It is interesting to see how AMC shifted from a station that played classic movies, to a producer of first-rate entertainment fare. AMC shows have garnered critical and popular acclaim. They have also stirred a lot of thinking because they contain meta-narratives: surrounding one very flawed hero/anti-hero. Breaking Bad is perhaps the most widely known; its fans watched with rapt attention as the mild mannered dying chemistry teacher who had a lot of hard luck turned into a hardened criminal mastermind. At last, in the final operatic episode, he could finally admit to his wife, "I did this for me." Then, he perishes among the gleaming equipment of the most spectacular meth lab the world has ever seen.
Likewise, Mad Men, with its dashing, semi-tragic anti-hero Don Draper and his artificial reality, causes us to ask similar questions of meaning and purpose. Who are we supposed to root for, here? Is there redemption for Don Draper, even as there wasn't for Walter White? We have been given a glimpse that perhaps there might be, but there are 7 episodes left until we find out.
The newest of the crop is Hell on Wheels, a highly fictionalized account of life in the old West, and the race to build the first trans-continental railroad. The show is not for the faint of heart --there are far too many cringe-inducing scenes. The series centers on the troubled anti-hero Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier whose wife and son were butchered by a group of Union soldiers. Bohannon's initial mission was to hunt each of these men down, and carry out vigilante justice. In the meanwhile, he executes an innocent man in his hunt for the last perpetrator. His fate becomes entwined with that of the Union Pacific railroad, and he becomes the de facto leader of the workforce. Along the way, we discover that, despite his rough exterior, he is an educated gentleman who had married into an aristocratic family. I write this as I have just begun to watch Season 3, so all of what I say ought to be taken with that in mind.
Bohannon is on a spiritual quest. Everything he loves seems to get destroyed, and death follows in his wake, claiming innocent victims. Thus far, Bohannon has turned to the church three times, seeking redemption. The first time, the frontier preacher who has gone insane tells him that there is a choice between love and hate. The preacher counsels, "Choose hate," whereupon Bohannon murders the innocent soldier he thought was responsible for murdering his family. All the while, the man protests that he can prove his innocence by the discharge paper he held in his hand.
The second time, Bohannon again approaches the church. The female evangelist who has taken her late father's place tells him she doesn't think that redemption is available for everyone.
The third time, Bohannon is in New York, after the great Sioux massacre that nearly brought the end of the Union Pacific project. He is there to convince the board to appoint him as chief engineer. While there, he visits the church where he and his wife were married, repenting for what he has done. The pastor approaches him. Bohannon asks him if he remembers him. He doesn't, and keeps referring to himself in the plural. He tells Bohannon he is allowed to stay, but he must leave his guns at the door.
Now, two crazy preachers and one evangelist who doesn't seem to grasp the gospel may simply be a screed against organized religion, and this would not surprise. But, there may be more at work. Time will tell. The big question of the show seems to be "Will Bohannon find redemption, and, if so, from where?" If the series ultimately ends like most, it will be that he has found peace of mind in some bucolic setting with a pretty wife. I hope it doesn't. Redemption and peace of mind are not the same thing. Equally, I hope it doesn't end with him face up at the bottom of a gorge somewhere, lost in existential despair like a Clint Eastwood movie.
The larger question is why these series, which are essentially morality plays, capture the imagination of a secular populace. My inkling is that it is because there is no secular populace, at least not, if we mean a populace unconcerned with some sort of transcendent realities like justice, hope, love, and redemption. It's dangerous to comment on either a book or a series before its ending, but this appears to be the case being made by James K. A. Smith in his little book How Not to Be Secular. Smith is trying to appropriate the thoughts of the rather inaccessible philosopher Charles Taylor, and bring him to a broader audience. The opening contention of the book is that what separates our age from earlier ones is that people have found ways of constructing meaning and purpose without reference to God, and that the church has been slow to figure this out, and thus seeks to answer the questions nobody is asking today. I think he's on to something --the question is how this ought to change our approach.
I think the morality plays give us an inkling. Why are they powerful? First of all, they are stories. They ask big questions, but not in the setting of the lecture hall. They involve the emotions even as they engage the mind. Second, they are very well-done. As banal as much of pop culture is, the well-made movie or series appears to be the only thing in which the audience still appreciates something well-crafted. Now, I don't think the church ought to substitute drama for proclamation --we never seem to do that very well, and, when we do it, the message is so overt that it converts precisely zero people. The lesson is more subtle.
These series, like Scripture, confront the viewer with an unblinking lens into human corruption. Nobody is entirely pure. Everyone is corrupt and does something reprehensible. There is senseless death. Reality is bleak. Yet, there is beauty. Mad Men is a lot of very attractive people set in a suave and sophisticated 60's Manhattan, darkened as it is by the crime epidemic. It is desperation fashionably done. Hell on Wheels is set in the glories of the unspoiled American West (it is actually filmed in Alberta). Against the beauty of what God created (Hell on Wheels) and what man created (Mad Men), is the moral ugliness of human nature, and the big question: how can one who knows who he is what he has done find ultimate peace? Both Don Draper and Cullen Bohannon look to the bottom of a bottle, and it is failing them.
The church has the advantage of story. God gives us his truth largely in the midst of story --stories filled with anti-heroes and moral ugliness wherein even those who wear the white hats have very fatal flaws. This is the story of grace. If there is a quest for redemption that is shown in the entertainment media, then the church can answer that question. But, we have to find different ways than pat formulas and tracts and questions. Post-modernity is presenting us with opportunities, and we need to realize that modernity and its rationalistic basis were not naturally friendly to Christian belief. Post-modernity is more open to enchantment, and it is our task to enchant. We have the greatest "fable" (and the only true one) in the history of the world. It is to our shame if we can't tell the story in a way that taps into the human quest for wonder, for purpose, and for redemption.
I will be the first to say that I have not figured out how to do this yet. It is very hard for the leopard to change his spots. Yet, we cannot get to answers if we never ask the question.