life pop culture Theology

The Bible Is Not a Slideshow For Your Hot Take

The suicide of a public figure almost invariably triggers a cringe-worthy season in the evangelical blogosphere. Time after time, Christian writers succumb to the temptation to wring a tragedy for its newsworthiness, then smash out a 700-word blog about it. At that point it almost doesn’t matter what the blog says. Meaning is irrelevant. The point of cranking out #content in the immediate aftermath of a celebrity suicide is that social media analytics make it more likely you’ll get clicks. On the one hand, this kind of base motivation is almost a relief, because in the majority of cases what goes into these hot takes is simply copy–perhaps a brief recitation of why this celebrity was a celebrity, a 1 paragraph personal appreciation, and then a quick tour of creation-fall-redemption, with a post script about the fleeting pleasures of fame and fortune. Perhaps banal, but all harmless, and most of it true.

On the other hand, though, there is often something pernicious in all this, even if unintended. And one particular example stands out.

Three years ago, Robin Williams’ suicide was a shocking cultural moment. For weeks social media reeled under the news, and Christians were no exception. Williams was beloved by many in my generation, and it seemed he was omnipresent in the movies and media we grew up loving (and then became nostalgic for). There’s no question that we would talk about his death, no dispute that the circumstances of it put the topic of depression and self-harm into our conversation. This was good, and normal.

What wasn’t normal, what still isn’t normal and what must never be taken as normal, is the way some Christian writers responded to it. Yet again, many Christian bloggers succumbed to the pull for easy “reflections” on Williams, and even worse, on depression and suicide. I saw blog after blog, article after article, about why Williams’ death was a “reminder” that only Jesus could satisfy us, that the fame and fortune and prescription drugs Williams took refuge in is never enough, and that self-hatred and suicide were the inevitable fate of those who missed the gospel. (“Like what you see? Please click share!”)

Let me explain briefly why Christians should never, ever write like this.

Three years after Robin Williams’ death, I am reading an editorial that his widow wrote in Neurology magazine. It’s a lengthy read, so I’ll summarize the most important part. Robin Williams suffered from an aggressive form of dementia known as “Lewy body dementia,” or LBD. While this is not an uncommon disease, doctors who studied Williams’ brain tissue after his death concluded that his was an uncommonly advanced case. From the article:

Not until the coroner’s report, 3 months after his death, would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took him. All 4 of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen. He had about 40% loss of dopamine neurons and almost no neurons were free of Lewy bodies throughout the entire brain and brainstem.

Dopamine, you may recall, is the chemical created by the brain that helps us rest and feel at peace. Williams’ LBD literally robbed his brain of its ability to naturally rest and feel calm. This was not an effect of Williams’ being a Hollywood actor or not being “gospel-centered.” This was the effect of a brain illness.

Hear me: I’m not saying that spiritual issues are irrelevant when it comes depression and mental issues. I’m not saying there’s nothing distinctively Christian to say about Robin Williams or about other public figures, like Chester Bennington, who commit suicide. What I am saying is that cheaply thought, cheaply written responses to these events by definition betray the Christian commitment to the centrality of truth. As Christians, we believe in objective truth, and that means objective truth exists both in the soul and the body. We are not disembodied spirits whose only problems are sin and lostness. We are enfleshed creatures whose bodies, under the degenerative curse of a cosmos waiting for its redemption, can wage war against our spirits.

To ignore this, to draw straight lines from suicide and self-harm to theological cliches, is to foully disrespect the Bible. The Bible is not a PowerPoint slideshow in our hot takes. It doesn’t exist so that we can have answers to current events that come quick enough to get hot blog traffic. Turning the Scriptures into slogans devalues both the Bible and the people to whom we would proclaim it. Admitting our fallibility, our lack of comprehensive knowledge, and even our inability to perfectly apply the truths of Scripture doesn’t make for good platforming, but it does make for more honest, more effective, and more Christ-like people.

I realize there are intense debates amongst Christians about how to think and talk about issues of mental illness and the sufficiency of Scripture. That’s a discussion worth having. But wrestling with these deep questions is not the same as presuming to know how it all works, and cranking out Tweetable aphorisms that would make you look like an utter fool if someone with more knowledge read them. The Christian blogosphere can do better than that.

culture pop culture Theology

A Last Word About “13 Reasons Why”

Since registering my deep concerns with the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” I’ve been pleased to see more thoughts from others, like Russell Moore and Trevin Wax. Non-Christian therapy and counseling professionals are likewise alarmed, and apparently there’s been enough of a backlash that Netflix has pledged to put more “trigger warnings” into the show. I think the worried response to the series is completely justified, and while it’s probably not realistic to expect Netflix to take more drastic action toward what is undoubtedly a popular and profit-driving product, I don’t think you can spend too much time talking about the dangers of such an empathetic story about a teenage suicide.

I want to say one more word about the show, and more to the point, about why so much fuss is warranted about a stupid television program. For a lot of Christians, a movie or TV show’s worthiness is measured simply in terms of number of cuss words spoken or presence/frequency of sex scenes. If a film or program is loaded with blue language, it’s a bad film or program. If it depicts sexuality, it’s a bad program (I think there’s a nuanced case to make for this, but I digress). If the violence is bloody, it’s a bad program. This is the way most evangelicals, in my experience, consume pop culture: they grind it to its constituent parts and then the parts get evaluated on a scale. If the scale tips over, we’re not consuming it.

