Breaking Bad: Why Society Still Needs “Sin” Language

Breaking Bad: Why Society Still Needs “Sin” Language August 16, 2012

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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