Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dexter, Theologically Considered: Part 1

I'm not a violent person. And, I don't like violent movies, video games, or television shows. And, I shield my children from even comedic portrayals of violence, as you would find in cartoons. But, I have become addicted to the Showtime television show, Dexter. My husband and I have devoured the series and we are now waiting for Season 7 to begin.

I've been critically considering both my attraction to the show and fascination with it as a piece of pop culture. The following blog post contains my thoughts about Dexter from a Christian theological perspective. Unfortunately, those who do not watch the show may not fully understand what I'm talking about. Please note that I'm not recruiting or trying to convince my readers to watch the show. I'll leave that to your discernment.

I should probably start by saying a general word about sex, violence, and language in TV and movies--all of which are present in Dexter in abundance. When people find out that I watch Dexter, I find I almost always get the same reaction: "Should a Christian really be watching a violent show like that?" I appreciate the sentiment behind this question. Disciples of Jesus are called to be discerning about their actions in the world, not to mention the things on which their mind dwells. Those who would "stumble" as a result of watching a TV show with sex, violence, and bad language should not do so. And, those who are struggling with a violent nature, addiction to pornography, or other such ailments of character and behavior probably do well to avoid shows like Dexter.

But, ultimately, I take issue with the question itself. The question isn't, should Christians watch violent shows? This question puts all portrayals of violence in the same category and doesn't get to the heart of the issue. In my mind, the real question is this: To what end (telos) do the scenes of violence move? What is the ultimate message (or messages) being conveyed in this show/movie? Does the violence in question contribute to that message in a substantive and important way? Or, is the violence intended simply to titillate and entertain?

For example, there is a difference between the violence in the masterful WWII film Saving Private Ryan and the violence in the comic book-based film 300. In the first, the violence was to tell a compelling story about the realities of war and the sacrifices made by the soldiers of WWII. In the second, the violence was not nearly as noble; indeed, I'd argue that 300 glorified bloodshed, even holding it up as beautiful (the slow motion shots of spurting blood and decapitated bodies especially comes to mind), in a film that seemed to be about little more than macho-man masculinity. (Forgive me if my readers are 300 fans. I am not. You are welcome to disagree with my characterization of the film.) My point is this: the reasons for the violence, the intent of the director orchestrating the scenes of violence, the overall story being told in the film--these are the things that matter the most.

Any good art, whether painting, dance, film, or whatever, will have to deal with violence, sex, and crude language because these things are a part of life. If they're going to speak truth about human life--which is what good art does--then these things will sometimes be included. The question is, what does the artist do with such things? Is the artist seeking to titillate and inspire fleshly desire with portrayals of violence and sex? If so, such things should be rejected. Is the artist seeking to say something redemptive and true with the depictions of violence and sex? Then, there's room to affirm its presence in the artwork. Then, there is a telos to which the violence moves and in which the violence is explained and justified. In the case of Dexter, as I will argue below, the end to which the sex, violence, and language are working is saying something that is true and good about the world.

And, by the way, I should point out that the Old Testament is like this. Have you read Genesis through 2 Chronicles lately? There is much in the stories of the OT that is violent and sexually explicit. (God forbid anyone ever make a movie about the book of Judges!) But, the story of the OT moves the reader toward an end that is beautifully redemptive. The violence and sex are there because these things are real. These things really did happen and do really happen today. No one is saying that we shouldn't read the Bible, right? Of course, that's not to say we should read Judges 19 to our children. Discernment is still required. But, the mere presence of violence and sex must not disqualify a piece of literature, film, or other art as unsuitable for appreciation by Christians. What matters is why the violence and sex is there. I could say a lot more about this, but I won't. In the end, I'm saying that I think Christians need a more sophisticated framework by which to make judgments about the movies and TV shows we see.

Now that we've gotten that issue out of the way, let's talk about Dexter...

The basic storyline of Dexter is as follows: 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.