I don’t think this is the best and most helpful way to engage art, and, interestingly, “13 Reasons” is an excellent example why. Now, a lot of parents who watch an episode or two of the show will immediately call it out of bounds. The language is explicit and harsh, and there are sexual themes and scenes. I have no issue with disqualifying a show based on those grounds, especially a show clearly marketed to teenagers. No problem then, right?

Hold on. The problem with tackling “13 Reasons” on this kind of level is that this is not the biggest problem with the show. The biggest problem with the show is not the words characters use (some may reason their children hear such harsh language in real life school) or the hookups they have (those can be fast forwarded, after all). The biggest problem with the show is that it is art that shapes its audience at a subconscious level to feel understanding and empathy with taking one’s own life. The power of art is not usually in its constituent elements, but in its whole. Teens who watch “13 Reasons Why” may come away without using those words or hopping into bed with someone, but they may still come away with a grossly distorted view of what suicide is and what happens in its wake. And you can’t mute or fast forward past this.

This is why it’s important to understanding what art is and why it affects us. Art, to use James K.A. Smith’s terminology, is a “pedagogy of desire,” a vehicle not just of entertainment but of emotional, moral, and spiritual formation. Movies and TV shows engage audiences at multiple levels, utilizing dialogue, music, visual cues, and symbols to inspire first and foremost an emotional response, not an intellectual one. The power of movies to dazzle and delight, above and beyond the parameters of rational response, is the most important way that films shape our moral imaginations.

This means that the art we consume not only can be an instrument of personal and social transformation, but that it simply is, even if the transformation does not seem immediately practical.

“13 Reasons Why” is a jarring reminder to us as evangelical Christians that misunderstanding the power of art–approaching it shallowly, comprehending it incompletely, and talking about it reductively–is a serious mistake. It’s a mistake because our stories shape us above and beyond the level of bad words and bad scenes. If evangelicals don’t try to understand culture on a deeper level, we will allow ourselves to be shaped by stories without even knowing it, and those stories may be PG-rated, but still spiritually destructive.

Regardless where you draw your boundaries, make the effort to engage culture at a deeper level. Ask what story is being told, why is it being told, to whom is it being told, and how is it being told. Probe movies, television, books, and other pop culture artifacts for their meaning, because it is meaning that molds us deeper than the things we can skip with a remote.

culture pop culture

Sympathy and Suicide

Netflix’s newest original miniseries, 13 Reasons Why, is compelling TV. It’s well-acted and hauntingly written. But while watching it, something bothered me, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. I fear that 13 Reasons Why might be the latest example of how Hollywood hitmakers tend, even unwittingly, to romanticize suicide.

The show is focused on the suicide of high-schooler Hannah. Shaken by her death, her friends and classmates discover that Hannah had recorded 13 audio tapes, discussing various people and incidents that drove her to kill herself. Each episode of the series centers on a the revelations of a particular tape; as the series progresses, secrets of Hannah’s classmates are exposed, and the series ends on a sober note of justice as many classmates and even some school administrators are implicated in Hannah’s death.

Critics have almost universally praised 13 Reasons Why for its intelligent script and mature narrative. It is indeed a well-produced series, and the writers and actors deserve credit for handling such a brutal story with a measure of dignity and hope. But therein lies my concern. While it’s true that teenage bullying, depression and suicide are stories we need to be telling, I fear that 13 Reasons Why may tell a story that, even unwittingly, valorizes a teen’s death.

Hannah is clearly a smart girl. Her quick wit and observational skills clearly outpace most of her peers, especially the boys. The recordings she leaves behind are likewise clever and incisive. Without giving away too much of the plot, let me briefly explain that Hannah’s tapes serve as a crucial instrument of her revenge, a revenge that exposes criminal activity at her school and culminates in a lawsuit. By the end of the series, Hannah, though driven, as we see in flashbacks, to despair by the cruelty of her world, has achieved something very much like a vindication. Her tapes win; her bullies lose.

Poetic justice? Yes. But at what cost? Does Hannah’s posthumous vindication make her decision to kill herself more tragic, or less so?

We need to remind ourselves that art moves us first at a level beyond rational thought, ultimately because art is not about information but about desire. I have no doubt that 13 Reasons Why will be an emotionally compelling experience for many, especially teens. And that is troubles me. It unnerves me to think of a teen, caught in a cycle of abuse and neglect like Hannah, watching this story unfold and desiring the self-sacrificing heroism that they see. While 13 Reasons is engrossing story, it’s also not real life. Suicide is not heroic. Killing oneself is not a strategy for revenge. It is a monumental act of selfishness. Hannah’s friends process her death and her tapes exactly how she expected them to. The empathy that she didn’t feel in life she receives in death.

That’s a fairy tale. And it’s a fairy tale that might have lethal consequences for people struggling to value their life.

Death is not a friend. It’s not a vehicle for your self-actualization. Suicide will not give you a front row seat to watch as your friends and family understand you and love you for the first time. But that’s what happens for Hannah. The filmmakers behind 13 Reasons Why know that Hannah’s death is tragic. They do not rejoice in it. But unfortunately, by giving Hannah a godlike intelligence and an ephemeral sort of control over the unfolding events after her death, the makers of 13 Reasons have told a profoundly wrong and morally confused story. It’s a story that poses a unique threat to audiences who may be considering Hannah’s path, simply to feel the love shown to her.

Because life is immeasurably precious, displaying its worth is immeasurably precarious. The power of stories is their ability to shape our intuitions, our loves, our expectations of the world. Trying to help despairing friends see the value in their life requires more than telling a story of someone like them. It requires sifting through beguiling myths and being honest about our enemy Death. I’m afraid 13 Reasons Why makes this harder, not easier.