attention.

Breaking Bad echoes that not only in content, but in form. In the critical importance of little decisions (Walt’s wined-up boasting in front of Hank; his lying to his wife, Skyler; Marie’s shoplifting; Hank’s pride and arrogance affecting his job) that all compound in the direction of calamity.

“I just feel like I never had a choice in any of this,” Walt argues early on in season one, after he’s declined cancer treatment. “I want a say, for once.” When you first watch the scene, not knowing the kind of person Walt is going to choose to be, it’s a poignant moment. Walt wants to spend his last months with his wife on his own terms, rather than as a powerless and weak and hollowed out shell of who he used to be.

But as flashbacks inform the choices Walt made in the past, and as time and time again Walt refuses to stop cooking meth, to stop feeding his own pride, the scene is recontextualized as an ironic echo—as just another excuse for Walt’s behavior. The paradox central to Walt’s nature is that if you deny him a choice, he becomes furious. Because of this, most every conflict in the show stems from the interplay of Walt’s staggering intelligence and his equally impressive capacity for stupid, pride-motivated decisions.

But if you empower Walt, when he comes into real responsibility, he shirks it, he self-sabotages; he pretends he doesn’t have a choice, or never did have a choice. He becomes paranoid, and self-aggrandizing, and manipulative, until he’s relaxed from the tension of having responsibility—and as soon as that happens, he’s out looking for it again.

When all Walt has are choices, he demands a CHOICE; and as soon as it is presented to him, as soon as the danger of responsibility is there and real and able to hurt him, he denies it, labels it meaningless, and continues to victimize himself.

Walter is us. And that is a dangerous message, and it hurts. It hurts to be awakened to choices you didn’t know you were failing to make, or making poorly. It is always, always easier to deny choice than to accept it, to want to brush things off until it’s really important, until it’s a choice, and then perform well, and go back to the status quo of being a-volitional. We want to be fully ourselves already, and for our actions to be extrinsic, non-reflective. To keep separate who we are, our identities, and what we do in our everyday life.

But that’s not what it means to have character. And it’s not what it means to be a human being, created to shift and change dynamically. The tragedy of Walter White makes for a great narrative, and for really compelling TV. But the lesson of Breaking Bad is invaluable, especially in a culture like ours, that’s so allergic to prescriptive statements, to generalizations that aren’t platitudes, to Truth Claims about the nature of humanity. Breaking Bad doesn’t just make those claims—it does it with gusto. It confronts you with the ugliness of humanity like a Flannery O’Connor story, begging you to look and to look away, to see the outer extreme of an idea so that you’ll kick back and respond and fight with it, because engaging is just as much of a choice as anything else.

That reminds me of this well-known saying:

Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action; reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character reap a destiny

Something to think about when we are making the decisions about “how far is too far?”. The best way to avoid becoming a bad person is by not trying to walk on a dramatic line, but by making a million decisions every day to consciously get away from evil.

I find that in the church there is this strange and ridiculous idea everywhere that you can just do whatever you want and that God will give you the strength to be courageous and effective in these dramatic moments when you are tested – perhaps by being asked to deny Jesus or die. That will probably never happen for most of us. We overestimate how much an “act of God” can really do compared to the long, slow hum-drum day-to-day work towards a goal. A person has to die a million little deaths in order to achieve big things, like marry well and raise Christian kids, or keep a job to support a home, to get an MS or a PhD, etc. It’s the million little sacrifices that lead to making a big impact in the end.

Think abut it another way. How do the Armed Forces train soldiers in order to fight as a team and be brave? Do they just say “go about your lives, and when the time comes God will tell you what to do”? Hell, no. They drill and train and prepare for war because they know that this is what works. They have obstacle courses with live-fire machine guns and explosions to get soldiers used to making decisions under fire. They have classroom instruction and reading lists to share knowledge that will be useful in battle. All of this is to get the soldiers into the habit of making tiny brave decisions under controlled conditions. God doesn’t throw ordinary Christians out in a university auditorium and say “now perform like Bill Craig”. Bill Craig is Bill Craig because he chose to pass over fun things a million times and to instead focus on hard things like advanced degrees, reading advanced books and practicing debate. He isn’t debating in front of thousands of people because he made one “big” choice, but because he has a million little choices.

This lie about service being something that God has to lead you to is one of the biggest lies in the church today. That you don’t have to build the kind of life that honors God one self-sacrificial decision at a time. That you don’t have to have a long-term plan to be effective, but instead just do what you “feel led” to do moment by moment. That you can have as much impact as a Jim Demint or a William Lane Craig or a Ryan Anderson without having to train and prepare for it. It’s a lie to think that making an impact is a one-decision affair. We over-spiritualize the idea of serving God to give ourselves maximum autonomy and tell ourselves that “if it comes to that, I’ll be faithful”, while living ordinary lives the rest of the time. It’s probably never going to come to that, so shouldn’t you have some sort of day-to-day long-term self-sacrificial plan to achieve something for God instead?

13 thoughts on “What Christians can learn about morality from “Breaking Bad””

  1. “This lie about service being something that God has to lead you to is one of the biggest lies in the church today.”

    Agreed. For one thing, it implies extrabiblical revelation. What would the “call” look like? A prophetic dream? A warm fuzzy feeling?

    As far as Breaking Bad, I do not believe that the Bible can be used to justify the criminalization of drugs. So I sympathize with Walter White. The DEA should be abolished.

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  2. The drug problem is intimately tied into the various causes of this whole economic depression. There are no opportunities or bright future prospects for a great many who chose poorly. I think in the old world they might have been able to rehabilitated into a different path (i.e. a trade), but costs and communist rationalizations enable them to remain trapped. The DEA was created to solve a manufactured problem to begin with and continues to serve as a vehicle of unnecessary federal bloat.

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  3. Meth should definitely be illegal. But not marijuana. Politicians don’t represent the popular opinion on this issue. If alcohol is legal, then pot should be. Ask yourself, would you rather be sober with a crowd of drunks around you? Or a group of stoners chilling to some music? California is not just world famous for fine wine. We have a currently unregulated, untaxed agricultural industry, that honest people could be running to making a legitimate profit, creating jobs, and generating that tax revenue to fill up the public employee union coffers.
    Marijuana=good
    Meth=evil!!!!

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      1. No, but the Bible also doesn’t tell us how we should vote in a federal constitutional republic. We have some freedom here, and we ought to do some research and vote for what works best. If that means criminalizing drugs (and in some cases, it probably does), that means criminalizing drugs.

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      2. God specifically outlined his view of republican government. See Exodus – Judges. And there was a specific prohibition against adding to the law. You don’t get to just pass coercive laws because you think it “works best.”

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        1. DrewJ, do you adhere to Exodus-Judges, or to the US Constitution for your civil law? Which would you appeal to if you went before a judge for a crime?

          Exodus-Judges don’t define a constitutional republic. They define the rules for a theocracy ruled by God’s own presence in the Temple. Do you see the difference?

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  4. “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

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    1. That’s an excellent quote. People these days seem to justify their sins a lot saying that because they are small, they don’t matter. But anything that cannot be repented of can cause you to feel that God is the enemy.

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