In the past six seasons of Dexter, I observe four things that speak theological truth: (1) the human desire for and pursuit of, justice in a broken world, (2) the inherent value of human life, (3) the cyclical way violence always begets violence, and (4) what it means to be a human being. I will consider the first two of these in this post and the next two in a second post to follow later this week.

First, I observe that Dexter is expressive of and cathartic for, the human desire for justice. We live in a world marred by human sin and systemic evil. This means that the guilty don't always receive their just punishment and the innocent often reap the horrible consequences of others. Because he is an insider to the justice system, Dexter knows all the ways that the system doesn't work. And, as an insider, he has access to information that others don't. This enables him to verify the guilt of those who end up on his "table" for execution. The realism of this plot detail is debatable, of course. Can one man ever really know for certain that every one of his victims are guilty? No, of course not. Even in the show, there have been a few times when he's made a mistake--with serious consequences. But, the power of this detail is not debatable. Human beings want justice. We want the guilty to get what they deserve and the innocent to be spared. Dexter is a fair and meticulous executioner, ensuring that those he takes out are always those who have killed the innocent and will kill again unless they are stopped. Also, Dexter's brand of justice is simple, swift, and direct. A colleague of mine pointed out that, in may ways, Dexter's justice is the opposite of the U.S. judicial system, which is slow, clogged, and often biased. Thus, the show reflects our frustrations with justice and gives us a hero who does justice for us in his own monstrous way.

In the matter of justice, I think that someone in the Christian tradition can see in Dexter an Old Testament style hero. The judgment Dexter dispenses is gritty and bloody, always light mixed with darkness, like in the OT narratives. His motives are never entirely pure--he kills, after all, because he is compelled by his "dark passenger" to do so. (More about the "dark passenger" later...) Very often, Dexter reminds me of the book of Judges. All of the righting of wrongs in the book of Judges take place with shady motives and in shady circumstances. Dexter is a dispenser of justice like Ehud, Samson, or even David. Ehud assassinates a king through treachery. Samson is a licentious, womanizing, rage-aholic, that God uses to judge the oppressive Philistines. And, David is a warrior, a man said to have killed "thousands," and yet also "a man after God's own heart." And, I would argue that all of these stories are true to the complicated nature of real life, despite their barbarism to 21st Century readers. Earthly justice is never pure and clean. Earthly justice is always light mixed with darkness. Always. The Dexter series testifies to this truth.

The second thing theological truth to be found in the Dexter series is the value of human life. This is counter-intuitive, I know. How can a show about the work of a serial killer promote the value human life? I would like to argue that despite the tension and maybe even paradox inherent in this statement, that Dexter is a profoundly pro-life show. First, as I have already noted, Dexter is a respecter of life. He only kills the guilty--those who have themselves taken innocent life. And, he doesn't kill flippantly. The code of Harry, his foster father, is ingrained into his system so much so that he must know that a person is guilty before he kills him. (We will discuss the question of whether a Christian can affirm the kind of justice he dispenses later. Can a Christian affirm the eye-for-an-eye justice that Dexter holds to? We'll see...) In his own strange, monstrous way, Dexter is a defender of life, especially the lives of the innocent.

Moreover, the series has had a number of story lines that bring the question of life to the surface. I won't go into detail about all of these here. I don't want to ruin the show for anyone who hasn't seen it yet! But, I will say that I think the most vividly pro-life story line thus far was the surprise pregnancy of Dexter's girlfriend and subsequent birth of his child. Indeed, the show in which Rita, Dexter's girlfriend, announces to him her decision to carry the baby to term (with or without his approval and involvement) is a powerful testimony to the value of human life. She confronts Dexter's ambivalence about having a child with this statement: "I've made many mistakes in my life. Becoming a mother was never one of them." In context, I think this statement was a powerful affirmation of the value of children and the experience of motherhood, even in less than perfect circumstances.

In Part 2 of "Dexter, Theologically Considered," I'll discuss the two other theological truths that Dexter offers: the cyclical way violence always begets violence and what it means to be a human being. And then, I'll conclude with some thoughts on the Christian's posture to Dexter's brand of justice. Stay tuned...