Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dexter, Theologically Considered: Part 2

It has been quite a while since I began this series of posts on the Showtime TV series, Dexter. I'm deeply sorry for my long hiatus! But, my semester of teaching, writing, and other responsibilities just got away from me. So, better late than never, I suppose. If you haven't read Part 1 yet, please do so before reading Part 2, below. 

For those who remain unfamiliar with the Dexter series, let's be reminded of the basic plot before I begin unpacking two more theological observations from the series. Here is what I said about the show in my first post on the subject: Dexter Morgan is the product of a terrible childhood experience that has left him sociopathic. He doesn't feel love, fear, joy, or any of the other things that normal human beings feel. Also, he has a compulsion to kill. His foster father, Harry, discovers his son's disposition early on and rather than abandon him, Harry teaches Dexter how to live with his compulsions and ensure his survival. Part of what he teaches Dexter is a "code," with two of the most important elements in the code being "Never get caught," and "Only kill those who deserve it" (i.e., those who have killed the innocent and will do so again). As a cop, Harry is able to teach Dexter all the tricks of the trade to fulfill both of these commands. Dexter grows up to be a blood spatter analyst in the Miami Metro Homicide Department, along with his adopted sister, Deb. The show revolves around Dexter's life as a brother, a boyfriend, a killer, and more. And, I would argue, the ultimate telos of the show is the journey of Dexter as he becomes fully human.

As I said in Part 1, I observe four things that speak theological truth in the Dexter series. I've already dealt with the human desire for and pursuit of, justice, as well as the inherent value of human life. Now, it is our task to think about the way Dexter illustrates the cyclical nature of violence and what it means to be a human being.

First, I think that Dexter is speaking truth regarding the cyclical nature of human violence. This may seem to be a self-evident and banal observation. It's a show about a serial killer, after all. Of course the cyclical nature of violence is revealed in a serial killer show! But, hear me out... Although the various forms of media entertainment in our American context are filled with violence--including film, TV, video games, music, and more--very often (though not always) the narrative underlying these media portrayals of human violence is that violence solves problems. That is to say, as long as violence is wielded by "the good guys," that violence is not only useful for doing good but also redemptive for those involved. The violent deaths of "bad guys" are often portrayed in slow motion as acts of righteous cleansing and the hero's willingness to "shoot em up" willy nilly to catch said "bad guys" is rarely questioned. The lethal use of force is almost always justified in the name of [fill in the blank with the newest righteous cause of the day].

The problem with this narrative, of course, is that it is a complete falsehood. Violence is not redemptive. Violence does not solve problems. Violence always begets more violence. Always. The Gospel testifies to this truth, which is itself evidenced in human history. A brief historical survey is all that is needed to see that violence is like a debilitating cancer that infects humankind, voraciously feeding on hearts, minds, and souls until entire peoples and nations are destroyed. The 20th Century alone serves as a tragic testimony to the downward spiral created by violent action, even when done in the name of justice. We see the cyclical nature of violence in the Old Testament, as well, whether in the narratives of Joseph, David, Solomon, or the various kings throughout the divided kingdom. The pattern always goes something like this: someone is killed or harmed, the person's kin responds with vengeance (usually disproportionately), the other person's kind retaliates too, and then others get drawn in, they suffer harm, and then the cycle repeats itself. Jesus Christ affirmed the ultimate dead end that is violence when he instructed Peter the hothead to sheath his sword, for "all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matt 26:52).

One of the most articulate and moving defenders of nonviolence was Martin Luther King, Jr, who famously denounced the use of violence for the cause of justice in this way: "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. ... Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" (Where Do We Go From Here?, 1967).

(So, maybe this is the problem with Dexter. Maybe our attraction to Dexter is the fact that we want to believe that violence can be virtuous. After all, Dexter is virtuous in his own way, right? He has a code of conduct passed down from his father that doesn't allow for killing out of passion or killing the innocent. He doesn't harm children or pose a threat to innocent families. He's a monster we can trust. He's a monster, but maybe he's "God's monster." I think we want to meld violence and virtue. We want to affirm that Dexter is in some way right for doing the dirty work of earthly justice when the ideal of justice can't or doesn't work out in the legal system. And, we want to think that his code makes his work virtuous in some way, protecting us from the necessary "descending spiral" that arises from this way of life. But, the truth is, he isn't virtuous and violence isn't redemptive.)

