Virtue in TV

Virtue in TV March 30, 2014

“Everybody lies.”  The FOX drama House sustained eight seasons of medical mysteries on this cynical insight alone.  And the more righteous the liars were, the more satisfying (for Dr. House, and often for the viewer) were their falls.  A classic episode pitted a rambunctious “faith healer” against the atheist misanthrope, but when the root of the young man’s illness is revealed to be the sexually-transmitted herpes virus, the doctor gets the last laugh.

Law & Order: SVU is still chugging along, having milked hidden-in-plain-sight moral (usually sexual) corruption for 15 seasons of television.  Again, pretensions to purity were usually a harbinger of a peculiarly perverse secret, like season 10’s “Babes,” featuring a Catholic school pregnancy pact and a murderous chastity advocate.

And we can’t forget David Lynch’s ponderous Twin Peaks, the example par excellence of television’s obsession with double lives and moral hypocrisy.  We can’t spend too much time with contemporary television drama without soon believing that everyone, even and especially those of conspicuous virtue, is morally and sexually compromised.

Of course, any orthodox Christian believer would recognize pervasive moral failure as a consequence of original sin—that is to say, an essential aspect of the human condition.  We don’t just expect failure; we know we’re going to fail.  But we also know that through the development of good habits and with the grace and mercy of God, we can grow in virtue.  In spite of the stain of original sin, Christian moral teaching is optimistic about our ability to improve and to mature.

On the other hand, our popular culture is steeped in a deep pessimism about our ability to pursue virtue.  The deeper problem with the secret corruption trope isn’t the implication of hypocrisy (often Christian hypocrisy—a charge which terribly misunderstands the orthodox Christian view of sin, as described above), but the unmistakable assertion that sexual virtue in particular is impossible and therefore irrational or dishonest to pursue at all.

Television’s inability to portray authentic sexual virtue flatters the average viewer by saying, in effect, “If even this supposedly devout Evangelical character can’t keep his pants on, then surely you, the viewer, shouldn’t be expected to do so.”  More than that, the sexual hypocrite character communicates that, since everybody commits transgressions against traditional sexual morality, in order to avoid hypocrisy it’s best not to have any such hang-ups to begin with.

It’s a remarkable perversion of traditional Christian teaching.  We’re all going to make a moral misstep—on this the culture and the Church agree.  But then the culture turns around and tells us that honesty demands that we embrace the fall rather than lament it.  We are to see banishment from Eden as liberation rather than alienation.

But the fact of moral failure doesn’t undermine the truth of moral restraints; to the contrary, it validates those restraints.  The fact that there will always be slashing and tripping and roughing in ice hockey doesn’t mean that the rules are irrational or ineffective, but rather it shows how important the rules are to restrain the impulses to injure and to cheat.  It is the same with Christian sexual ethics, as anyone who has battled pornography addiction can surely attest.

But for now we live in a culture that views restraint with suspicion, and so the sexual hypocrite trope will endure.  It is up to us, then, joyfully to pursue authentic and comprehensive virtue in our own lives, regardless of the culture’s harangues.  The only way to undermine the lessons of television is to provide real-life counterexamples that force individuals to confront the possibility of the appeal of virtue right in front of them.

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