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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bad Good-Guys and Good Bad-Guys

Hey, team.  If there are readers of this blog who read it as consistently as I write it and have been puzzled by the silence over the last week, it is because I've been out of town on vacation.  But that doesn't stop the ideas from coming, so today I'm getting back into it.

I've noticed in contemporary entertainment—especially among those performers, producers, critics, and viewers who consider themselves smart—a tendency to look for the flaws in the good guys and the heart of gold in the bad guys so that every character ends up more or less morally mediocre or conflicted.  Now, this kind of thing is often interesting and entertaining (e.g., Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or the characters in my current favorite TV show, Lost).  But this tendency has become so pervasive among snooty people that if one likes productions with good good-guys and bad bad-guys, one is not considered "intellectually serious," which is an extra-pretentious way of saying that one is a moron.

You can find examples of this all over the place.  Cynical reviews of movies with genuine heroes are a dime a dozen.  Take Manohla Dargis's review of Amazing Grace, a "squeaky clean," "prettified take on the life and times of 18th-century reformer William Wilberforce," a character the movie portrays as "too good to be true," possibly "wildly simplistic, even borderline caricature."  (She does have some good things to say about the movie—"it does make you think"—but they are buried under the drift of cultured disdain.)  And I'm sure it's not hard for you to think of a mountain of productions with flawed good guys (e.g., Jack Bauer).  Such shows get good reviews.

On the flip side is the mountain of shows that want you to cheer for the bad guy, like The Sopranos.  Another category includes revisionist takes on classic characters like the Broadway hit Wicked, a reinterpretation of The Wizard of Oz.  (You thought the green lady was evil and Glinda was good?  Think again.)  These also generally get good reviews.

So what are we to make of the modern inclination to make the good guys a bit bad and the bad guys good?  With respect to the former, we could say that it acknowledges that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23, NIV).  That is, it is biblical and realistic to portray even good people as imperfect, because all people are.  And we could also say that showing the good side of bad people is biblical, because even though the image of God is distorted in all of us humans, sin has not entirely destroyed it in anyone.

But are the people who make and praise productions full of moral ambiguity and who pooh-pooh productions with pure heroes and villains really doing this for the glory of God?  Are they flattening black and white into shades of gray to honor him?  Perhaps I'm being ungenerous, but due to the lack of reference to God in their creative output I'm going to guess that his glory is not their primary motivation.

So why is moral ambiguity all the rage?  I have a couple of guesses.  One is that many of these people have jettisoned belief in the biblical God entirely or at least have placed him on the sidelines of their lives.  If there is no absolute standard of righteousness in view, which God is, then it becomes naturally harder to see wickedness as wickedness.  Once it is hard to see wickedness, then righteousness in humans becomes harder to see as well.  In other words, contrast is lost.

My other guess is that it is reassuring to sympathize with the "good side" of the bad guy if one is a bad guy oneself, because one can then rationalize one's behavior by thinking (perhaps subconsciously), "If people just saw the other side of me, all I do and all I've been through, then they would realize I'm not so bad after all."  But in order to maintain the delusion of one's own righteousness, one has to make sure that there is no truly righteous person around who reveals oneself to be a fraud.  So every truly good person has to be taken down a peg or two by being unmasked as not actually being as virtuous as they look.  The upshot is that if bad people are kind of good and good people are actually bad, then I, a bad person, can keep making myself and others believe that I'm just as good as everyone else.

The way the "emperor" in this situation doesn't get called out for wearing no clothes is for all the worldly wise, noble, thoughtful, intelligent, balanced people to believe that admiring truly good people and deploring truly bad people is the surest way to being made fun of and rejected by all the other wise people in the world.  Thus the groupthink among the most rarefied artists and critics in the entertainment world.

God's perspective?  "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter" (Isa. 5:20, NIV).

And by the way, as I understand it, the same phenomenon appears in modern literature (that I don't actually read) and at times in modern sports entertainment (that I do consume).

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