In my estimation, while the viewer of Dexter is invited to relish somewhat his use of lethal force in the cause of justice, it seems clear that the writers remain unwilling to romanticize or lessen the consequences of this way of life. Indeed, throughout the seasons, Dexter comes to suffer (often very deeply) as a result of his murderous existence. He reaps the cyclical spiral of pain, death, and destruction that comes to him and those around him as a result of his lifestyle. Certainly, the viewers are rooting for Dexter most of the time. But, when he experiences the consequences of his behavior, the viewer is also left to realize that there really is no other way to deal honestly with what happens when you live as he lives. "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." (I wish I could say more about this, but I fear that if I go into too many details I will "spoil" the show for those who haven't seen it or are watching it now.)

This is one of the major reasons that, as Christian, I am compelled to assert that Dexter cannot be a New Covenant hero. His brand of justice is entirely Old Covenant, in my estimation. (In Part 1, I compared Dexter to Ehud or Samson from the book of Judges.) He is a "lone ranger" vigilante, exercising justice by his own standards. Granted, they are good standards to have: kill only those who have killed the innocent and will do so again. If you're going to be a serial killer, this kind of boundary is helpful! But, even this standard remains outside the bounds of the New Covenant community, which was figuratively formed from the side of the (nonviolent) Messiah, who died on a Roman cross to stop the cycle of human sin, violence, and death with his own body. Dexter's life works against the grain of the Gospel. As a result, his brand of justice--while appealing for it's accuracy and expediency--cannot ultimately satisfy or work within the bounds of the Christian tradition. At the end of the day, Dexter is killing in order to satisfy the desires of his "dark passenger." While he uses his father's "code" that helps direct his killing in more just directions, he cannot bring true justice--let alone peace--in this way.

This makes me wonder if one of the other appeals of Dexter to Christian viewers (including myself) is the appeal of resurrection--the righting of wrongs--without crucifixion. Justice without sacrifice. In a sense, Dexter delivers us from evil without asking us to turn the other cheek. Ultimately, for Christians, he's working against the grain of the new creation in Christ. He's an Old Covenant hero and not a New Covenant one.

Now, I should add the caveat that there is a legitimate debate to be had in Christian circles about the legitimacy of Christian participation in violence when it is used by the State--the entity that the New Testament tells us has been given "the sword," in order to be an agent of wrath, "to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Rom 13:4). There are two dominant traditions within the Christian faith regarding State sponsored violence: the Just War tradition and the pacifist or nonviolent tradition. Both have deep and robust intellectual roots and have been represented by fine scholars and theologians throughout the centuries of church history. But, the Just War and nonviolent traditions come to drastically different conclusions about Christian participation in violence, particularly violence wielded by the State (always in the name of justice, of course).

These disparate approaches to Christians and warfare are interesting and important topics of discussion, but I do not think they are relevant in the discussion of Dexter's use of violence. In particular, Dexter is not a show about war, but a show about murder. There is a major difference. Furthermore, Dexter most certainly does not fulfill the requirements of what constitutes a Just War. He is an individual, acting alone, for his own purposes, even if the ones receiving his form of justice "deserve" what they get. (This could be a whole post in and of itself, but time constraints prevent me from pursuing this matter further. For the interested, the writings of Thomas Aquinas have been key in the Christian tradition for thinking about Just War. If you don't wish to wade into the Summa Theologiae [though you should if you have the time!], you can peruse this Wikipedia article, which sums things up in a satisfactory manner.)

The second thing I wanted to say about Dexter in this post zeroes in on what I think the show is ultimately all about: what it means to be human. I think it no exaggeration to say that Dexter's journey through the past seven seasons has been one of a monster becoming a man. While he began the series as an unfeeling, calculating, cold, and empty killer, he has ended season seven as someone who feels things--most importantly, love. He remains a killer, of course. Dexter cannot shake his "dark passenger," driving him to seek out candidates to execute on his table. But, he loves, he gives to others, he sacrifices, and through his relationships with others--especially his girlfriend, Rita, her children, and his sister, Deb--he comes alive as a human being.

