Breaking Bad: Why Society Still Needs “Sin” Language

Like a lot of folks, I’m hooked on “Breaking Bad”– the drama about Walter White, a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher turned meth manufacturer. When Walt learned he had a severe case of lung cancer, and was given only months to live, the scramble was on for a way to provide for his family. He fell in with Jesse, a former student turned meth dealer, and discovered he could apply his chemistry skills to make crazy powerful meth (and loads of cash). Of course, along the way Walt finds himself in all sorts of trials and tribulations–doing and seeing things a reserved, educated “family man” with a Ph.D. in chemistry could have never anticipated. I’m only into season three, but it’s pretty easy to see where this is going. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, has affirmed that his goal is to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. Gilligan has noted that the problem with most television shows is the “stasis” of its characters. They don’t change much, because consistency secures longevity. Breaking Bad is going to end after season five, and it’s not going to be pretty.

One of the geniuses of this show is that it seems to highlight the necessity for the theological category of “sin.” The show doesn’t so much dance around questions of moral ambiguity as it does put the viewer face to face with our potential for unabated moral depravity and for the inane ways in which we might try to “justify” that depravity. That conscientious, highly educated, high school teacher and family man could make a series of existential choices that lead him down a path of dramatic, moral and personal transformation (through which he contributes, directly or indirectly, to the personal destruction of others), seems outrageous to us. But empirical observation (and recent, tragic news events) confirms this is an actual possibility. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously noted, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”

I’ve been working through Jason Mahn’s book on Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin, Fortunate Fallibility: Kierkegaard and the Power of Sin. Mahn argues persuasively for the necessity of maintaining a doctrine of sin in our (post)modern context. However, this cannot be a simplistic doctrine of sin which locates sin only in distinct immoral acts. Rather, as Kierkegaard believed, sin is an absurd “position,” in which one refuses to accept the basic limitations of our finitude. Sin is the refusal to submit ourselves to God and to embrace the weaknesses of our humanity. Sin is, for Kierkegaard, when anxiety turns to despair and when, in despair, one refuses to give oneself over to God. Sin is Walter White refusing to accept his death and trampling on others in order to secure an inheritance for his family–and to do it “my way.” “I earned this,” he says.

As a society, we cannot interpret the immoral actions of human beings solely by reference to neurology gone haywire, nor can we belittle the consequences of sinful actions by a empathetic deference to the sacredness of personal choice. Back to “Breaking Bad,” Gilligan seems very interested in pressing into the consequences of human, immoral actions. As he noted in a New York Times interview:

“If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’”

Of course, there can only be a hell if there is such a thing as “sin.” Or, in Kierkegaard’s language, if the criterion for our choices is determined by our standing “before God.”

So we can’t counter the reality of sin by appeal to a universal moral code, some Kantian golden rule, or by the criterion of maximal social benefit. At the same time, however, as Mahn brilliantly points out in his application of Kierkegaard to contemporary society, we must remember that sin is genuinely baffling (it is aporia), and we are all caught up in its web. Confession before Christ and accepting our finitude is the answer.


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  • Rebecca Trotter

    I think that unfortunately many of us were raised with an idea of sin that simply meant bad. Dirty even. When we say that we’re sinful, it often feels like we’re saying that we are bad. When we say that something is sinful, we’re saying that it is bad. And I think that we resist this in good part because there’s something even deeper in us than sin that is very, very good – the image of God which forms the basis of our very being. I have found that thinking of sin as you talk about it here – as disordered way of thinking and behaving – is much more helpful. If we know nothing else in our post-modern, post-Oprah world it is that we are dysfunctional. And that it’s a long hard journey to minimize that dysfunction in our lives and families.

    “When anxiety turns to despair and when, in despair, one refuses to give oneself over to God.” The hebrew word of sin came from archery and indicates missing the mark. I think that this is the message of Christianity for us. That the mark we need to be aiming for is God. That aiming for prosperity or comfort or power results in all this dysfunction and distorts us so that the image of God which we were created to be becomes covered, blurred and hidden from us.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I agree that we need the notion of sin. But I do think that the way we talk about it needs to change.

    • Kyle Roberts

      thanks, Rebecca. Well said!

  • Pat Pope

    “‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’”

    That quote by Gilligan struck me. I don’t know his religious background, but assuming he’s not religiously observant, I wonder what he and others like him, would think of Rob Bell’s book on hell? While the Church was pretty riled up about it and split, I wonder how those outside of the faith viewed it, particularly those who share Gilligan’s view expressed above?

    • Kyle Roberts

      Good insight, Pat. That quote alone is worth a lengthy blog reflection–but I pretty much left it alone here. My point for including it was as an illustration that most people have a longing for “justice to be done,” and they recognize sin (and its devastating consequences) for what it is. However, they often don’t recognize their own sin for what it is. Rob Bell’s book reflects I think a basic Christian impulse toward mercy and forgiveness (something the world doesn’t often understand). We’ve been forgiven of our sins, so we’re more prone to be open to the forgiveness of others–even of the most “vile.”