I think this narrative progression says something important and true. Humans are created beings, just like ants, antelope, and alligators. What makes human beings special? Christians would likely start with the Imago Dei and the mandates of God to humankind to rule over the earth. These things are important, but they definitely aren't in Dexter. What is in Dexter, however, is the fact that humans are self-reflective and capable of loving, sacrificial relationships. (I know some primates are thought to have similar traits, but I'm not ready or knowledgeable enough to get into that discussion here.) As the show follows the life of Dexter, transitioning from an emotionless sociopath to a loving, feeling human being, the writers are impressing up the viewers that these things are at the core of what it means to be human.

Moreover, I see in Dexter a vivid admission that to be a human being is to be an organic web of community with other human beings. There is no such thing as a human being alone because it is in community that we discover who we are and what we are to do. Thus, to be human is love others and to deal with the consequences of that love. And, given that this is true, and all of us are in some sense connected, then everyone with whom we are connected bears the consequences of our actions. All of these things are visible in Dexter's journey from monster to man. He yearns to be alone in order to hide who he is and avoid the discomfort of others knowing him in any way. Yet, he needs others in order to learn from them how to live and act in the human world. In his daily interaction with others, he begins to feel, to care, and to love. And, as he continues to carry out his deadly work, those around him suffer--directly and indirectly--the consequences of his deeds. To sum it up, I see in Dexter the twin assertions that (1) to be a human being is to be in relationship with others, and (2) to be a human being means that we're all in this together.

Of course, the other aspect to human existence from the Christian point of view is that to be human is to be in some sense broken--damaged by the effects of sin. This was not God's intention, of course, but the biblical narrative testifies from early on (Gen 3) that things are no longer the way they are supposed to be. Humankind requires redemption because we have asserted our autonomy from God and we suffer exponentially because of this relational breach. In this way, we can also see in Dexter a graphic depiction of what the Reformed tradition calls the unregenerate human being, living apart from God. Dexter is an exaggerated version of each of us: born in blood, broken to the core, struggling with a "dark passenger," often blinded by selfishness and desires beyond our control, causing others to suffer because of our sins, and desperately in need of redemption.

In conclusion, I confess that I have more to say about the interplay between Dexter and theology, but it is time to bring this post to a close for today. Maybe, as time permits, I'll provide more reflections this summer. In the mean time, I hope my readers have enjoyed my short series on the subject. I'd love to read and interact with your thoughts.

Last but not least, I need to acknowledge my indebtedness to my husband, Ron McGowin, and my friend and colleague, Herbie Miller, for a number of fruitful conversations that led to this series of posts. I'm grateful to both of them for their critical insight and can't wait to experience Dexter, Season 8 together.


Paul Burleson said...

I'll comment later...I'm chewing right now. Thanks!!

Unknown said...

I don't know how far you got in the series but I found your blog because I was impressed by Season 6's portrayal of Christianity and wondered what other Christians thought. The Brother Sam storyline is one of the most thoughtful portrayals of a Christian disciple I've seen on television, both in how the character was written and how he is perceived by the outside world.

My take on the series:
On the surface, the show seems to celebrate violence, the protagonist being a serial killer, but I think that first glance is misleading.

While the technical elements of serial killing and its case solving are interesting, at its heart, Dexter is interesting because we identify with him. I found it weird identifying with a serial killer (albeit dramatized) but I realize the reason is he is an extrapolated version of our impulse to correct wrongs with violence. As Christ said, he who hates his brother commits murder and the reason is that base impulse is the same, if not the actual action. Dexter's actions are, again, an extrapolation of our own, only unconstrained by the physical limitations and societal constraints most of us find ourselves tied down by. If you and I could kill anyone without consequence, what might we look like? Enter Dexter.

What is then interesting is what becomes of the human soul as it engages in this activity repeatedly. I don't think the answer is celebratory at all.