  • Adam

    I would add to this that, in addition to solitude, the answer is community. Often times when “anxiety turns to despair” is when we are in isolation and privation — not solitude (being alone with God) and community (the incarnation of Christ). Thomas Merton, through a series of paradoxes, illustrates in No Man is an Island that self-acceptance is fundamental in fulfilling the commands to Love God and Love One’s Neighbor. And that removing our illusions about ourself — coming to terms with our limitations — can actually be a blessing in the Body of Christ when we can accept the grace and gift of others through God.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    So many reasons this is a great post:
    a. I just started watching Breaking Bad,
    b. I’m a huge Kierkegaard fan, Niebuhr too
    c. Pascal and Augustine convinced me long ago that sin is one of the single-most important heuristic categories for understanding human life.
    We simply are lost for words adequate to describe our experience in this world without a deep understanding of sin, and particularly, the Augustinian one of prideful reaching, the idolatrous rejection of limits that we see displayed in Walter White. The one thing I would add to it, is that it is not just the rejection of our finitude that characterizes our sin. The other problem is the deification of a finite good such as family, relationships, money, security, etc. so that it replaces God within the moral landscape we inhabit. Once that is done, we will inevitably follow its commands, (because all gods have commandments to obey), and be transformed into the image of what we worship. This component, the making ultimate of non-ultimate things, is the idolatry that Augustine, Kierkegaard (Sickness Unto Death), as well as H. Richard Niebuhr spoke of that gives sin its forward propulsion.

    Again, great post! Thanks!

    • Kyle Roberts

      Thanks, Derek.

      “The one thing I would add to it, is that it is not just the rejection of our finitude that characterizes our sin. The other problem is the deification of a finite good such as family, relationships, money, security, etc. so that it replaces God within the moral landscape we inhabit.”

      Yes! Kierkegaard says the ideal orientation to finite goods is summed up in “relating relatively to the relative and absolutely to the absolute.”

    • mark

      Living in China, deification of family has tilted the moral compass. A lot of corruption is justified when you look into the eyes of your one child and think about her future or your grandma needs medical treatment and insurance doesn’t cover it. When you ask yourself what’s more important- this contract or my family? Family will win

  • Richard G Evans

    I too have been pretty “hooked” on Breaking Bad, and have never quite been sure why, because there are in fact very few “likable” characters on it. Most of the show is spent on tremedously acted and written depravity, as you well pointed out.

    I pray that, should I one day find out I have cancer or another life-threatening disease, I would actively look for ways to help others in those last days on earth. But if we do not do so before, during our “good” days, it is at least a lot more difficult to change from the heart purely due to our sudden facing of mortality, as with Walt for a prime example.

    He saw the American dream slipping away before its time in his own life, realized that his very life had been what he considered a waste, and decided to take it with all the gusto possible rather than realizing the dignity of his calling as a teacher and gift of influencing even one young person for the betterment of this world and the next. How much more inspirational if he had seen the heart of his former student Jesse and looked for ways to help him live a better life, rather than using him for his own selfish means and then justifying it over and over.

    I think that is what bothers me the most about the show–and what fascinates me as well–a part of him cares about Jesse and his family and the other part cares for no one but himself. And, more frightening, Walt is in many ways “each of us.” Your point about this show and its witting or unwitting portrayal of original sin is phenomenal and certainly true.

    I am glad I am not the only one who has seen that side of what most probably think of as just “good entertainment.” The real question to me is, why does it entertain us? Somehow, vicariously, we are all selfish Walt, bitchy Schyler, pain-filled and at times at least conscience-stricken Jesse, and the innocent son Walt Jr who is literally an innocent and confused bystander as he watches his family slip into this depraved state. We are all each of them at one time or another. Great post.

  • Rafael

    To want to Judge/Condemn someone… Is a Sin.

    Sin is breaking The law, 1 John 3:4 “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.”

    What is The Law?

    Matthew 22:34-40 “But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. 35 One of them, [a]a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and [b]foremost commandment.39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

    Matthew 7:12 ““In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

    So Sin is basically Harm.

    Sex, Pleasures, etc all are not Sin according to The Bible, these were called sins years by later secularists(Who by doing this committed a sin/harm themselves by Adding Man Made laws as if they were from The Bible)

    Man doesn’t need harm, man doesn’t want to harm(we are made in the image of YHWH(The Father And The Son and The Holy Spirit) we are simply deceived and suppress The Truth and Our Love for our fellow man, we are under a yoke of slavery to destruct and harm, while we should be Free and Love others as we love ourselves,

    Galatians 5